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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A food plot placed south and east of dense woods. The woods act like a snow fence to keep snow in the plot to a minimum. © Mary Kay Salwey
A food plot placed south and east of dense woods. The woods act like a snow fence to keep snow in the plot to a minimum.

© Mary Kay Salwey

February 2003

And the plot thickens …

Steer clear of pitfalls in growing food plots for wildlife.

Mary Kay Salwey

Our hilltop laboratory | Plan and watch for pitfalls

It's easy for people in winter. While we sit snug in warm homes with stocked pantries and grocery stores conveniently located down snowplowed roads, the wildlife outside our doors face the most critical season of all. Heavy snows and cold, wet weather of late winter and early spring stress their ability to keep their internal fires burning. In addition, vegetation – the fuel that fires Wisconsin's herbivores – is at its annual low. For those of us who own country acreage, planting a food plot or two is one small way that we can ease the stress of wildlife survival during these harsh and meager times of the year.

A good food plot can provide safe foraging cover for grassland birds; trap snow around its edges; offer good roosting cover for birds like quail, pheasants and songbirds; and create sheltered bedding areas for deer. Food plots with standing corn and small grains supply the extra calories that deer, wild turkeys, pheasants and even meadow voles need to put on extra fat. That fat helps them avoid hypothermia, stave off death from exposure and will sustain them for days or weeks when the landscape of our making provides little sustenance.

After harvest time, when white gusts of winter rip through Wisconsin's agricultural regions, farm fields turn into virtual biological deserts. Snows drift and winds wail across barren countryside "tundra." For animals, it's tough enough to be wild and free in Wisconsin's natural landscape, it's downright miserable to try and survive winter where the "hand of man" has touched the land. Blowing snow can suffocate birds. Wildlife can die just trying to maintain body heat as temperatures plummet. Grassland birds can become so stressed during long winters that hens may delay laying eggs. This reduces the likelihood they will lay a second clutch should the first nest be destroyed. Winter-weary hens are also more likely to die of normal summer stresses such as molting, heat and disease. Chicks born of stressed hens have a higher mortality rate. The same is true for winter-stressed does and their fawns.

Planting food plots also helps educate people who take enough interest to look for animal tracks, follow trails and observe wildlife habits and habitats. Any activity that gets people directly involved with wildlife is a great thing.

Our hilltop laboratory

About five years ago, my husband, Kenny, and I purchased about 80 acres atop a narrow Buffalo County ridge two miles from the Mississippi River. Though Kenny is from a farming family and my father worked summers on his uncle's farm, neither Kenny nor I consider ourselves farmers by today's standards.

A smidgen less than half our land is so steep that the area has remained cloaked in oak-hickory woodland for decades. The deep ravines and "sun tips" (west-facing rock outcrops) proved too steep for even the most sure-footed cows. We know the forest was logged twice in its history We found traces where log skidders deeply and permanently gouged the land and less noticeable, narrow trails where draft horses once pulled logs from the forest. Still, there are some mighty big oaks down in the "holler." Healthy shagbark hickories and a few blighted butternuts grow on the upper slopes. These acorn and nut-bearing trees provide an excellent mast crop every other year in fall and early winter for the deer, wild turkey and the four species of tree squirrels (red, gray, fox and flying) that forage in our woods.

When we acquired this land, the remaining portion was a mix of weedy cow pasture and farm fields in the typical ag rotation of corn, soybeans and alfalfa. We decided to take those steep worklands out of "profit production" and put them into "wildlife production." The results have been rewarding beyond belief.

Cost-sharing funds from the Federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allowed us to restore the plowed fields into 17 acres of tallgrass prairie and 11 acres of trees, shrubs and wildlife food plots. The wildflowers and grasses we planted are native to this ecoregion, and the bobolinks, dickcissels, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds and bobwhite quail approve of our seed choice. Someday, the small bur oaks planted atop the highest crest may actually look a little like savanna or oak openings that were historically scattered throughout the tallgrass landscape. Two shelterbelts of spruce, pine and wildlife shrubs will eventually provide excellent winter cover and yummy treats for browsers and songbirds alike.

