If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times: "What can I plant for ducks?"

Hunters know that ducks like seeds. Not necessarily cultivated varieties, but all types of seeds. As we discussed last month with moist-soil management, many of the plant types that attract and hold ducks are already in your soil. All you need to do is manipulate the water or create a disturbance to get those seeds to grow.

But all too often, duck hunters are stuck in the "if you plant it, they will come" mindset. While planting a food plot won't guarantee you birds in December, one thing is for certain: If you sit on the couch and do nothing, nothing is what you'll get.

When considering crops that ducks favor, most hunters think rice, corn and soybeans. A few of you may have hunted over milo or grain sorghum, and some of you have hunted fields planted in millets.

So you want to plant one of these crops on your lease or land to attract great swarms of ducks this winter, or maybe you are trying to decide on leasing a property already planted in one of these crops, but just exactly which one is best?

There are a few things to consider when planting crops for ducks. One is cost, another is complexity and another is which one is best for the birds. Securing a row-planter, tractor, $150 bags of quality corn seed and dropping several hundred dollars on nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation costs may be out of your budget.

On the other hand, a couple of $30 bags of Japanese millet and an ATV spreader may be right up your alley. Many hunters would rather a turn-key operation where they pay the farmer to leave a little standing crop in the field. And more often than not, hunters are insulted by what the farmer tells them it is going cost them for him to leave standing corn in the bottom of the field for their hunting enjoyment.

Let's do the math on a 10-acre area planted in corn and left unharvested. Forget about the cost of tractors, planters, field prep equipment and harvesting equipment he has to make a note on each year. Let's just talk about what it costs to plant and grow a 10-acre field of corn.

The costs associated with raising 10 acres of corn can exceed $2,500 really easily, and some farmers say it takes nearly $500 to raise an acre. Factor in an average of 140 bushels per acre on dry land corn and 250 on irrigated corn at $5 per bushel and the farmer could possibly bring in between $700 and $1,300 per acre. Now he has to pay the help, the bank and the wife. So when you offer a farmer a couple thousand dollars to plant and leave standing 10 acres of corn, don't be surprised if he laughs in your face.

However, be not dismayed. If you want to grow a 10-acre corn plot, you can more than likely get by a little cheaper. You'll still have some of the same inputs, but you can probably slack off on fertilizer and irrigation expenses.

"Dirty" crops, or ones that are allowed to grow up in native grasses after a crop stand is established, are gaining in popularity. One spraying shortly after the crops emerge is used to reduce weed competition, and then the natural duck foods are allowed to grow under the crop. This will save you money on herbicides while providing a buffet for the ducks. If you have your own equipment, you can forego paying someone else for their time.

While corn is an excellent crop for ducks, it may not fit your budget. So I've asked a couple of biologists a few questions about choosing, growing and managing crops for ducks.

 

Top crops

"The top three crops, in my opinion, would be millet, rice and corn (in no particular order)," said Houston Havens, waterfowl biologist for MDWFP. "These crops each have their advantages over each other, but overall they attract ducks, provide high-quality food resources and last a relatively long time after flooding.

"I would rate millet as No. 1, with corn and rice tied at No. 2. I would always recommend these over soybeans and milo."

"If you are in Central Missouri, corn is probably the most important crop on the landscape for migrating waterfowl," says Kevin Brunke, a waterfowl biologist at Otter Slough Conservation Area in the Missouri Bootheel. "However, if you are in the lower Mississippi Valley, I think rice would be more important to waterfowl.

"It's a tossup between rice and corn for No. 1. Milo and millet would be a tie too, depending on your goals and water depth. I would plant milo if my water was deeper (than 12 inches). However, millet is nice because of the shorter growing season, so you can use it after you've conducted control on a noxious weed or needed to do a late-season disturbance for another reason. It would also be more accessible to ducks than milo in shallower water (around 6 inches). However, if ducks want the milo, they will get it in shallow water too."

When I asked the biologists about planting and flooding soybeans for ducks, both agreed that beans were not their preferred choice.

