Go Native With Wildlife Habitat

News & Tips: Go Native With Wildlife Habitat

Wildlife food plots provide tons of high quality nutrition to whitetails and are a cornerstone of most well managed deer properties. But, before you get all wrapped up in an expensive food plot program, you would be wise to do some work with your property's native vegetation.


Overlooking the wildlife habitat potential of native vegetation is one of the most common mistakes in the wildlife habitat game. Landowner/deer managers get all excited about planting trees and a few acres of food plots while ignoring acres and acres of native vegetation which could be turned into quality food and cover with a little more than a chainsaw, some herbicide, or maybe a mower.


Get Sun on the Ground


GoNativeWildlifeHabitat 7
This "weed plot" provides both food and cover to this beautiful buck.

Cutting and thinning trees is a sure fire way to create wildlife habitat. Cutting creates food and cover for wildlife by putting tops on the ground. Deer feed on the tender tips and leaves (which are now within reach) and find cover in the tangle of limbs and branches. Cutting also allows sunlight to reach the forest floor which stimulates regeneration and the production of many tons of new food and excellent wildlife cover.


Working in the woodlands is pretty straight forward. It's best to work with an experienced consulting forester when it comes to cutting and thinning trees. He will develop a forest management plan for you and help you carry it out. He can handle all of the details on a contractual basis or you can handle them yourself. You can do some cutting and trimming if you are so inclined but remember, a chainsaw is the most dangerous tool you will ever hold in your hands. And that includes guns. Basically, when it comes to managing woodlands for deer, it is all about getting sunlight on the ground. You cut saw logs, thin trees or harvest firewood. The trees come down, sunlight reaches the forest floor and the woods begin to regenerate. It's about that simple, and one of the best thinks you can do for wildlife using your property.


Weeds Work Wonders


The part about working with native vegetation that most people don't get is the importance of weeds. A good weed field is a wildlife bonanza. It provides food and cover to all kinds of wildlife and is often the backbone of a sound property management program. Weeds were here before food plots and crop fields and chances are they will be some of the last green things standing when it's all said and done.


Weed fields are capable of producing a half ton or so of good deer forage per acre per year. A good weed field has good nutrition (18 percent protein in some forbs) and is rich is minerals. Weed fields benefit all kinds of wildlife and don't cost an arm and leg to develop. They contribute to bio-diversity and make natural landscapes infinitely more interesting.


Deer thrive in quality "weed" fields. They eat the forbs, flowering plants and stemmy brush species and some of the native grasses that grow naturally. They regularly chow down on goldenrod, ragweed, Queen Anne's lace and about 200 other varieties of weeds. Bottom line, if it makes a flower or berry, deer will probably eat it.


Forget Fescues


Note, the phrase "good weed field"; good weeds are not an oxymoron. High quality wildlife weed fields are a thing of beauty, somewhat scarce, and in danger of disappearing. The threat to quality weed fields comes in the form of invasive grasses (primarily fescues) which overtake many open spaces (weed fields) and provide little benefit to wildlife. Fescues are highly aggressive, ultra durable pasture forages which hold up well to livestock grazing and traffic. They have spread dramatically across the country and have taken over many of the clearings and open spaces found on farms and recreational properties.


Trouble is, deer don't eat fescues and other wildlife benefit little from them. The double trouble is, fescues crowd out native vegetation including the weeds, forbs and other flowering plants that benefit whitetails by laying down a layer of thatch which serves to "mulch" out competing plants. High quality "weed" fields are being turned into low quality open spaces dominated by wildlife unfriendly invasive grasses.


GoNativeWildlifeHabitat 8
Goldenrod "weeds" like these are high in nutrition (when growing) and cost nothing to grow.

The problem is exasperated by traditional mid-to late-summer mowing practices which are practices across most of the country. Mid-summer mowing deals wildlife the proverbial "double whammy." It wipes out wildlife and it stimulates aggressive invasive grasses to take over weed fields. We are accustomed to a "good green grass" habitat management philosophy so we feel good when we see at all those green strips and shoots coming up after a good brush mowing. But, green is definitely not good for deer and wildlife if the green is invasive fescue pasture grass. Ever wonder why you hardly ever see deer feeding in a pasture? You got it, they don't eat the grasses that grow there.


Giving Weeds a Chance


So, how do we "go native" and encourage native vegetation to develop into quality weed fields? How do we supplement our food plot program with native vegetation? The answer is found in a counter-intuitive, yet simple two part equation. Woody browse species must be kept at early succession (young, tender and nutritious) stages and invasive grasses must be kept at bay. The simple answer is to mow brush and woody stemmed plants in the early spring and kill apply grass killing herbicides in the fall. This flies in the face of traditional northern land management practices and will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows but this is the cycle to follow if weeds are to win the attrition wars against invasive grasses.


Early spring (before green up) mowing will take out the woody stuff without taking out hundreds if not thousands of birds and critters. Traditionally, in northern climes, old abandoned fields are mowed in mid to late summer (supposedly after nesting) to spare the nesting birds and wildlife nursery. But, this really doesn't cut it as anyone who has ever run a bush hog or mowing machine in mid-summer can attest. Mowing a brush lot or weed field in mid-summer is a wildlife disaster and should be avoided at all costs. Mowing should be done in early spring and only when necessary to keep woody stemmed species from maturing and eventually shading out wildlife weeds.


The second part of the equation is to keep invasive grasses from taking over open spaces. Fescue and other non deer friendly grasses are best treated by applying aggressive herbicides in late summer to early fall. Yes, conventional wisdom dictates that herbicides are applied when grasses are growing great guns in late spring and early summer but fescue is so aggressive that early season "kill offs' are relatively ineffective. The grass goes down and before you know it is back again stronger than ever. Late season herbicide applications applied after much of the plants energy has been spent seem to be more effective.


 Weed fields once "killed" in early fall can also be "cultivated" by running an aggressive disk or chisel plow over the ground in spring. Bare ground will be created and dormant native seeds and plants will have a chance to germinate and prosper. Localized applications of herbicides applied from a hand sprayer in small areas or patches dominated by grasses will also "give weeds a chance". Once again, late season applications do more good than spring applications that allow grasses to rebound.


Quality weed plots like quality food plots require preparation and work. But once you master a few basic concepts cultivating weeds can be relatively easy and productive. Food plots are terrific but when thinking about your overall habitat development plan don't be afraid to go native.