Photograph by Joe Mac Hudspeth, Jr. · www.southernfocus.com
Grassy Corn for Wintering Ducks
From the Spring 2009 issue
States north of Mississippi like Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska produce mega-tons of corn annually for human and domestic animal consumption. Mississippi too is increasing its production of corn (>$350 million in 2008) on land in the Delta and elsewhere generally where cotton is grown. But, waterfowl scientists at Mississippi State University and managers around the Delta have been growing and experimenting with “Grassy Corn” for waterfowl habitat.
Grassy corn is not a new variety of seed that you buy at a local seed dealer . It’s merely the “coexistence” of corn and natural grasses in lowland croplands or other fields that can be pumped or naturally flood for wintering waterfowl.
In the spring 2007 issue of Delta Wildlife, we introduced the concept of “grassy corn.” Based on preliminary research, the MSU scientists reported that ‘grassy corn’ can increase potential available food energy for ducks about ten-fold per acre, because corn generally yields more bushels of seed and has a greater energy value for waterfowl than natural grass and other moist-soil seeds.
An expert at producing grassy corn is Rance Moring, manager of York Woods near Charleston, Mississippi. Co-author Rance Moring offers his recipe for successfully producing “grassy corn”.
York Woods Grassy Corn Recipe
Seed spacing is the most critical part of managing grassy corn, so the corn and natural grasses receive abundant sunlight. I plant on 38 inch rows and space the corn plants 6 to 9 inches apart within rows. This spacing results in about 18,500 to 22,000 seeds per acre. If corn is planted too densely, it will shade out the grass understory which is a key component of ‘grassy corn.’
Corn variety is a personal preference, but I recommend using a Glyphosphate resistant strain to enable herbicide treatment if unwanted noxious weeds appear such as coffeeweed, sicklepod, cocklebur, and vines. I plant as early as possible (mid-April) to take advantage of spring rains that help corn growth and promote production of barnyard, sprangletop, and other grasses that produce abundant seeds for use by wintering ducks.
I use a starter In-Furrow fertilizer of 10-34-0 at approximately 5 gallons per acre. After planting and achieving a successful stand of corn, I start lay-by when plants are around 12 to 18 inches tall. I apply nitrogen in the form of Ensol at an cumulative rate of 100 units per acre (remember, I used starter fertilizer also). Nitrogen fertilizations is followed by an application of Glyphosphate. This timely herbicide application gives the corn plant a head start on grass competition and allows abundant sunlight to reach between the rows and promote germination and growth of grasses and sedges. Remember you are managing corn and grass, so you want to see both corn and grasses mature successfully.”
After grassy corn fields are flooded in fall-winter, they provide corn and abundant moist-soil grass/sedge seeds, tubers, and aquatic invertebrates—the latter of which are critical sources of protein for ducks. The flooded grass under the corn is critical habitat for invertebrates. Indeed, the combination of high-energy corn, the stalks providing cover for waterfowl, and the protein-rich invertebrates—all within ‘swimming space’ for waterfowl—make flooded grassy corn a ‘duck magnet’ especially for mallards and other dabbling ducks.
However, beware that snow and other geese have strong preference for grassy corn too. So, if you are bothered by geese, you may want to limit corn production and maximize moist-soil plant management, which provides excellent habitat for dabbling and diving ducks. The small seeds produced by moist-soil plants are difficult morsels for geese to grub and ingest.
Dr. Rick Kaminski is a Professor of Wildlife and Chair of the James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation. Rance Moring is the Manager of the York Woods near Charleston, MS.