What a Difference a Year Makes

Last year at this time field conditions at Duck Creek were just getting to the point where staff could begin manipulating the soil to make usable habitat for waterfowl. This year is a much different story. As we sit and watch the rain showers scatter all around us, it seems that the area around Duck Creek CA has been shielded by a giant umbrella. There has been no measurable rainfall in well over a month, and as our week comes to an end we have resorted to doing a dance over the fact that it rained enough last night to settle the dust!

My farming heritage curses these drought-like conditions, but the biologist in me welcomes the dry conditions as a natural part of a wetland cycle. As the manag er of Duck Creek, I also realize that this is a time to take advantage of and make the most out of it. The giant dust cloud over the area is our staff out turning ground over that hasn’t seen the light of day for several years. As we all know, ducks feed on seeds, especially in the fall and winter. So, as a rule, waterfowl managers try to produce as many seeds as possible. Plants that produce the most seeds are typically annual plants, such as millets, smartweeds, sedges and, yes, even corn. In order to get an abundance and a good diversity of annual plants to emerge, you need a disturbance of the soil. Ground that sits without disturbance for too long succeeds into more perennial plants that as a rule produce less seed, have less diversity and are less desirable as a food resource for waterfowl.

At Duck Creek we were able to plant corn food plots earlier than we have been able to in many years. Unfortunately, our corn is struggling to survive as the dry ground only gets drier. However, corn food plots serve multiple purposes at Duck Creek. When Keith Cordell and I select areas to be put into a corn food plot, we factor in several key indicators before turning the ground over and planting. The most important indicator is what is growing there now. There is no reason to turn over a good stand of wild millet or annual smartweeds just to plant corn. We typically select areas that have an overabundance or perennial smartweeds, asters or just a general lack of quality annual moist-soil plants. That way the planting of corn provides two management purposes, it gives you a quality food source for that fall and it provides a disturbance to the soil for the years to come. Some of our best moist-soil areas in any given year are found in last year’s food plots. Here the disturbance from planting in the previous spring has promoted the germination of annual plants in the following spring. However, planting food plots in late spring and early summer comes with risks. This year is a prime example!

While this year’s corn food plots struggle to hold on and the millet that has been planted awaits a shower to germinate, it is amazing how the native moist-soil plant s respond to the dry conditions. These plants seem to have access to the weather channel as they adjust accordingly to the conditions. Wild millets are half the size that we typically see in wetter conditions, but they still produce ample seed as they seem to shut down growth and switch over to seed production as the ground dries to dust. Sedges, smartweeds and sprangletops all tend to be shorter than average, but they still find a way to produce seed. As a manager, you are glad to see these areas that you decided to leave fallow for the year produce a good crop of seeds, and you scowl at the corn as it struggles to survive, hoping that one little rain will help it over the hump. However, as I look at the wet holes and borrow ditches that have been disked, plowed and pulverized for the first time in years I smile knowing that next spring those areas will be flush with a better diversity of seed-producing plants and hopefully full of waterfowl in the falls to come!

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