Spring is in the air, meaning that for many private landowner’s next year’s duck season begins right now–it’s time to start implementing waterfowl habitat plans, whipping those duck holes into shape. But how to begin? Building on previous discussions, Ramsey meets with wildlife biologist Kevin Nelms to discuss moist-soil vegetation management specifics, covering habitat types, natural most-soil vegetation values, water drawdown strategies and plant responses. As USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wildlife Biologist in the Mississippi Delta, Nelms has spent the past couple decades designing and developing numerous private-lands waterfowl impoundments. He’s worked extensively with private landowners throughout the region, improving desirable waterfowl habitat conditions, enhancing duck utilization, even putting together a handbook that Ramsey considers must-have staple for waterfowl habitat management (refer to related links in the episode description for your own PDF copy).
Ramsey Russell: And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I’m glad you all could join us today. And today’s guest is no stranger, in fact, we’re going to do a small little series, it’s that time of year, my truck here in Mississippi is absolutely covered in piling. The Red Maple have been blooming, the azelian have been blooming, the world has woke up. Now, we’re months away from duck season right now here in Mississippi, that’s much behind us in the rearview mirror. But now is when next duck season starts in terms of habitat. Kevin, how are you today?
Kevin Nelms: I’m great. How about you?
Ramsey Russell: I’m doing good, man. Glad to see you again. How did your duck season go or did you have a duck season this year?
Kevin Nelms: Yeah, I can’t complain, Ramsey, I’ve judged every duck season now against probably 15 years ago, you try to forget the year, so I can’t quote the year, but I know how or about the age of my son and so I’m going to say it was 2004 or 2005 somewhere in there, I fired one shot all season and me and this guys were devoid of ducks. And so, my memory goes back a while, that was just a horrible season and I’ve had a lot of people, a lot of landowners tell me this year, oh, this is the worst season ever. Well, it was not for me, it wasn’t the greatest season ever. It was in the bottom 5 in Mississippi probably. But 2019 was worse, definitely whatever year that was, I’m trying to forget back there was worse, but this year wasn’t bad and I’ve told you before, I don’t hunt anymore just to say I’m hunting, I hunt and when I’ve scouted and feel like I’ve got some ducks that I can hunt. So, it was not bad, it was –
Ramsey Russell: I wouldn’t qualify this season as the worst ever, they’re all just stand alone and they’re all good because I go regardless. But 83° on New Year’s Day that’s nothing to get excited about, the cold front didn’t really hit until January this year. And what I see, Kevin is, I think this is relative to today’s conversation is what I see is, take the state of Mississippi only or any given state, the ducks seem to distribute differently each year. Some year in Mississippi they will be down to South Delta, some year they will be over in the North Delta, some year to be through out and I wonder what that’s a function of maybe water, maybe habitat.
Kevin Nelms: I definitely think it’s a function of habitat and water. The Delta is – sometimes you got South Delta flood, sometimes you got North Delta floods, sometimes those floods during the growing season affect the habitat. This year and I had a lot of calls from the South Delta hunt very Sharkey though those areas, people swearing to me that their water control structures were leaking and these are guys that are in Memphis or in Jackson or whatever during the week and they’re not realizing that the rain they’re getting at home is not happening in Humphreys County or Sharkey County. And the South Delta had a drought, a horrible drought, it was drier in January in the South Delta than it was in August this past year.
Ramsey Russell: It was so easy getting up and down, I wasn’t at our camp for a lot this year because I was traveling. But the times I was here, the roads were so easy getting up and down, they weren’t rudded up so bad at all, that’s my indicator, that’s my barometer of a wet season with the condition of our roads and it was a pleasure to get down. I thought about having this podcast and was reminded us this time I mentioned earlier, the Red Maple blooms and that’s the first thing I noticed when – and I never missed it. It’s like, I can remember where I am every year, that I’m driving down the road to walk up my front door and boom there is a Red Maple blooming because that’s to me as a forester, as a true sign of time, a lot of my background, my formal education was in Bottomland Hardwood Civil Culture GTR management things of that nature and that’s the time of year, okay, plants are waking up, it’s time to get this water moving, it’s time to start thinking about next year and I happened to call Mr. Ian and who is very instrumental in habitat management at this place, had been for 20 something years and asked him how it was going and he’s right on top of it, already sent out a spreadsheet of things he wants to get done this year and it’s that time of year to really start thinking about what these duck holes are going to look like next year.
