Managing Hayfields for Wildlife
Modern day hay fields are only a shadow of the past’s native hay meadows when it comes to providing habitat for wildlife. Improved grasses such as coastal Bermuda, which provides mass amounts of vegetative forage, have replaced the native grasses that produced seed and cover for many wildlife species. However, by implementing a few changes to the typical methods of hay production these monoculture hayfields can serve some benefit to wildlife.
Although improved hayfields offer little value for wildlife, some species will utilize them at particular times of the year. Ground nesting birds may use the edges of the fields for nesting and white-tailed deer often bed down their fawns in the tall grass. For these reasons, among others, timing of cutting of a hayfield is critical for wildlife. In general, birds will be nesting and deer fawns will be on the ground in the spring from May to June. If possible, avoid cutting hayfields during this period. Spring is probably the best time for hay production so deferring cutting usually isn’t feasible but modifications may be made to reduce the impacts on wildlife. Flushing bars attached to the front of the tractor will help to rouse bedded fawns from their daytime hiding places before the shredder or hay bind reach them. You may also choose to cut or shred at a level higher than normal, above 4 inches. Alt hough this won’t help a deer fawn, it will avoid the injury of death of other wildlife not fast enough to escape the machine such as turtles and snakes.
You may also make alterations to the pattern you use to cut the hay. I would dare to say almost everyone begins cutting a hay field on the periphery and works toward the middle. This practice forces most of the wildlife slowly toward the center of the field where on the last cut they have no choice but to be shredded or face the perils of crossing what would now be a barren landscape void of any escape cover. Instead, begin shredding in the middle of the field and work outwards, therefore displacing wildlife to the edges of the field where cover still exists. Another good practice is to leave borders around the hay field of 10-40 feet and to allow fencerows to remain brushy. Both practices will allow for additional cover for wildlife escaping the cutting or shredding. These borders may be planted as food plots for wildlife or reseeded in native vegetation. One or all these practices can make your hayfield more beneficial to wildlife while still allowing for the production of hay.
Lastly, increasing the amount of forbes and native grasses near the area would be of tremendous benefit. If you have an area which is just not producing without high input cost (fertilizers and herbicides) you may set aside some acreage for wildlife. Within this area, periodic discing would definitely promote more forbs. Additionally, planting strips of switchgrass or other natives would increase wildlife cover. If I had to decide between planting a very narrow strip along every edge of a meadow versus planting the same amount of acreage just on one side, I would go with planting one side. You want to make sure you do not create a ‘predator trap’ which could actually hurt wildlife. A very narrow buffer is easily hunted by a coyote working the wind, larger blocks are harder to hunt.