There are many ways to improve the habitat for wildlife. One that’s particularly useful for open fields and meadows in the Shenandoah Valley is to plant native warm season grasses. These plants grow six to eight feet tall, require little maintenance and offer great cover for song birds, gamebirds and deer.
Large acreages are not required for the land to benefit. Deer will use stands as small as one-half acre, though a 2-3 acre plot is definitely better.
These native grasses once covered most of the country, basically anywhere forest didn’t grow. They dominated the land before European settlers arrived. Indians wisely used fire management to maintain healthy stands of them.
When Europeans introduced the plow, the decline of native warm season grasses began as crops were planted. The introduction of fescue was the last nail in the coffin for the grasses throughout most of the East.
As the name implies, these grasses do most of their growing in summer. Late May or June is the perfect time to plant them, but early fall plantings will work as well.
Warm season grasses grow readily on a wide variety of soils. No fertilizer is required, and they can take acidic pH readings as low as 5.2.
While their primary value is for cover, if you choose to sell the hay, deer will eat the fresh shoots that crop up after cutting. Warm season grasses can yield 4-7 tons of hay per acre.
Cuttings should be done as soon as quail nesting is finished in July. That way the grasses can regrow several feet tall before fall, providing cover even after being hayed.
If possible, don’t cut the grasses but instead let them grow to their full height of 6-8 feet. That way they’ll provide maximum cover.
Warm season grasses grow thick, but in clusters so deer can walk easily between the clumps. Established stands tower high enough to easily conceal a mature buck and his rack.
Another plus of warm season grasses is that they are extremely drought resistant. Their roots can dig 12 feet deep. They can survive a month without rain easily.
Several species are useful: switchgrass, Eastern gamma, Indian, panicgrass and bluestem. Plant a mixture, in case some thrive better in your local soil.
Switchgrass is perhaps the easiest and most reliable. It’s particularly good for wet areas and can survive flooding up to 60 days. Indian grass is good for dry upland areas.
Management is simple: 1) do nothing, 2) hay them or 3) burn them. If you hay them, don’t cut lower than 6-10 inches and leave several areas uncut for deer cover.
If you choose burning, it should be done in spring every third year. Forestry departments will help for a modest fee. The crew from Woodstock has done a great job burning my grasses several times.
Burning thickens and improves the health of warm season stands. The grasses always come back stronger, with lush green growth appearing within days of the burn.
Choose one of three options for using warm season grasses in your hunting.
1) Don’t hunt them at all and simply use as a sanctuary and magnet for mature bucks.
2) Hunt travel routes they use entering or leaving the fields to feed or chase does. Avoid hunting too close so they don’t associate danger with the grass stands.
3) Save them for a last ditch drive when the chips are down late in the season. Drive them just once, and then leave them alone. Chances are bucks you flush out will come back, or others will move in.
Planting the Grasses—
One. Choose a good location. Old fields are great as are level areas that you can easily clear. Remove rocks, sticks and debris.
Two. Spray with a non-selective herbicide. Wait 7-10 days and spray again if green still shows.
Three. Mow down the existing grass or vegetation if it’s more than a few inches tall.
Four. Till the ground several times, broadcast the seed, and lightly disk it into the ground so it’s only covered a quarter inch. Then cultipack or drive over it with tractor tires to firm the bed.
Five. Another option is to locate a warm season grass drill. Many county or local conservation service agencies have these to rent or loan. Use the drill behind a tractor to plant directly into an herbicide-treated fescue field without tilling.
Set the drill for a quarter inch and use about 8-10 pounds of pure live seed per acre.
It may take a year or two to have a good stand develop. Be patient. When it does, you’ll have some superb wildlife habitat.
Assistance: Free advice and sometimes cost-sharing is available from agencies such as our local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Farm Service Agency.