Whole crop silage
Cereal crops add habitat diversity in grassland landscapes and post-harvest stubbles retained through the winter will provide valuable seed food for farmland wildlife.
Growing cereal-based crops, whether harvested conventionally or for whole crop silage provides benefits for wildlife over maize or grass silage.
As livestock farming has become more reliant on grass silage and bought-in feed, the range of on-farm crops grown has decreased. This has in turn reduced the diversity of habitats and the food and shelter they provide our wildlife. Cereal crops can provide an important habitat for wildlife in grass-dominated pastoral landscapes, providing habitat for ground-nesting birds like skylarks, whilst arable weeds in the crop can provide valuable insect and seed food for a wide range of wildlife.
Growing cereals for wholecrop silage or crimping is a practical way to maintain an element of cereal cropping within livestock systems. Cereals provide substantial benefits for seed-eating birds over maize and grass silage, especially where stubbles are retained.
Although fallen seed from a crop harvested green will be limited, the seeds of weeds growing in the crop such as annual meadow grass, field pansy and chickweed all provide valuable seed for seed-eating farmland birds such as yellowhammers and linnets. The unripe grain of cereals can also be a vital food source for bunting chicks, especially when large insects are not available in poor weather.
Cereal-based wholecrop silage has high feed value for livestock, with some potential benefits over other forage options. Advantages over grass silage are little or no silage effluent, lower costs of production associated with a single harvest per year and consistent yields in drier parts of the country.
Advantages over maize are consistently good yields in parts of the UK where maize is difficult to grow, being cheaper to grow and causes less long-term damage to soils. Cattle farmers substituting cereal wholecrop for some of their grass silage in rations can expect increased dry matter intake, higher energy intake associated with the higher starch levels, reduced rates of acidosis and increased health and fertility.
Any autumn or spring-sown cereal (wheat, barley, oats, rye) can be used for whole crop silage, however their benefits for wildlife will depend on how they are managed.
Spring-sown crops offer greater benefits to wildlife than autumn-sown crops as they provide ideal nesting sites for lapwings and skylarks and are less likely to require broad-spectrum herbicides.
Seed from arable weeds growing in the crop, along with insect populations living in the crop, provide useful food for birds. The most competitive and invasive weeds tend not to provide much useful food for birds. Crop spraying that controls these whilst leaving less competitive plants will help to provide major wildlife benefits.
Retaining post-harvest stubbles will help overwintering seed-eating birds. Post-harvest stubbles will not contain much fallen seed, but can be rich in the seeds of arable weeds. The winter stubbles of cereals undersown with grass and clover are of little value to birds as seeds are difficult to access in dense grass.
Bi-cropped whole crop cereals (such as triticale/lupins or barley/peas) should provide similar wildlife benefits (or possibly greater if inputs are reduced).
Arable crops in a rotation with grassland are best fitted between short or medium-term grass leys as most arable plants need regular opportunities to germinate if they are to persist. Arable crops should not be introduced into permanent grassland of existing wildlife or historical value, or land with a high risk of soil run off.
Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms
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