Agricultural wetlands attract diversity of wildlife for hunting and more
Even if you don’t live near a natural wetland, practically anyone with access to a farm or ranch can turn fields into outstanding waterfowl habitat. Flooding crop fields in the fall and winter to attract ducks, geese and other wildlife is a popular land management tool for hunters and wildlife enthusiasts.
It’s not just about mallards cupped over decoys. There are countless other species that count on quality wetlands for their life cycles and migrations. Ducks and geese are attracted to grain and weed seeds, while shorebirds, wading birds and mammals visit flooded fields in search of fish and invertebrates.
Waterfowl migrations are extremely complex in both spring and fall, but there are some management actions that you can do now to ensure adequate amounts of the food these birds are seeking.
Corn is king
The age-old deer hunter question, “What should I plant in my food plot?” is rarely heard in the waterfowl world. For ducks, you want corn. First of all, corn produces a high-carbohydrate food that is quick and easy for ducks to access even in cold, frozen, challenging conditions. But to waterfowl hunters, corn can be much more than just duck food. A corn crop also provides tall cover that can conceal hunters from weary waterfowl.
Corn planted in rows near open water can also trigger a duck’s inherent quest for a “hemi-marsh,” consisting of about 50% open water and 50% standing vegetation. Puddle ducks such as mallards are most attracted to this type of flooded habitat. It’s indicative of wetlands that have drawn down to allow for plant germination and then reflooded. It’s where ducks can find ample food to fuel migration.
When planting corn in a wetland area, here are other considerations:
1. Make food plot plantings where you can flood the crop with at least 12-18 inches of water.
2. Select varieties with fewer days to maturity. Planting dates in low, wet areas are typically later.
3. Select varieties that are shorter in stature with a lower ear height. The lower the ears, the less water depth needed for waterfowl to reach the grain.
4. Use a traited variety to simplify over-the-top weed control and prevent insect damage that could cause lodging.
5. Make a planned nitrogen topdress application. Wet soils in low areas are not good candidates for preplant-only N management. Ponded water and warmer soil from later planting may lead to significant N losses.
6. Plant corn near areas that can easily be mowed to create open water or contain a harvestable crop of soybeans that can be removed to create open water.
7. Ensure the remaining crop stays standing and unmanipulated to comply with federal migratory bird regulations.
Flooding in fall
As temperatures start to cool in the fall, “When should I flood?” becomes the important question. From a waterfowl-hunting scenario, the answer likely depends on your hunting zone, nearby habitat and when you plan to hunt the most. Typically for most of Missouri, peak waterfowl numbers occur sometime in November. However, the seasons run past these peak times. In any case, flooding gradually and trying to provide the most food throughout the season is important if you’re focused on overall bird usage. Many times, when flooding areas of harvested and standing grain crops, the water level is increased too fast. There is a lot of quality food and foraging opportunities for the ducks in shallowly flooded harvested crops or weedy moist soil. If you have pumping capabilities, increase water levels incrementally to flood new acres and provide fresh forage slowly through the season.
Dewatering in spring
Just as flooding and water depth are important when looking to flood a food source you’ve stewarded all summer long, drawing that water off the next spring should be done with purpose to provide the best foraging conditions for the birds. Dewatering slowly in the spring allows aquatic insects to congregate at the receding shoreline, making optimal foraging conditions for waterfowl. These protein-packed insects are critical for setting the stage for the reproduction needed for good duck numbers the following year. Wetland pools do not need to be dry in the spring to have good conditions for another crop. Corn or other grain foods planted late in the year can provide large amounts of food for the next season. Draw down slowly, enjoy the wetland wildlife, and remember, “It’s all for the ducks!”
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