Kevin Nelms: Yeah. I think you said last time we talked, well, it’s duck management season somewhere for sure. Absolutely, we get this time of year, your indicator is the Maples blooming and to me that’s I need to be listening for a turkey gobbling. My indicator on moving water is when I start seeing willow seeds blowing around, that’s what makes me think about moving water. I think we left the last fall, we talked in the fall about fall management considerations, we left that with, you need to be thinking about next year, you need to be planning what worked, what didn’t work? Where am I going next year? And so, what you should have already been thinking about now is what do I want this year? What am I trying to achieve? What’s going to be moist soil? What’s going to be emerging marsh? What am I doing, where? What’s my management scheme like you said, Ian’s got a spreadsheet for every hole.
Ramsey Russell: He’s got a spreadsheet for everything in his life, but especially with the habitat.
“The Awakening of Nature: Red Maple Blooms Mark the Arrival of Spring”
The Red Maple blooms and that’s the first thing I noticed and that’s the time of year, okay, plants are waking up.
Kevin Nelms: Well, that’s PhD in him and even that professor in him. But anyway, we talked at length before about succession and wetland types and moist soil management is your first wetland type and then emergent marsh and we talked in the fall a whole lot about – I told you that what a lot of people keyed in on was invertebrate holes, I had talked about invertebrate holes and I said in the fall, that’s really emergent marsh as you’re holding water longer. So are you looking to do that this year where you’re not going to pull a board? Have you identified? We talked in the beginning about looking at your habitat and the habitat around you and what’s missing on all those wetland types that we talked about. Have you identified that, hey, what might be missing around here is some shrubs scrub, so I need to start working towards some shrubs scrub, so that’s identifying what holes is that going to be and we’re not going to pull boards there and we’re going to let it start moving over time to the woody component. Are we going to plant some food? Wherever our food plots going to be? So, it’s just, what’s our plan and where are we going? And we’re rapidly approaching and even past sometimes on when you need to do a drawdown, so let’s just talk about drawdown timing. We talked last time about the first 45 days of growing seasons is early drawdown, second 45 days is what we call midseason drawdown and then the remainder of the growing season. So, how do we figure out what growing season we’re in? Growing season wherever our listeners at is identified as when – it’s not your last freeze because growing season starts before you get your last freeze.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, heck yeah, go look at my front yard with all them weeds.
Kevin Nelms: That’s exactly what I was going to say, Ramsey is, you can go Google it and you can look, there’s USDA zones and those hardiness zones that are tied to dates and those kind of things. But the really common sense way to look at it is, is when are those weeds starting to grow in your yard? If you pay somebody to take care of your yard, look at your neighbor’s yard or come look at my yard, so what’s going on in your yard, yard weeds start growing, you’ve got growing season. So, wherever you are, that’s your first 45 days. Look at the farmers’ fields and what’s growing out there in their field that they’re getting ready to disc up or spray because they’re going to plant. Early season, the research, the science tells us that that early season drawdowns give you the most seed, but it doesn’t always give you the most preferred food. It’s favoring broad leaves more than it’s favoring grasses, although there is some early grass germination period. The one thing about us here, far south and just draw a line across the southern US, we’ve got such a long growing season, if you use an early drawdown, you’re going to produce some seed, but lots of times you’re going to lose a lot of that seed because it matures, it falls off, it germinates again, everything else out there in the world is eating it, you got other birds before the ducks get here eating that, you’ve got mice and rats and all kinds of stuff, eating all that seed, you’re germinating seed and losing it because of that. So early season might not be the best thing for you.
Ramsey Russell: But wait a minute now, because let’s talk about, you say broad leaf, I’m thinking early drawdown around here in month of May first 45 days, especially if it’s quick, we’re liable to get a lot of desirable smart weed.
Kevin Nelms: That’s right. And that’s one of the main ones that you’re going to get is smartweed. Early drawdown when I think of early drawdown in Mississippi, I think of smart weed. But lots of times you’re going to get a monotypic smartweed stand and there’s nothing wrong if that’s what you’re looking for. I got a good friend that’s a biologist in Missouri, that’s got some shallow units that don’t lend themselves to later drawdowns in that zonation that we’ve talked about and that’s what he targets is smart weed and he takes it off early and he’s got phenomenal results from that, so it’s what are you looking for? The other reason to do early drawdowns is – because you are going to plant some crop, let’s go ahead and get the water off and get it dry. And then the other reason that I typically recommend to people, this is probably where I do go to early drawdown a lot is, you’ve got to do a hard reset, you haven’t done your disturbance like here on your place, sometimes you get in that situation because you’ve got floods, you’ve bought a property, nobody’s ever managed the property for whatever reason, it hasn’t been reset in a while or you’re just now starting to listen to us and decide that you’re going to do some management. So do an early drawdown, get the water off and come in and disc and do a hard reset. Now, when I say hard reset, I mean, disc it, disc it hard, turn some seed over and then because you’ve done that as early as you can, then it’s time to come behind it and plant something to salvage your duck hole for the year. So, that’s what I’m thinking about in an early season is, like you said, smart weed, I’m going to food plot that hole or I need to reset that hole, I’ve got to get in there. So then the second 45 days mid-season –
Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, let’s talk a little bit more about this, let’s circle back a minute. First, let’s talk about how important it is – I’m circling back to the planning part, we’re going to drawdown early, we’re going to drawdown bit or late and different things, but just talk about based on this plan, based on what I’m going to do, when I’m going to drawdown, why I’m going to drawdown, what I’m trying to create relative to my surrounding environment, not just my duck hole, not just my property and my farm, but the landscape. Well, how important is that?
