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Dallas County Outdoors: Sowing your wild oats

Ken Herring & ‘Abby’
Ken Herring & ‘Abby’

I got a great welcome home present on my first walk into the CRP field near my house this week.

I’ve been on vacation and had just picked up my bird dogs (Abby, Rosie and Scout) from where they were boarded, and they were ready for a little romp in the wild. Even at 7 a.m. it was hot and humid and both the dew and wind were very light. I knew the outing would be short lived, as the dogs would get hot fast.

Thankfully, the creek that meanders through the farm allows the dogs to frolic in the cool creek before we return home. The dogs know this workout routine well and enjoy the swim as much as the hunt that gets them there.

We were half way to the creek, following along the edge of the beans and the CRP when both Rosie and Scout went on point. Abby, my Labrador was at heel letting Rosie and Scout do the heavy work of combing the tall grass.

What followed next is hard to describe to anyone who doesn’t have or understand bird dogs. The Lab noticed the setter and Britney on point and promptly charged forward, disregarding my shouts.

The pointers first sensed and then saw Abby charging forward into the scent stream of a pheasant brood. Of course neither of the pointing dogs was about to let this happen so for the next five minutes I got to witness the sheer ecstasy of bird dogs gone wild. Just as I thought the last pheasant had flushed, a second brood of pheasants began vacating the area. At these times the experienced dog handler is usually in about the same state of mind as the dogs, all of whom have gone conveniently deaf. About half the birds had flushed when I thought to try to count birds.

When I got my dogs and my thoughts collected I think there was at least 20 partly grown birds that had flushed. The smaller chicks were the size of a crow and the second brood was more along the quail size. All the birds were able to fly well and served as a reminder that Mother Nature builds strong birds that can escape my dogs.

After all, the coyotes, raccoons and hawks make sure that they get regular lessons and stay in top physical condition….or else they don’t survive to become adults.

While I’m on the subject of pheasants I have observed something else to be happy about in terms of farming practices. I have observed several fields of oats and several fields of rye this year.

One easy answer to the question of: “ Why we don’t have as many pheasants today as we did in our past”? is the lack of oats as a crop in our landscape. Agriculture records show that Iowa had 6.5 million acres of oats in 1950.

We would be lucky today to have 250,000 acres of oats in Iowa. Oats are the one crop that provides not only nesting cover, but more importantly is left undisturbed long enough to allow pheasants to establish their nests (14 days), incubate the clutch (23 days), and hatch the chicks. Oats also provides a nearly perfect environment for the small chicks to feed and remain hidden.

There is no doubting that if Iowa had more small grains (oats, wheat, and rye), we would have more pheasants. Past research by wildlife biologists confirmed that in the past, fully one-third of our fall pheasant crop came from oat fields.

Mourning doves also respond positively to oat fields. Doves are attracted to bare ground for nesting and love the open fields after harvesting in mid to late July.

The wildlife doesn’t care why the oats are planted, but we would definitely have more wild if we sowed more oats!