Food plot program provides supplemental pheasant habitat

SDSU Extension
Farm Forum

BROOKINGS — When considering land management options for upland bird habitat, a major limiting factor landowners often find is nesting cover.

Food plots are one tool a landowner can use to increase nesting cover. The term food plot refers to small plots planted to various crops or crop mixtures intended to serve as forage for wildlife.

“If nesting cover is available in sufficient quantities, then improving habitat components for chick survival and overwinter survival can be beneficial for maintaining healthy bird populations,” explained Jimmy Doyle, SDSU Extension natural resource management field specialist.

South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Food Plot Program

To assist landowners in providing winter food sources for wildlife, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (SDGFP) developed a food plot program nearly 50 years ago.

Landowners can receive free corn, sorghum seed or a brood mix to plant each spring, plus a payment to help offset planting costs.

The brood mix has only been offered since 2015, Doyle explained. “South Dakota’s native wildlife typically don’t starve to death during a normal winter cycle, so traditional grain-based food plots are more of a novelty to wildlife than a necessity,” Doyle said.

The mix was collaboratively developed by biologists from Pheasants Forever and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in an effort to increase the value of food plot acres throughout the year.

“While traditional corn and sorghum food plots offer excellent food sources during extreme winter months, they lack much value to wildlife during other times of the year,” said Brian Pauly, private lands biologist, SDGFP.

Developing the brood mix

In 2014, after two years of collaboration the biologists tested the brood mix concept on a handful of Game Production Areas throughout the state.

The trial plantings were monitored throughout the growing season, and observations were made to determine which plant species performed ideally and which did not.

Using those observations, a final seed mix was developed for the inaugural planting season in 2015, when the brood mix was first offered to the public as part of the food plot program.

“The concept of growing habitat types that benefit wildlife for more than just the winter months was easily understood by landowners,” Pauly said.

He explained that those landowners looking for a way to enhance pheasant populations on their properties were eager to try the new mix.

In its first three years 50 percent of all landowners enrolled in the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks’ food plot program have tried the brood mix already.

What’s in the brood mix?

The brood mix is an annual mixture of cover crop species (i.e. canola, flax, millet, radish, sunflower), designed to flower from spring through fall and produce seed for wildlife to forage on during winter.

By flowering, the brood mix provides pollinator habitat that traditional corn and sorghum food plots lack. Pollinating insects (i.e. bees and butterflies) thrive in areas with flowering plants.

Insects comprise nearly 100 percent of a pheasant chick’s diet, therefore making habitats with high insect numbers for pheasant chicks to forage a key component of pheasant production.

Simply put, more pollinating plants equal more bugs equal more food for young pheasants equal more roosters in the fall.

First and foremost, healthy pheasant populations begin with large blocks of idle grasslands for hens to nest in successfully during spring. After hatching, pheasant chicks rely on quality pollinator plants to provide both insects for food, as well as cover to hide from predators. The brood mix offers landowners a way to provide young pheasants the habitat they need to survive between hatching on the grasslands in the spring to fledging in the fall.

How should the brood mix be planted?

The brood mix can be planted anytime in spring after the danger of frost has passed, and it can be drill seeded or broadcasted and drug in.

Typically, the month of May has been an ideal time to plant the brood mix in previous years, but that may vary depending on which part of the state a property is located in and what weather trends are doing in a particular year.

Before planting, it is important the site is prepared properly. The brood mix cannot be sprayed with any chemicals once it starts growing, so it is recommended to plant this mix in an area that does not have a current weed problem.

If planted in the right area, at the right time, the plants will outcompete weeds naturally, thus negating the need to spray with chemicals at all. A long-term management plan by alternating food plots between corn/sorghum and the brood mix year-after-year will help to achieve clean, weed-free pollinator habitat annually, year-in and year-out.

How can someone enroll in the SDGFP food plot program?

SDGFP private lands biologists work with landowners to enroll in the food plot program.

Funding for these projects comes from sales of hunting licenses, and landowners must agree to allow free and reasonable hunting access.

Landowners still retain and may regulate all hunting access privileges on enrolled lands; however they cannot charge anyone a fee in exchange for hunting access.

To learn more about the food plot program, or other wildlife habitat improvements, contact SDGFP or SDSU Extension.