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Plant habitat now for next winter’s benefit

April 21, 2012

PHEASANTS will and can come back from the current low population level. However it takes time, commitment by land owners and long term habitat plantings to give the birds a chance to prove their tenacity for survival. While agricultural crops will soon be planted, it is also time to plant shelterbelts and food plots in preparation for next winter.

Winter food plots of corn, sorghum, or other grains are used by all kinds of wildlife to help them survive. Well designed shelterbelts provide important cover. Food plots add to the mix to insure something to eat. "There have been a few documented cases of pheasants actually starving to death in Iowa," said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife research biologist with the DNR. "Virtually all of Iowa's winter mortality is attributed to severe winter storms with the birds dying of exposure or the weather."

So why plant shelterbelts and food plots if pheasants hardly ever starve to death? "First, food plots provide winter habitat as well as food. In fact, if properly designed and large enough, the habitat created by a food plot is much more beneficial to wildlife than the food itself. Second, food plots allow pheasants to obtain a meal quickly thereby limiting exposure to predators and maximizing their energy reserves," said Bogenschutz. "If hens have a good fat supply coming out of winter, they are more likely to nest successfully."

Article Photos

‘Down but not out’ should be the call by the referee in the wildlife survival game. This Ringneck rooster was out and about this week when he became the target for this scribe’s long telephoto lens. For these birds to make a comeback, they need several good nesting seasons in a row, mild winters and habitat that is created and maintained for the long run.

Bogenschtz offers these tips for shelterbelts and food plots:

1. Corn and sorgum grains provide the most reliable food source throughout the winter as they best resist lodging in heavy snows. Pheasants prefer corn to sorghum, although sorghum provides better winter habitat. Sorghum is more attractive to deer.

2. Place food plots away from tall deciduous trees, if possible, that provide raptors with a place to sit and watch food plots. Don't make it too easy for predators.

3. The size of a food plot depends on its placement. If the plot is next to good winter cover, a smaller plot can be installed. Two acres is a minimum. If winter habitat is marginal, then the plot must be made bigger to provide food and cover. For this scenario, 5 to 10 acre plots are better.

4. Depending on the amount of use, some food plots can be left for two years. The weedy growth that follows in year two provides excellent nesting, brood rearing and winter habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. If deer use the plot heavily, then it will probably need to be replanted each year.

Cost-share assistance or seed for food plot establishment is available from most Pheasant Forever Chapters or local coops. People can also contact their local wildlife biologist for information on how to establish and design shelterbelts or food plots.


I have written previously of the comparison of the type of farming operations employed today in contrast to what was typical in the 1940s 50s. Weed control then was spotty to poor. Now it is excellent. All these factors help make more grain available for harvest. Hybrid seed sources today are a far cry from what was used in the mid portion of last century. Yield potential was lucky to be half of what is the expected norm today. Weed control back then was mechanical cultivation two or three times, if lucky. After that, whatever weeds survived, along with the corn, was just the way it was.

The farms of long ago were small, field sizes were smaller, and lots of fence rows existed. Weeds grew well, so to did grasses. All helped to provide perfect conditions for pheasants. While weeds may have been unsightly, they were a source of seeds, insects and therefore high quality protein for game birds.

I noted a few months ago how things changed slowly over the decades on the farm. My example was to envision aerial photos of the same area of farm land each decade from 1900 until 2010. For each ten year increment, starting with the oldest and working toward the land as it is today, one would see many small field sizes, fence rows and a variety of crops including hay, pasture, plus oats, corn and beans give way to larger and larger fields, fewer fence lines, and basically two crops, corn or beans. The latter is the reality of the world today. It is not going to change back to the "good old days." Economics of farming are what they are.

Within this framework of what is, there are still positive things any landowner can do. If some small portion of a farming operation can be devoted to shelterbelts and food plots, this scribe urges all to make those contacts with biologists for advice of what to plant and where to make it work best. The local Pheasants Forever Chapter can help. Give them a call. Explore the possibilities to help pheasants and all wildlife cope with the changed environment mankind has created.


Birdsof another size, the WILD TURKEY, are getting lots of attention now from hunters. Second season hunters will have April 20 through the 24th to try to trick a gobbler into range. Session three in April 25th through May 1st. Statewide numbers show at least 2,737 gobblers have been taken, nine of those in Marshall County. This scribe is not (as of this writing) one of the nine to have registered a turkey take for this spring. I'm trying, and getting close, but not close enough ... yet.

Lots of other forest wildlife is keeping me company. Wood ducks are using hollow trees for nests. It is fun to listen and watch as they walk about on the limbs of tall trees. Owls hoot to tell others of its kind where they are. Canada geese flying just above tree top level honk in celebration of the new year. Green leaves are sprouting from every limb of bush or tree. And all this excitement and wonder is free for the asking. What better gift is there for a hunter to have, and Earth Day gift every moment of every day. I like it.


EARTH DAY activities at the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm are on-going today. At 10 a.m. is a scavenger hunt. Other programs at noon will focus on neat things to save resources. At 1 p.m. help plant trees to replace those that were storm damaged last July. Free hot dogs will be available to help fill your tummy. Enjoy.


"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: 'What good is it?' If the land mechanism as whole is good, then every part is good, wether we understand it or not."- Aldo Leopold


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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