Managing Vegetative Cover in a Gamebird Operation
By James Clark, MacFarlane Pheasants, Inc.
Art vs Science
You folks came here to learn about planting and maintaining flight pen cover. We will get to that. But now I am going to approach this as science versus art. Now while one is not necessarily superior to the other, in raising pheasants each has its place.
A little over 20 years ago I was doing a fair amount of business as one of MacFarlane's flight birds growers. Then as the company started to develop the white meat pheasant I was encouraged to raise some of these as well. At the time these were being raised in flight pens.
I have to tell you we gave it an honest try for 2, maybe 3 years. I then went in before the start of production one year and sat down with Chris Theisen to discuss the upcoming production schedule. At that time I said this. “Chris, raising a meat pheasant is a science, and raising a flight pheasant is an art. Asking me to raise a meat pheasant is like asking Picasso to paint your house.”
Now I'm not saying there are no science in-flight birds. The results I have seen in selective breeding and genetics over the years have greatly improved the product we now raise. A genetically superior flight pheasant based on performance is tantamount to a successful product.
But what I am saying is with a meat pheasant it is easy to measure your product. Feed conversion, age of butchering weight, and so on. In-flight pheasants, it's mostly in the performance. A bird needs to be sleek as well. This is a little harder to measure, and harder yet to achieve.
Now one of the most important areas of this art form is the escape cover we grow and manage in the pens. Notice I said to grow and manage, not necessarily plant. Let's get back to art vs science. In a few weeks, the farmers all around us where we now sit and where most of you live will go out and plant grain crops with one purpose in mind. That is yield. They all have a tremendous amount of science behind them. Genetically modified seed, advanced herbicides, GPS aided fertilizer placement, and so on. This is pure farming science.
Now let's look at what looks good in a flight pen. The company I work for, and I share this opinion is that Lambsquarter, hands down is the best pheasant cover period. I have been to other parts of the country and even Canada where the plant Kosha is probably equal. In fact, when I first saw it I thought it was Lambsquarter. These both are nitrogen eaters, so once established in a flight pen, more often than not it will simply seed itself year after year. It does have an enemy, however, and that is ragweed. More on that in a bit. Lambsquarter can be planted, the seed is incredibly small, and when I bought it was sold by the quart and it was 3 quarts of seed to the acre.
Now where our grain farmer friends can spray their crops and create an ecological desert for maximum yield, we need to plant, and/or manage the growth in our pens for a birds-eye view of proper cover. Some of my crop farmer friends called that cover weeds. To them, the plants were, to us, not so much. A weed by definition is this:
A weed is a plant considered undesirable in a particular situation, "a plant in the wrong place". Examples commonly are plants unwanted in human-controlled settings, such as farm fields, gardens, lawns, and parks. Taxonomically, the term "weed" has no botanical significance, because a plant that is a weed in one context is not a weed when growing in a situation where it is in fact wanted, and where one species of plant is a valuable crop.
We will need a tall cover to protect the birds from the elements, yet from a birds-eye view, we will need a thick undergrowth, usually in the form of some type of grass. This is for hiding at a young age and giving the birds something to pick at an early age to occupy their time. So there are some sprays and chemicals that can be our friends, but usually in a lower than recommended dose.
Before we get too far into this, the timing of when the first birds hit the ground is critical. Again, the company I work for will get a high percentage of pheasants out in southern WI in late April. At this time there is no cover in the pens. We try to get the first birds out on the ground where Lambsquarter will be growing and we put them out at half density.
Half density, now there is a term. The bird/genetic you raise on your farm requires X amount of square footage in the pen at full density. This will vary from genetics, sex of the bird, and even latitude of where you are raising your bird. Climate and weather play into this as well. You should know your number. If you are going to start birds out before the cover is growing, then half density is required to give the cover a chance to grow around your bird.
That is probably not the case on most farms, and where it is, it will be a small part of the production. So I will focus on managing cover with the idea of getting our first birds on the range when the cover is about 8 inches tall minimum, or the first week of June or so in the upper Midwest.
Before I go much further, however, I am often asked if turning the soil every year is required. Now while that is a good idea, it is not necessarily needed, however. The area next to the fence lines and the area in the pens where the water and feed are located does need to be turned every year. The best tool for this, the only one really is the rotavator or rototiller. The ones we use are 80 inches wide, but sizes down to 48 inches along the fence lines would be satisfactory. If this can be done in the fall, great, but usually it has to wait until spring. It should be done as soon as the frost has left the ground if that is applicable, and when the ground is dry enough.
So if you till the complete pen or not, and you scout your pens to see this year's early growth, you can then decide if you are planting or letting it go to natural cover. If we see Lambsquarter, those pens are done. However, if we get everything tilled before anything germinates, we scout the pens again when it does germinate to make a decision. If we see ragweed, my advice is to rotovate ASAP, then plan on planting some type of cover plant. If you have already rotovated either really early or the fall before, my suggestion would be to spray the ragweed and move forward from there. Corn more often than not makes the most sense in most cases. You want to get this in as early as possible. I strongly recommend against any pre-emergence spray, and any spray with carryover, if those even exist anymore. We want to see what grows in your tilled and planted pens. Sometimes Lambsquarter will come up ahead of any corn. If that's the case let the corn go and be happy you have the best crop ever in your pen.
One more note on planting corn in the pens, and that is population. When I was farming a crop farmer would plant at a population of 24,000 with 38-inch rows, then 28,000 with 30-inch rows. I understand how some of the row croppers are going to 22 or 20-inch rows and raising the population to 34,000 and above. Of course, they need to add a fair amount of nitrogen to feed those seeds.
