Managing your land for wildlife can provide you with an opportunity to increase the carrying capacity and concentration of wildlife on your property. Whether your passion is hunting, photography or simply observing nature, there are several things you can do — without spending a lot of money — that will make your land more attractive to everything from butterflies to whitetail deer.
To make your property more attractive to wildlife, there are several different components that need to be addressed. One of the most common practices is to create food plots, an excellent way to provide a supplemental food source for wildlife. Food plots are definitely a piece to the puzzle, but without good natural habitat providing suitable shelter, food and water, you may be wasting your time and money.
The popularity of food plots has increased dramatically over the last 10 or 15 years. New companies are dedicated to providing seed, equipment and implements to help establish and maintain food plots. Hunting and rural lifestyle magazines are a good source of information on products that will help turn an old worn-out hayfield into a wildlife mecca.
While it may sound like establishing a food plot will be expensive, depending on your goals and the types of food plots you want to develop, costs can be relatively inexpensive. It would also provide an opportunity for a family or community project.
Creating a habitat suitable for wildlife can be achieved by selectively clearing areas of old-growth woods and brush to allow for new growth. Hand cutting, mowing, disking and burning help renew and reshape an overgrown plot. Planting fruit and mast shrubs and trees will help provide protection and serve as additional food sources. Mast varieties including wild plums, crab-apples and chokecherry, or trees such as hazel and oak are good selections depending on your location. Your local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and your state university extension services are great resources for information to determine varieties of trees and shrubs that are best suited to your local environment.
If wildlife will need to travel great distances to find water, the odds are greatly reduced that they will return or remain nearby. Improving existing water sources on your land — whether it’s permanent or a result of seasonal runoff — will help attract and sustain a variety of wildlife.
If you don’t have water on your property, digging or trenching impoundment ponds could be an option. In some states, there are cost-sharing programs managed by game and fish departments that will help offset expenses and bring in experts to help design water structures.
Song birds, waterfowl and upland game birds all rely on readily available water sources for nesting and as seasonal resting grounds during spring and fall migrations. Allowing seasonal water sources such as spring snowmelt and rains to remain as long as possible by closing drain tile or ditch access is also a great way to improve water habitats without going through the cost of digging new impoundment structures.
Create wildlife food plots
One of the first considerations when planning a wildlife food plot should be deciding what type of wildlife you want to attract. It is important not to use all the open space you have allocated for just the food plot. Having natural grasses — and in some cases even weeds — adjacent to your food plot allows for both forage and escape cover for smaller animals and birds.
A good plot for small game is a quarter to a full acre in size. If you are looking to attract deer or turkeys, a plot anywhere from 1 to 5 acres or more is optimal. Large plots between 5 and 20 acres can provide the opportunity to plant multiple food sources, as well as lessen predator impact because the wildlife population will not be as concentrated as it is in a smaller area. Place your food plot close to some type of protective cover. Brush or a heavily wooded area would be suitable in order to provide important escape cover.
Proper soil nutrients are necessary so plants will grow and achieve their maximum potential, and soil testing can help you determine your soil’s health. To gather a soil sample, take a pail and shovel, and dig samples from random spots in the area you plan to convert to a food plot. Dig 6 to 8 inches down for samples, and place them in the same container. You don’t need a large amount of soil, but keep each sample about the same size. The more samples you collect, the more accurate your soil test will be. After you have gathered your samples, thoroughly mix all the soil samples together.
Kits are available to test the soil yourself, but an easier, more complete and accurate method of testing the soil is to contact your local SWCD office or your local extension office for a sample kit you will send back to them for free testing. Quite a few commercial soil testing labs do business in most states and can be found through an Internet search. Test results are usually available within two to three weeks.
The soil test results will provide recommendations on how to adjust your soil with correct amounts of lime and fertilizer for optimum plant growth based on your soil type and needs.
Once you have your test results back, it’s time to prepare the food plot site. As I mentioned earlier, some native grasses and weeds are actually beneficial to wildlife for food and cover. However, if the weeds are so invasive that they would threaten your main plants’ growth, you will need to control them.
Organic herbicide treatments are a good way to control weeds in a large area. Most broad-spectrum herbicides kill weeds as well as all grasses and plants. If you plan to use an herbicide, pay attention to the manufacturer’s labels and application rates. If you can mow the area before applying an herbicide, you will achieve better results. After applying the herbicide, wait a week to 10 days or longer before plowing or disking the plot to give the chemical ample time to work — check and abide by all the information on the label.
If you don’t want to use herbicides, you may attain good results by burning, plowing and disking your site. It may require a little more work, and it may not remove as many weeds as a chemical application, but your goal is simply to clear the area well enough to allow your plants to flourish. The plot doesn’t need to look like a farmer’s crop field, just a good food source for wildlife.
After preparing the site and amending the soil with the proper nutrients, it’s time to decide what to plant. Selecting the plants you will use in your food plot really depends on what particular animals you want to attract. If you want more deer on your property, plant clovers like ladino and red clover as a perennial crop with wheat, rye, canola or turnips and radishes as annual plantings. With the proper equipment, corn is always a good deer-attracting plant, and it has the additional benefit of offering cover to other animals.
If you are interested in providing a food source for upland game birds or song birds, grain and green forage provide good variety. Corn, millets, sorghums, sunflowers and buckwheat can either be mixed together or planted in various areas of the food plot for diversity.
Several companies specialize in preparing the proper seed mix based on the type of wildlife you are trying to attract. These companies sell pre-packaged bags of seed unique to the various growing zones throughout the U.S. Run an Internet search for food plot seeds and you’ll find a wealth of information about preparing your food plot with their products.
Planting your seed can be accomplished by a variety of methods, depending on the condition of your food plot after preparation. Using no-till methods with a corn planter or grain drill is one good option. You can also use a broadcast seeder that you mount on a tractor or ATV, or an inexpensive hand-crank or push-rotary seeder to distribute the seed.
If you broadcast your seed onto a prepared bed, you will need to incorporate the seed into the soil by either lightly disking or dragging the surface. With small, fine seed that only requires good ground contact, the most effective way to cover the seed is with the use of a cultipacker or seed roller.
Incorporate an overall plan
I have spent a lot of time discussing how to design, prepare and plant a food plot, but without proper habitat, a food source is not going to attract and hold wildlife to your property. Managing your land for wildlife, whether for viewing or hunting, requires a well-conceived plan that incorporates food, water and protective cover.
It’s a great project for the family, or maybe even the neighbors, with the added benefit of spending more time in the great outdoors enjoying nature.
Tim Nephew is a freelance writer living in Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres for wildlife to enjoy.
Tips From the Ohio Division of Wildlife on Establishing Food Plots
• Do not fertilize more than what is recommended. It’s a waste of money and resources.
• Conversely, some people make the mistake of not fertilizing at all. Spreading manure you acquire from your animals or your neighbors’ animals will help immensely.
• Using up old seed is fine if you just want to get rid of it, but don’t expect an oasis of vegetation. Use up-to-date seed as well.
• Avoid planting seed in spots that are too shady. It will hinder your plant growth.
• Food plots that are too small are ineffective. A good rule of thumb when dedicating an area to food plants is a quarter to half an acre for every 20 acres.
• Be sure to plant early enough in the season to allow vegetation to fully mature.
• Use plants proven to grow in your own local environment.