Marissa Ziebarth of Hamilton, Mo., was among the first time dove hunters who participated in a mentored event in Callaway County on the opening day of the 2019 season.
Shadyn Kleinsorge, left and his grandfather, Robert Kleinsorge, take position in a patch of trees just outside a sunflower field grown specifically for dove hunting on Don Dettmann's farm near Mokane, Mo.
This aerial view of the sunflower patch shows how runways have been cut through the field to scatter seeds on the ground for the doves and to make bird retrieval easier during the hunt. Look closely and you'll see hunters in strategic locations.
Landowner Don Dettmann, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, watches for his opportunity to take a shot during the first dove hunt of 2019 on his farm. Dettmann planted sunflowers as part of mentored hunt program sponsored in part by the National Wild Turkey Federation, of which he is a member. The program pays for inputs and contracting costs and, in turn, Dettmann manages the field and hosts three hunts designed to introduce the wingshooting sport to new participants.
Pearson Kleinsorge, 9, is visibly proud of the dove he took during the opening day hunt. It wasn't the first or only dove he harvested during the event, which he attended with his dad, grandfather and brothers.
Sunflowers not only attract birds but also other winged creatures, such as this bee. The bright yellow fields are a haven for pollinators before the flowers mature, dry down and become happy hunting grounds.
Dettmann said deer ate about one-third of his sunflower plants in 2018 before they could mature. To keep the deer at bay, he constructed a two-tiered electric fence all around the field. He pruned the plants every other day as they grew to keep them away from the fence.
Adam Jones, MFA natural resources conservation specialist, works with landowners such as Don Dettmann to implement wildlife-friendly conservation practices like this sunflower field.
It’s Sept. 1—opening day of dove season—and 20 hunters are positioned around the perimeter of a freshly mowed, mature sunflower field on Don Dettmann’s farm in Mokane, Mo.
Shots are fired. Shouts follow.
“Over the top!” “Was that you?” “Did you get him?” “Good shot!” “Whose bird was that?”
Spent shotgun shells litter the ground under 19-year-old Marissa Ziebarth’s feet, near several birds she’s harvested this morning. It’s her first dove hunt, and Ziebarth is learning the ropes from her boyfriend, Tyler Cooper, a National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) forester.
“I’ve never shot anything that moved before! I was thrilled,” she said. “It’s tough but really exciting.”
This mentored dove hunt was one of 16 such events held across Missouri in 2019 to introduce the sport to area youth, men and women. The NWTF, Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever, the Missouri Prairie Foundation and the Missouri Department of Conservation work with private landowners such as Dettmann to make these hunts possible.
“Dove hunting is one of the best experiences, especially for first-time hunters,” Cooper said. “The weather is usually always bearable. You don’t need a lot of special gear, so it’s not expensive. Shells are cheap. You get to shoot a lot. If you’re on a good sunflower field, you’re not bored. You can go with a bunch of buddies, so there’s a lot of camaraderie. Not to mention, if you do kill some doves, they’re tasty as can be.”
In the mentored-hunt program, contributions from the NWTF and MDC pay for fertilizer, seed, herbicide and contracting costs to establish the sunflower fields. In return, the landowner allows the local NWTF chapters to host three dove hunts on each field. Dettmann belongs to the NWTF’s Callaway County unit, known as The Kingdom of Callaway Limbhangers.
“This is my sixth year doing this,” Dettmann said. “I start way back in March and put in over 200 man-hours in this sunflower field—all for opening weekend. But it’s worth it to watch a new hunter’s eyes get big when that first dove flies by and they take a shot at it. They may go through a whole case of shells and only get a couple of doves, but they have a ball doing it.”
For his eight-acre field, Dettmann said preparations started with a burndown, and then he disked and tilled the ground two weeks later. Then the field was fertilized and sprayed with a pre-emergent herbicide. Dettmann used a two-row planter to sow the sunflower seed. When the flowers were 4 inches tall, a post-emergent herbicide was applied to kill any new weeds.
“By late July, the field was in full bloom,” Dettmann said. “Some of the flowers were over 10 inches wide and full of seeds.”
The flowers matured around the second week in August, and Dettmann used a brush hog to create “runways” in the field and scatter seed on the ground. By then, finch and doves had started to feed on them. A few more runways were cut three days before the first hunt on Sept. 1.
“Don has one of the better fields in our program,” said John Burk, NWTF’s district biologist for Missouri and Illinois. “On opening day, the field was in perfect condition, and the birds were in there thick. It’s a turnkey deal for him, and a real good partnership for us.”
By the end of opening day, nearly 300 birds were harvested on Dettmann’s farm between the morning and afternoon hunts. The field was at capacity with 11 new hunters, both adults and youth, along with their guardians and assigned mentors.
“My father died when I was 5 years old, so he wasn’t around to teach me to hunt,” Dettmann said. “When I was around 10 or 11, the husband of one of my mother’s friends took me duck hunting in Chillicothe. It was one of my most memorable moments. When I learned about this mentored hunt program and how it focused on youth, I wanted to be part of it. I’ve always liked the idea of helping a kid who wants to hunt but just doesn’t have a place to go. That’s why I do it.”
This field’s for the birds
With their towering stalks and brilliant yellow rays, sunflowers are as beautiful as they are useful. These showy members of the daisy family not only add a vibrant splash of color to the landscape, but they also create wildlife-friendly habitat and a hunting haven, especially for migratory and resident doves.
“A field of sunflowers is an all-around fun, recreational opportunity,” said Adam Jones, MFA Incorporated natural resources conservation specialist. “It’s a great food plot for attracting wildlife, and the seed is nutritious food source, especially for bird species. When managed and manipulated properly, it can provide a concentrated, high-quality hunting environment.”