Kevin Nelms: We talked about that, I guess in the first series that we did about the different habitat types and what ducks need and that 12 mile radius complex that we talked about and having all those habitat types. So, it’s extremely important to hold ducks on your property and the surrounding properties of having all those habitat types. So, you’ve identified where you’re lacking hopefully and heading to that, so you might need an early drawdown to get there, you might not be doing a drawdown at all to get there. But definitely you should have a plan in mind based on those things we’ve talked about in those different habitat types.
Ramsey Russell: When you talk about these reasons to pull water down early season or different times of year, how might that change in an open empowerment, a cypress break, a button bush hole, you see what I’m saying? Is there a distinction? And in the response I’m going to get among those different habitat type. For example, I’ll go here, I’m thinking a button bush, I got a thick it out here, I’ve got a swag just loaded with button bush, very clumpy, if I hold that water on later in the growing season, I’m going to contain that button bush, maybe I want to, maybe I don’t. If I start pulling that water off that button bush is going to – those canopies are going to explode.
Kevin Nelms: So you’re really getting into what I would call mismanagement, when you start taking some of these habitats, that the reason they’re that habitat, like I said, shrub scrub which is button, as you’re describing, buck brush, willows, whatever, it’s there because that water’s been held on there for – button bush grows in 3ft of water or less, through a regime that’s got water on it basically throughout the year and it hasn’t been disturbed in basically 6 years or longer.
Ramsey Russell: See, it’s easy for me to get my mind wrapped around. Like, when we start talking about these programs, I always find myself gaining tunnel vision, food. But at the same time, if I’ve got a little swagger, I’ve got a little natural wetland over here slab full of button bush, like you describe, this is the time of year, especially in this property in South Delta, this time of year that I’ve likely got wood duck broods that are going to use this and to go in and drain it or change that habitat, that’s going to kick me into cojones, this spring I’m going to have less wood ducks, you know, what I’m saying? That’s what I’m trying to spell out, there’s more than just food as an objective.
Kevin Nelms: Right. And when I start talking about drawdown timing, I’m not talking about all of these wetland types, I’m just talking about your moist soil. So, we’re talking moist soil management right now, these other wetland types that, you’re discussing, emergent marsh, shrub scrub, those wetland types, you’re holding water on them and you’re probably holding water on them throughout the year. So, we’re just getting in the drawdown on moist soil management right now. So probably good to distinguish that and –
“Holding Ducks on Your Property: Strategies for Providing Optimal Habitat Conditions”
Monitoring and Research, Landscaping Practices, Water Management, Food Resources, Wetland Restoration.
Ramsey Russell: Leave it to me to wrap us around, but go ahead.
Kevin Nelms: My fault I didn’t go there. So we talked about early drawdown, like I said, there’s some specific reasons to do that. And I think I’ve mentioned this before, we’ve done some research with Mississippi State on moist soil properties and what gives us our best response for both vegetation and birds is mid and late season drawdowns. And I told you that early season will give you the most seed response, but it’s not always the desirable plants. So your midseason drawdowns, gives you your grasses, late season drawdowns, give you your grasses. So midseason favors grasses, what I tell everybody in Mississippi is, there’s really no reason to pull a board before April 15th for a few reasons. We’ve got a long growing season so that early season drawdown is usually going to bite us from seed loss, the other thing is you just mentioned it. Not only do we have wood duck broods on the ground and that kind of stuff, we’re holding ducks lots of years still into the beginning of April. Those lazy ducks that just hadn’t gone north yet for whatever reason, maybe body condition or whatever.
Ramsey Russell: That’s an incredible point you bring up and not to interrupt you, Kevin again. But there seems to be – and I can understand if you’re going to schedule to plant a crop or something in here and I’ve got to get in early, corn or milo or whatever it takes a long time to plant in this duck hole. But you may bring up such a great point that we do have time in the Deep South, we do got a long growing season, we can get started in April and May on a lot of this stuff, especially moist soil management. But I was down in Central America just 2 weeks ago and they’re still of bukoos of ducks. I was talking to a biologist down in Louisiana who is actively banding ducks right now and based on telemetry studies or telemetry backpacks with one of his graduate students, there is a shit pile load of blue wings still south of the border, that’s going to put them up here in these wetlands in March and April. I mean, don’t I want my waterfowl to imprint on my property, I mean, I’ve worked all last year cultivating this habitat, managing his habitat and now it’s really going on and here’s a chance without any hunting pressure without any disturbance for a duck to just come in and live on my property and hopefully remember it when he comes back through next year. I mean, that’s a big reason to me to leave water on a little bit later if I can.
