By Brad Fitzpatrick
Managing private ground for waterfowl has quickly become popular, but whitetail deer hunters have a two-decade head start on us. Twenty years ago, when whitetail food plots were a novel concept, the savvy hunter who tilled a few acres and planted corn or oats had a major advantage over his competitors. Now that every deer hunter is also a trophy manager you’ve got the whitetail equivalent of a farmer’s market on adjacent properties, and those savvy hunters must find new ways to market their property to big bucks. It’s the backwoods equivalent of fast food wars.
Waterfowl hunters take note: If you’re going to spend the time, effort, and money to make your property attractive to birds you won’t get really good results if the four surrounding areas have slightly more attractive properties that suck your ducks away like a sloughgrass and smartweed-powered vacuum. You need to compel the birds to come to your blind, and that starts with choosing the right crops.
In the 1980’s the Rogers Family of Brownsville, Oregon, began an ambitious project to produce commercial wild rice specifically for waterfowl managers, and since that time the family’s River Refuge Seed Company has become one of the top suppliers of native wetland seeds in the nation. The family now offers more than 50 different seed blends, and they have amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge about what plants work to draw in waterfowl. Chris Rogers, who helps manage the family seed business, offers his take on what he believes to be the four best crops for duck and goose hunters—and how to get the most bang for your buck with each variety.
Rogers calls wild rice, “the best crop for areas that stay covered in water year-round as it can be seeded directly into water and grows right up through to three feet of water.” It’s important to understand, though, that wild rice needs to be in water during its entire 120-day growing season.
“Mature (wild rice) seed shatters off in to the water and can reseed itself in areas where the water temperature stays at 40 degrees or below for at least three months as the seed must undergo this to break dormancy each year,” Rogers adds.
Also known as barnyard grass or watergrass, Rogers says this is by far River Refuge’s most popular seed because it’s easy to grow and offers the best bang for a manager’s buck.
“Not to be confused with Japanese millet, wild millet readily reseeds itself year after year because of how the mature seed heads shatter off onto the ground. The other benefit of the seed shattering is that waterfowl feed in it longer because they have to dabble for it on pond bottoms as opposed to just stripping entire standing seed heads off.”
“This crop grows natively all over the U.S. and produces a ton of great waterfowl feed,” Rogers says. “It’s also a great companion crop to go with wild millet as they both grow in the same conditions. Since it is native to the U.S. it is a great option for areas with native seed requirements such as those that fall under Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) guidelines. This crop also shatters off when mature and readily reseeds itself.”
“Another awesome wetland crop that is native, (sloughgrass) shatters when mature, and reseeds itself,” says Rogers. “This crop is less known about than wild millet and smartweed but is just as effective and does great when planted as a companion crop with them. It is also used extensively in wetland restorations.”
According to Rogers, wild millet, Pennsylvania smartweed and American sloughgrass can be seeded in a wide variety of soil types, everything from mud flats to open fields, and he says these seeds can be drilled or broadcast effectively.
Areas that can be flood irrigated are ideal for these three blends,” Rogers says. “These crops all need to sprout on exposed soil but after they are up can all handle growing in water as long as the water doesn’t cover the heads of the plants. These three plants can also handle mildly brackish water, up to five to six parts-per-million of salinity. All of these crops mature in 60 to 80 days.
Site Prep and Potential Pitfalls
Before planting, Rogers says it’s crucial to assess the property and consider whether the area is flooded, seasonally flooded or dry since that will effect crop selection. He says it’s also essential to determine whether the area can be irrigated (either by flooding or overhead irrigation) and whether or not the ground allows for weed eradication and working of the seed bed. Some hunting areas can be drilled, but other properties require spin broadcasting. In areas where broadcasting is the only option you’ll need to choose a crop like American sloughgrass that performs well using that planting method. It’s also important to allow the crops enough time to mature prior to flooding for hunting season.
To produce the most attractive crops for birds, you’ll need to avoid the common pitfalls that result in poor performance. According to Rogers, the most common problems land managers encounter are planting crops in soils that don’t hold enough moisture to allow the plants to reach maturity, planting in areas with high weed coverage, planting when there are still enough birds in the area to eat seeds, and failing to take the time to properly work the site prior to planting.
Rogers shared four vital components to getting the best yield of both crops and birds this hunting season.
- Consider leaving unplanted areas for decoy placement and landing zones.
- Fertilizing the planting area can maximize success.
- Plant on the heavy side when broadcast seeding.
- Consider planting mixes to provide a variety of feed for the birds.
Understanding which crops best suit your property and your management goals is critical to ensuring that all of your efforts pay dividends this fall. Choosing the right seed blends is the first step in setting your hunting area apart from surrounding properties—and maximizing the potential of your land.