When deciding what to plant for wildlife on state game lands, our primary motivation is getting the best bang for our (your) dollar. Budgets for lime, seed and fertilizer never seem to be enough, so, in some cases what we plant is governed by what we’ve received as donations. These donations can range from corn, wheat or oats to turnips, rape or sunflowers.
Along with cost we also consider a crop’s usability by multiple species. A typical mixture might include legumes such as birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa and two or three types of clover to ensure viability. Some types of clover are more drought-resistant than others
Legumes are often selected because they grow well and quickly in Pennsylvania’s climate and soils and because virtually all species of wildlife utilize them. These plants are eaten by most birds and mammals. Also, legumes promote large populations of insects. Young game birds require large amounts of protein, which can be obtained through a diet high in insects. Legumes provide a year-round food source and, if properly cared for, a field can last four to five years.
Brassicas (species such as turnips, kale and rape) are planted later in the year and make a great winter food source for larger animals such as deer and bear. The leaves of these plants are large and thick and require a hard frost before they become palatable. The tubers are also eaten throughout winter.
Typical agricultural crops such as corn, soybeans and buckwheat are rarely planted for a number of reasons. While such plantings are heavily utilized by deer, they tend to be used during a time of year when natural foods are most abundant and are completely consumed by the time wildlife needs them most, mid to late winter. Also, these plants are annuals and require replanting each spring.
In almost all cases, a cover crop of either wheat (late summer, early fall) or oats (spring) is sewn with the chosen food plot mix to serve as a buffer between the time when soil is bare and the emergence/establishment of the chosen crop. These plants are also eaten by wildlife and help to prevent soil erosion. The seeds from the cover crops will eventually provide seed heads for various bird species to utilize.
As you can see, there are many variables to consider when deciding what the Game Commission food and cover crews plant in the state game land food plots. Costs to plant and maintain, crop viability, availability to wildlife during high need seasons, and usefulness to multiple species all factor in agency decisions.
By Art Hamley, Pennsylvania Game Commission Land Management Group Supervisor
Photos By Hal Korber