Winter food is mostly in abundant supply and is generally not considered a limiting factor in the traditional pheasant range. Indeed, starvation of wild pheasants is practically unheard of. Why, then, do most biologists consider food plots an essential part of good pheasant management? The answer is simple—winter cover is much more effective with a high-energy food source nearby. Food plots are critical for pheasant management because of the relationship between food, winter cover, movement and mortality. This brochure will help you better understand this relationship and provide guidance on what, where, and how to establish proper food/cover plots.
The protective nature of cover on the landscape changes remarkably during winter. Grain stubble and weed patches that concealed feeding birds during fall are soon buried in winter's blowing snow. Unlike fall when birds are widely scattered, pheasants concentrate in limited heavy roosting cover during winter, venturing only as far as needed. They hesitate to feed beyond a half mile from cover, even if abundant food exists beyond that range. Thus, food near these islands of habitat is quickly reduced. Pheasants feeding on waste grain buried in the snow are forced to forage further from cover each day, exposed to predation and harsh winter weather in the open.
It's even trickier for hen pheasants, however. It's not merely staying alive--they must actively gain weight through mid-winter in order to replenish that lost during the previous nesting season. Hens that undergo a great deal of stress during the winter months suffer their highest mortality rate the following spring during nesting, and there is a strong correlation between spring body weight and successful chick production. Well-placed food patches establish safe foraging patterns, restrict unnecessary movements, and provide dependable food to carry female birds through harsh winters in good condition. Even in a mild winter, the closer secure winter cover and food are positioned, the more pheasants will benefit.
Plan your food plots carefully, keeping the previous discussion in mind, and taking the worst-case scenario into account. Don't bother to create a project that is going to be buried by the first winter blizzard. Corn and grain sorghum are among the most reliable food sources (see Table). Planted separately or in combinations, they retain grain on stalks, stand well in winter weather and provide very high-energy food. Large blocks of corn, and combinations of forage sorghum and grain sorghum can also provide excellent cover. Wheat, soybeans, millets, rye and buckwheat are good food sources, but are often buried by snow, forcing birds into the open to utilize them.
Food plot mixes combining many of the crops above are available commercially or from PF, and can be broadcast for easy establishment. Pheasants Forever produces Midwest Mix (corn, sorghums, sunflowers, and buckwheat), Nebraska Mix (a combination of sorghums and millets) and Western Mix (sorghums, sunflowers, millets and clover). All are attractive to a wide range of wildlife. Select crops and maturities appropriate for your area, fertilize the plot, and control weeds to avoid excessive competition. Some weed cover benefits pheasants, but grain production will be reduced if weeds become a serious problem.
The two most critical design factors for food plots are location and size. Food plots can be established almost anywhere, such as on Conservation Reserve or Wetland Reserve Program land, or right next to your farm grove. The key to a successful food source is its location next to heavy winter cover that is frequented by pheasants and other upland wildlife.
In open country, up to 50 rows of standing crop can be filled in a single blizzard. There, large (3-10 acre) square or block-type food plots are preferable to smaller, linear food plots. Whenever possible, large food plots should be located directly adjacent to woody and herbaceous winter cover on the windward side (generally the northwest). If this is not possible, effective food plots can be established nearby if they are linked via corridors of escape cover to traditional winter cover. Where winter cover is scarce, large 10-acre-plus blocks of corn may be planted to serve as both food and shelter for the birds. Bear in mind that these areas will be used by many species of wildlife and that some, such as deer and turkeys, consume a great deal of grain daily and can potentially exhaust food resources well before winter has ended.
Smaller plots may work fine, if there is substantial winter cover nearby, if there is limited acreage to devote to food, if competition for the food is minimal, or if there is a greater need for other permanent habitat (nesting cover, for instance). Take an objective look at your area's particular habitat needs and what cover exists on adjacent properties, and get an idea of the worst-case winter. Then common sense, and some advice from a wildlife professional can help you to determine the correct food plot size.
If plots will be small, minimize drifting by establishing snow traps (leave 4-6 rows windward, then harvest 12-20 adjacent rows as a snow catch). This same approach can be used to make wetlands, and small patches of woody cover more effective wintering areas—by placing food plots on their windward side to catch snow before it enters the winter roosting cover. Link any nearby satellite food plots to the best winter cover with travel corridors of heavy vegetation.
Whether by standard tractor and corn planter or grain drill, or via broadcast seeder mounted on ATV or pickup truck, there is a way to get a food plot in the ground where it will do the most good for wildlife (see Table). If you are without planting equipment, it may be available to rent from local conservation offices. Some agencies and some PF chapters provide planting services at nominal rates, and there are often local custom operators willing to plant these areas.
It often works well to dovetail with farm programs like the Conservation Reserve and Wetland Reserve, which have acreage eligible for food plots. Food plots on these acres make valuable use of land that is already taken out of production. Acreage allowances and crop restrictions vary by state, so contact county NRCS/FSA offices to check local guidelines. State or local wildlife agencies may also provide food plot assistance to landowners.
Then try the Pheasants Forever Essential Habitat Guide—a handy reference on all kinds of pheasant cover, including shelterbelts, food plots and nest cover. And, be sure to check with your local Pheasants Forever chapter, where you will find cost sharing, planting assistance, or just advice from a friendly chapter volunteer.