With spring turkey season going strong and crappie action fast and furious, it is doubtful many people are thinking of doves or dove hunting.

The dog days of summer are yet to come, and dove season is still months away, but now is the time to start planning your dove field for the September opener. Good dove fields don’t just happen by chance. Most successful dove hunts are the result of months of sweat and determination that begin in the spring.

Tens of thousands of acres of grain fields from Memphis to Vicksburg make it difficult to concentrate the birds, especially when harvest begins in August and continues throughout the fall.

Most folks in the Delta know that sunflower fields usually make for the best hunting, but they are not the cure-all for an itchy trigger finger. A food plot broadcast with wheat can provide excellent shooting action, but one rain can sprout the seed and make it undesirable to doves. Browntop millet, grain sorghum, soybeans, corn and natural grasses also make excellent dove foods, and a properly managed field in the right location with water, grit and a nearby roost can be a dove magnet.

Here’s how you can get started on a successful dove field now.

Sunflowers for early season

Jimmy Sandifer, who operates Easy Money Dove Club in Belzoni, prefers sunflowers over other crops on his pay-hunt operation. Doves and other songbirds relish the high oil content of sunflower seeds, and they are the favored food source during the early season in the Delta.

“I like to plant the peredovik or black oil sunflower variety on a good, wide row on a raised bed,” says Sandifer. “I use a 38-inch row spacing, and target three to four plants per foot of row.”

Sandifer says that a lower planting rate means fewer plants per acre, but less competition among individual plants typically results in larger heads with more seed.

“At this reduced planting rate, it is possible to get peredovik sunflowers to produce those large heads you usually see on the hybrid varieties,” he said. “And if you decide to plant the more expensive hybrids, planting at a lower rate saves you money.”

The generic black oil sunflower variety may cost you in the neighborhood of $30 per 50-pound bag, whereas a hybrid variety may run in excess of $125 per sack. At those prices, it pays to be thrifty with the seed, but the plants will use the extra room to soak up nutrients and develop a gigantic seed head.

Where you have 10 closely-spaced stalks that might produce heads that are 6 inches across, five evenly spaced plants can yield heads 12 to 18 inches in diameter. Fewer heads does not mean fewer seeds for the birds, but you want enough plants out there to get a good stand and a canopy that shades the ground to aid in weed control.

“I use a pre-emergence herbicide like Prowl or Dual at planting,” says Sandifer. “I usually side-dress liquid nitrogen fertilizer at a rate from 20 to 50 gallons per acre depending on the fertility of the particular field.”

The use of these pre-emergence herbicides gives a 3- to 4-week blanket of coverage that helps retard the growth of competitive weed species while allowing the young sunflowers to emerge and grow. Once certain weed species, like sesbania, cocklebur and teaweed, emerge in the growing sunflowers, there is little chemical control that can be applied to kill them without killing the sunflowers as well.

Grasses are much easier to control in the growing crop, and can be controlled by spraying herbicides directly over the top of the crop. These grass-specific herbicides won’t harm the sunflowers at all.

Side-dressing liquid fertilizer involves the use of a commercial fertilizer rig that uses sliding knives or rolling coulters to create a furrow parallel to the row of plants in which liquid fertilizer can be dripped. This method allows a stream of fertilizer to be deposited into the soil where the plant roots can quickly absorb it.

This may be a more favorable method of getting fertilizer to your plants, but it involves the use of a tractor, and liquid fertilizer can be very expensive. Another method of applying fertilizer is by broadcasting dry pellets onto the soil surface with a pull-behind spreader. This method is a bit cheaper, but high temperatures or wet soil conditions at the time of application can cause some of the nitrogen to evaporate into the air.

“There is a chance that you may not get a rain on broadcast fertilizer to activate it,” says Brian McClellan, sales rep for Jimmy Sanders Inc. in Belzoni. “If you don’t get a rain, your fertilizer will be lost because the nitrogen volatilizes in the heat and sunlight. You can mix in a product called Agrotain that keeps the nitrogen from volatilizing.

“If you plan on using a dry fertilizer, try to plan the timing of your application with the coming of the next rain. If the dry fertilizer lies on top of the ground for more than 10 days in high temperatures, the nitrogen will begin to volatilize.”

Fertilizer can be applied at planting or three to four weeks after the sunflowers emerge. But if you wait too long, the sunflowers will be too tall for ground equipment to run through the rows without damaging the plants.

“Once those sunflowers start growing,” says Sandifer, “they grow fast.”

It takes 100-120 days to grow a sunflower crop to maturity, depending on the particular variety and weather conditions. Seed put in the ground in early May will usually have a head in full bloom by July 4. The head takes about a month to fill out and develop mature seed. You want that mature seed developed and the plant to start dying in early August, so that the heads will shatter when mowed later in the month.

