Native Grasses: Creating Sustainable and Robust Pheasant Populations in South Dakota.

Hunting Ranch Advice

The Glacial Lakes Region Of South Dakota

Pheasants And Native Grasses

As a South Dakota Hunting Ranch, we learned early on, that if we wanted to have consistent and large populations of pheasants every season, we needed quality pheasant habitat.  South Dakota winters can be brutal on pheasant populations. Die-offs of over 50% are common if pheasants lack adequate habitat. The two components of winter habitat are heavy cover, capable of sheltering pheasants from cold and deep snow, and easy access to food.  This article will focus on the benefits of native grasses in helping pheasants to not only survive, but to flourish in South Dakota.

Benefits of Native Grasses: Pheasants

Native grasses are an essential component for any land manager wishing to create sustainable populations of pheasants to hunt each fall.  When established, native grasses provide food, roosting & nesting area, and important winter shelter.

What Native Grasses to Plant

Our preferred native grass to plant at Double P Ranch is Switchgrass. This grass, when established properly, provides great year-round cover and produces a seed that pheasants will eat.  In addition to switchgrass, we also like to incorporate big bluestem grass into our mixes.   Recently, we have been also adding Milestone-tolerant (herbicide) forbs into our mixes.  Forbs attract insects in the late-spring and summer when pheasant chicks are hatching. Insects provide an excellent nutritional value to developing chicks. Access to seed that is specifically adaptive to specific eco-regions has greatly improved over the years. We strongly urge that sourcing seed form locally sourced seed producers is an important first step to attaining a beautiful stand of native grass.  Do not purchase the cheapest seed you can find. Do your research and find what is the best seed for your particular area, paying a few more dollars to acquire the right seed will be of benefit in the end.

Establishing Native Grasses for Pheasants

It is critical to plan ahead, sometimes years ahead when your final goal is to create an area that will attract and sustain healthy populations of pheasant to hunt for years to come.  At Double P Ranch, we have established native grasses into fields that were previously brome grass (expired CRP), corn residue, and soybean residue.  From our experience establishing native grass into soybean stubble has yielded the best results.  Native grass planting following soybeans benefit from residual nitrogen and less weed competition.  Planting native grass into corn residue risks decreased emergence of grasses by the residue which results in a poor quality initial stand.  Tillage of corn residue prior to planting may result in completion of undesirable plants when soil seed bank is disturbed. Planting native grass into sod that has been hayed in the fall and chemically burned down in the spring before planting can achieve a decent stand, but is still susceptible to competition from the previous grass cover.

Pheasant Nesting

For years, the official advice to create quality pheasant nesting cover is to plant and establish cool-season grasses.  Cool season grass grows early when temperatures are below 75 degrees and provide better cover for nesting pheasants than warm season grasses.  At Double P Ranch, we have noticed that pheasant nesting and moreover pheasant brood success is best in our established stands of switchgrass.  Furthermore, with the ability to add forbs to the planting mixes we no longer plant cool season grasses.  This is our experience in Eastern South Dakota where we often have cool springs and lots avian predation of pheasants.

Pheasant Roosting Cover

Pheasants in South Dakota utilize established native grass stands to roost throughout the seasons.  The vertical cover provided by native grass and the ability of the grass to remain uprights even after significant snowfall attract pheasants to roost. Native grasses are classified as bunch grass.  This pattern of growth keep open lanes in the field near the ground which provide terrific escape corridors for the pheasants.  These roosting areas are terrific areas pheasant hunting toward evening, after the pheasant have finished feeding.

Maintaining Native Grass

In our area of South Dakota, the most troublesome weeds we have are Canada thistle and wormwood sage.  These weeds can overtake a field when left unchecked.  In years past, a great effort was taken in weed control, with little observed progress year after year.  Today with the ability to use selective herbicides with residual carryover the task of week control has become much easier.  We do encourage periodic haying of partial areas of the field (up to 50%) periodically.  Haying clears ground residual which results in more robust stands the following year.  We will also periodically fertilize our grass stands to make the field even more attractive to pheasants.

In conclusion, we are strong proponents of native grass planting if the desire is to create terrific year around cover for pheasant and a great place to enjoy hunting pheasant in the fall.   When done correctly you will enjoy pheasant hunting for years to come.