Kevin Nelms: So, I get asked the question that you’re asking right now all the time and what we’re talking about is philopatry, do ducks imprint on certain wetlands, certain places and go back there year after year. And we’ve known from research for years and years that philopatry occurs on the breeding grounds, those hens are going back to the same wetland that they were raised on lots of times and raising their broods. There was no research that proved that philopatry occurred on the wintering grounds. And so when I would get that question, I’d always tell people just what I told you, there’s no research that proves that there’s philopatry on the wintering grounds. I said, and I would tell people if you think about it, ducks are going to go where the food is on the wintering grounds and that’s not always the same every year. So there’s not always a reason to have philopatry on the wintering grounds. But the other thing I would tell people is, number one, in the south, in the agricultural communities we’re in, people are pulling boards the day after duck season and all those ducks got to disperse somewhere, well, let them disperse to your property because if there is such a thing as wintering philopatry, wintering ground philopatry, let’s have it on your property because that’s where you want it.
Ramsey Russell: I think they’re starting to demonstrate though, Kevin, I really think they’re starting to demonstrate because man, back in those days there wasn’t such thing as all these little backpack monitors you put on the birds and I never will forget, Doug Osburn describing to me, one of his landowners sons shooting a hen wigeon 7ft from where it had been banded 3 seasons prior and that speaks to me, I’m like, wait a minute.
Kevin Nelms: I was getting ready to go there, I was telling you what I’ve always told people and just in the last what 3 years Ramsey, maybe at the most 6 years we’ve got all these southern radio telemetry studies where they’re putting radios on duck, see them where they’re going, see them where they’re coming back and I haven’t heard any scientist, any PhD scientist call it wintering ground philopatry, but you might as well. Because what they’re seeing is basically these ducks are returning to the same neighborhood, maybe not the same wetland, but the same neighborhood where they found good habitat last year, they’re expecting to find good habitat this year, they survived last year and so they’re coming back to the same general areas. So just here recently, some of the radio telemetry studies that’s being done on southern ducks are showing, again, I haven’t heard anybody call it philopatry but it’s absolutely neighborhood philopatry, let’s call it.
Ramsey Russell: You got to figure if you went to a tailgate party at Mississippi State University and they had some really good hamburgers and you invited any time to come through there that next time you’re walking through fire points, you might swing by the same tent just to see if they got them hamburgers on the grill again. I mean, you got to figure that when they come down, they’re going to at least see, they’re going to check in on it now. I just think there’s a lot of incentive and I just also remember this changed forever the way I think about duck hunting because last year you and I were sitting in a wetland and waterfowl meeting up in Louisville, Mississippi and a Fish & Wildlife service manager of an inviolate sanctuary, a crown jewel piece of property up in the North Delta and the manager of an elite incredible piece of property, these two properties are 2 maybe 3 miles apart and based on all this band recoveries and telemetry and all this kind of stuff, they were able to describe to us that the ducks on this property and the ducks on this property and we’re talking a bunch of ducks separated by two miles are independent populations and that just changed everything. I mean, these ducks, they’re coming in to – the word philopatry may not apply but they are queued to certain areas some of these birds are.
Kevin Nelms: And that’s what they call them is independent populations, that they weren’t mixing and that’s why I say you might as well call it philopatry because they’re going to the same wetlands and staying there. So, absolutely, we got off on the side, but that’s about holding water later, that’s one of the reasons to do it. Not only are we getting good, moist soil response, but if we can, we’re imprinting ducks, we’re definitely holding habitat later and ducks need habitat later just for the reason I mentioned about people pulling all their boards. But the other thing is, like on your property here, you get flooding in the spring. Why are we going to do early season drawdown and start germinating something and then we get it covered with flood water.
Ramsey Russell: I was going to mention this, we start talking moist soil management, what I’ve learned getting dirt under my fingernails doing this for a lot of times and especially talking to smart guys like yourself, it’s a combination of art and science, but then you throw mother nature into the mix –
Kevin Nelms: You got to work with what you got.
“Unlocking the Secrets of Moist Soil Management: Where Artistry Meets Scientific Understanding”
I’ve learned getting dirt under my fingernails doing this for a lot of times, it’s a combination of art and science and Mother Nature.
