In today’s hunting world, the mentality is to create a whitetail “field of dreams” with the newest and greatest food plot mixes to draw in deer and hold bucks to your land. Over the last decade, planting food plots with the idea of being able to increase your odds at harvesting a monster buck has exploded, and fittingly so. However, many are forgetting habitat, and at that, easy habitat that was once one of the largest ecosystems in the world and naturally covered much of the United States… the tallgrass prairie.
Just 170 years ago, a boundless horizon of prairie blanketed the Midwest before witnessing one of the most astonishing transformations of nature in human history. Today, only 0.1 percent of original prairie remains, but the value prairie brings to deer and hunting deer still exists. Bucks will spend more time during hunting hours in secure cover than foraging on a food plot, and native warm-season grasses are a great way to accomplish good deer cover on your land.
Today, there are thriving efforts of prairie preservation and restoration in the Midwest as these plants protect water quality and improve air quality. Iowa is doing more prairie restoration than any other state in the nation, by far. As a hunter, I feel very lucky to have been born and raised in southern Iowa, where my family is proud to own and maintain land consisting of strong oak timber, thick tallgrass prairie and rich farm ground. Over the years, we’ve continued to take care of the land in a natural setting, and in return, it’s continued to take care of us come hunting season.
Native Grasses Benefits
There are many benefits to establishing a stand of native warm-season grasses. In addition to being useful as a form of conservation cover or as a forage crop, native grasses are beneficial to wildlife populations. Native grasses provide both excellent cover and food for many wildlife species with warm-season grass mixtures providing the most benefits. Properly managed fields of native grasses provide quality shelter, forage and fawning cover for whitetail deer as well as last virtually forever once established.
There are many native warm-season grasses available; however, the most commonly planted are big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, side oats grama and cave-in-rock switch grass. The first four are commonly found in a native warm-season grass blend and are used widely across the Midwest. This blend contains a mixture of perennial, sod-forming bunch grasses that will range in growth from 18 inches to more than 60 inches tall and grow root structure of depths up to 12 feet.
Cave-in-rock switch grass is typically planted strictly as a cover for both deer and nesting birds and is planted as a monoculture due to its aggressive tendency to take over a native warm-season grass stand. A native warm-season grass blend should be planted at a rate of 10 pounds an acre for denser deer cover.
You can’t go wrong with planting something natural to your area as it will be able to withstand your weather conditions, whether that consists of harsh winters or droughts. Native warm-season grasses usually take longer to establish than cool-season grasses (bluegrass, fescue, rye), but the stands have the potential to last much longer with less maintenance. They are also capable of producing more biomass with less nutrient and water input than cool-season grasses as well as establishing in poorly drained, wet soils that otherwise would not grow food crops. If interested in planting prairie, first find out what native warm-season grasses are the correct species that will best fit your area’s needs. There are many different species of grasses and even many different types of prairie such as oak savanna, dry prairie and wetlands prairie.
Native warm-season grasses seed costs more than cool-season grass or legume seed because it yields less seed per acre and costs more to harvest, clean and warehouse. The cost per acre may seem high but take into account that establishment success averages 95 to 98 percent if proper steps are followed so reseeding is rarely necessary. Stand will continue to thicken each year then if managed correctly.
If you already have any prairie, you can help to restore it by pulling the seeds and spreading them throughout your area to keep reseeding it thicker. And you’d be amazed at how one burn can help to bring out your prairie remnants on the land. A lot of those seeds still remain there, but are just dormant. A fire can awaken them as well as knock out competing weeds so the prairie has a chance to grow.
If your area does not have any prairie already, it’s a good idea to start with weed control before planting. Warm-season grasses are slow to germinate and often have less seedling vigor than weedy species. This makes weed control before and after planting essential in the establishment year.
Native warm-season grasses can be planted in fields where annual crops, such as corn and soybeans, were planted the season before. Once these crops are harvested, the majority of the soil is already bare. The most challenging planting scenario is establishing these grasses in existing old pastures or hay fields. When doing this, a good approach is to mow the selected area, allow the vegetation to begin to re-grow and then apply Roundup or Glyphosate at recommended rates to kill all weeds in the seedbed. Afterwards, minimal tillage will be required to prepare the topsoil.
Warm-season grasses grow during the summer months, so they are usually planted in late spring or early summer. Dormant plantings are also an option after December 1, if the soil has thoroughly cooled. However, you should increase the seeding rate 25 to 50 percent for a dormant first-time seeding to compensate for any seed that will be eaten or possibly rot.
Many of the native warm-season grass seeds are fluffy in nature and not flowable enough to be seeded through most conventional drills. Large areas of more than ½-acre are easiest to plant with a native grass drill. However, easy flow type fertilizer spreaders can be used to distribute the seed, and smaller areas can be broadcast-seeded by hand. Mixing the seed with filler, such as sand, vermiculite or sawdust, can help distribute the seed more evenly as well.
Up in Smoke
Fire is extremely important to the prairie. Once a natural occurrence caused by thunderstorms and lightning striking the dry grass, fire is a self-maintenance measure – regenerating the soil and encouraging new plants to grow while burning down competing trees that could overpower the prairie. The mighty oak, due to its rough bark, is fire resistant and lives in harmony with the prairie. Native Americans burned the prairie for its new growth, providing a source of food for their horses or attracting animals for hunting.