Most dove field planners shoot for a planting window from mid-April through early May in order to have a field ready a few weeks prior to the opener.

Corn, soybeans for late season

If you have the option to plant a secondary field, or possibly mix plantings within a single field, you might want to consider high-energy foods like corn and soybeans for the second and third dove seasons. As the temperatures start to fall, the birds will seek out high-energy crops that contain lots of carbs. Corn and soybeans fit the bill nicely. Many a dove cleaned in the late season in my area has had a crop full of soybeans and corn, picked up in nearby agricultural fields.

Herbicide-resistant varieties of corn and soybeans are readily available on the market, and they are a bit easier to maintain than sunflowers. Corn can be planted as early as March, because it can stand a colder soil temperature than sunflowers. It takes, on average, 120 days to grow an ear of corn.

You can plant corn on raised beds or you can plant it flat on 30- to 40-inch rows. The same liquid or dry fertilizer used on sunflowers will work on corn, but the big difference between corn and sunflowers is that sunflowers thrive under dry conditions, but corn likes to guzzle water, especially when filling out the ear. For this reason, it may be wise to get your corn plot in the ground earlier in the year than sunflowers, so that you can catch those spring rains in early April and May.

Soybeans are legumes and produce their own nitrogen, so there is no need to apply nitrogen if you plant them. Herbicide-resistant varieties can be grown, and weed control with these varieties is as simple as spraying the chemical over the crop a couple of times throughout the growing season. Soybeans shade out the ground quickly, which helps keep weed competition low.

Doves are fond of soybean seeds late in the year, but wet conditions can cause rapid deterioration of this food source.

Browntop for the budget hunter

Browntop millet is a cultivated grass variety very closely related to some of our native grass species in the South. This grass produces seed heads with copious amounts of small seeds that are a favorite food source of the mourning dove.

Requiring only a 60-day growing period, browntop can be grown relatively easily and cheaply, with a minimum amount of equipment needed. A disked field can be spread with browntop seed from a pull-behind or ATV spreader and lightly covered afterwards.

“Fifteen to 20 pounds per acre is the recommended planting rate for browntop,” said Scott Baker, a wildlife biologist for the MDWFP. “Browntop can really work well in a cattle operation where it can be bailed for hay for the cows and hunters can hunt doves over the scattered seed.”

The general consensus is that browntop may not work as well in the Delta where there are thousands of acres of grain fields in every direction, but in East or South Mississippi, a field of millet can be very successful. Couple that with the fact that hunters in the latter-mentioned areas may not have access to all of the farm equipment available in the Delta that is needed to plant sunflowers, corn and beans, and browntop may be the most economical and logical answer for the budget-minded dove hunter.

The short growing period required for browntop millet may also be the answer for hunters who could not get other crops planted due to weather factors.

A field planted in strips of sunflowers, corn, soybeans and millet will give doves a viable food source to feed upon across a long range of calendar days. Staggering planting and mowing of each crop will ensure you have fresh seed on the ground from day 1 through day 70.

Keep it clean

Trey Cooke, executive director of Delta Wildlife in Stoneville, says doves like a clean place to walk.

“A great dove field will always have ample clean and open ground,” he said. “Food is needed, but I think we invest too much in the food supply and not enough in clean/open ground. Doves are lazy, so they want firm, flat soil to walk on. This would make sandier soils more preferred over heavy clay soils (they can also find small gravel in sandier soils proving a two-for-one special for energy spent feeding).

“Doves are very leery of predators, so they want to be able to see when they are on the ground feeding. Therefore, the cover and food shouldn’t be too thick or dense as to give the doves the sense that it is good predator cover.

“I would recommend thinner plantings, skipping rows between planted rows and fallowed swaths throughout the field, and make sure that the open ground is mostly weed-free, flat and firm. Same goes for under-planted crops that are grown for doves. In general, people need to invest more time and money in keeping the field flat, firm and weed-free than in food production.”

You will want to begin manipulating your dove food plot a few weeks prior to the hunt date in order to get the birds accustomed to coming to your field. Most dove-field planners mow strips across the field in intervals, preceding and during the hunting season. Fall rains will cause downed grain to sprout, so more mowings throughout the season can keep doves coming to your field over a longer time period.

Remember to leave some vegetation standing for hunters to hide in, and plan your field so that you put no more than one hunter to every ¾ acre.

Shape of the field is a huge factor when spacing hunters, and a triangular-shaped field won’t be able to hold as many shooters as a rectangular field will. If all hunters in the field understand where their zones of fire are, and that shooting at low birds is strictly prohibited, the hunt will be much more enjoyable.

So plan your dove hunt in spring, months in advance of opening day, and reap the rewards this fall. Everyone enjoys an opening-weekend hunt, but a properly managed dove field can provide hunters with weeks and even months of quality gunning.