If dove hunting is the goal, sunflower plots of around 10 acres are ideal, Jones said, but even a few acres will suffice if positioned in the right spot.
“Typically, an open landscape is more attractive to the birds, and ridge tops tend to work better than bottom land from a flight path standpoint,” he explains. “Make sure there is a water source close by and adjacent perching locations, whether natural or artificial, such as trees or power lines. The birds want to fly off to perch and rest for a while, and then they’ll fly back in to feed. If you’re looking to sit there and have a good shoot, creating that traffic is important.”
Growing sunflowers to the scale for successful hunting takes careful planning and management, said Jones. It all starts with sound agronomics.
“You need good seed-to-soil contact and decent fertility,” Jones said. “Sunflowers don’t require a lot of fertilization, especially if it’s a food plot, but the basics have to be there. Follow soil test recommendations for best results.”
Sunflowers produce much more seed when planted with wide spacing (15-inch to 30-inch rows) and are not crowded. However, this also provides conducive conditions for weed growth between the rows. Many dove field managers use a pre-emergent herbicide before planting and post-emergent herbicides after planting to control weeds in their fields.
“Weed control is not only important to reduce competition with the sunflowers but also from a dove foraging perspective,” Jones said. “The birds are not only after the sunflower seed, but they also want bare ground to feel safe enough to utilize the food source. They’re looking for a place that’s easy to fly into, land, get everything they need and then move off. If you have a really weedy patch, you’re just not going to get the bird use that you would in something that has good weed control.”
To achieve desired results and avoid injury to the sunflowers, it is critical to follow the label for application rates and usage instructions. The list of approved herbicides isn’t nearly as long as for other crops such as soybeans and corn, Jones said.
“Some of our good residual herbicides are labeled for sunflowers, but there’s not a lot of over-the-top options,” he said. “Weed control is something that needs to be considered and planned up front.”
Weed control also plays a role in variety selection. The most common sunflower grown for wildlife is Peredovik, a black-oil variety, but several seed companies offer hybrids as well. Sunflower seed is also available with Clearfield technology, which makes the plants tolerant to over-the-top applications of Beyond herbicide to control post-emergent weeds.
“The hybrids and Clearfield varieties allow more weed-control options, but there’s a cost difference in the seed,” Jones said. “The hybrid sunflowers tend to do better than common black-oil sunflowers, but both can be successful if managed properly. Your local MFA carries all of these options.”
In this region, sunflowers should typically be planted in late April or early May to ensure the plants are mature and seeds are dried down in time for dove season, which runs from the first of September until the end of November in Missouri. If dove hunting isn’t planned, sunflowers can be planted as late as early July and still provide food for many other wildlife species.
Jones said sunflowers can be conventionally planted or no-tilled, as long as a good seedbed is established. Sunflowers will grow on a wide variety of soils, but usually perform poorly in wet areas. The plant population should be similar to corn. If seeded too densely, the sunflowers will compete with each other and produce smaller heads, which means less food for wildlife.
“The seed can be broadcast, but that really complicates things,” he said. “It’s hard to get a good, consistent stand. Planting with a row planter is typically the best option. Most of the time you can use a unit designed for corn, but you can also get plates specifically designed for sunflower seed.”
Preventing deer damage
In areas with moderate to high deer densities, heavy browsing can prevent sunflowers from producing seed and sometimes leads to stand loss. Young sunflower plants and developing seed heads seem especially palatable to deer, Jones said.
“Deer damage is a real issue with sunflowers,” he explained. “When they’re real small, just like a soybean, the deer will eat them vegetatively. But when that head first starts to emerge, they can go through and eat all of them. I’ve seen fields that are just sunflower skeletons. You’re not producing any seed then.”
A properly designed electric fence can repel deer and deter damage. Commercial food plot fences are available, but Jones said a simple system can be easily installed with just poly tape, hotwire posts and a charger.
“The electric fence either needs to be super tall, or it needs to be two-tiered, which works really well,” he said. “Essentially, it messes with the deer’s depth perception. They’re not sure they can clear the fence because they can’t really tell how far away the second fence is. It’s just the way their vision works. That’s easier than building an 8-foot-tall electric fence.”
Managing the hunt
As dove season approaches, mowing strips throughout the field will scatter seeds on the ground and facilitate bird retrieval during the hunt. Manipulating sunflower fields in this way is legal, not considered baiting, Jones said. Leaving part of the field standing will also benefit other species, such as songbirds, quail and turkey, he added.
“If you have a patch large enough that you can sacrifice a couple rounds on the outside, mowing some even three or four weeks ahead of time could be beneficial to get a pattern of doves using the field before the season opens,” he said. “I like to keep the strips fairly wide. Shooting and retrieving birds over these mowed areas makes it way easier, and you’ll have less loss.”
During the season, Jones recommends landowners manage hunting pressure by allowing rest days between shooting sessions. A break in the action gives the birds a chance to get comfortable about returning to the field.
“Get your limit. Get out. Let it rest for a few days, and you can hunt it again,” Jones said. “That way, you can continue to get birds to use that field and have really good hunts multiple times during the month of September or even into October.”
Ultimately, growing sunflowers is about more than just seed production, Jones said. It’s about growing interest in outdoor sports.
“We’re seeing a large decline in hunting population because many of our hunters are aging,” Jones said. “That’s a big deal, because hunters pay for conservation through licensing and fees. For that model to perpetuate, we need more people to take an interest in getting outdoors, and dove hunting is a good recruitment opportunity.”
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