As we are planting in bird pens, our nitrogen levels are already in place so I would always plant in excess of 45,000 seeds per acre with excellent results. The company has a 5-row planter spaced 18 inches apart. I used an old John Deere with 38-inch rows and would plant once through and then on the next pass drop the plater in-between the first set of rows. This gives us the desired population and will result in a very nice thick cover in the pens.
Broadcasting and lightly disking in is an option as well if you can calibrate the broadcaster to the correct population.
The second best would be if as your corn came to spike and then to 3 leaves, you go out and scout your pens you see some type of grass, perhaps foxtail. I would say great, we have this. Get out your paintbrush and get artsy and grow some incredible cover. Let it all come up to the corn is 5 to 7 leaves, then spray the grass with half a dose of Accent. This figures to 1/3 ounce to the acre. I would put that much in 20 gallons of water and spray it over 1 acre of pens. It will not kill the grass, no-no. You only want to hurt its feelings. Let the corn get out ahead of it, it will canopy and the grass will struggle to come up as well. Soon you will have 6-foot corn and 2 feet of grass throughout. That is about perfect.
There are some situations, where we have to bite the bullet and allow the ragweed to grow for an early cover. The good part is it gives us a lot of protection from the elements early. The bad parts are, that allowing growing it can tear up the tops of pens, rip the top apart by divider fences and leave nothing underneath, just stalks that resemble bamboo.
In general, broad leaves are superior to grass, simply because they tend to stand up better and longer than grass, which will mat down quickly. What you do not want is mustard, velvetleaf, or buttonweed and thistles. These should always be eradicated in your pens early by spray before they can go to seed so not to come back another year. 2-4-D is an excellent spray for this purpose.
Learn to be creative with your tilling and spray. Generally speaking, the earlier you can get out in the pens and till, the better. Scout continually. Right after a rain, and when the weather warms the vegetation in the pens will germinate and pop up overnight. Many of us know what areas will have what growth, but as you get bigger, or just older and more forgetful, it is best to keep maps and notes on all of your pens as well and journal all of the work you do in them from tilling to planting, to spraying and rainfall and temperature. Keeping track of all of these conditions and dates thereof. After 2 or 3 years of this, you will have a real good idea of what to expect and how to deal with it.
Still sometimes a new plant you do not want will pop up. It may come in with some straw, or a wild bird will poop one out on a fence post, or the wind will blow them in. Just always be ready.
When I came back to the main office after my last Canada tour at the end of November, I was asked to weigh in on a new approach to pen planting. I thought it was a great idea, and this is what was suggested:
Once again, till ASAP, and this time plant oats in the pen. If the ground is not frozen and it's dry enough to plant, this can be done as early as late February. That crop should jump up and suppress any other growth. Then in mid to late April, go back in and plant corn. The thinking is 2 fold. First, when the corn begins to spike then go to 3 leaves, there will be enough oats to occupy the birds. The second is to have the corn go to the canopy and beyond and still have an undergrowth at the birds-eye view. If this works I recommend to the company we use this in all pens where we have a perineal ragweed issue.
Most of us will use our pens for early birds, sell those off and reuse them a second time. The nice thing about Lambsquarter, it will regenerate the lower leaf area if the weather is still warm. It will do this even with young birds in the pens. Even with that, we will have very little undergrowth in the pens, so our density should be less for the first couple of weeks the birds are outside, longer if possible.
If there is corn growing in the pens, breaking the stalks in half while they are still standing is a great idea if you have the labor force to do it.
As important as the cover is, thick undergrowth, tall canopies, and correct density, open space in the right place in the right amounts are critical.
Generally speaking, 25% of the pens need to be open. This gives the birds space to dry out and sun after a rain event or even a heavy dew. We do not want them competing for open space any more than we want them competing for cover space.
The way I found out this percentage was this. At one time I had a lot of pens that were 30,000 square feet, or almost ¾ of an acre. I also had a 6-foot mower behind my tractor. Across the entire area of the pen, (I called them the fronts, the company here calls them the backs) where the feeders and waters are was mowed 15 feet back. I also mowed a perimeter and across in the pen. It just seemed like a good idea to do this. It worked well and the birds did great. Then I got a call to speak on pen cover at a national convention. At that time I needed to know exactly what the open space was. I measured and it turned out it was 25%.
When I looked at different pen sizes and looked at what I was mowing 25% was the benchmark.
As the summer progresses, it may be necessary to go back into the pens and open things up if they get too overgrown.
Furthermore managing the growth in your pens, any grass that may be along fence lines on the inside is best left for the birds to peck at and takedown. Broadleaves, however, should be sprayed and taken down. Again 2-4-D is good for this, that way if there is any grass it will remain. This will protect the tops from being ripped off of the divider fences and make moving the birds out an easier chore.
How you handle the outside fence is a personal preference. For years I used 2-4-D on the outside as well and then mowed the grass. I felt the grassroots gave the fence more stability. The conventional wisdom now is to just spray roundup on the outside so the pens are easily inspected by driving by and it eliminates the mowing. With the newer pen construction the sod base is not critical, as instead of digging a trench and burying the bottom one foot, the bottom of the fence is flared out one foot and covered with gravel.
Space, The Final Frontier
I have spoken a lot about space today as well as cover. Although the density and open space are important, more will go into your formula. Feeder space and water space are very important as well, so it takes these combinations along with the good cover, and open space to produce a good-looking, high-performance flight bird.
In conclusion, growing and maintaining flight bird cover on your farm and in your particular situation can and will be an ever-changing challenge. It is something that needs planning and the ability to change, sometimes in mid-stream. Observe, scout early, and keep good records. Those things will pay you great dividends.