Managing Native Food Plants for Waterfowl on Hunting Properties Along the Texas Gulf Coast

018Moist-soil management by popular definition is the manipulation of soil and water to encourage the establishment of desirable native waterfowl food plants adapted to growth in a wet environment. Moist-soil plants are higher in nutritional value, decompose at a slower rate when submerged underwater, and provide a greater diversity of waterfowl foods than small-grain agriculture. The low management costs associated with moist-soil management make it one of the most cost-effective and successful waterfowl management practices for hunting properties along the Texas Gulf Coast. Cost effectiveness in moist-soil management relies on the use of ecologically compatible strategies for promoting desirable native plant species and controlling undesirable plant species.

A diversity of native moist-soil plants beneficial to waterfowl and typically referred to as “weeds” by Texas rice producers are common along the Texas Rice Prairies of the Texas Gulf Coast. The seed-bank of most soils within the Rice Prairies contains an abundance of viable seeds capable of producing dense stands of desirable waterfowl foods that are native to the area. This holds true even for land that has previously been in row crops. Because different species or groups of moist-soil plants are adapted to different climatic conditions, production of waterfowl food is less effected by adverse weather conditions such as drought. Species such as barnyardgrass, smartweeds, and spikerushes produce well during wet conditions while species such as panic grasses and paspalum grasses do well during dry conditions.

Soil and water manipulations are the two most important components of moist-soil management. The timing of the annual draw-down of water from an impoundment plays a crucial role in determining plant species composition. Total seed production is usually greater on impoundments following early season draw-downs. However, mid and late season draw-downs generally favor production of millets and other grasses that produce seeds that are preferred by waterfowl. The availability of multiple impoundments on a hunting property allows for draw-downs at different times during the growing season, creating a balance of maximum productivity and diversity.

Unit 2The availability of water during both the growing season and during the winter period is critical for successful moist-soil management. For this reason it is imperative that moist-soil impoundments on hunting land have adequate watersheds and/or supplemental water sources. When possible multiple impoundments should be developed in an area to allow for water and soil manipulations to be rotated between impoundments to create habitat diversity. Impoundments at higher elevations may be developed to store water for subsequent irrigation and flooding of impoundments at lower elevations.

Flooding of moist-soil impoundments on hunting properties should typically begin in mid-August to late-September to provide habitat for early migrants such as blue-winged teal. When the manager has the benefit of multiple impoundments, flooding of some impoundments should be postponed and the impoundments reserved for later in the winter. Water levels should be increased gradually, exposing additional food resources as waterfowl numbers increase. In areas of dense vegetation it may be necessary to mow or roll down vegetation to expose pockets of open water to allow waterfowl access when flooded.

The Texas Gulf Coast has a long growing season that typically runs from early March to late November. This long growing season allows moist-soil plants to produce two or more seed crops per year. Annual rainfall in this region can be highly variable, with March being the driest month followed by July and August on average. Early season draw-downs should be performed during the first 45 days of the growing season from March 05 – April 18, mid-season draw-downs from April 19 – June 02, and late season draw-downs from June 03 – July 17. Ideally a management system incorporating multiple impoundments should vary draw-down dates among impoundments to achieve maximum plant diversity. As a general rule of thumb, mid to late season draw-downs tend to be most effective on the Texas Rice Prairies. A slow draw-down over a 2 – 3 week period in mid to late season usually produces vegetation of greater density and diversity than a fast draw-down.

Unit12aSeed production of desirable moist-soil plants tends to decrease and undesirable plant species tend to increase after 3 – 5 years. Woody species and other less desirable species can quickly take over and shade out more desirable waterfowl foods if left unmanaged. For this reason soil disturbance by disking, mowing, rolling, burning, or a combination of these prescriptions is necessary every few years to maintain the greatest productivity and plant diversity. Soil disturbance should be conducted early in the year to allow for seed germination within the same growing season.

Enlisting the services of a professional in wildlife habitat development and management can help you develop and implement a moist-soil management plan conducive to your particular hunting property. We’re all familiar with the old cliche “build it and they will come”. When it comes to waterfowl habitat management on recreational hunting land I like to say “set the table, ring the dinner bell, and they will come”. Moist-soil management is hands down the most successful and cost-effective method of attracting more waterfowl to your recreational hunting property.

Ed Ritter
Owner / Certified Wildlife Biologist / Licensed Real Estate Broker
Wildlife Management Enterprises, L.L.C.