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Scott Rall: Whistling while you work for habitat

I don't know if they still use it, but the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce used to have a motto that went like this: "Doing the things most people think just happen."

When it comes to managing wildlife habitat, many people think that it just happens. There is nothing further from the truth.

Managing wildlife habitat can be a full-time job if you manage many acres. The more acres, the more work, and for those who manage wildlife habitat on a large scale, often times not all of the work can get done every year. To the occasional visitor it looks like all you need to do is plant the seeds and then sit around and enjoy the sights and sounds with a cold beverage.

I spend many hours managing wildlife habitat every year. Most of it is done on my family property, but there is also many hours spent helping other habitat managers with their efforts. The biggest challenge I have is in owning or having the right equipment and deciding if this equipment is big enough to do the job. Farmers have all the necessary equipment but they are using it to make a living at the same time habitat managers need it to manage habitat.

I have a Polaris Ranger that works really well for most of the work I do. Its one big downfall is that it is totally ineffective when it comes to the preparation work necessary to plant a food plot. Row crop ag ground, if worked in the fall, can have a soft and mellow soil by spring. For the most part the residue has been incorporated into the soil and is decayed to some extent. Food plots for wildlife, on the other hand, need to stand over winter to be effective and need to be worked in the spring. This leaves lots of plant material on the surface that has not decayed and needs to be incorporated before planting can get done.

This situation makes for some difficult planting conditions depending on what kind of food plot will get seeded. My ranger is not capable of doing this field work and I rely on farmer friends to help me, and for other tasks I hire them to complete this work. I have enough machinery to apply the fertilizer and spread or plant most of the seeds, but the ground prep is challenging.

Once the ground prep is done and the planting is completed I use my ranger to spray chemical to control the weeds. All in all a 1 ½ acre food plot costs on average about $550 per year to complete. If these food plots are part of a CRP contract or other program they cannot be harvested even in the spring to offset costs. If you manage multiple habitat parcels you can drop a fair amount of cash on this effort. This is why wildlife food plots are not very common any more except on state wildlife management areas. In tough winters these areas represent a very high percentage of the spots where wildlife can find a meal.

I walk my food plots on January 1st every year. You are not able to find even one kernel of corn left on this date. It is completely consumed. This tells me that it is really doing its job.

After the food plot is completed, weed control is the next job on the list. No one is very tolerant of any property with Canadian thistles on it. A quart of milestone weed chemical costs about $95.00. I mix 4 ounces to 25 gallons and use the ranger to keep the weeds down. This is more difficult that it might appear.

Many of the new chemicals will target weeds and not my wildflowers. This is true if the application rates are just exactly right. My ranger tank and sprayer is not calibrated to the same tolerances as the big commercial farms units so I spot spray the weeds with a hand-held wand to make sure I kill only the weeds and not the thousands of wildflowers that are mixed in. This takes a lot more time but gets done several times per season.

When the weeds are contained I next address the elimination of volunteer trees that seem to love my prairie settings. Trees are a big negative in most prairie situations so, armed with a commercial Stihl weed eater with a saw blade attached, I cut 200-300 trees every year. Most of the trunks are less than one inch in diameter. There are hundreds more but if I can catch them while they are still small enough another special chemical application can kill them before a saw is necessary. These trees are hard to see when the grass grows 5-6 feet high.

After this effort is completed I start planning what parcels of the prairie are to be burned the following spring. About a fourth of the property is burned annually to maintain the vitality of the prairie plants and help kill unwanted trees. This requires burn breaks be mowed in the fall and the proper permits to be acquired.

Burning is done before any of the other habitat management activities take place every spring.

I have one other challenge that I have not come up with a satisfactory answer for. The same aphids that eat soybeans love the foliage on my carigana trees. By late summer all of the leaves are eaten off. I can use yet another chemical to kill them before this happens, but this chemical has a great chance of killing all of the honey bees on the property that might land on the leaves within days of application. We currently have four hives in operation.

Killing aphids with chemical is not a good option if you like bees. The trees don't die but they are growing much slower as a result.

Habitat management is a lot of work but it has never been work to me. Creating and maintaining habitat is pure pleasure to me even if it takes a fair amount of money out of my wallet every year to do so. There is always something to do no matter what season it is. When you drive by some great wildlife habitat, know that it does not just appear nor does it take care of itself.

Thank you to all the public and private wildlife habitat managers out there. Nothing great is easy and habitat management is no different.