Our two food plots are each 1 acres in size. According to our CRP contract, we promise to maintain these annual food plots for ten years, though our intent goes well beyond that point.

While others choose to convert their land into perennial food plots (native prairie plantings, oak and hickory plantings, shelterbelts with conifers and edible shrubs), we want to share the lessons we learned as nonfarmers to help you avoid some of the pitfalls we fell into.

Plan and watch for pitfalls

First, spend a little time thinking and planning. What kinds of wild animals do you want to attract and assist through winter? Deer, raccoon and cottontail rabbits seem to prefer corn. Wild turkeys, bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasants find shorter grain sorghum and soybeans easier to reach. Smaller kernels are easier for smaller birds to digest and migratory seed-eating songbirds get an autumn boost of energy from black-oil sunflower seeds.

Second, decide who will plant your food plots. Kenny and I have very friendly farming neighbors who have helped us out. Though Kenny purchased a "new" 1960s style Allis-Chalmers tractor, we have yet to acquire all the attachments to plant our own plots. In years past, our neighbor planted our plots using free seed we provided. He said it would take him more time to figure out and mail us a bill than to put the seed in the ground for us. This past year we asked him to plant our two plots just the same as his own crop fields – using the best seed and fertilizers. Even so, the total bill for planting three acres was only about $160 – half for labor, half for seed and fertilizer.

Third, review the following list, then consult a local soil conservationist, UW-Extension ag agent, and a local DNR wildlife technician. These pitfalls are based on personal experience on our little patch of land. Your experiences will certainly differ, but the basic information should be quite sound.

Pitfall #1: Ignore the soil. Soil is the foundation that supplies essential minerals and nutrients plants need to grow. Good soil supplies adequate nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium. It also supplies essential micronutrients such as manganese, iron, boron, zinc, copper, molybdenum and chlorine.

Soil that has been tilled for decades usually lacks some or many of these components. To judge the soil quality in your plots, have it analyzed. It's easy and inexpensive. Stop by the County Ag Extension office, pick up a soil sample bag for each plot, follow the directions, mail in the samples and wait for the results.

Pitfall #2: Skip the "extras." Once you have your soil test back, add the recommended soil amendments. You can use commercial fertilizers or organic varieties. A local dairy operation near us composts all its cow manure into a wonderful, rich soil amendment called "CowsMo." If organic fertilizers aren't available in your community, check with a local farm cooperative about buying and applying inorganic fertilizers. And if you don't know what a farm co-op is, ask a farming neighbor.

Pitfall #3: Free seed! Heed the universal principle that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Free seed for wildlife food plots is readily available from local conservation groups or DNR offices. And for landowners on a tight budget, this may be better than nothing. However, my local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) specialist warned us to "know what you're getting." Some free seed has unwanted weed seeds mixed in. Other free seed comes in mixes that are inappropriate for winter food plots and may not be permissible under the CRP rules.

Seed from a free wildlife food plot mix produced the scrawny ear. A small investment in quality seed and fertilizer brings better results. © Mary Kay Salwey
Seed from a free wildlife food plot mix produced the scrawny ear. A small investment in quality seed and fertilizer brings better results.

© Mary Kay Salwey

Kenny and I have had mixed results. During our first year of using free seed corn in our two plots, more corn came up in one patch than the deer could eat in that mild winter, but the crop failed to come up at all in the second plot. The following year, free corn was unproductive in both plots and we felt compelled to buy bags of feed corn and sunflower seed (in years before feeding was banned). A good friend of ours who works three farms offered us this sage advice: to be assured of a good stand of crops in your food plot, purchase good quality seed at your local farm cooperative. You get what you pay for &and what you don't.

