Waterfowler's World: Advantages of Moist-Soil Management

Encouraging the growth of natural seed-producing plants can yield a bumper crop of prime waterfowl foods

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Photo © John Hoffman, DU

By Bill Buckley

For many hunters, managing land for waterfowl simply means planting crops and then flooding them prior to opening day. While this practice can attract lots of ducks, it's also expensive and fraught with uncertainty. If drought kills your corn, for example, no amount of flooding is going to resurrect your land's duck appeal. 

Luckily, there's a cheaper, more efficient, and natural way to attract waterfowl. Not only does it produce multiple food sources and shelter; it also provides greater benefits for waterfowl. It's called moist-soil management, and as long as you can control the water level on your land, the practice is very sustainable.

What Is Moist-Soil Management?

This technique involves drawing down water levels to mimic the seasonal conditions of natural wetlands, which are often wet from fall to spring and dry in summer. That crucial drying-out period allows all sorts of naturally occurring annual plants to germinate and produce vast amounts of nutritious seeds on which ducks thrive. It also gives you a window of opportunity to control undesirable perennials such as cattails, phragmites, and reed canary grass, which can choke out desirable native plants such as wild millet, rice cutgrass, panicum, flatsedges, chufa, and smartweeds. The best thing about moist-soil management: expensive planting is not required because seasonal wetlands usually contain all the seeds you'll need to grow these natural foods for waterfowl. 

Work with Your Land, Not Against It

According to Dale Humburg, senior science advisor for Ducks Unlimited, "Management tools should emulate natural forces that drive wetland health and production. Those natural processes, however, can vary significantly from one region to the next. The main point is to recognize where your wetland fits into the overall landscape and tailor your management tools to suit natural conditions." State wildlife agencies, DU biologists, university extension programs, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service are invaluable resources for formulating a plan.

Managing Water

In migration and wintering regions, your first step is to determine when to regulate water levels. The timing of a slow drawdown during the growing season will determine which plant species germinate. Gradual reflooding should correspond to fall migration. The more you can control the timing and the rate of drainage and flooding, the better. In general, slow drawdowns produce a greater diversity of plant species, and gradual fall reflooding and spring drawdowns extend the period of waterfowl use.

Enhancing Seed Production

"Every few years, you'll need to dry out the wetland enough to disk the soil," says Todd Merendino, DU manager of conservation programs for Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. "These weedy, seed-producing plants need exposed soil to eliminate competition and allow germination. Their seeds are buried in the mud, and the best way to promote germination is to disturb the soil by disking. Disking also helps prevent later-succession plants like cattails from taking over the wetland." In years when disking isn't possible, undesirable plants can be controlled by burning, mowing, or spraying.

Are Crops Obsolete?

While moist-soil management generates long-term benefits, planting crops can provide important food resources for waterfowl in certain situations. Because waterfowl management is an inexact science with lots of variables—and even the best-laid plans can run amuck—late-season, quick-maturing plants like Japanese millet and buckwheat can sometimes be a duck-season saver. Moreover, the soil disturbance required for planting corn or other agricultural crops can help control undesirable plants.

Experiment and Enjoy

"Landowners need to become the real experts on how to manage their property," Humburg says. "So keep detailed records and observe how your land reacts. Don't be afraid to experiment with drawdown timing and flooding, as well as with disking and even planting crops. That's how you discover what works best. The wonderful thing about wetlands is they're very forgiving. And if you're anything like me, you'll soon discover it's fun—and productive—to play around with mud and water."