Strip-Disking to Save Wildlife | Great Days Outdoors

Controlled burns and strip-disking during wintertime will mean better forbs and nesting areas later.

 

By now deer season has ended throughout the country. I hope you have that big buck at the taxidermist and you’re anxiously awaiting the opening of turkey season. Most hunters and landowners use this month as a recuperating period, but this month’s management projects can be some of the most important of the year.

Apply Lime and Fertilizer

Now is the time to take soil tests for the coming year if you haven’t already done so. If you have already taken your soil tests as I recommended last month, then you probably have your results back from the lab.

Most soil testing services give a recommendation along with the results. If the lab you used does not, you can get those recommendations from any Farmers Co-op or major fertilizer supplier.

If your pH is low, lime needs to be applied now because it takes lime at least three months and as much as six months to properly amend soil acidity. Once temperatures start to warm in March, clover will aggressively start putting off new growth.




If you are surface applying lime and/or fertilizer on existing clover fields or any other no-till situation, the amount of time it takes to properly amend pH and fertility levels will be based on rainfall.

I would not recommend lime or fertilizer applications if soil conditions are not optimum. Pulling a heavy spreader across wet ground damages soil structure, kills growing plants and creates ruts.

 

Taking care of the soil before strip-disking.

Applying lime. Photo by Mark Buxton

 

Monitor Clover Fields for Weed Pressure

If weed pressure from winter annuals is dominating your clover fields, they must be addressed quickly. In November, I recommended using 2,4-DB to clean up winter annuals when they were small.

By now they will be starting to out and compete with your clover for sunlight. The size of the weed’s root system means a more aggressive herbicide must be used.

At this stage, I would recommend four ounces of Pursuit per acre along with a surfactant applied in 10 gallons of water per acre. The Pursuit may not kill all the winter annuals, but it will definitely suppress them enough to prevent seed production. The wilting plants will allow sunlight to your clover.

If you mixed a cereal grain such as wheat, oats, or rye with your clover and you used a rate that was too high, the cereal grains will now start to shade out your clover just like a weed.

A stand of cereal grains that is too thick competes for sunlight, moisture and nutrients. Once those cereal grains start spring growth, they become “stemmy” and most deer use ceases.

If you think you have a stand of cereal grain that is too thick and will shade out your clover, you can kill it with herbicides and not hurt your stand of clover. Mowing will set back the growth, but the large amount of thatch from the cereal grains will kill the clover.

I like to use 12 ounces of Clethodium per acre along with a surfactant applied in 10 gallons of water per acre. This is also an excellent method for eradicating ryegrass from existing clover fields.




Mow Areas Where Needed Before Nesting Season

Now is the time to mow roadsides to prevent briar and hardwood encroachment. If you are not strip-disking open areas you can also mow any open areas where you need to set back succession or hardwood encroachment.

Continuous mowing produces a plant community dominated by grasses, both warm and cool season. Openings that consist mostly of native grasses create excellent nesting areas, but the lack of forbs means they have little value as deer browse. For this reason, I prefer strip-disking openings in winter instead of mowing them.

“Mowing these areas even after nesting season is over is not advisable.”

I am strictly against any type of bushhogging or mowing during March through November because at this time of year a mower becomes a wildlife killer. Turkeys, quail, and rabbits use these open areas for nesting and they also make great fawning areas. Running a mower through these areas during prime nesting or fawning seasons means you are more than likely eliminating some of next year’s crop.

Long after turkey nesting season is over, hens will use grassy areas as brood habitat because they make excellent bugging areas. A young turkey poult’s first mode of defense is to squat and hide. Don’t be fooled into thinking none are there because they did not fly. Mowing these areas even after nesting season is over is not advisable.

Crops continue to grow after strip-disking.

Photo by Mark Buxton

 

Postseason Camera Surveys

I like to conduct postseason camera surveys immediately after the season ends. It’s very easy to get deer at a feed station this time of year and the information from the survey is very valuable. Bucks can be lost not only to hunting, but to factors such as rut mortality and yearling buck dispersal as well.

In previous months, I recommended documenting hunter sightings of bucks, does, and fawns throughout the hunting season. By comparing this data with data from a postseason camera survey, I can get some real solid numbers. These numbers tell things such as total deer density, buck-to-doe ratios, and fawn recruitment.

Conduct dormant season burns

One of the cheapest and most effective methods for managing habitat and setting back succession is with prescribed burns. Cool season burns in pine stands reduce fuel loads and lessens the chance and severity of wildfires.




Depending on your management goals, fire rotation can be anywhere from one to five years. Grasses like broomsedge love fire, so burning annually or every other year will usually produce an understory of native warm-season grasses. This creates excellent turkey and quail habitat, but very little native deer browse.

Burning on a three- to five-year interval will allow more briars and woody species to take over. This  will increase the amount of native deer browse. Keep a close eye on the amount of hardwood encroachment.

Once hardwood species such as sweet gum are allowed to grow for five years, they cannot be controlled with dormant season burns. An understory dominated by sweet gum has little wildlife value. At this point, you will have to use either a growing season burn or herbicides like Arsenal to once again set back succession.

Prescribed fire is not just a management tool to be used in pine stands. You can also use fire at this time of year to set back succession in openings and old fields. You will probably have to burn more frequently in these areas because of the increased amount of sunlight for plant growth.

Again, remember that frequent burning increases native grasses and strip-disking increases the amount of forbs.

I like to divide large openings into thirds and burn one area each year. The unburned area is a prime nesting area for turkeys and quail, as well as great fawning cover. The adjacent burned area will then become good brood habitat in late spring and summer.

The disked fire lines between the burned and unburned area will create even more diversity within the opening. This is because of the increase in forbs.

Conduct your burns when humidity, wind direction, and fuel moisture are best for what you are trying to accomplish. Never attempt a prescribed burn unless you have taken and passed a prescribed fire course or have hired someone who has.

Monthly Checklist for February

  • Apply lime and fertilizer
  • Monitor clover fields for weed pressure from winter annuals
  • Mow areas where needed
  • Conduct a postseason camera survey
  • Conduct dormant season burns

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