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"Enhancing Wildlife Habitats: Strategies for Improving bedding and the Ecotones around your Plots "

The “perfect” food plot isn't always what we envision. Pristine clover fields, brassicas with huge leaves, or knee-deep soybeans are often what comes to mind, but what makes a plot the "perfect" plot?

Alfafla Field
Alfalfa Field

Wildlife managers and hunters who consistently create plots for the overall welfare of wildlife should also keep in mind the different ways to improve cover or the ecotones that lie in and around each plot. Ecotones are the transitional areas that are composed of early successional plant communities, oftentimes forbes and native grasses, and greatly enhance the cover and comfortability as well as the safety of the animals that thrive within it. It helps protect small game but can also entice the big mature buck to enter the plot well before the comfort of dark. Creating cover for your plots can come in many forms, it just takes a little bit of work to produce exponential results.

Horizontal Structure

Horizontal structure provides a feeling of security to big game, especially mature bucks that prefer to enact their due diligence of winding and checking out a food plot with his eyes prior to entering, but if he can't see into the plot, that means he won't be seen while in the plot. This gives him a feeling of safety and makes him feel more comfortable to enter the plot during daylight hours. Young big game like vulnerable fawns and turkey poults are also more protected as they won't be seen by a predator while foraging for food.

We can achieve horizontal structure in multiple ways.

  • The best being a perennial native source that will provide you with full cover and also screening should you need it to get to your stand as a visual barrier for access to and from stand locations. Switchgrass and other warm season natives like Big Bluestem and Indiangrass, are preferred choices due to their height structure, their bunch grass growth, and ability to provide decade long cover with no maintenance after establishment.

  • Annual screens are often used due to their easy ability of establishment and can grow up to 10 feet tall in just 3 months. Using products like Hideout or corn can elevate your horizontal cover for plots and screening in just one growing season and is an excellent choice if you are looking for a quick enhancement to your hunting location.

  • In woodland and timber stand locations, we can do this naturally through manipulating canopy growth by using Timber Stand Improvement (TSI) techniques to achieve this. There are many ways we can approach this, but it is important to know the safe practices behind each technique. Felling trees with a chainsaw during dormant season, winter, can greatly enhance hardwood regeneration, growth of briars and brambles, and new sprouts from trees, and offer excellent horizontal cover come hunting season. Hinge cutting trees, when used in moderation, offer great horizontal cover and new sprouts, available for deer to browse. Other techniques include Hack & Squirt and girdling, which kills trees standing when done correctly.

Each technique depends on your situation and resources around you, and often varies from plot to plot. When deciding on the next step, take into consideration the time spent to create existing cover, and what would work best for you in your situation.

Tall Food Plot Options

Sorghum and Millet
Sorghum and Millet

Tall food plot options can come in many forms and can offer cover as well as food for wildlife. Corn, soybeans, sorghum, and sunflowers offer a high yielding food option and a height structure that offers comfort. The stock strength can easily hold up to the beginning months of winter, offering cover while still offering a good grain source of food as natural food goes dormant. By adding in cover with food, you also add in a safety net that can reduce stress, and help keep a mature buck on your property for the long term.

Go with Natural Deer Cover

Sometimes the most effective improvement may be to do nothing at all. Natural cover procreates and spreads without the aid of anyone. Keeping natural woody vegetation trimmed away from the edges of your food plots may improve the overall appearance of the plot but may in fact hurt its appeal to wildlife. Of course, you do want to control its growth and encroachment on your plot, but allowing a natural barrier of five to ten feet around the perimeter of the plot will improve the quality cover for all game. Best of all, it costs nothing. You can give it some fertilizer to increase growth and browse appeal. Fawns, poults and other vulnerable wildlife will find refuge in the dense cover that is created.

Creating and maintaining effective food plot and cover programs requires work and attention to the smallest of details. By using the right strategies, we can enhance our plots that will add overall security and cover. Game managers that have a good idea of cover and how to gain or grow it will discover that "making cover" for wildlife is far more impactful for growing the wildlife population and also helping them reach their full potential then assuming they will find their own place for natural cover when it often isn't there.

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