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Wildlife Food Source Layout - Native and Planted

Food plots are often one of the 1st things land managers look to implement as they begin making changes to the habitat on their property. Food plots can be relatively easy projects, or they can become "money pits" for your property. Is your soil and topography suitable for putting in food plots without significant investments of time and money? In this blog I am going to take a look at the Maple Hill habitat plan as it relates to food. What we have done so far and outline the road map moving forward. Most food plots are annual plants that require yearly planting. Food plot success is highly dependent on weather, something that we as land managers have no control over. Depending on the type of plants in your food plot they may only be of benefit to wildlife in a very small portion of the year as a food source. Native plants are often more valuable in terms of wildlife food by providing year-round food sources, have less input costs after initial establishment or enhancement, are more adaptable to unpredictable weather patterns and have higher and more diverse nutritional content. In my opinion if you need to make a choice between better native plant food production or food plots, the natives win hands down. Here at Maple Hill, we were lacking in food both from native plants and food plot / ag crop production. Our adjoining neighbors are not contributing to wildlife habitat food resources in any significant level either. So from that perspective if we can provide food we should be able to draw more of the local wildlife to our property. That is not to say that neighbors may not have corn feeders, but that is a topic for another blog.

Food source projects were one of the 1st things that we began working on here at Maple Hill. Food plots can be the low hanging, feel good projects that many people first choose in terms of habitat improvement. Food plots were a logical 1st choice at Maple Hill as adjacent landowners have no crop ground or food plots and some of our acres were at one time planted into crops. In 2023 all of our food plots were planted into ground that was previously cultivated for crop production. So other than burning off existing, dead weedy vegetation in the Spring of 2023 we were ready to proceed with normal planting procedures. In the photos below the areas in red were planted into conventional annual ag crops The green areas were tilled and frost seeded in early April with a clover blend. One of the keys to successful habitat planning, if hunting is a primary use for your property, is accessibility to hunt! It makes absolutely no sense to put food plots in areas where you cannot successfully access them or hunt over them without routinely alerting deer. Our food plot layout was built around potential hunting stand locations and the ability to access those stands without alerting deer when hunting with the appropriate wind. Take into account accessibility by wildlife as well, as an example quail are not going to choose to use a food plot that is over a couple hundred yards from the nearest escape and loafing cover. Do food locations on your property make wildlife more vulnerable to harvest by your neighbors?

Our 2 main food plots were located in a way as to keep firearm shots from the main, elevated hunting blind to less than 200 yards for youth hunters. As well as to create pinch points where archery stands could be located. The long narrow plots are intentionally built that way to benefit quail, giving them access to the plots and yet allowing them easy access to escape cover. I will go further into depth regarding crop choices and their success or failure in a future blog. For now the focus is primarily on layout. Clover plots can provide a couple of benefits for a property owner. A green-early season food source provides protein from both the plant material and the insects it attracts for both quail and turkeys. Toms often choose low growing plots such as Winter wheat and clover as strutting zones. Another benefit of clover is that being relatively low growing it can serve as a green fire break when doing prescribed burning. Place your food plots where they can be multi-functional, make sure to allow for hunting access and that they are located close enough to cover to be utilized by the species you planted them for.

Maple Hill Original Property Layout

Food Plots 2023 Food Plots 2024

Moving into 2024 there will be the addition of a couple new plots and the extension/ expansion of some of the plots created in 2023. Another bird food plot will be added on the north end of the farm as that existing hay ground is converted back to Native Warm Season Grass (NWSG) and forbs, with a heavy emphasis on the forb component. A small plot will be developed in the timber to the south, as hopefully a staging area within the bedding area as the deer move out into the main plots in the evening. Forbs in general are better quail and turkey habitat than any other habitat type both in terms of providing food and cover.

In terms of native food sources, we burned off the narrow strip on the west edge of the main timbered area in 2023, sprayed out the cool season grass regrowth with herbicide and then drilled a conventional CRP pollinator mix into that narrow strip to serve as potential turkey nesting and turkey and quail brooding cover. Brooding cover that has a high forb percentage will attract a lot of insects which is what quail and turkey poults feed heavily on during the Spring and Summer months. Forbs are often browsed heavily by deer when the plants are actively growing. Our timbered areas do have some red and white oaks as well as hickories. I began to thin the canopies around the oaks and hickories that were good enough to keep in order to increase mast production as well as to promote native seedling re-establishment and preferred browse species such as dogwood, green briar, wild black berry and coral brush. TSI work continues this year and will into the coming years as we selectively begin killing the undesirable trees such as Honey Locust and Osage Orange Hedge, both of which are prolific seed producers and seem to be able to out compete the oaks and hickories. As we open the canopy back up we will need to control invasives such as Bush Honeysuckle and Multi-flora Rose as they are present in our timbered areas. Future food improvements will be the establishment of more forbs in areas that we will be seeding this year as we renovate cool season hay ground back into NWSG, potentially another bird food plot in the northeast area of the farm and another hidden, staging area deer plot next to the northeast timbered area. In the next blog I will take a look at Cover on the farm and things you might consider in terms of Cover on your own farm.

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