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OUTDOORS: Spring planting for wildlife

Less desirable trees can be removed to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor

Sunflowers planted for mourning doves are one example of beneficial wildlife plantings for game and nongame species alike. (Special Photo)

Sunflowers planted for mourning doves are one example of beneficial wildlife plantings for game and nongame species alike. (Special Photo)

Planting for wildlife is often seen as simply planting a green field with crops such as wheat, oats, and clover just prior to the opening of deer season. These plots are easy to plant and maintain and do a good job of easing food-shortage stress when much natural fall forage is gone.. They also serve as areas for attracting wildlife for harvest during hunting season. However, these plantings typically do very little to aid in the growth and development of wildlife on a given property.

“In the South, the most stressful time of the year for most wildlife is late summer through early fall,” said wildlife biologist Chas Moore. “This is also when many species are actively growing, raising young, and are most in need of good nutrition. Availability of quality native browse is limited this time of year, especially areas dominated by closed canopy forests.”

According to Moore, landowners and wildlife managers interested in minimizing negative impacts of seasonal highs and lows in food availability and quality should focus on management of native food plants. Well-managed pine stands, for example, which are adequately thinned and burned on a three- to five-year rotation, provide forage and nesting opportunities for many species.

Bottomland hardwood forests should be protected from fire and maintained for mast production in the fall and winter months. Less desirable trees within these stands, such as maple, yellow poplar, sweetgum and unproductive oaks, can be removed to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor. Removing this competing vegetation frees up resources for the more desirable trees in the stand and increases the site’s potential for forest-floor browse production.

“Besides forested stands, a very important component to consider when managing wildlife habitat is wildlife openings,” Moore explained. “For deer and turkey management, having at least 1 to 5 percent of a property’s total acreage in wildlife openings should be a goal. Openings should be well distributed on the property and can be managed to increase available natural forage and diversity by disking, mowing, and burning. They can also be planted with agricultural crops as part of an overall habitat management plan.”

Wildlife openings planted with warm-season crops can provide high-quality forage during the most stressful period of summer. Many of the commonly planted warm-season crops can last through early fall, which can provide hunting opportunities as well. However, planting and maintaining warm-season crops often presents several hurdles and challenges that cool-season crops do not.

“In most areas of the Southeast, especially where deer numbers are high, openings of less than 3 acres should not be planted with warm-season crops,” Moore said. “Deer will over-browse the crops before they are able to produce enough forage or seed to justify the expense of planting. Most warm-season crops are used by a variety of game and nongame species and planting at least one 3- to 5-acre plot per 100 to 200 acres of total acreage should provide a significant amount of supplemental forage and seed production.”

Another issue that usually needs addressing in warm-season plantings is weed and grass competition. Using the right herbicide or combination of herbicides before and after planting can resolve most problems with unwanted weeds and grasses. A selective herbicide should be used for specific crops. A non-specific herbicide, such as glyphosate, can be applied over the field prior to planting to eliminate some unwanted weeds and grasses. Allow all vegetation to brown before tilling the opening.

This post-planting application can help to some degree, but it will not address the grass and weed seeds still present in the soil. Utilizing an appropriate pre-emergent herbicide before or immediately after planting can be effective at combating the unwanted grass and weed seeds that have not germinated. This will allow the crop to get a jump-start over the competition.

“If weeds and grasses are still a problem after the crops are established, a selective herbicide may be needed,” Moore concluded. “A grass-specific herbicide, such as sethoxydim or clethodim, can eliminate most grasses in non-grass crops such as soybeans, lablab and sunflowers. They should never be used on fields planted with millets, sorghum or corn. These crops are species of grass and these herbicides will kill them. For these crops, several broadleaf specific herbicides are available to control weed competition.”

The following recommendations can be used as a warm-season crop-planting guide for several wildlife species:

White-tailed deer: Cowpeas (plant May 1 – July 15)

Lablab (plant April 20 – June 30)

Soybeans (plant April 20 – June 30)

Wild turkeys: Chufa (plant May 1 – June 30)

Corn (plant March 15 – May 1)

Mourning doves: Browntop millet (plant April 1 – August 15)

Proso millet (plant May 1 – June 15)

Sunflowers (plant April 1 – June 30)

Grain sorghum (plant April 15 – June 30)