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Winter bird food plots – considerations for spring 2024

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The impacts of the recent difficult weather conditions have had some devastating effects on many farms across the country. It's no surprise the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and other public funding opportunities, such as Countryside Stewardship (CS), are at the forefront of many people's minds.

Whilst incorporating an SFI action or a CS option into your rotation can be a great remedy in the face of a challenge, there are a few important things to consider. In this blog, I'll be focusing specifically on the AHL2: Winter bird food on arable and horticultural land action in the SFI and the AB9: Winter bird food option in CS. I'll be covering some tips and recommendations for seedbed preparation, establishment, agronomy plans and methods for destruction on these options.

Not planning on drilling a winter bird food crop? We'll be sharing advice for legume fallows, as well as pollen and nectar plots further down the line – subscribe to our blog to be notified.

The aims and requirements of the SFI and CS

 The aims of AB9 in CS are:

"During the spring or summer, the seed mix, containing at least six small seed-bearing crops (not maize), will be established in blocks or strips of at least six metres (m) wide and between 0.4ha and 5ha in size. For two-year mixes, during the second spring biennial plants, such as kale, will show continued growth and development.

Throughout the summer the plants will be growing and flowering.

By autumn the plants will have set seed, this will provide the much-needed supply of small seeds throughout the winter, until at least mid-February."

The aims of AHL2 in the SFI are:

"This action's aim is that there are areas of winter bird food that produce a supply of small seeds for smaller farmland birds from late autumn until late winter.

The purpose of this is to:

provide food resources for farmland birds, especially in late autumn and winter

encourage flowering plants in the summer, which will benefit insects including bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies and hoverflies

support an IPM approach if located close to cropped areas"

Recommendations for AB9 and AHL2

It's vital to make sure you intend on meeting the requirements when implementing these options in your rotation. It takes commitment, time and effort to do them successfully but once you apply these, you can really reap the rewards.

There are a few methods to follow which will help you meet the aims of AB9 and AHL2.

Choosing the right mix

It's important to plan ahead and ensure your mixture/species selection suits your farm's soil type(s) and weed control programme. Try to remember what has or has not worked previously. Getting it right first time saves on costly redrills. In the Kings catalogue, you'll see we offer mixes that are combined with a dedicated agronomy plan which can help you manage grass and/or broadleaved weeds.

Brand new for 2024, we've introduced our Kale Free Biennial Mix which can offer cover and feed for up to two years while meeting the requirements of the AHL2 action. You can find out more about this mix and other funding scheme-compliant mixes in the Kings catalogue.

Seedbed preparation

I recommend creating a stale seedbed and destroying returning competition well ahead of your planned drilling date. Application of any required fertilisers on the seedbed ahead of drilling is also the preferred approach.

Establishment and maintenance

The following advice from the Government website for CS can be used as a reliable guide for establishing both AB9 and AHL2 in SFI:

  • Make sure blocks or strips are at least 6m wide and a minimum of 0.4ha in size (the maximum individual plot size is 5ha)
  • Establish by sowing a seed mix which contains at least 6 seed bearing crops between 15 February and 15 June. Seed mixes may contain a maximum of 3 of the following cereal crops - barley, oats, rye, triticale, and wheat
  • Re-establish one-year mixes annually and two-year mixes every other year, to maintain seed production
  • Re-sow winter bird plots that fail to establish
  • Keep winter bird food plots until 15 February each year. 

Some further recommendations from me:

When sowing your seed, soil temperature is crucial - I recommend anything above 10°C. Not only do soil conditions need to be right, so does the weather. Try to be patient and don't rush into anything just because of the calendar date. Moisture is needed for strong establishment and drilling is generally preferred to broadcasting.

Growing your crop away from potential pests is important. If you're thinking about establishing a brassica-based mix, cabbage stem flea beetle (CSFB) pressure will need to be considered. Monitor rabbits and birds until the plant has reached a level of maturity away from this pressure.

Deer grazing, especially fallow deer, also needs to be thought about when you're choosing your crop.

I also strongly advise, where conditions allow, rolling before any emerging seedlings show. Weed treatments, both post and pre-emergent, need to be considered well before planting begins and applied as needed. Adding organic matter is recommend where possible in the form of farmyard manure or poultry manure. You can discuss these details with your Frontier agronomist or Kings contact.

Destruction

Crops in AB9 can be destructed from mid-February. AHL2 crops can be destructed after late winter. However, late March onwards is better as these crops are grown to support farmland birds during the "hungry gap" which extends from December to April.

Top tips for destruction:

  • Brassicas can be grazed off if desired
  • Top off growing and dead vegetation to 10-15cm and allow regrowth to flush
  • Application of glyphosate is recommended after an end of service topping or where any volunteers persist prior to drilling. 

Summary

I hope this blog serves as a useful brief on best practice for establishing, maintaining and destructing an AB9 or AHL2 crop. The tips outlines above should help to ensure you get it right the first time and allow you to really see the benefits on farm, while also gaining financial rewards.

If you have any questions about our seed or would like to find out more about how to grow specialist, environmental crops, please speak to your local Kings contact. Alternatively, you can get in touch or read the newly released 2024 Kings catalogue



Hannah Clarke
Kings Central Technical Advisor & SFI Delivery Lead


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Monday, 24 June 2024

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