Dove fields are planted with very specific dates in mind. This year, for instance, Sept. 3 and 5 figure prominently. As noon of opening day arrives, thousands of hunters baking in the September sun count on the fact that mourning doves by the handful or hundreds will flock to their particular patch of ground. If it happens, there was no accident involved.
Instead, several months of preparation and careful tending of those fields were required. And to be sure the birds keep flying throughout our remaining seasons, there’s still a little work to be done. We have a few tricks up our sleeves to make it happen.
There are a ton of variables that go into the what, when and why of a dove field, so let’s set a few parameters here. We’re talking about a field of roughly 10 acres, the perfect size for our family shoots, that has been planted in corn and sunflowers the past few seasons. But this year that changed, with browntop millet being the primary attractant, and for a couple of reasons.
Sunflowers and corn were also stripped in, plus a watermelon patch that you won’t want to miss, and we’ll stroll through them in a bit. But for now walk back over to the millet with me…
Depending, as everything does, on the weather, this is a 60-day crop from planting to harvesting. I’ve heard from 45 days to 70, but for us, 60 days was right on the head. Seed was put into the ground June 15, and the thigh-high crop was cut with a hay mower the week of Aug. 15. Millet is a hearty plant that fares well in arid climates, and it fought its way to the top even through this searing summer.
Keeping an eye out for rain clouds is critical for cutting, because we planned to use the browntop hay to help cows through the winter. After the hay is cut, each time it gets rained on diminishes its quality as forage. Needless to say, that wasn’t much of a problem.
Normally, the millet is cut, dried a few days and baled. This year, we added an extra process: running a tedder through it before raking and baling. A tedder, sometimes known as a hay tedder, is a piece of equipment featuring a series of flying forks that basically flip and fluff the hay once it has been cut. The process aerates the millet, aiding in drying it completely as opposed to having one dry side and one damp when it goes into the baler.
More importantly for the dove hunter, those flying forks are whaling the tar out of the browntop’s big seed pods, sending seed scattering in every direction. Doves appreciate that mightily, and could be seen dipping and darting all over the field waiting for us to shut down the equipment.
A couple of days after teddering, the hay is raked and baled. With two tractors running at the same time, the baler following the rake, this is a half-day process for us. What’s left is a very clean field — critical for doves, which like to see where they’re putting their feet as much as you do this time of year. The process also left a dozen or so big round bales of browntop hay, which make fine stands for would-be dove shooters. They are surrounded by millet seed that, after a little rain shower, shine like new pennies and attract birds like nobody’s business.
As an added attraction, this versatile crop naturally reseeds itself, meaning that what the doves don’t mop up will produce another crop 60 days from now, and we can repeat the process to pull in the winter’s migratory flocks. Browntop can even be grown in low-lying areas and flooded to draw ducks.
Until that time, after the opening day and Labor Day shoots, it’s a good idea to give the birds a rest. If you have access to several places to hunt, consider yourself lucky. But we’re going to focus on this one spot, tending during mid-week and shooting Saturdays for the most part.
Getting back to the corn… Uh, well, it kinda burned to a crisp. Being planted at the top of the field, however, where we layered a few strips of corn then a few of sunflowers to complement the large tract of millet, that’s an easy fix. We’ll harrow it under on a Tuesday or Wednesday (around any rain that might pop up!), cleaning the ground, then cut a couple rows of sunflowers with the tedder. If you really want to see some impressive seed slinging, use a tedder to cut standing sunflowers. The whirling steel fingers will smash into those big seed tops, and what you’ll wind up with is a sunflower seed buffet on harrowed ground that is as clean as dirt can be.
The watermelon patch, less than an acre, did its duty before being mobbed by one of the finest stands of pigweed you’ll ever see. A neighboring farmer commented back in August that he had spent $50,000 this year fighting pigweed in his crops. We would rather put it to use. Pigweed has seeds. Doves love seeds, even pigweed seeds. So, bush hog the pigweed!
That’s what we’ll do, and as soon as the birds have cleaned that little spot, we’ll come back again, on that same schedule, and harrow it under. Whatever comes up comes up, and whatever it is will help a variety of wildlife through the winter. If we want to knock it down in December or January to draw in a few more doves for a final few days of shooting, that’s yet another option.
The key is to keep something going on. We can run a bush hog all the way around this field in 15 minutes; with a harrow, a little longer. But the birds — which have nowhere in particular to go and nothing to do except eat when they get there — keep tabs on what’s happening and which new tidbit of forage is easily available, especially when the cold makes food scarce.
Even when we begin to put in oats or rye food plots for deer, we’ll see birds coming around to scarf up any seeds left on the ground. A little effort put into keeping the doves close by, even during the hard times of January and February, will pay off throughout the season — and even into next September.