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Food Cover Plots 2.0

April 03, 2020 by

This article is coming to you with 17 years of trial and error.  All that means is that I’ve had a lot of time to find out all the wrong ways to do a food plot.  The article is titled food cover plots just because it’s important to denote that both food and cover are equally important in the design of the plot.

For the record, I’m designing specifically for pheasants, but some of these principles could be used for other wildlife species as well.  Additionally, my designs are for fair chase pheasant hunting and not preserves, game farms or other pen-raised release pheasant purposes.

Before we get started, I’d like to give credit to some of the partners that I’ve worked with over the years.  To name a few they would be Pheasant’s Forever, UGUIDE Pheasant Camp Partners, and some agricultural agronomy partners that also hunt at our pheasant camps.

If you are wondering what “Food Cover Plots 1.0” was about, it was basically this:  get free or cheap seed wherever you can, put seed in ground, see what happens……  Even a blind squirrel gets a nut...but after a while mother nature catches up with you and gives you a body slam or two, so to speak.  Here’s where I was at in April of 2018 with the UGUIDE Food Cover Plot System.

I'll begin with a little background.  Most of my pheasant hunting experience involves public land and staying in motels in the great state of Iowa in the 1980s and 1990s.  About 20 years total.  It was after that time that I became a little burnt out on hunting public land and staying in motels.  I knew that if I could own private land I could farm for pheasants and create a little more consistent and better experience.  From that, and still today, 2 of the main fundamental components that UGUIDE offers are private land hunting and private lodging.  Once I determined private land ownership was a key component, I found a realtor that could help me with the land purchasing process.  One of the things this realtor, who I found in Iowa, said was “if you plant a few acres of Milo (grain sorghum) you will attract every pheasant in the county”.  Initially I thought he was full of animal manure, but after purchasing a piece of land in South Dakota when pheasant numbers were a little higher in the early 2000s, I found that this concept to seemed to be true.  Thus was born in me the idea of at least a few quality food plots to change the outcome of your pheasant hunting experience.

We first acquired a plot of land in 2002 in South Dakota.  I held meetings with various entities to see who could be partners with me in this great land development adventure.  Then, and to this day, Pheasants Forever, FSA and NRCS have been great partners in developing conservation or habitat acres on the farm.  One other entity from a private firm used the concept or principle of “Attract and Hold” in his wildlife designs.  I have found those concepts to be important, yet incomplete.  Before you can attract and hold, you have to “Grow” them.  In addition to that, you have to “Sustain” them, which in terms of pheasants, would mean over-wintering them.  You see managing fair chase is managing 7 X 24 X 365.  The Attract and Hold phase is about 3 months of the year in the fall when hunters want to pull birds into places where they can harvest them.  The Sustain phase is the 3 months over winter that we need to get the birds through the winter in a healthy fashion.  The Grow phase is the other 6 months of the year when pheasants are about the last thing on peoples' minds.  While early successional nesting cover is indeed critical to the “grow” process, the food cover plots are the real focus of the attract-hold-sustain principle of fair chase pheasant management.

Oddly enough, we have learned that while many treat food cover plot establishment as a hobby, when it is well done, it is much closer to growing production agriculture grain crops.  An agronomist would be a great help to us in this area but even they struggle to grasp what the fair chase pheasant manager is truly “managing for”.  While most grain producers would be happy with 5 more bushels per acre or $5/profit more per area, we are seeking 5 more birds per acre or 5 more successful nests per acre.

Here are the key areas of focus: Seed Selection, Weed Control, Fertility, Stand Design, Planting/Residue Management Methods.

