Where kale is key

kale_1Despite its reputation for being a difficult game crop to establish and manage, with the right outlook, team and expert advice, kale can have huge sporting benefits, says Charlie Mellor.

Loyton Sporting manages a group of five prestigious pheasant and partridge shoots on Exmoor. It covers approximately 18,000 acres across Devon and Somerset and is run by Angus Barnes with support from estates manager Pete Day. In 2009, after some difficulties with existing crops, Angus contacted Kings Game Cover and Conservation Crops for advice and hasn’t looked back since.

Advised by Kings’ manager Richard Barnes, the shoots of Combe Sydenham, Haddeo and Stuckeridge were put into a system of cereals, maize, kale and perennials, while the higher, more exposed shoots of Challacombe and Edgcott incorporate crops that perform well in challenging conditions – namely, brassica and cereal mixtures and perennials. There is also additional benefit to some landowners that their stock can graze off the plots in February when the shooting season ends.

“We made the decision to grow kale as its winter hardiness and ability to deliver right to the end of the shooting season make it ideal for the mild, damp conditions of Exmoor,” Pete Day explains.

kale_4A blend of three key kale varieties is grown across the shoots: Coleor, Goldeneye and 1,000 Head kale. This gives a varied canopy of different heights and growth habits through the winter which makes the crops more attractive to game. Other seed bearing crops may be added too, such as gold of pleasure and linseed, which break up the canopy and increase the attraction to both gamebirds and farmland birds.

With over 500 acres of game cover across the five estates, management is vital. Drilling of kale tends to take place in June to ensure that seed beds are warm and the crop hits the ground running. Weed control opportunities are limited, so an agronomy plan is agreed in advance. Seed is Seed-Life™ and is treated for flea beetle for good establishment. Pre emergent applications of key herbicides help to ensure it gets off to the best possible start, giving control of broad-leaved weeds such as fat hen and redshank. Granular lime and fertiliser are applied to the seedbed and, once established, two foliar feeds, along with a fungicide in the final application, are applied to encourage growth. Daily checks are essential to identify weed challenges or any sign of likely attack from slugs, flea beetle – possibly the biggest threat – or pigeons, and  advice is always on hand if anything out of the ordinary is spotted.

“Richard has direct dialogue with the keepers and contractors, which essentially provides them with 24/7 support,” says Pete. “They regularly check their kale and other crops and if they come across an unexpected weed or a new pest challenge, for instance, they just take a picture and send it straight to him and he quickly responds with both an identification and proposed solution.”

kale_2Kale is relatively straightforward to grow if it’s planned and managed carefully according to Richard. “Starting with a good rotation is key, so the keepers work the different game cover crops through their plots in a rotation which aids weed control and helps to avoid common soil borne pests, such as clubroot, which often hinder crop establishment.”

Though kale can be costly to establish, the commitment is justifiable when offset by the need to deliver a grazing crop for tenants, or where the crop is to be carried through for two years or helps meet stewardship requirements. Taking into account perennial crops and kale retention for a second year, only around half of the acreage is renewed each year, which keeps a handle on costs, spreads the workload and reduces risk in a difficult season, as was the case in the very wet 2012.

“We do invest a lot in our cover crops as they are exceptionally important to us; we simply couldn’t do what we do without them,” Pete continues. “We soil sample every year, apply fertiliser and lime and as much organic matter as possible; the benefits of this are often undervalued. We also have exceptionally dependable, experienced and well-equipped contractors. The return on that is evident in the additional drives that have been created, improved quality of shooting and increased resilience of drives. Including kale in the cropping plans has benefitted a wide range of farmland birds throughout the winter months too, in what is often an inhospitable and harsh climate for key species.”

kale3He emphasises that relationships are vital to the crops’ success. “As a big organisation, we rely on our dedicated and accomplished keepers, and over the years Richard has built positive, open relationships with them, as well as with our contractors.”

Richard agrees that communication is key. “The ongoing success of the kale crops can be attributed to the whole team approach of the estate. Everyone is committed to achieving the same goals and communication glues it all together. Each headkeeper, along with the support of their beatkeepers, takes responsibility for their crops and they have been trained to recognise key challenges and take action where needed. The contractors employed to look after the crops are a vital link in the chain and they are relentlessly committed to ensuring the crops are a success. Taking a long-term view, forward planning, paying attention to detail and realising the importance of investing in both the crops and the land brings the best results.”

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