As important as burning prairie is, you don’t want to over do it. Our family usually burns every three years (if you cannot burn an area, then it is best to brush hog every three years to keep trees and bushes from growing up in the prairie). There are different times of the year to burn – each with positives and negatives to the chosen time. We prefer to burn early spring before everything starts growing. Burning during this time gets rid of old grass stalks and leaves to make room for new growth, the black ground heats the ground up faster from winter and turkeys are actually drawn to it for our upcoming spring turkey hunting season.
Prairie for Hunting
Deer want to feel safe and providing good cover for bedding and travel near food sources is an excellent way to hold deer to your timber by helping them feel safe, especially during hunting seasons. My family makes prairie work for us during hunting season by doing just that. We have a “top field” of crops that is surrounded by a fringe of tall, thick native warm-season grasses and then oak timber. Bucks famously like to travel ridges so we also have all tallgrass prairie following the ridge off the top field. Downhill on each side of the ridge are slopes of oak timber that then turn into more prairie just off a bottom field planted as a food plot.
Naturally, deer will use prairie for security and cover, but to direct them by your tree stand, we mow a path leading around the fields and on the ridge. Deer tend to follow these prairie paths more than they do when making a path in a timber, for instance. We then have our hunting stands in place where the treeline, prairie path and food source come together.
Besides giving deer an added sense of security on traveling routes and near food sources, there is an overlooked way of how prairie helps a hunter. This stuff is tall… and thick. Elevated in a tree stand, we can see pretty far. But down on the ground from a deer’s perspective, they can’t really see that far through the prairie. Does love this when it comes to the chasing phase when bucks are running them, but they are not ready to breed. They can move undetected and more off the radar in the prairie. And when bucks cannot see, it presents the perfect opportunity for calling.
Late October of 2011, the prairie was the important ingredient in my recipe for success. Climbing into the stand for the afternoon, it didn’t take long to see how we were no longer in the October lull and wildlife was stirring. First, a large group of toms emerged along the timber and prairie line to feed in the top field, then of all things, a woodchuck. Soon does started filing out to the field and a 120-inch 8-point stepped out. Glassing him, I decided he was a nice, young buck that I would pass.
As the evening went on, more young bucks came out to the field, sporadically chasing does in circles as they tried to feed and get away. The 8-point had been chasing as well and disappeared here and there from the field. Across the field, a buck appeared once again and thinking it was just the eight, I raised my binoculars just to double check and admire him again. As soon as I looked through the binoculars, the buck raised his head. Wow.
A new buck had emerged and I didn’t have to take a second look to tell if he was a mature buck and shooter. This contender soon kept the smaller bucks away and chased a couple does off the field to the opposite side. I could only hope he’d reappear in time as the evening light would soon be coming to a close. Luckily, just in time, he reappeared following some does across the field. However, they were leading him to enter the timber perpendicular to me about 100 yards away.
I knew I had nothing to lose, so I slipped a grunt tube out of my pocket. Letting out a medium-length grunt, the buck immediately froze in place staring in my direction. Time stood still as the buck looked at me, looked back at the does, looked at me and eventually, looked back to the does and continued walking. Giving it one more try, I gave one short grunt and that was all the buck needed to hear.
Now in a full-out run directly toward me, he stopped 13 yards beneath me and below a branch to decide which way to turn as two prairie paths met and ran on each side of me. Amazingly, my brother had set his trail camera just on the other side of the path from the tree stand, taking a photo of the buck at that moment he was trying to decide. You could tell he was trying hard to see where this other buck was, but he couldn’t see past the prairie next to me and drop off of oak timber behind me.
Soon, the buck turned on a dime and marched down the path right in front of me. I knew I had little time, so quickly pulling back and getting the bow to my face as fast as I could, the buck still was already by my first window. I paused for him to make it past a small tree and then stopped him with a “mah” in what I had already ranged as my 20-yard window. I found my spot on his body and let the arrow go.
Rushing off the path into the tallgrass prairie, the buck was out of sight so quickly I didn’t see where the arrow hit, but I knew it sounded good like a chest shot. Climbing up on my tree stand seat, I tried to listen the best I could… rushing, nothing, nothing, whack! I thought it could be his crash, but I decided to play it safe, staying in the stand another hour well past dark just replaying over and over again in my head of what just happened and, of course, praying like crazy.
Finally back home, I waited a couple more hours. The guys got ready to come help me, and luckily, we didn’t have to go far. It was indeed his crash I had heard, and when we walked up on this buck, we couldn’t believe it. This buck was definitely a brute and his body was enormous… pictures didn’t do his size justice. He was the largest-bodied buck ever harvested by our group.
Weighing in at 260 pounds, aged at 5-1/2+ years and gross/green-scoring 148-5/8 inches, this contender came looking for a fight, and if I didn’t have such good cover around me to block his sight, I know this mature buck would not have fallen for the calls. Instead, you could tell he was 100 percent fooled and in a hurry to find the mysterious buck in the prairie.
This article was also featured in Quality Whitetails magazine by Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) and qdma.com