“Duck Food For Thought”
“Duck Food For Thought”
If you have been riding around at all this week, it is obvious that commercial grain farmers are amping up for the upcoming planting season. They are applying anhydrous ammonia that did not get knifed in this fall, and they are watching ground temperatures closely in order to optimize and capitalize on increased yield production. They already know what fields are being planted to corn or soybeans and they have a plan in place for the upcoming year. What does that mean to a duck hunter?
When it comes to food plots in general; whether it is for ducks or deer, the everyday “average Joe” can learn a lot from watching and talking to the operators of commercial farming operations in their area. Optimizing our yields increases our food “tonnage” for consumption by wildlife which is our ultimate goal; so that we can attract and hold them longer in our area. Obviously the commercial grain farmers are in the business of making money and some of their practices are not conducive to quality wildlife food plots, such as ripping or disking immediately after harvest.
Here are some ideas for planting food plots for ducks. Obviously a lot of questions and variables come into play with waterfowl properties that we can’t predict so here are some ideas of how to go about setting yourself up for successful fall hunting season.
Keep your wetlands full and flooded through the spring migration:
I am a huge fan of “imprinting” ducks during the spring migration and I have found with past experiences that it is important to keep your wetlands full of water and available for ducks while they are migrating north to their nesting grounds each spring. They imprint to your location and will take advantage of any leftover grain, or seeds which means they might come back in the fall. With that being said the primary spring migration has already passed in our area so it might be a great time to start draining your wetlands if you are planning on cultivating your own food source such as corn.
What to Plant, when and why?:
This is a great question and one that can often be dictated by Mother Nature herself. Obviously the idea of a wetland is the simple fact that it is a low lying area designed to hold water, so figuring out what your wetland area can and is capable of doing is pretty important.
Corn is and has been a staple in the mallard diet for quite some time. Corn provides a great source of carbohydrates and will hold ducks and geese longer when the temperatures begin to plummet and freeze out other available sources. Unfortunately corn is fairly expensive to plant and work with and it can also reduce the overall food diversity on your property. My recommendation for corn in a wetland is to strive for an approximate yield of 100 to 150 bushels per acre. This will help your local Ag manager determine the proper amounts of fertilizers necessary to achieve this goal. Here are a couple of other ideas to help manage the cost of planting corn. Ask your local seed provider for a “triple-stack” corn, which will provide some form of root worm resistance, corn bore resistance, and herbicide resistance such as “round-up” ready corn. Wetland areas and especially those that are planted in corn each and every year can create complications in yields with grains such as corn, so talk to your local Farm Agent to see what steps you can take to optimize your yields. Try applying your herbicide only one time to reduce some costs of corn input. If you wait until your corn is at an optimum height that it will start to shade out competing weeds and you can reduce the cost of spraying to one time, and it will also allow some other weeds such as smartweeds, and sedges to grow later in the year and add to a diversity of available foods. There is also a wide variety of “long”, “mid” and “short” season corns, that can help ensure that you can still get a corn crop even if you can’t plant by the early part of May. Ultimately you are not striving for a certain “moisture content” for optimal harvest prices, you just need to ensure that your corn will be “dented” and “black layered” before you start to flood it. Flooding it prematurely could cause the corn to sour and ducks and geese will not eat it.
Millet is another common and widely desired food source for waterfowl in Illinois. The most common and cheapest type of cultivated millet to plant in a wetland is Japanese millet and in most cases it can be planted in a variety of ways such as aerial seeding on mud flats, drilled, or broadcast seeded and culti-packed as late as the July 4th weekend. This is a great alternative for those spots that stay to wet to disk and plant into corn, and it will provide a huge amount of “tonnage” and available food. Try mixing some buckwheat in your millet mix to add to the diversity of your food plot. Unfortunately ducks will abandon millet plots rather quickly if the temperatures drop and you will want to make sure that it is matured before you plant it as well.
This is by far the cheapest of all the food plot options available for waterfowl, but it can be the most temperamental and hardest to control. You are simply at the mercy of what grows and when and your only form of control is to manage and control the water levels throughout the season. Desirable plants such as smartweeds, barnyard grass, sedges, and bul-rushes will be the primary food sources you are looking for. If you are not on the up and up with your moist soil plants I highly recommend you seek guidance from your local biologist.
Obviously a combination of these three food sources would be the ideal mix for diversity and can provide you with outstanding hunting opportunities this fall from early season until late season.
At the end of all this, I think the most important things we can learn from our commercial grain farmers; is to educate ourselves, work with our local advisors, plan ahead, establish a game plan and stick to our game plan, but be willing to adjust our plans when mother nature throws us a curveball.