Food Plot Management
Missouri bobwhites usually start whistling in late April or early May. In fact, I heard some birds last week while turkey hunting.
The clear whistle of a bobwhite is an alarm clock for some landowners to start work on this year's food plots. In fact, I finished work on a 1-acre sunflower plot two weeks ago. Over the next two months, landowners will frantically spend their weekends preparing food plots for quail and other wildlife. Unfortunately, this flurry of work is at the expense of more important quail habitat work like maintaining shrub plantings, spraying invasive plants, conducting late spring prescribed burns or edge feathering. Spring rains and muddy fields only exaggerate the hysteria.
Most landowners who are already doing a good job of managing their farm for bobwhites don't really need to stress out over planting food plots. If you've done a good job of creating shrubby, nesting and brooding cover for bobwhites then adding food plots will only enhance your management efforts. Food plots alone can’t make poor habitat into good habitat. In well managed habitat, quail and other wildlife can find adequate food. The only exception might be during extended periods of ice or snow. During these times, food plots can be beneficial to quail and other wildlife.
Now let's be realistic. Planting food plots is a fun activity. I love getting on the tractor each spring and working the soil. I like watching the plots grow and mature over the summer. However, food plots should not take the place of good habitat management on the rest of the farm. I spend more time conducting prescribed burns, spraying fescue and improving woody cover for bobwhites. Only after you have taken the time to create good nesting, brooding and shrubby cover should you start to think about planting food plots.
This spring when get the itch to plant a food plot, make sure you do something to improve nesting, brooding or shrubby cover first. When you are ready to plant this year's food plots or establish a new food plot consider some of the following tips:
•Food plots for quail must be close to shrubby cover. Place your food plots next to edge feathering or create covey headquarters along the edge of your food plots. Try to keep your food plots within 70 feet of woody cover.
•Create long linear food plots to divide large fields into smaller management units. Doing so, will provide a variety of habitat types adjacent to each other. Consider establishing covey headquarters or downed tree structures along the edge of the food plots to provide shrubby cover. Disk firebreaks around the new covey headquarters before burning. The disked fire break can also be planted to a food plot.
•Avoid areas where erosion is a concern. Select a level area and always plant on the contour.
•Food plots should be at least 30 feet wide. Wider is better so you can idle half of the plot every year.
•No-till is best. In the spring, spray the plots with glyphosate to burn down any existing vegetation. If needed, mow the plot before planting. The residue left by practicing no-till will harbor insects and other beneficial invertebrates--the stuff baby quail eat during the summer.
•Research has shown that conventional tilled crop fields have significantly fewer insects than fields where no-till is practiced. The same would also apply to food plots. If you disk the plot, don’t pulverize the ground. Leave some residual plant material. One or two passes should be enough. If you “clean till” the plot, do not use herbicides on the plot or use selective herbicides.
•Make sure to take a soil test, and lime and fertilize accordingly. Proper fertilization is essential on nutrient poor soils and especially for corn and sunflower plots.
•Trees along the edge of a food plot will significantly reduce production. You should also realize that trees along the south and west side of a food plot will have a greater impact on the plot than those on the north or east side. You can fix this by edge feathering the trees along the edge of the food plot.
•I prefer forage sorghum, Egyptian wheat and milo in my food plot buffets. I usually mix forage sorghum with milo to hide the milo from deer. Millets are also a good choice, especially for late planted food plots (June – July). Cast your vote on what grain is best for bobwhite quail.
•Corn, sunflowers and soybeans are a good second choice, but raccoons and deer love them all. These food plots should be 1/4 acre or larger if you want any grain to remain for the winter.
•I usually avoid any specialty mixes. I can make my own mixes. A couple of my favorite mixes are: 1) Roundup Ready soybean and corn; 2) forage sorghum and milo; and 3) soybean/sunflower and milo.
•Don’t overlook the value of winter wheat as a quail food plot. Not for the green browse or the seed, but for the great brooding cover and stand of ragweed and weeds you will have the next summer. Over the winter you can over-seed the wheat with annual lespedeza.
•Plant only the amount of seed needed. Most people plant food plots way too thick and end up with green growth and very little grain. If the rate says 15 pounds per acre, use 15 pounds. I’d even consider cutting the rate in half!
•Generally, I avoid using herbicides on most food plots. A weedy plot is better for quail than a clean, weed-free food plot. However, sometimes herbicides are needed to guarantee a crop or to control unwanted plants like dock, cocklebur or Johnson grass. If possible, try to use a selective herbicide or a reduced herbicide rate to leave some weeds in the plot. For example, in a soybean plot consider using a grass herbicide to control grasses like foxtail. By the end of the year you will have a good stand of beans with lots of ragweed, water hemp and pigweed--all good quail foods.
•“Flip-flop your food plot." The picture below is a great example of how to "flip-flop your food plot." Make your food plots at least 60 feet wide. Instead of planting the entire plot each year, only plant one half and leave the other half idle. The idle half will provide nesting and brooding cover and great roosting cover in the fall and winter. The next year, plant the idled half and leave the other half idle. If your plots are small, leave the entire plot idle for a year and just rotate among food plots.
•Every three or five years plant plots to alfalfa or annual lespedeza. Adding a legume to your food plot rotation will help build soil fertility and provide good brooding cover and food. I usually over-seed all my winter wheat plots with annual lespedeza or alfalfa.
This spring when you get the fever to plant your food plots, make sure you take the time to prepare good nesting, brooding and shrubby cover first. Planting food plots is fun and a great way to enjoy the spring. However, remember that even a good food plot will not make up for poor quail habitat elsewhere on your farm.
Habitat is the Key!