Ramsey Russell: You better be flexible. And on this particular property, I learned person or persons went out and pulled the boards right after duck season, I’m guessing they probably want to go plant some ag or do something like that, who knows why? But talking to Mr. Ian, I’m like, man, that’s always been the recipe for some of the best moist soil habitat we’ve had is because – Ian is always pushing the reset button. I mean, despite 20 years of him out in these wetlands discing and planting and disturbing and always at a microscopic level sometimes, Kevin picking around these duck holes for 20 years, there’s always some form of disturbance going on and it’s been my observation is that I can ease the water off early mid. But boy, when this lower delta back floods, so the water came off in January, early February and now it eased back on and when it comes off, probably midseason, we’re fixing to talk about, it’s going to come off slowly and it’s going to be gangbuster natural grass habitat like you’ve never seen, it’s always like that, it’s like the best recipe. And I know the boy that pulled the boards didn’t have that in mind, but it is important, you know what I’m saying? To me, it’s something about the off and on and off again of water really mimics a natural cycle, that environment like.
Kevin Nelms: Well, and I think we’ve talked about this before. The whole science of moist soil management is trying to replicate what Mother Nature does on your duck hole. Like I think I talked the first time about, Frank Bellrose identified moist soil management in the Illinois river bottom, described what was happening with flood in the Illinois river bottoms and the plant response behind it. And Lee Frederickson said, hey, we can do that, all we got to do is have water control structures. So, that’s what we’re doing when we put in water control structures, we don’t put in water control structures to hold water over the winter, we can do that with an open pipe and a piece of plywood. We put in water control structures to manage it down in the spring and to manage it back up in the fall to mimic that natural wetland cycle that you just described. And what you described is, hey, it might go dry in February, but we’re getting a flood here and then Mother Nature is going to take it off naturally and that flood is going to be slow. So, that’s what we’re doing with that water control structure. So, mid midseason drawdowns is my go to start.
Ramsey Russell: We’re talking about the second 45 days period of the official growing season more or less.
Kevin Nelms: Second 45 days, that’s your start. And so then we’re not pulling all boards at once, we’re pulling one board at a time, we’re doing that slow drawdown that we’ve talked about before. And the other thing is, and I’ve talked about this is, if you’ve got multiple holes, don’t do everything the same, variety is the spice of life even for a duck. Okay, you’re holding one for invertebrate emergent marsh hole, you got 2 more, 3 more whatever you’re going to do moist soil management on, start one on April 15th, start another one on May 15th, maybe the other one, we’re not even going to pull a board till June or something, you’ve got multiple holes, don’t do the same thing. And like I said, your listeners are everywhere, so that’s why you need to know what your season is, know how long your season is, know what you’ve got to play with them. Like you said, we’ve got a lot of time in the Deep South but other people don’t have that. So that’s why I said, know your growing season, know your 45 day increments and work in those. And your late season drawdown, it’s favoring the grasses too, just like the midseason. But it’s also really important for the invertebrates, it’s holding those invertebrates for your other birds, for your teal, for your wading birds, for your shore birds and then it doesn’t have as long of a dry regime, so it’s going to have faster invertebrates on the back end like we talked about in the fall when we start flooding back up. So there’s extra incentive to do a late season drawdown, which is probably the reason that research that I talked about was showing the bird response is more invertebrate or just as much invertebrate as it is moist soil. So, that’s what your drawdowns are going to get you, that’s what’s going to be favored by those drawdowns, if you’ve got multiple holes, vary them, don’t do everything the same and then I told you my rule of thumb in the Deep South and this is going to apply anywhere in the world really is, when your nighttime temperatures are consistently mid-70s, stop pulling boards and let Mother Nature take over. And then as you dry out, pull a board behind that dry out and what that’s doing is continuing to mimic that natural drawdown, when you’ve got mid-70s temperatures at night, you’ve got consistent 90s during the day and you’re doing a lot of evaporation and so that evaporation is already doing your moist soil management. So you’re stopping trying to mimic Mother Nature and letting Mother Nature take over to do your moist soil management.
Ramsey Russell: If you go to any given duck hole here anywhere, really, you do get a mixture of birds using those habitats, because you were talking about the spice of life, I’m getting back to it. It’s also got a function of some of these species are going to prefer different water depths, different species composition at different times of year. So, I think it behooves us all to have a variety, I mean, mallards, let’s just pick on a species, mallards, they’re generalist, but they’re going to favor certain areas more over others. Green wing teal, totally different species, they’re going to favor certain grasses, certain feeds at different times of year. You may shoot them all on any given day, but they’re going to come in and out of these areas. And I think, if you want to create, the best hunting situation, you need to have that variety sitting in there, I think you do.
