Spring brings challenges for prescribed burns, wildlife food plots

Brett Blank
Conservation Foreman, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks

After a snowy winter and wet spring, summer and fall in 2019 the last thing we needed is a winter like this. We cannot control what Mother Nature deals us, but we can plan for the best and react accordingly. Game production area (GPA) management plans are being completed by staff during the winter months in preparation for the fieldwork to take place this spring. However, these plans can be turned upside down if conditions don’t cooperate.

Prescribed burning is a very important management tool that we use to help manage the overall health of our native prairie and grass plantings. Before any prescribed burning can take place on GPAs, the conditions need to be right. As you all know, Mother Nature can throw a real wrench into things. Management objectives are crucial in the decision to burn or not to burn and with the already saturated ground, it’s probably going to be another wet spring.

One objective for our prescribed burns is to remove the duff layer. This duff layer is the compacted dead grass that accumulates over time that can hinder the full potential of a grass planting or native prairie. In order to successfully remove this litter with fire, this layer must be completely dry. While the old growth from last year may be dry enough to carry a fire, the duff layer may be holding enough moisture that the management objective won’t be met.

Wet conditions also factor in another problem; getting equipment around. Our equipment involved with burning consists of ATVs, UTVs, and trucks all equipped with either water tanks or fire units. While the ATVs and UTVs can withstand some pretty wet conditions, trucks will not. The last thing we want to worry about with an active fire on the ground is getting a piece of equipment unstuck. With an already saturated ground and abundant snowpack, some of our prescribed burns planned for this spring may be in jeopardy.

Food plots are another critical management objective that need to be accomplished on our areas. Food plots are left standing all year for hunters and wildlife to utilize. During open winters where wildlife can find plenty of food, these plots may not be utilized as much and can be left standing for a second year. This would be ideal with our current wet conditions. However, with the winter we have had so far, many food plots will be completely depleted. New food plots are going to be needed in these areas and the struggle to get them in this spring may pose a real challenge.

Fortunately, wildlife food plots can come in many shapes and sizes and can be planted throughout the spring, summer and fall. If conditions allow, we will drill in some cover crop plots right away in the spring. These food plots consist of different grasses and broadleaves, both warm season and cool season. They may include species such as millets, clovers, sunflowers, sorghum, brassicas, etc. These are not only beneficial to wildlife, but also benefit soil health.

Row crop food plots are also planted in the spring. Corn, sorghum, sunflowers, etc. fall into this category and make great food plots as well. If early plantings are not attainable, we will look at other options that can be planted later in the season and still provide a food source. These plantings may include brassica and winter rye plots. Brassica plots consist of radish, turnip, rapeseed, along with some clovers and rye mixed in.

These plots are intended for white-tailed deer, but with ample moisture and some good growing days can provide some hunting opportunity for pheasants. Winter rye plots can serve as a one-two punch. They provide a food source to wildlife in the fall and if left growing can be a great place for nesting birds in the spring.

While we’re on the topic of food plots, for those who implement food plots on your own land, be sure to contact your local conservation officer and get your food plots signed up! For those who do not but are contemplating putting a food plot on your property, the GFP will help. Food plots must be 1 to 10 acres in size per quarter section of land. A cooperator may plant a maximum of 30 acres. A payment of $20/acre with seed provided (corn, sorghum and brood mix) is provided. If your property is enrolled into the Walk In Area program that payment jumps to $40/acre. All food plots must remain standing until April 1 and if seed was provided by the GFP, cannot be harvested in the spring.

As we wait for the spring thaw to come, now is the time to start planning. Many options are available as a food source for wildlife so don’t allow mother nature to pin you in a corner. If you would like to talk more about food plots please contact your local Game, Fish and Parks office.