COLUMNISTS

Planning is essential to a successful winter food plot: Dan Nelson

Dan Nelson
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks
Dan Nelson, Private Lands Habitat Biologist

Food plots are likely the most commonly utilized habitat practice by landowners across South Dakota. Careful consideration needs to be taken to ensure their intended benefits are optimized. If the primary function of a food plot is wildlife survivability, then the food plot needs to provide resident wildlife with a highly accessible and adequate food supply throughout the entire winter season.

Let’s consider food plot accessibility or location from a pheasant’s perspective. Winter food plots should be located as close to high quality winter habitat as possible. This will prevent pheasants from traveling long distances to get from roosting cover to food sources, thus reducing their vulnerability to predation or succumbing to the harsh winter elements. In addition, this allows pheasants to save their energy reserves for times of extreme winter events when foraging may not be an option.

Winter food plots should be large enough to supply wildlife with a reliable food source through the entire winter season. If the food plot is too small, several things may happen. The food source can become exhausted quickly, and it can become inundated with snow. This often results with wildlife being forced to venture out across the landscape in search of other resources and consequently exposing themselves to a variety of threats.

Once you’ve selected a good location for your food plot, it’s time to determine what to plant. The primary purpose of a food plot is to supply wildlife with a high energy food source for the duration of the entire winter season. Selecting species like corn or sorghum is a great way to ensure food plots will provide this high energy food source. These energy packed seeds play an important role in helping pheasants add fat reserves to be used at a later date if food sources become scarce.

Another great option to include in your food plot rotation is a pheasant brood mix. This is an early spring planted, diverse mix of multiple annual cover crop species designed to grow and flower continuously throughout the year. The primary goal of a brood mix is to provide pheasant chicks with an abundant and highly accessible insect food source. Insects are high in protein and are crucial to ensure adequate growth and development in pheasant chicks. In addition to providing a high protein diet, these brood mixes play a vital role in providing superior habitat that will likely increase a chick’s survivability. Ideal brooding habitat will have an open understory, which allows young chicks to easily navigate throughout the cover, while providing excellent canopy cover that will protect them from predators and harsh weather conditions.

The benefits of food plots extend beyond winter survival. Pheasants that had access to superior winter cover and an abundant food source typically enter the breeding season in better overall body condition. The hens tend to lay larger clutches and have an easier time re-nesting if previous nests were destroyed or predated. If hens were stressed during the winter, their survival may also be reduced due to the high energy demands associated with egg laying, incubating and brood rearing.

The goal of the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks food plot program is to provide landowners with food plot options that increase wildlife survival. Through the food plot program, landowners would be eligible for a $20/acre or $50/acre payment depending on whether the food plot is enrolled into a public hunting access program. Landowners also receive free food plot seed when enrolled in the program. The maximum number acres that can be enrolled is 10 acres per quarter section and 30 acres per landowner. Landowners interested in establishing food plots for wildlife are encouraged to contact your local conservation officer or private lands habitat biologist. Private lands habitat biologists are available to meet you on your property, offer habitat recommendations, or visit about potential program options to meet your habitat goals.

As the snow accumulates this winter, don’t pass up the opportunity to evaluate the performance of your current winter habitat and future habitat needs with a habitat advisor. Find your local private lands habitat biologist or habitat advisor at habitat.sd.gov.

Dan Nelson is a Private Lands Habitat Biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.