Department of Fish and Wildlife
Kentucky Afield Outdoors: Planting For Wildlife
With the last frost date fast approaching, now is the time to get started on seasonal plantings for wildlife.
This includes food plots, stands of warm season grasses, legumes, such as clover, and preparing soil for plantings later in the year.
A field of sunflowers, planted for dove hunting in the fall, is one of the most common food plots. You should plant sunflowers no later than the third week in May so fields will begin attracting local birds as the seeds ripen.
“You want ripe, mature flowers by the second or third week of August,” said Rocky Pritchert, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Hunting for mourning doves in Kentucky traditionally starts Sept. 1.
“We recommend opening up (mowing) about 25 percent of the field by mid-August,” said Pritchert. “As opening day approaches, mow additional strips in the sunflower field, to spread seeds on the ground.”
Field preparation in the spring should start with plowing, and then disking the soil until the plant bed is loose. Pritchert highly recommends a soil test to determine whether the field needs fertilizer.
If you do need to fertilize, 20-10-10 (20 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphate and 10 percent potash) is a good choice. Apply it at the rate of 200 to 250 pounds an acre. Apply fertilizer then lightly disk it into the ground about a week before you plant.
Black oil sunflower seed – the kind used in birdfeeders – is a good choice. The seeds are small, and a 50-pound bag is inexpensive compared to the price of sunflower seed that has a certified germination rate.
Sunflower seed should be planted with a corn planter or drilled into the seed bed to a depth of about 1/2 to 1 inch. Rows can be 20 to 40 inches apart. Broadcast seeding rarely gives the desired results because it is difficult to control weeds between the sunflower plants.
Doves are particular about the fields they’ll visit. "It's important to cultivate between rows, to keep weeds to a minimum," said Pritchert. This gives birds easy access to bare dirt between the rows, where they can dust their bodies and forage for seeds that have fallen to the ground.
Food plots ranging from one to five acres are the recommended size to concentrate deer and wild turkey for viewing or hunting. Plant each plot in a long strip near escape cover, such as woodlands or brush. Corn, left standing, is an excellent winter food source for deer.
Chufa, a bunch grass with a peanut-like tuber, is a favorite food of wild turkeys. It matures in about 100 days, in early fall. Buckwheat is another top crop for turkeys. Birds readily eat the large black seeds produced when this leafy plant matures.
Annual grains, such as winter wheat or rye, make good food and cover for wildlife, especially quail. Ben Robinson, a wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, recommends a 2- to 3-year rotation of plantings. “Say you have three acres of winter wheat, then the next year you would re-plant one acre of wheat, and leave two acres fallow,” he said.
Fallow areas provide shelter for quail chicks. “They can find room to move underneath the cover, and some seeds of native plants will sprout in the area where the soil has been disturbed,” Robinson explained.
In pre-settlement days, grasslands covered an estimated 3 million acres in the state. Warm season grasses, such as eastern gamagrass, switchgrass, big bluestem and Indiangrass, provide food and overhead cover for rabbits and quail. Deer also use stands of tall grass for bedding areas.
Site preparation is important. Prior to planting, treat the area with an herbicide if necessary to rid the area of fescue. Warm season grasses, which can reach heights of 5 to 8 feet, actively grow once soil temperatures reach 65 degrees. Plant these grasses in the spring.
“Broadcasting is a good way to sow warm season grass seed,” said Robinson. “It creates a sparse, less dense stand of grass, which gives rabbits and quail more room to move.”
Established stands of legumes, such as clover, can last for 2 to 3 years and provide a food source that deer, wild turkey and small game will use from early spring until heavy frosts kill back vegetation in the fall.
Clover builds soil nutrients, attracts insects – an excellent food source for young turkeys – provides high-quality forage, and grows tall enough to offer cover for young rabbits.
Clover thrives in well-drained, sunny fields with moderately fertile soils. Since clover grows best in soils with pH levels between 6.0 and 7.0, you may need to add agricultural lime if the soil is too acidic.
Landowners planting in new areas may want to spend additional time conditioning the soil beforehand. Plow in the spring, then periodically disk or cultivate throughout the summer to rid the soil of sod and weeds.
In late August or early September, plant a crop that will become a food source in fall and winter. Turnips or other cold-tolerant greens will attract deer during the late season.
Landowners with 25 acres or more qualify for an on-site visit and management plan when enrolled in the department’s Wildlife Habitat Improvement (HIP) Program. Private lands biologists offer the technical guidance free of charge. Landowners participating in this program do not have to open their property to public hunting or use.
For more information, call 1-800-858-1549 during normal weekday working hours, or visit the department’s Web site at: fw.ky.gov. Just click on habitat improvement.