Kevin Nelms: You brought up one of the – we’ve done so many of these now, I don’t know which one it was, but you brought up one time –
Ramsey Russell: A lot of people hadn’t heard some of the previous yet.
Kevin Nelms: Well, maybe they’ll go back and listen. You brought up one of the times in the past about me observing as we were in a wetland together about how the zonation works with the species and your last stuff to germinate is your smallest seed, which is your pintail and your teal foods, which are your early migrants and that gets to exactly what you’re talking about. When I do a moist soil management class in person. I’ve got a graph that I show are a visual that I show that’s based on research that’s feeding depths just what you’re talking about, those preferred feeding depths. 0 to 2 inches is teal and then you go deeper with some of – gadwalls are vegetation eaters, so they’re not on the spectrum really. But I’m trying to think what’s on there. So, teal are on there, mallards are on there mallards are really, like you said, they’re a generalist, but they prefer basically 6 inches and less.
Ramsey Russell: They’re all dabblers, we’re talking dabbler and so obviously, a green wing tail is going to dabble in shallow water because you got a shorter neck than a mallard.
Kevin Nelms: Well, and your puddle duck, your dabbler that goes the deepest is your pintail because it’s got a longer name. And then, I tell people when I’m on the property and they say something about shovelers, I said, well, shovelers are telling you right away that you’re too deep, that you flooded too deep because shovelers are your deepest one of all just because they’re a filter feeder and they’re filtering everything. You’re basically keeping some of your other puddle ducks out of your habitat if you’ve got shelters because you’re flooded too deep. So that’s a good barometer. But yeah, you’re absolutely – the spice of life, the different zones, the different depths, all that’s important, which is why we talk about how to flood and moving water slowly back on it. So, we talked about timing, let’s talk a little bit about drawdown length, slow drawdown one board every 10 to 14 days is mimicking that Mother Nature, we’re mimicking the evaporation. So we want to do a slow drawdown unless you’ve got some reason to reset and you just want to pull everything all at one time or you’ve got some reason to do a fast drawdown, your slow drawdown always gives you the best results, it maintains your soil moisture. We talked about that before is, you’ve got to have soil moisture to keep the mud flat wet, you’ve got to have a pool of moisture below the mud flat to whip moisture up the mud flat, keep the mud flat wet and grow moist soil plants instead of upland plants. The other thing that the slow drawdown does is, it gives you that diversity of plants that zonation that I keep mentioning, you germinate these plants for this period, another 14 days, you reveal that mud flat and get some other plants then germinate. And it does that great job of mimicking, that’s really drawdown in a nutshell season and length.
Ramsey Russell: We’re talking today about moist soil management, natural weeds grow out here in this wetland, let’s just harp on the value of this habitat component. Let’s talk a little bit about – we’re looking at seed production, broad leaf versus grasses, different seed sizes, different time and stuff like that they’re available, they do their thing. We’re looking at waterfowl cover different kinds of cover and we’re also looking at they are an important invertebrate substrate. What other values do we have, they’re more resilient to army worm degradation or climatical variables. I mean, these moist soils, they exist forever. Like I remember a previous podcast and if you guys hadn’t heard some of these other podcasts we’ve done with Kevin Nelms, go take a look, just search wetlands for waterfowl in the directory and you’ll find it. I never forget we talked about, they have found yancopin seeds in Egyptian tombs from thousands of years ago and it went out and went out cultivated and it grew, thousands of years. Now, that’s an extreme, but at the same time, you’re talking about a reset button, disturbing the soil, it doesn’t matter, I mean, I guess you could go into a roundup ready field that’s been round up ready for a long time. And still, if you dug deep enough and disturb that soil enough, there’s a seed bank sitting in there. It’s just waiting for its chance to come out and continue the family tradition of being a weed.
Kevin Nelms: And we proved that on these WRP sites that we take out of agriculture, they’ve been round up ready and like you said, for years, a lot of them are just solid bean, there’s not a rotation.
Ramsey Russell: Round up ready beans for a decade.
“Shelter and Security: How Different Covers Benefit Waterfowl Populations”
It’s important to look at seed production, broad leaf versus grasses, different seed sizes, different time and stuff like that for perfect cover.
Kevin Nelms: Round up ready beans for a decade or more. And as soon as we take that bean off of there and put some water on it and do a little – usually you don’t even have to do disturbance because the disturbance was done when they planted the crop last year, there’s a seed bank that’s going to come up and I get asked that question a lot when I talk about moist soil management, what do we got to do? Where do we get this seed? It’s there, you don’t have to go get it, it’s in the seed bank, it’s every weed that every farmer that is fighting, that’s what you’re looking for is those native plants. And so you mentioned some things there and like I said, we’ve talked about it in the past, so what is the benefit of moist soil? It’s all those other things that crops aren’t. I talked about this, I talk bad about crops really for a good bit in the podcast.
