All too often duck hunters ask the infamous question: "What can I plant for ducks?" Most hunters have visions of corn, milo, rice and soybeans in their heads when they think of food for ducks.

In agricultural-dominated areas like the Delta, that's where people see most of the wintering waterfowl as they ride down the highway. Flooded agricultural fields are important to waterfowl, but to say that all a duck needs is flooded corn would be like saying all a human needs to eat is mashed potatoes.

Of course, we all know a well-balanced diet is a key aspect of healthy living, and that concept is no different when it comes to wildlife.

Many times public land hunters want to know what wildlife officials are going to plant for ducks. But if you've listened to waterfowl managers and biologists talk much, you have probably heard the term "moist-soil."

What in the world is that?

Well, according to the Wetland Management for Waterfowl Handbook produced by the Mississippi River Trust, Wildlife Mississippi, Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, moist-soil areas are typified by seed-producing annuals such as smartweeds, wild millets, panicums and sprangletop.

Moist-soil wetlands historically occurred where openings existed in bottomland hardwoods. Forest openings were often caused by high winds, catastrophic floods, beavers, fires, etc. Planting moist-soil areas is not necessary because native plant seeds are abundant in frequently flooded soils. Over 2,500 pounds per acre of seed can be produced in a properly managed moist-soil area.

 

Go natural

With that description of moist-soil, one can only deduct that the Good Lord seeded the earth with many things that feed waterfowl, long before John Deere and DeKalb ever put their products on the market.

"What are the benefits, if any, of moist-soil plants over agricultural crops or planted food plots?" I asked Ed Penny, waterfowl program leader for the MDWFP.

"Bottom line, the seeds last longer when flooded, they provide substrate for invertebrates because there is more plant material than in soybean or corn plants, and you can flood them earlier," he said. "Since moist-soil areas provide invertebrates, seeds and cover/structure, ducks probably prefer moist-soil most of the time except when it's extremely cold and they need to fill up fat reserves and access carbohydrates they get from grain crops."

Does this mean ducks don't like rice fields and flooded corn stubble? Certainly not, but in the grand scheme of things, when you put cereal crops and natural plants on the table and see which one has more to offer a duck, moist-soil areas come out on top.

Look at a comparison of several cereal grains and native seeds in the Waterfowl Management Handbook. Between milo, rice, crabgrass, barnyardgrass, smartweed, curly dock, sedge and Devil's beggarticks, which one do you think provides the most calories?

Devil's beggarticks comes in first, followed by smartweed, milo and curly dock.

Which do you think provides the most protein?

Beggarticks wins again, followed by milo, curly dock, crabgrass and sedge. In fact, beggarticks leads the pack in crude fat, barnyardgrass in crude fiber and crabgrass in ash. However, higher yields from plants like barnyardgrass, which is the country-cousin of Japanese millet, can outweigh higher nutritional values from plants like beggarticks.

Now let's look at how many ducks can feed on one acre of grains vs. natural plants per day. This is described as duck-use days, or DUDs. The figures are based on temperatures between 30 and 70 degrees and ducks the size of mallards.

An acre of unharvested rice can feed 29,364 ducks per day, whereas an acre of harvested rice can feed only 138. An acre of unharvested corn feeds 25,669 ducks per day, and an acre of standing soybeans feeds 3,246 ducks. However, an acre of harvested beans can feed barely 35 ducks per day.

Compare that to an acre of flooded hardwoods, which feeds 191 ducks and average moist-soil that feeds 1,386 ducks per day. Now if you manage your moist-soil areas intensively, you can feed from 11,000-14,000 ducks per day!

But does this mean you should go wall to wall with smartweed? No. Ducks need the crops for high energy during cold weather and they need the woods and button bush areas for resting, feeding and loafing. A mixture of habitat types is really what you are looking for if you have enough area to do it.

However, simply leaving these moist-soil areas alone and watching them evolve may not always be favorable. Natural succession changes these areas loaded with seed-producing annuals to perennial plants, shrubs and eventually trees.

Of course, as one grassy area slowly reverts back to trees, a tornado or colony of beavers creates another opening in the woods. But with a limited amount of acreage to work with, and not having the luxury of 100 years of spare time to wait on Ma Nature, what does one do to keep a prime wild millet area from naturally defaulting into a hardwood timber stand?

You've got to manage it.

 

Active management

"What is moist-soil management"? I asked Rance Moring, land manager for the infamous York Woods in Tallahatchie County.

"Moist-soil management is the manipulation of native grasses and plants to enhance habitat for local or migrating waterfowl and shorebirds," said Moring, who manages 5,500 acres of prime waterfowl habitat between the Tallahatchie River and the Bluff Hills near Crowder.

When I asked him if he felt managing his 350 acres of moist-soil areas was as important as the hardwood bottoms and agricultural crops on the York Woods property, he said that it was just as much a part of his management scheme as was the flooded corn and timber. This comes as a pretty strong statement from a man who can flood 3,000-4,800 acres for ducks in any given year. Amid several thousand acres of rice, corn, soybeans and mature, acorn-laden hardwood timber, moist-soil areas are still important.

"They are cheaper to grow and more drought- and insect-tolerant than agricultural crops," said Moring. "You have to be able to identify the plants and have an understanding on how to maximize the desirables and suppress the undesirables.

