Winter strip disking is a very easy way to improve habitat for wildlife.
Winter strip disking for wildlife
by P.J. Perea
When deer season is over and cabin fever has you climbing the walls, get some fresh air and improve wildlife habitat for wild turkeys, ground nesting songbirds, upland game, small game and deer. The open and low-brushy areas around your hunting property — roads, food plots, fallow fields and edges — are constantly undergoing succession — when an opening, over time, becomes a forest.
Many wildlife species need the newest stage of succession, called early successional habitat. It harbors nesting areas and cover for birds; grows native forage for browsing deer, rabbits and turkeys; and attracts insects that feed poults and other native birds.
Early successional habitat can be created with herbicide treatments, burning and disking. Disking is the least expensive way to create the habitat — just you, a tractor and a disk harrow.
Winter disking, as long as the ground is not frozen, is a great way to improve habitat. The process breaks up sod-bound fields of fescue and non-native grasses, exposing buried seed and encourages the growth of native legumes, ragweed and native annual grasses. If the grass or thatch layer is too thick, mowing and/or burning may be necessary before strip disking. Care should be taken to follow the contours of the land to prevent erosion. Disk in strips at least 15-feet wide and near cover such as a forest or field edge or brushy areas.
Stages of early successional habitat
In the first year after disking, native seed-producing plants, such as foxtail and ragweed, will grow in disturbed soil areas, provide high-energy winter forage and attract insects for birds. The disked areas will be open enough at ground level for easy movement by quail broods and small mammals.
Disking encourages the growth of wildlife-friendly plants such as rugweed.
During the second and third year after disking, perennial forbs such as wildflowers, legumes such as butterfly pea, and grasses will replace the foxtail and ragweed. The amount of bare ground between the plants begins to close. Perennial forbs and legumes provide important forage for wildlife. Annual plants are abundant and continue to provide insects and winter foods. This stage of succession provides important loafing and feeding habitat for quail and turkey poults.
Four and five years after disking, seed-producing annuals decline. Grasses and forbs dominate the area, and the bare ground is covered with thatch and grasses. Briars and shrub and tree seedlings begin to invade the area. At this stage of succession, habitat conditions for quail, pheasant, rabbit and turkey nesting have peaked.
Disked strips in each stage of early succession maximize the usefulness of this type of habitat for wildlife. To achieve this, rotate strip disking on a four- to five-year schedule, so as one or more strips reach habitat maturity (mostly shrubs and small trees), while other strips are in the beginning or intermediate stages of succession (forbs and grasses).
A day on the tractor can do a lot for wildlife. Get out and help your habitat. Opening day of turkey season will be here soon.