Ramsey Russell: Hot crops have a place, we’ve established that, hot crops have their place as a part of an overall plan and relative to the landscape. I mean, I can tell you if I lived in a total agricultural landscape wall to wall and I’m thinking of parts of Arkansas, Northeast Arkansas where it’s just out to the horizon, it’s nothing but agriculture, that’d be my dream would be to have just a section of moist soil, you know what I’m saying? Assume I could afford it, but it would draw ducks because it’s something that satisfy life like requirements that agriculture ain’t providing.
Kevin Nelms: And that’s where I was going is, what we’ve talked about in the past is crops, our carbohydrates and there are a few other things but they’re not a balanced diet, so that duck has to go somewhere else to balance that diet and that’s what moist soil is. It’s amino acids, it’s vitamins, it’s protein, it’s all those other things that they need for their life cycle, it’s invertebrate habitat which is giving your protein and your calcium and those kind of things. So it’s balancing the diet, it’s needed, they can’t live on just grain alone, so they’ve got to go balance their diet and they’re looking for moist soil, whether it’s naturally occurring or whether we’re managing it and if we’re managing it, it’s there in a greater abundance. And if you’re a duck or any kind of wildlife and got to find your own food, then you go somewhere where you can find it in great abundance because then it’s easier.
Ramsey Russell: Will ducks eat Milo? I’ve got an opinion, I just want to hear yours.
Kevin Nelms: Yeah. Well, I’m not going to say no, yes, ducks will eat Milo, so let’s talk about Milo for a minute. Milo has been bred to be bird resistant. Milo is considered to be bird resistance, the red color in Milo is actually tannic acid. Tannic acid is a digestive inhibitor in birds, especially songbirds. Now, it’s not as big a digestive inhibitor in ducks than it is in other birds, there’s also white Milo which is not bird proof and that’s what’s put into your bags of bird food mix, bird seed that you put in your bird feeder. So Milo will get eaten by ducks. What I tell people, every food crop we can talk about has its pros and cons. What I tell people about Milo is it holds its seeds so well that just about everything else eats it before a duck ever gets here, it’s a black birds will hobble on it and you get flocks of black birds are migrating, but the one thing about Milo, if you think about a corn field, a flooded corn field, mid duck season or earlier, there’s no leaves left on that corn, it’s just a stalk and years of corn, there’s not a lot of cover to cornfield, there’s a lot of cover in a Milo field. Those leaves are big and wide, they stay on there all winter long and they’re low to the ground and they provide a lot of cover and ducks love to get into Milo and swim around and use it as cover and I’m not even so sure, sometimes it doesn’t act as some thermal cover because it’s so thick. It’s just a good habitat type form that you don’t have with corn that you don’t have with rice or something else. Is it a great food? No, it’s not a great food. Will they eat it? Yes. Do they get to eat it much? No, not really. Now, harvested Milo, I’ve seen some great ducks on some harvested Milo fields. But like I said, there’s pros and cons of every crop and we can get into that if you want to.
Ramsey Russell: No. But I was curious, I mean, there’s a time and a place for everything that the focus of this is moist soil management, which is an easy, I think – you go into a lot of duck holes, a lot of the habitat types that I hunt everywhere, not going into rice fields and stuff like that, agricultural areas. But when you start hunting some of these breaks, some of these swags, some of these WRP, some of these conservation properties, they’re natural wetlands and when we talk about this property right here, there’s a reason owners 20 or 30 years ago put it in WRP because there is a list at least a mile long of former landowners that tried to farm this low lying area and went broke. They couldn’t farm it, it was too wet, it was too unpredictable, spring flood and early flood and it was too unpredictable. The heavy soils, bottom of the flyway, water collects in the lowest places, a lot of times it was very hard to grow agriculture. And there’s not a reason to have just from here to Canada agriculture. I mean, the ducks can and will and do use other habitat types, so we’re talking about moist soil management. It really truly is a great land use management activity in some of these low lying areas. A lot easier to try to grow spangle top or barnard grass or smart weed on this property than corn or milo. But I see a lot of people plant milo and I’ve just always had my thoughts, I just remember working for US Fish & Wildlife service a quarter century ago and we had to cut out on a refuge, a sanctuary part of it, little co-op with the farmer. And he liked to plant milo because it’s a heavy buckshot clay easy to grow right there and the ducks didn’t need it, they just got in there for thermal cover or something like that, they didn’t utilize it. And if I wanted feed, maybe I could go in and plant some rice and not harvest it or plant or dirty rice especially or anything other than Milo. I just don’t see it as a primary food crop.