"Passive management does not work. If areas are left undisturbed, you will notice a transition from annuals to perennials then to woody stem vegetation. I would strongly recommend disking at least every two years in a moist-soil unit.

"If you leave units undisturbed for more than two years, the vegetative composition starts shifting from predominantly annuals to perennials. I find that implementing an agricultural rotation in my moist-soil units gives me the greatest benefits. The farming practices of seedbed preparation, timely application of herbicides and residual fertilizers help maximize my potentials in moist-soil units."

 

Spring drawdown

I asked Penny if he would recommend the drawdown of water levels at specific times to encourage certain species like grasses over others like coffeeweed or cocklebur.

"Yes," he said. "If you drawdown too early, you will get more marginal plants (like aster, less desirable smartweeds, beggar ticks).

"Later into the spring when the soil and air are warmer, you will get more desirable plants like barnyardgrass and smartweeds. To me the best guide for growing barnyardgrass is to watch local rice farmers to see when they are planting rice. That's when you're going to get your millets to grow. Began a gradual drawdown; one board at a time every week in early April."

Moring, who says he has an extensive and well-managed drainage system on his property, starts his drawdowns in February and has his areas de-watered by late March. This is because he practices spring disking of his moist-soil areas, as opposed to fall disking. Both Moring and Penny agree that a drawdown late in the growing season, such as July or August, tends to promote the growth of less-desirable plants like coffee weed and cocklebur. These plants favor germination when temperatures are warmer.

"Early drawdowns tend to produce more grasses," said Moring. "Annual grasses rank highest to me.

"My goal is to get 70 percent coverage of barnyardgrass and sprangletop. The remaining 30 percent I try to get smartweed, bidens (beggarticks) and minimal sesbania (coffeeweed). The sesbania is strictly for cover.

"Water is the key to controlling undesirables. Coffeeweed and cocklebur are going to germinate in the really high temps in summer. Hold water on until the proper time.

"You can reflood cocklebur and scald it to kill it in the summer. Reflooding will irrigate barnyardgrass and make it grow really well.

"The best options for weed control are water, disking/mowing and herbicide, in that order. Fall disking is a good control. It opens up areas to put out decoys and sets back succession. It also sets the table to prepare the seedbed for the following spring. In many situations, fall disking works better than spring disking in areas that don't dry up until mid to late summer. Spring disking many times enhances growth of coffeeweed, cocklebur and aster, which leads you to have to spray or mow to control those. Water control, soil disturbance and timely rains or pumping ability are the factors critical to moist-soil management success."

As Penny stated, fall disking of moist-soil plants is a great management tool and is perfectly legal to hunt migratory waterfowl over. Hunting waterfowl over manipulated natural vegetation is legal, whereas hunting over agricultural crops that are manipulated before harvest is not legal.

 

Fall flooding

"If you have the ability to do it, we suggest flooding late August for teal and pintail," said Penny. "If you only have one moist soil area, I would recommend flooding it in late October or early November."

"The first fields I flood are moist-soil units in October," said Moring. "I do so to catch early migrating waterfowl in hopes to keep them around so they will attract other ducks as the main migration begins."

Besides the obvious benefits of fall flooding for early flights of teal and other ducks, disking and then flooding moist-soil areas less than 2 inches deep can draw shorebirds by the gazillions. Many people don't realize it, but fall flooded duck holes provide valuable and much-needed habitat for dozens of species of birds, not just ducks. Many birds, like American avocets, yellowlegs, dunlin, dowitchers, sandpipers and snipe, flock to these areas.

Also, fall mowing and shallow-flooding of moist-soil areas can provide an irresistible attraction for resident Canada geese and early-arriving specklebellies. And since natural seeds last longer under flooded conditions than do agricultural seeds, flooding moist-soil areas early doesn't mean all of your food source has rotted by the time hunting season arrives.

"Ducks find thermal cover and seclusion in moist-soil areas where there is standing vegetation," said Penny. "They need these.

"Thermal cover is important for waterfowl to get out of the wind and cold. Willows and other trees, coffeeweed and larger levees provide it. There is not much cover in a rice field to stay warm, so they have to burn more energy, which means they have to eat more to stay warm. After feeding all night in grain fields, they will go into the woods and moist-soil areas to hang out the rest of the day from mid-morning through the afternoon."

"I find properly managed moist-soil units have ducks in them at any given time. The ducks use these areas for foraging, loafing areas, thermal protection and pair bonding."

As you can see, moist-soil areas full of desirable grasses and other annual plants can provide seeds, invertebrates, thermal cover and seclusion for wintering waterfowl and shorebirds. Water level management is the first step in the management process. Soil disturbance every 2-3 years is vital to setting back succession and keeping high-yielding annual plants dominant. Summer irrigation and herbicide treatments may be needed for problem weeds. Fall flooding attracts and holds early migrants, and holding water on through spring, after ag fields have long been dried and tilled, benefits waterfowl that are bulking up for their return trip to the nesting grounds.

I'll also let you in on a little hidden secret in moist-soil management. A few well-placed crawfish traps in February and March and a little early-season frogging in April before you de-water your impoundments can provide delicious table fare alongside those teal poppers, snipe breasts and goose kabobs.

Take it from a fat man - I know what I'm talking about!