Seed Selection – What we are finding is the maturity date of the seed is critical to giving mother nature enough time to finish the grain to maturity.  A key element is the attractiveness of the food to the plot.  The “cover” aspect of the plot is how much vegetation provides how much cover that the feeding birds get from weather and predators while they are feeding.  This is also key to “holding” birds.  I have seen corn seed between 70 days maturity and 115.  Shorter day is always going to be better for us than longer day.  We are managing for decent food and cover and not 400 bushel corn.  From east to west coast in the pheasant belt I would say 80-90 day maturities for most grain is where you will want to be.  Germination can be anywhere between 80-100%.  If germ is 80 then 80% of what you plant will come up so you need to compensate by planting a little heavier.  If you want to know what pheasants like, just look at the back of a bag of bird seed and you will see all kind of things you can grow.  Corn & Milo would be my backbone building blocks because they are the best in providing good food and cover in all weather types.  Please note that we are moving away from GMO seeds and seed treatments like insecticides.

Weed Control – You have to do it.  I educated myself on trial and error and reading the backs of herbicide labels which are extremely helpful.  The person you buy your herbicides from should be able to assist you with what you are trying to accomplish.  If you do not manage for weeds and get them properly suppressed, your food and cover will be suppressed dramatically. See comments on “Rotation” below.

Fertility – Nitrogen or “N” is the biggest factor in nitrogen hog crops like corn or milo.  Each crop requires about 100 lbs of actual N to produce 100 bushels of grain.  My rule of thumb is apply 50 or 100 or 150lbs of N to get a satisfactory stand or plot.  I figure plots cost about $100/acre to establish when all said and done.  I used to poke a stick at these things but invest seriously in them now.  Potassium and Phosphorus (P & K) are also to key elements to manage in the fertility arena.  Soil test to see exactly what you are missing in those two areas.  “Rotation” is a key agronomic management concept that assist the grower in managing weed and fertility issues.  The novice food plotter makes the mistake and thinks that switching between corn and milo is a crop rotation.  It is not because both are a warm season grass.  The ideal rotation would also include cool season grasses and cool/warm season broadleaves.  A diverse 20 seed mix of cool/warm season small grains and cool/warm season broadleaves is recommended to add into your rotation.  Millborn Seeds has a very good mix called Final Flush that can be used for this or even customized to suit your needs.  Millborn also offers great fertility and weed control recommendation.  More info in my High Functioning Soils (HFS)

Stand Design – The definition of a plot of land is a small area of land with a specific growing vegetation type.  We have other cover types like grasses, woody cover, and sloughs.  Our plots are designed into these other areas.  My plots are 1-3 acres in size and they are spread out all over our property, strategically placed to assist in nesting proximity, winter shelter and concentrating birds around the property.  1 acre is on the small side while 3 is on the large side.  I’d rather have 10 two acre plots than 2 ten acre plots.

Planting/Residue Management – The first thing most plotters like to do is get in a tractor, hook up an implement and “work” the ground or till it up.  I have gone completely “no-till” which takes special equipment to do.  Most corn planters are no-till while some grain drills are, but most are not.  After you plant your first successful food cover plot, you will find you have a lot of residue left at the end of winter.  And hopefully some food too.  If you harvest your food cover plots at the end of hunting season, what happens to your 3 months sustain phase?  It doesn’t exist!  I never harvest my food cover plots.  I chop them down in the spring.  If you chop them April 1 with a bush hog, a sufficient amount of residue will decompose allowing good planting conditions by early to mid June.  If you have a no-till planter, you can plant into that decomposed residue.  It takes much longer for soils to warm up with high residue covers.  If you don’t have no-till equipment, you will have to work soils to get them to the point where the loose soil drill will work.  Planting depths: Corn 2-2.5”, Milo .5-1”, other small grain mixes .5”.  We are also finding that most of our camps are using John Deere 50,60, 90 series planters and our neighbors make excellent after market components for those planters that we slowly adopting to add more precision to our planting practices.  Checkout Prostich Ag.

Summary – The key concepts to master, in Food Cover Plots, are Phase 1 (Attract and Hold – Fall), Phase 2 (Sustain-Winter), Phase 3 (Grow).  You can’t attract and hold them if you don’t grow them and you can’t grow them if you don’t sustain them.  7 X 24 X 365.