|An agronomist’s perspective on growing forage crops for wildlife|
by Don Ball
Most forage crop enthusiasts are primarily interested in growing forage crops for cattle or other grazing livestock. However, many of the forage crops grown for hay or livestock production in the Southeast also have much to offer in wildlife settings. Having worked as Extension Forage Crop Agronomist at Auburn University for over 25 years, it is apparent to me that the desire for knowledge of forage crops is on the rise among wildlife managers and that more people are interested in growing forage crops primarily for wildlife purposes. Additional thoughts about this trend from my perspective are as follows.
Wildlife EnhancementWild animals of all types have always felt free to visit pastures and hayfields. In fact, some wild animals even alter their range in order to access certain forage plantings more easily or more frequently. Most livestock and hay producers regularly have the experience of seeing birds and animals of many species on their farms.
As A Fringe Benefit
However, the extent to which forage crops planted for livestock or hay production are used by wildlife is almost certainly underestimated by most producers. After all, wild animals are shy and secretive and generally prefer to avoid being near humans. Many are primarily or exclusively nocturnal, and thus are active only at times when humans are not generally present.
In an interesting study done in the Sacramento Valley in California, wildlife biologists conducted studies of alfalfa fields to determine the extent of wildlife activity within them. They found that of 643 resident and migratory amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles known to occur in that area, 162 species (about 25%) were regularly using alfalfa fields to some extent, and about 10% percent were using alfalfa fields extensively.
Various wildlife species have widely differing requirements, of course, but in some settings such as areas in which cities are encroaching on agricultural land, there often would be little habitat suitable for many types of wild animals if there were no forage crops present. Thus, a livestock producer can justifiably consider wildlife enhancement to be a fringe benefit of his forage production efforts.
Growing Forage Crops
Specifically Or Primarily
Wildlife management has evolved greatly in recent years. Twenty-five years ago relatively few plantings were made strictly for wildlife. When such plantings were made, they usually consisted of cool season annual forage crops (often small grain and/or annual ryegrass). The main, and often the only, objective for making such plantings was usually to attract game animals during hunting season in order to increase the likelihood of hunting success.
Things have changed. Today many wildlife managers are quite sophisticated in their management approaches. An increasing number are thinking about the long-term implications of management, including the importance of striving to provide optimum nutrition throughout the year. There is more awareness that nutrition can improve the health of wild animals, increase their size and weight, as well as increase wildlife populations.
Furthermore, while most plantings for wildlife are still made by hunters or by people who are hired by hunters, there is also increasing interest in non-game wildlife by non-hunters as well as by hunters. Many different species of plants (including, but not limited to, forage crops) are now regularly planted for wildlife, including some such as alfalfa that require considerable attention to detail for good results.
Why Plant Forage Crops
There are numerous wildlife species as well as many species of forage plants adapted in the Southeast. Certain plants offer different benefits to various species of wild animals or are of much more value to some wild animals than to others. Hunters are responsible for most wildlife plantings being made, so the emphasis in the following discussion will be on benefits to game animals or to hunting enthusiasts. Desirable traits various forage crops may offer in wildlife settings can be put into a few main categories.
*Dependability- Wild animals eat the seeds, leaves, or mast produced by many volunteer plants, but the quantities of such food that is available varies greatly from year to year. Wildlife managers want ample quantities of good quality materials to dependably be present so as to ensure a healthful diet on which wildlife will thrive, not merely survive.
*Forage Quality- The nutritional benefits forages provide to livestock are likewise of benefit to forage-consuming wild animals. Whitetail deer is the wild animal for which plantings are most commonly made in the eastern United States, and knowledgeable wildlife managers who are interested in deer want to establish plants that produce forage with a high level of digestibility and a high protein content. Plants such as forage legumes that contain high levels of calcium and phosphorus and a high protein content are of special interest because these nutrients are important in antler development.
*Insect Attractant- Forage crops, especially forage legumes, often can be an excellent insectory. For many species of birds, including game birds such as quail and wild turkey, availability of a good supply of insects is of critical importance, especially when the birds are young. Many bird species also benefit from consuming high quality green leaf material.
*Seed Production- For many birds including quail, doves, ducks, and wild turkey, seeds comprise an important part of the diet. The seed produced by some plants commonly grown for forage such as browntop millet, annual lespedeza, corn, and sorghum are of great value in wildlife plantings. Other seed-producing plants that are not forage crops but that are widely used to enhance bird populations or to attract birds for hunting purposes include sunflower, sesame, Florida beggarweed, ragweed, and proso millet. Plants such as partridge pea and shrub lespedeza are non-forage plants that are especially valued because the seed they produce do not deteriorate very quickly.
*Long Period Of Forage Availability – Bridging nutritional gaps is of critical importance in wildlife management. Most wildlife species prefer a varied diet, and the relative preference for various plants can vary over time. Thus, having high quality forage or an ample supply of seed available over a long period of time is a major advantage. Ensuring that there will be food available during drought periods or other times when food is less readily available is especially important. Furthermore, many wildlife managers no longer only plant cool season forages. For example, many deer enthusiasts now realize that having high quality forage available during summer and autumn helps ensure adequate milk production by does, increases the likelihood of rebreeding, increases deer weights prior to winter, and bodes well for antler development.
*Potential To Attract Wild Animals Or Otherwise Influence Their Behavior- In addition to facilitating hunting success, food plots can be used as a tool to help keep wild animals in an area where they are desired (perhaps simply for viewing enjoyment). A good example is that wild turkeys, which otherwise may range over a large area, tend to wander much less if chufas are included in food plots. To a degree, wildlife plots can sometimes even be used as a tool to encourage wild animals to stay away from areas where they are not wanted. For example, a planting of a forage that is highly attractive to deer on a side of a large farm or ranch that is a long way from a paved road can decrease the likelihood of collisions with motor vehicles.
*Cover- Although many native or indigenous plants provide cover for wildlife as well or better than many forage plants, this is another benefit to wildlife that can be mentioned. Forage plantings can be especially attractive to small animals such as rabbits, and for young game birds including quail or wild turkeys that simultaneously need cover as well as a high level of nutrition.
Wild animals have always benefited from forage plantings made for livestock. However, the desire for knowledge about forage crops among wildlife enthusiasts, and interest in planting them specifically for wildlife, is clearly on the upswing at present. Wildlife managers are becoming more knowledgeable about the nutritional needs of wild animals, and they are increasingly willing to exercise a higher level of management and to use more sophisticated approaches to meet those needs. Important advances being made with forages for livestock production appear to also offer much potential for expanding the use of forage crops in wildlife plantings.