"I do not recommend planting soybeans for the sole purpose of waterfowl habitat management," said Havens. "Although ducks do use flooded soybeans, research has shown that soybeans deteriorate the fastest of all flooded crops.

"Also, there is sometimes an issue of food compaction killing ducks that have gorged themselves on soybeans."

According to the Wetland Management for Waterfowl Handbook, after being flooded for 90 days, 86 percent of soybeans have deteriorated, versus 50 percent of corn and 19 percent of rice. only 42 percent of milo has deteriorated, 57 percent of Japanese millet and 25 percent of browntop millet.

So if you are going to flood it and leave it, you'll have more rice and browntop millet seed left after 90 days than with any other crop. However, if the area you have selected for your plot will be wet during the growing season, rice and Japanese millet will excel in these conditions. A drier site would be better suited to corn, milo and browntop. Soybeans would probably favor the middle ground; moist, heavy soils but no standing water during the growing season.

 

A time to plant

I asked both biologists when they would plant their selected crops. Right now in early spring, thousands of acres of corn are being planted across the Delta. Rice planting will follow shortly, if it hasn't started already. But the reason farmers like to get an early start is so they can get their crops out before fall rains make harvest difficult to impossible.

A duck manager isn't worried about getting his crop out. In fact, he wants it to remain a viable food source in the field long after farmers have trucked their crops to the elevator. If you're hunting land farmed for harvest, you won't have a choice of leaving the crop in the field. But if you plan to leave your plot standing, you need to plant as late as possible to get a mature crop before frost, while receiving timely rains for growth.

If you have the luxury and the funds of being able to irrigate, then all you have to worry about is making seed before frost.

"In my situation, I don't plant corn until after I've completed a drawdown targeting moist-soil plants," said Brunke. "However, we manage 2,500 acres of wetlands, and only about 5-8 percent of that is any type of crop.

"In our case, it doesn't make sense to change the entire hydroperiod of an area to affect only 8 percent of the landscape. We would be shortchanging the ducks if we did that. Therefore, a lot of our corn does not get planted until June.

"If we were going to plant corn across an entire field, we would want to do it earlier in the spring to take advantage of spring rains, so mid-April through May would be better for planting corn. We usually only plant millet if we didn't get a good moist-soil response or if we conducted control on a noxious weed. Therefore, if we planted millet, it would be in July and sometimes early August."

"Timing of planting for ducks is generally later than for production agriculture," said Havens. "The goal is to produce a crop that will mature in early fall, and therefore does not deteriorate in the weather before becoming available to ducks.

"Corn can be planted for ducks anywhere from mid-April to June, depending on the variety and maturation period. Japanese, chiwapa and browntop millets are the typical varieties I recommend. These should be planted in July or August, again, depending on the maturation period."

Havens mentioned chiwapa millet, which is a relative of Japanese millet but has a 120-day growing cycle versus the shorter growth period of Japanese millet.

The strategy behind chiwapa is that it can be planted earlier in the year to catch frequent spring and early summer rains, but it won't mature and drop seed on the ground too early. You can plant chiwapa in June, catch a few rains, and it will be mature in October.

On the other hand, if you planted Japanese in June, it would be mature in late July and the seed would more than likely fall to the ground and resprout, or be consumed by birds long before duck season arrived.

And while resprouting can sometimes be a good thing, if it frosts before the resprouted seed makes another crop, you are left with nothing for the ducks to eat. However, the advantage of the shorter growing cycle associated with Japanese and browntop millets is that if you can irrigate, you can plant these two crops in August and have them mature right before frost in late October.

For information on planting dates and rates of waterfowl-friendly millets, visit www.specialtyseed.com or www.chiwapa.com.

According to the Mississippi State Wildlife Food Plot Planting Guidelines, corn, which has roughly a 120-day maturity, should be planted from March 15 to June 1 at 12 pounds per acre. Milo, which has a 90- to 115-day maturity, should be planted at 8 pounds per acre from April 15 to June 15. Both of these crops should be planted in 30- to 40-inch-wide rows.

