Miscanthus is becoming more readily used as a game cover crop because it’s cost-effective, low maintenance, and holds gamebirds well.
The crop is seeing increased uptake on shoots around the country, and while it doesn’t provide feed, it’s only planted once, contract harvested in the spring after the season, and grows back quickly each year, with no maintenance, no fertiliser requirement and limited inputs needed post-establishment.
It also has additional environmental benefits such as soil stabilisation, increased biodiversity, and the ability to sequester 2.35 tonnes of CO2e per hectare each year.
One estate seeing success with Miscanthus on its shoot is Cockley Cley in Norfolk. Sir Samuel Roberts runs the estate, which includes 1,214 hectares of land let out to farmers and a mixed lowland stock commercial shoot operating over 20 days per year.
“Miscanthus is thick enough to hold the birds but not so thick that they don’t present well from it,” says Samuel.
“A real benefit is that it doesn’t cost us anything to manage now its established and it requires very little maintenance.”
Samuel planted 10 hectares of Terravesta AthenaTM Miscanthus four years ago, which is spread over two miles, located in patches of marginal farmland, including areas next to woodland or less productive soils.
“We farm on breckland soils which are unique to the area and are composed of glacial sedimentary chalk and sand. Some of the more challenging areas of the fields struggle to make a good return with conventional crops, and they are ideal for Miscanthus which doesn’t seem to mind it.
“We used to grow 25 hectares of maize, and we now grow just 15 hectares of maize and 10 of Miscanthus,” he says.
“Maize is expensive to grow and we need to replant it each year. Miscanthus is more reliable, it’s perennial, it takes a harvest each year, and the bales are used to generate renewable electricity locally, because they are supplied directly to Snetterton power station in Norfolk,” explains Samuel.
“We first harvested the Miscanthus after three years and harvesting costs were more than the proceeds of the bales, and this is due to the layout of small cover crop areas, meaning the contractors couldn’t do it in one go.
“In the next few years, a surplus is expected which should be enough to recover some of the initial planting costs. The main advantage of Miscanthus is the reduction of costs of growing expensive maize and other crops for the shoot,” adds Samuel.
The gamekeeper’s view
Steven Musk is the head gamekeeper on the estate and believes Miscanthus is an ideal cover crop.
“The birds like it; it acts as a windbreak and warms up the drives well,” says Steven.
“It’s cost-effective because it’s planted once and needs very little inputs after it’s established. With maize at around £800/ha including inputs, Miscanthus stacks up well,” he says.
The Miscanthus is contracted to Miscanthus specialist, Terravesta, which supplies the rhizomes for planting, the planter and agronomic advice throughout the crop’s life, and buys back the harvested bales each year to supply the renewable power station at Snetterton.
According to Terravesta, Miscanthus costs around £1,889/ha to establish, but it has no fertiliser requirement, and minimal inputs needed post-establishment. The average return over a 15-year period on a commercial crop can be £851/ha with a mature yield of between 10 – 15t/ha, which the firm says is typical for the Terravesta AthenaTM variety.
“Maize is time-consuming and costly to plant and manage each year and once established, Miscanthus takes care of itself each year.
“When we planted the Miscanthus, we overseeded with brassicas, this ensured we had cover during the first year while it was establishing. Terravesta supplied the planter, but we supplied the labour and it’s a good idea to be there so you can make sure it’s planted how you want it,” explains Steven.
“We have 10 hectares planted over 15 plots and every piece is effectively a headland. We did commercial rows which is 75cm in between each plant, we didn’t plant every 5th row so the beaters can get in, and this aids flushing of the birds.’
“We put it in places that wouldn’t affect commercial farming and we had an excellent establishment at the time with the aid of irrigation. This includes light sand, heavier land, plots adjacent to woodland and tight areas that machinery struggles to get in,” he says.
”With springtime weed control, we had a stand-alone driveable crop in the second year.
“We are harvesting this year, but we don’t expect yields projected from a large commercial plot.
“The shooting industry has an uncertain future, it’s a very delicate time with Bird Flu and rising costs,” says Steven.
“Miscanthus really comes into play here, because it’s reliable, even in the drought and once established you don’t need to worry about it,” adds Steven.