Every September you probably take the same approach to the opening day of dove season that many people do: sit and wait for a friend with a good dove field to invite you on a shoot. If so, it may seem a little early to start thinking about a good dove shoot, but not if you plan on taking matters into your own hands. June is the month to get a dove field started, one that will provide you with your own "barn burner" come September.
Biologist John Bearden is the area manager at Di-Lane Plantation WMA in Burke County, where some of the largest public dove hunts in the state are held each season. The opening day hunt usually attracts between 275 and 300 hunters, who are accommodated well by the large area of multiple fields broken up by windrows of pines and bi-color lespedeza. John said that in four years of dove hunts, opening day has never been a bust. Though he plants many crops that attract a variety of wildlife, the browntop millet and sunflower fields are probably the best for attracting doves, John said.
If you’ve got money, time and access to a four-row planter, go with sunflowers. If you need a simpler crop that attracts doves almost as well, plant browntop.
"You don’t have to be high tech farmer to grow browntop," John said. "It’ll grow on concrete."
Browntop millet is a reseeding annual grass. Just run a soil test for the plot you plan to use, harrow the plot once or twice to knock down weedy competition while you wait on the results, harrow the field again before you plant, add the recommended fertilizer and the seed, disk it under and wait.
Add in a few other considerations as you go:
Timing: Browntop millet matures in 60 to 70 days, so aim to have the crop ready at least two weeks before the first day you intend to shoot the field. In the Northern Zone, plant by the last week in June for an opening day shoot. In the Southern Zone, you can wait a week or two later. For later shoots in the first season, you can wait longer, but millet dies with the first frost, and the seeds don’t last long after that.
Drill or Broadcast? If you have access to a seed drill, this method is preferable as a way to save seed expense. The recommended seeding rate for broadcasting is 20 to 25 lbs./acre, while with a seed drill you only need to plant 15 lbs./acre. Browntop is relatively cheap at 40 to 50 cents a pound, but you can save a little money by drilling. Also, John said, you tend to get a more even stand with drilling.
As soon as the plant is completely dried and brown, you can begin to prepare for your shoot. Mowing strips in the plot prior to a shoot is the best way to prepare the field for shooting. Mow the strips a week to 10 days prior, giving the doves enough time to find the feed without exhausting the seed that has been scattered. If you mow too early then get a rain, the seed will sprout and be wasted, John said, so hold off mowing if heavy rain is in the forecast. You can also mow some strips a month ahead of the shoot just to provide feed, then mow again a week before the shoot. The larger the patch you plant, the more you can scatter your mowing to prolong and extend the shooting throughout the first season. After mowing, you can also burn some of the strips, or as John has done gather the straw with a hay rake: either practice leaves a clean field with exposed seed.
"Doves like a good, clean ground to feed on," John said. "Unlike quail or turkeys, doves don’t scratch. They need to have nice, clear, open ground where they can just pick up the seed."
Sunflowers are another crop that has the tendency to produce barrel-heating bird action once the season comes in, but they can be tougher to bring off. To start with, deer will browse sunflower shoots heavily where they don’t usually do much damage to browntop. Sunflower plants are not as good as browntop at competing with weeds, either, which is why John plants sunflowers with a four-row planter, leaving rows about 36-inches apart that can be cultivated during the summer as weeds begin to infiltrate the crop.
"I’ve had good years with sunflowers and I’ve had bad years," John said, "but if you have a good year and you cultivate the rows so you’ve got a good clean ground underneath them, that sure is some fine shooting."
Sunflowers also last longer, and John has had excellent shoots over sunflower fields all the way into the December and January season. They mature in about 100 days and can be planted as late as July. Plant them with the recommended fertilizer based on a soil test at a rate of 5 lbs./acre, whether you plant in rows or broadcast, and the small black variety of sunflower (Peridovic) is the best choice. In addition to the fertilizer, add 100 lbs./acre of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0). If you are able to plant with a row planter, come back and cultivate when the plants are 2-3 inches tall and again before the plants are too high to pass under the disk harrows. If you see any yellowing as the crop matures, top dress with 50 lbs./acre of ammonium nitrate.
When the seeds are mature, follow the same procedure for millet to prepare your field, mowing strips prior to a shoot. If you tried broadcasting sunflowers, also harrow under a few strips in each plot before you mow other strips. This provides clean ground in an otherwise thick, most likely weedy stand of sunflowers.
When planting a crop in June and July, plant after a rain when the ground is wet if possible. This time of year, you never know how many days the seeds will have to sit in dry dirt before they get a shower, but if you start them off in damp dirt the effects of a dry period can be offset. Also, locate your dove patches on high ground rather than the lowest edges of fields, John said. His experience has shown that the hunters on the high points in fields usually get better shooting. Planting near a water source and near a woods edge, power line, or other cover/perch location can increase dove usage. An adjacent patch of sandy soil where doves can pick up grit can also help.
Finally, John likes to plant strips of Egyptian wheat on the borders of all his small dove fields. Egyptian wheat will grow 10-12 feet tall or taller and provides excellent cover for hunters. Meanwhile, your quail and deer will love it too, so you provide a diversity of foods while making instant blinds at the same time. For bigger fields, you can plant strips of Egyptian wheat across the middle of the field as well. Drill the wheat or broadcast it with an over-the-shoulder spreader when you plant the millet and disk it all under together. The wheat will use the fertilizer put down for the millet.
As far as game laws are concerned, rest assured that a shoot over a mowed dove crop is absolutely legal. Only if you harvest or remove the seed from the field and rescatter it or bring in seed from another source are you running afoul of the law. Some people say this is contradictory, but it is not if you think about it. Baiting gives all the benefit to the hunter and almost none to the resource. However, the food source in a planted field is there for local and migratory doves to use most anytime. The resource is abundant enough that doves (as well as a variety of game and non-game birds) benefit over an extended period of time whether hunters shoot the field or not.
A baiter might argue that they put out enough bait over a long period of time that doves benefit from the food source, but why continually run the risk of being charged with a game violation? With less effort, stress and expenditure, they could have planted a legal dove field and achieved the same or better results.