Rice is one of the more challenging crops to grow for ducks. Able to grow in standing water, it is not as susceptible to flood damage as other crops. However, the ability to irrigate rice is more important that the previously mentioned crops.

Rice doesn't have to grow in water, but flooding is a very effective weed control method, and provides excellent habitat for early arriving teal and shorebirds in the fall.

Rice should be planted from April through June at a rate of 50-60 pounds per acre if drilled or 80-90 pounds per acre by air. One benefit of growing rice is that it can be "water seeded." What this means is that it can be broadcast into shallow water. The water should be drained after a day or two so that the seed can sprout. Once the seedlings reach 6-8 inches in height, a permanent flood can be established to control problem weeds.

 

A time to flood

"Rice should be flooded about 8-12 inches," said Brunke. "Corn should be flooded to about 12 inches, unless you have very tall stalks, then it should be flooded to within about 6 inches of the ear.

"If you flood your fields too deep, you are limiting the amount of bird use they can get. In my opinion, a field should have variable water depths ranging from about 2 feet to mudflat with most of it being in the prime dabbling-duck foraging depth of 8-12 inches."

"Flooding depth will depend on the topography of the impoundment, but rice should generally be flooded to an average depth of about 12 inches," said Havens. "I usually recommend planting corn in the deeper areas of impoundments, so the water levels can be raised to near the ears, while the remaining areas are still flooded to shallow depths so ducks can bottom feed.

"I recommend flooding crops for ducks later in the year when feasible. Ducks use agricultural crops for high-energy sources, particularly during cold-weather events experienced in late winter. Natural vegetation (moist-soil) areas can be flooded earlier and longer, because natural seeds don't deteriorate as rapidly as crops."

The millets can be flooded more shallowly than taller crops like corn, but as both biologists mentioned, flood depth too great limits a puddle duck's ability to reach feed on the bottom. Geese prefer water depths less than 6 inches, whereas 12-18 inches is the preferred feeding range of mallards, pintails and teal.

I asked Havens how long a duck manager should leave impoundments flooded after hunting season, barring the hindrance of agricultural operations in crop fields.

"As long as there are ducks using impoundments, I recommend leaving areas flooded as long as possible," he said. "Food resources are very important to ducks in late winter and early spring, as they prepare for their northward migration. However, when production agriculture is the main objective of the landowner, it's not always feasible to keep fields flooded into the spring."

 

Habitat diversity

"Food plots provide ducks a good source of energy," said Brunke. "However, moist-soil wetlands and timber provide energy and a diverse suite of nutrients and cover types for ducks.

"During molts (early in the fall and late in the winter), ducks will usually target moist-soil areas. During cold snaps and after flying long distances, ducks need a quick source of energy, and will use crops more frequently. However, I've seen ducks do just the opposite too, so it's best to have a diverse set of habitats on your property."

"Unharvested crops provide much more food for waterfowl than harvested crops," said Havens. "However, unharvested crops can sometimes be too dense for waterfowl to easily access.

"I recommend either planting strips of crops next to strips of natural vegetation, or harvesting strips of crops to allow areas for waterfowl to access the food resources. It's important to remember that unharvested crops cannot be manipulated for waterfowl hunting. Harvested crops should never be disked before flooding if attracting waterfowl is the objective, because this greatly reduces the amount of grain available for ducks. Research has shown that burning and flooding rice stubble after harvest is an effective way to attract ducks and provide access to the leftover grain."

You can visit www.msucares.com for more information on growing food plots for waterfowl. Your local crop consultant can provide you with specific instructions on growing crops on your property. The goal is to provide a diversity of habitats ranging from natural foods to planted crops. Water level management before, during and after hunting season will provide many months of valuable habitat for migrating waterfowl. By providing everything a duck needs - water, food, cover and arrangement - and by limiting hunting pressure, a waterfowl manager can have ideal conditions for ducks on his property.