It is appropriate that May is a good month to turn your habitat-management thoughts to wild turkeys, since many of us still have turkeys in our hunting thoughts as well. May is the right time to put in a plot of chufa, a nut sedge that will feed wild turkeys during the tough months of winter and early spring. Chufa is widely known as a top crop for turkeys, probably because the peanut-like tubers that grow among the roots of chufa are suited for a scratch feeder like a turkey, which will readily dig up the chufa nuts. However, whitetails will dig for chufa too.
Mart Ulmer, area manger at Yuchi WMA in Burke County, has had excellent success with chufa plots he planted last spring at Yuchi.
"This past year, I grew chufa like you wouldn’t believe," Mart said, "but I’ve got the right soil and I had good weather. The turkeys started on it in January, and I’ve got plots that they are wearing out right now."
If you want to try chufa, pick a plot that has a sandy or loose soil. Chufa will grow in heavy clay soils, but turkeys will have trouble scratching up the tubers.
When to Plant: Some sources indicate that chufa can be planted as early as April, especially in the southern half of the state, but Mart said that a May planting can lessen the chance that turkeys will scratch up the nuts you have just planted. Turkeys, like most wildlife, rotate through different types of food sources as the seasons pass. In April, they may still be focusing on winter-type food sources (like the buried tubers you just planted) as the first spring food sources, green shoots and insects, begin to appear. By May and June, the turkeys should be surrounded by such a variety of green growth, fruit, bugs and grass seeds that they will most likely ignore your chufa plot until it can germinate.
Your goal in planting a chufa plot is to have a mature crop by the time winter arrives and acorns are becoming tough to find, and to do this you should plant no later than July.
Weed Competition: If you decide to plant by the end of May, you’ve got time now to prepare the food plot you’ve chosen so that weedy competition is eliminated, because chufa will give way quickly to aggressive native plants. By now, your selected food plot will be the home of a variety of new, native plants taking advantage of the open soil, but it’s too early for most of these "weeds" to produce seeds. Harrow the plot thoroughly, turning the weeds under, then harrow the plot again in a week or two. This is a safer, cheaper, more practical alternative to herbicides.
"After I harrow the plot once, I try to let it get rained on once or twice, which speeds up the decomposition rate. I harrow it again, and then just before I plant, I’ll harrow a third time. This ensures that the weedy vegetation is dead, and I’ve killed it before it ever seeds, so chances are much better that it won’t come back."
How to Plant: Should you broadcast or drill chufa? You can do either, but Mart said he prefers broadcasting.
"When you row plant, you’re going to have to come back and cultivate the crop to keep the weeds from coming up in the rows, so it takes more time and care, but if you know you have a particular problem with weedy competition, you may need to do this anyway. You’re also going to have strips of bare dirt instead of an even stand. My goal, aside from providing a food source, is to have volunteer reseeding in the spring, and an even stand helps that."
Volunteer reseeding, for most of us, is highly desired, because chufa is not cheap. Chufa nuts for planting average around $2.25 to $2.50 a pound, and since the recommended seeding rate runs from 30 to 50 pounds an acre, a one acre plot of chufa could run anywhere from $70 to $125 for seed alone. Even in a hard-hit plot, there will be enough chufa nuts remaining in the spring that a light disking will renew the plot for another year.
"You can cut costs by doing this," Mart said. "This year, I can plant the same number of acres and double my acreage next year by planting the same dollar amount in seed."
This year, Mart did not even have to go to the trouble of disking his chufa plots-the turkeys did the disking for him. The feeding activity in his plots was sustained into early spring, so all of the plots were beaten down and scratched thoroughly, and since Mart saw plenty of regeneration he felt he would hurt the early growth even with a light disking. My only question was how the plots were able to volunteer back if the pressure on the food source had been so heavy.
"Why didn’t they get it all? Because I had such an incredible crop grow on those sites. If you pull up a plant, there’s just a wad of nuts under there. One seed equals many nuts next year, so it doesn’t take but a few nuts left over to regenerate. There are pockets the size of a washtub that have not turned green, which is probably where the deer were digging in it, but 90 percent of the plot doesn’t look any different than when I planted it."
For broadcasting a new plot, Mart said that 30 pounds to the acre is a fair rule of thumb, and that’s the rate he uses simply to cut the expense. However, he still considers 30 pounds to be a generous rate.
"One reason to go with 30 is so that if I get turkeys in the plot right after I’ve planted, they won’t completely wipe me out. With 20 pounds you can get a fair stand, but if the turkeys get on it, you won’t provide as much food later."
Hogs: If your property is home to a significant population of feral hogs, you may have trouble bringing off a successful chufa crop.
"If you’ve got pigs, and pigs find the chufa, they won’t leave until the plot is empty of nuts," Mart said. "I lost two plots to pigs-about an acre and a half out of eight acres. They got one of the plots within four days of it being planted.
"Find places with a smaller hog population, areas they don’t utilize but where turkeys are present, and then cross your fingers. Even in an area with hogs, they still may not hit a crop, it’s whether you are willing to take that chance or not. I got real lucky last year with one of my plots where I had hogs. I knew I had turkeys in that area, so I tried it, and I got away with it. If the pigs move in and wipe it out next week, it’s already been a success."
At nearby Tuckahoe WMA in Screven County, which has a much higher hog population than Yuchi, area manager Howard Pope had almost no luck with chufa due to hog damage, Mart said.
Insects: For long-term planning, make plot rotation a part of your chufa schedule to avoid insect problems without having to bring insecticides into your habitat.
"If you leave chufa on the same dirt several years running, you get into problems with bugs," Mart said. "After two to three years, you run a higher risk because bugs begin to find the chufa, and then they establish a colony in that area and that soil. This year, I’ll fertilize last year’s plots, but in the fall of ’98, even if I’m getting reseeding, I’ll harrow them and turn them into wheat plots to remove the chufa for one year. I’ve got a chufa plot and a wheat plot in close proximity to one another, and the turkeys benefit from the wheat as well as the chufa. I will rotate those two crops, which keeps both the wheat and chufa present in that area, but I’m reducing my bug problem. At this point, I’m not having a problem with soil depletion, but after a couple of years I’ll pull a soil sample to see what I’ve got."
Fertilization: If this information has got you thinking about putting in a chufa plot, the first thing you should do after you finish reading is pull a soil sample and give it to your county extension agent. Make sure you indicate on the soil sample bag that you want to plant chufa, and then the test recommendations will be adapted for that crop. Fertilize at the recommended rate, then broadcast the chufa over the fertilizer, set the disk harrow so that you are only turning over a couple of inches of dirt, and lightly disk the plot again to get seed/soil contact.
"Your soil test will show a split-nitrogen application, one for planting time and one for top-dressing. Chufa is well suited for sandy soils, which are rapidly depleted of nitrogen. I plant the crop, it comes up, I keep an eye on it, and as soon as I start getting some yellowing, I put the second dose of nitrogen out at that time. Last year, it was in the neighborhood of four-to-six weeks later. You’re usually through with it at that point, and that’s another reason I like broadcasting instead of row-cropping. After top-dressing, I’m through."
Familiarity: If you’ve never planted chufa or a similar plant like peanuts on your land, will the turkeys know to scratch for the buried nuts? Mart said he wondered about this, because chufa had never been planted at Yuchi before last year, but the turkeys moved into the plots and began scratching up the tubers as if they’d been eating chufa all their life. If your chufa does well but the turkeys in your area don’t seem to be using it, try pulling up or disking a small portion of the plot to provide a sample.