Pitfall #4: Don't worry about weeds. Like weeds in a vegetable garden, weeds in a food plot compete with plants you are trying to encourage. Even small food plots like ours are a bit big to battle the weeds by hand. Contact the ag co-op for custom spraying just when and where you need it. don't be discouraged if you discover the co-op turns you down because your plots are too small or your small site is deemed inaccessible for their equipment. Often a farmer friend will stop by and spray the food plots with the same mix that has proven effective on neighboring fields. Or perhaps the co-op can recommend hand spraying equipment that can safely make relatively short work on a small plot.

While you don't want weeds to take over your plot and reduce grain production, not all weeds are bad. Many weed seeds provide high protein food for wildlife, particularly songbirds and gamebirds. "American Wildlife & Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits," by Martin, Zim and Nelson, lists foods that birds prefer. It reads like Ortho's top ten hit list: ragweed, smartweed, knotweed, pokeweed, chickweed, dandelion, crabgrass, bristlegrass, thistle and poison ivy. So don't fret if your food plot has a few weeds in it. They will provide a good and healthy supplement to the grains you plant.

Pitfall #5: Put all your eggs in one basket. NRCS advises against planting all your seed in one large food plot. Rather, consider making smaller one- to two-acre plots scattered across your property. NRCS also recommends planting food plots on the south and east sides of permanent winter shelter such as forest edge, cattail marsh, shrubby fencerows, shelterbelts or dense warm season grass fields. This helps reduce snow drifting and can make the difference between food plots that are buried by the first winter blizzard or those that will function throughout winter into early spring. NRCS advises that food plots should be block shaped, since long, narrow plots drift in with snow that buries the grain.

Pitfall #6: Plant seed mixtures. Some seeds come bagged as "wildlife mixes." Combinations of corn, grain sorghum, millet and soybean, didn't sound quite right to us from the get go. Our previous experience with farming and vegetable gardening taught us you just can't plant low-growing, sun-loving plants in the shade of tall plants and expect to have a great crop.

Experience and intuition proved true. Sorghum and grain soybean that are shorter were shaded out amid thick corn stalks. Our NRCS agent cautioned against "big buck" mixes of soybeans and clover. These plants provide good summer and fall food, but die back, lodge and get compacted in snow. This particular mix is not an allowable mix under the CRP guidelines. NRCS recommends the following plantings for food plots:

  • Corn alone: Corn is a great choice for helping deer make it through the winter. Plant 15 lbs. of corn per acre and use short maturity corn (80-95 days).

  • Grain sorghum and forage sorghum: Grain sorghum provides food nearer to the ground, while the taller forage sorghum provides both food and cover. don't mix them together. Plant the outside rows on the north and west sides of your food plot with forage sorghum to act as a snow catch. Plant 15 lbs. per acre and plug every other hole on your grain drill to space plants 12-14 inches apart.

  • Forage sorghum and corn: Again, don't mix these together and plant at 15 lbs. per acre. Plant the outside rows to forage sorghum in 12-14 inch rows. These tall plants will catch snow and provide cover. Plant corn on inside rows that are 30-36 inches apart.

  • Millet, buckwheat, sunflower, soybean mix: While millet, buckwheat, soybeans and other small grains such as wheat and rye provide good sources of food, they tend to lodge and get buried by snow. If you use them in winter food plots, plant them in the center ringed with corn and sorghum that will catch the snow and provide better cover than the shorter, willowy grain stems. Sunflowers can be planted with the forage sorghum or corn since they grow at the same rate and to the same height. Sunflower seeds, however, won't last into the winter. They are heartily feasted upon by ravenous songbirds during fall migrations. Plant millet at 20 lbs. per acre; buckwheat at 40 lbs. per acre; soybeans at 45 lbs. per acre and sunflowers at 4 lbs. per acre.

I hope this advice will help you avoid problems and you'll produce nice, thick food plots of seeds, grain and cover that will help wildlife on your land survive this toughest time of year. Throughout the seasons, I hope you will enjoy the wildlife that benefit as your plots thicken.

Mary Kay Salwey is DNR's State Wildlife Education Specialist, a naturalist, illustrator and member of the TalkWalkers, a nature-oriented folk singing group.