Kevin Nelms: Yeah, it’s not a primary food crop. Now, there is – I think the first one was marketed as a wild game food milo, WGF milo or something and there’s some other dwarf milos and food plot milos, there’s a bunch of different names to it out there, depending on who’s marketing. Some of those are, they’re not strictly white milo but they’re less tannic acid, they’ve crossbred them, they’ve crossbred some red milo with some white milo and stuff and so they’ve got less tannic acid. So some of those are probably some better plantings than just straight grain sort or milo that we’re thinking about, that a farmer plants, that’s used as feed. Ramsay, you’re talking about people that went broke, trying to farm this property and in reality, it probably never should have been cleared up and tried to farm and a lot of duck properties are that way, not just in Mississippi, but around the country. What we’re talking about is, is seasonal wetlands got cleared up bottom land, hardwoods, some type of wetland, whether it was emerging marsh in California or what, some type of wetland got drained, got cleared, whatever happened and they started trying to farm seasonally flooded wetlands. Those seasonally flooded wetlands are what we’re talking about, managing the moist soil. So, on your property here that we talk about a lot that we mentioned, it was seasonally flooded hardwoods and the seasonal flooding was backwater coming in from the rivers, snow melt coming south down to Mississippi and these other rivers would back up and you get a seasonally flooded wetland in the spring and then that water draws down slowly just like you were talking about a while ago, the flood water is going to go down slowly, that’s the seasonal flooded moist soil wetland now that we’re talking about, that we’re trying to mimic. Yeah, there was a forest here but there was openings in the forest and that’s what Frank Bellrose was describing in the Illinois River bottom was, there’s sides of the river, there’s beaver swamps that have been abandoned, there’s blowdown where winds came through, there’s single tree blowdown that are big in bottom lands and those were the areas that the moist soil would come in when that seasonal flooding happened. And that’s what we’re just recreating on a grander scale that moist soil wetland is a seasonally flooded opening in the forest now that we’ve created with levees and water control structures and then we’ve planted a forest back around it.
Ramsey Russell: I grew up in the 70s in this part of the world, Kevin. And I mean, it was an ocean of agriculture my entire life, Mississippi Delta was, but you’ve got to ask yourself, what did waterfowl eat on the wintering grounds for centuries preceding the advent of agriculture in these seasonally flooded wetlands, that’s the whole premise of right here.
Kevin Nelms: Yeah, we replaced acorns with crops and they were balancing their diet with these moist soil wetland plants that were scattered throughout this pristine bottom land system that we’re in. So now, we’re where we don’t want to get rid of agriculture because I want to eat just like you want to eat. But where we are restoring some of these bottom land hardwoods, then we want some moist soil openings in there like there used to be.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Kevin, real quickly because I know a lot of our listeners who want to reach out to you and I’m going to post to the description of this episode and all your episodes, I always post that handbook, there’s a PDF online wetlands for waterfowl management that you put together that is, I believe a Bible of sorts for going here in the Deep South, especially and going through these wetlands and looking at all this stuff is spelled out in detail, but how can people get in touch with you?
Kevin Nelms: My email is the best way to get in touch with me. That’s kevin.nelms@USDA.gov.
Ramsey Russell: kevin.nelms@USDA.gov.
Kevin Nelms: That’s right. And hey, while we’re talking about it and you just mentioned the moist soil or the wetland management handbook, NRCS just did a – we just released, right back before Christmas, a 7 video series of management videos that are geared toward WRP –
Ramsey Russell: And where can I find that?
Kevin Nelms: And that’s going to be something excellent to go look at, it talks about the different wetland types and it doesn’t get in deep as moist soil management as we’re doing right now, but it talks about the different wetland types and managing those wetlands and we brought in other experts besides me. It’s posted on the NRCS YouTube page for Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. So, if you go to those – it’s probably right at the top of the page right now because they’re that new and fresh off the press. But yeah, those are going to be good for anybody that’s interested in wetland management, not just WRP landowners, but they are geared toward WRP landowners.
Ramsey Russell: I’ll try to post those also to this episode description. Back on the moist soil, we were talking about timing, slow water drawdown every 10 days, creating those zonation, varying it up a little bit.
Kevin Nelms: When to stop your drawdown. And then, we got water coming off, we’re germinating plants, we want to inspect it and see what’s going on and watch what’s going on and look for good results, look for unwanted, undesirable vegetation and we’re managing all the time, we’re not just walking away.
Ramsey Russell: And let’s talk about our food plots and unwanted vegetation and moving to the next stage in the plant, let’s talk about that in next week’s episode.
Kevin Nelms: All right. Sounds good.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all been listening to Kevin Nelms, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, wildlife biologist for the State of Mississippi, talking about moist soil management join us next week, we’re going to continue this conversation. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, see you next time.
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