DIY Land Manager: Planting for Next Winter This Spring

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Spring is the best time to plant upland gamebird cover for next winter, and the solution is a diverse stand of warm season native grasses.

By Jim Wooley, Pheasants Forever Senior Field Biologist (Emeritus)

On a pleasant spring day, it seems ludicrous to worry about winter habitat. Wildlife in rooster country, however, frequently pays a price when unusually mild weather degenerates into a blizzard. Further south, more sporadic harsh winters can simply be devastating for quail.

Either direction, there’s no substitute for dense, woody cover to protect upland birds in winter. It provides storm shelter, predator protection, and a spot to loaf in the cold winter sun. Unfortunately, it’s not always available.

Many farms just don’t have shrub thickets or heavy conifers that are strategically located for wildlife, or any winter cover at all. If that’s your dilemma, don’t dally – plant come spring. But it’s a long wait until brushy cover becomes useful. Tackle your winter cover deficit with a quicker solution – plant warm season native grasses near your new woody winter cover planting.  

This interim investment in winter cover will also pay perennial dividends in nesting and roosting habitat. And, once your woody cover develops, the entire area will blossom into a wintering habitat complex as you add nearby food plots.

The dense, upright structure of native grass attracts wildlife for nesting, escape cover, fawning and bedding areas, and protection from weather.

The taller (up to head high) native grasses of pheasant country are big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass. Mixtures of all three, often along with native forbs, are common on many farms managed for wildlife.

In quail country, the more diminutive broomsedge and little bluestem are more common, though the other taller natives also will grow there.

The growth form of all these bunchgrasses is clumpy, with bare areas between -- allowing wildlife easy movement while sheltering in the thick screening cover. Big blue and Indian are great nesting, escape and roosting cover in the milder seasons. But they are weak stemmed – frequently flattening in wind-driven snow. Switchgrass is far better suited to the task of providing winter shelter.  

Forty years ago, switchgrass was the darling nesting cover of wildlife circles, but has since fallen out of favor. And it definitely does have some warts (low pheasant nesting rates and marginal brood habitat) for certain wildlife uses. Instead of wishing for switch to be all things for wildlife, we should love it for what it is – a premier stand-alone winter cover grass.

The switchgrass advantage springs from stiff stems and dense leaf structure that stands up to all but the worst snow and ice. It provides an incredible wind buffer. Get horizontal in a dense switchgrass stand in a shrieking winter wind, and you’ll find it’s downright balmy at ground level.

Dry snow sifts into switchgrass without affecting the character of the cover at all. Wind-driven wet snows can be problematic, however, sometimes laying switchgrass over. It doesn’t flatten completely, however, and usually springs back upright when the snow melts. Beyond its wildlife uses, switch also is a standout forage, and erosion control plant. Fortunately for DIY land managers, switch is perhaps the most easily planted native grass. It doesn’t require specialized equipment to plant, and can be drilled in spring or in fall dormant seedings, or broadcast from an ATV in frost seedings on top of snow.  

Ground condition, soil preparation and planting depth are critical to success, and there’s a wealth of how-to-plant resources online. Choose your switchgrass wisely by understanding its growth form – height and stalk stiffness matter for a winter habitat. Stiffer-stemmed varieties include Cave-in-Rock, Alamo and Shelter, and there are many more. You’ll need a variety adapted to your region’s weather and soils. Understand also that this kind of habitat requires periodic maintenance, like periodic controlled burning or prescribed grazing.

Last, while monotypic stands are great winter habitat, switchgrass needn’t be planted alone. Add stiffer stemmed forbs to your seeding to increase diversity for nesting, possible brood use, and to produce forage and seeds attractive to wildlife. Contact the Pheasants Forever seed program (pheasantsforever.org/seed) for more information on switchgrass varieties, planting advice, and to secure seed for your project.