Dove shoots are a social and recreational event throughout the Southeast. In North Carolina alone, more than 40,000 hunters harvested over 750,000 doves last year.
Getting fields ready for dove shoots is both an art and a science for farmers and landowners. Making fields attractive and legal is even more of an art, says North Carolina Wildlife Biologist David Rowe.
German millet has rapidly replaced sunflowers, corn and other grain producing crops as the plant of choice for doves and dove hunters. In North Carolina, Rowe says the plant can be used with spectacular results, and it can be used legally to attract doves.
Proper timing of herbicide applications to burn back German millet fields is the key, he says. The cost of the seed, plus the cost of planting, cultivating and killing the plants in time for dove season is costly.
According to Rowe some landowners take a different approach by burning German millet fields. You can't do that with grain sorghum or sunflowers because of the oil content in the seed, burning destroys the seed, he explains. Rowe also stresses that burning permits are required for farmers and landowners who choose to burn millet fields.
“We grow our German millet to reach maturity, based on when dove season will open. Two to three weeks before the season opens, we spray these fields with Roundup. Then, a week or so before dove season opens, we burn it to the ground,” Rowe says.
The combination of burn down with a herbicide and actually burning with fire is the Cadillac treatment for German millet grown for doves, he adds.
German foxtail millet, setaria italica, is an annual warm-season grass that grows to a height of 2-5 feet under cultivation. It has broad, flat leaves that grow 8-16 inches long, which taper to a sharp point.
Cultivated in China as early as 2700 BC, foxtail was introduced into the U.S. in 1849 and is grown throughout the Great Plains region. German millet is an improved variety used for silage, pasture and green-chop.
Sunflowers and grain sorghum are other popular crops to grow for doves. An advantage to growing sorghum is that it serves as vertical cover for quail. Mowing a short strip through the field is common practice in sorghum and sunflowers.
Drilling sunflowers, rather than broadcasting seed can be a big advantage, Rowe says. Dove usually like to feed on open ground, but if sunflower seeds are drilled at wider in-row spacings, dove will readily feed on the seed that drop out, which usually won't happen if sunflower seed are broadcast, he explains.
In the past North Carolina dove hunters could not legally shoot dove until noon. This year, Rowe says, the laws have changed some. Opening day is still restricted to a noon-time start. After opening day, dove hunters will be allowed to hunt anytime during the day.
Rowe says some good dove shoots take place over cucumber and watermelon fields. The doves like open ground and these crops don't leave a lot of foliage on the ground and doves like the watermelon seed left over from disking the field.
Regardless of the crop used, preparing a field legally is a must to avoid fines and the general embarrassment of having game officials shut down a dove shoot.
It is the responsibility of every hunter, not just the landowner, to be certain that he or she isn't hunting over a baited field. So how does a hunter know if it is legal to hunt a particular field? The basic question to answer is whether standard agricultural practices are being followed.
If traditional agricultural grain crops like corn, milo or wheat, has been planted and harvested in a normal manner, that field is legal for dove shoots. The same standards apply for non-traditional agriculture crops like German millet.
If cracked corn, wheat, or some other grain has been poured or even spread on the ground in amounts not standard to grain harvest residue, that field is illegal for dove hunting.
Every hunter should check the field before beginning a dove hunt. If a field has been freshly disked and has a large concentration of doves, check to see what type of grain is attracting the doves. If there is cracked corn, soybeans, sunflower seeds, or other grain, and no evidence that those grains are simply typical remains from harvesting the crop that was grown there, it is best to leave. If grain is present along with crop stubble that makes it apparent the crop was harvested from that field, it is legal.
In the Southeast wheat is sown during fall dove season as a standard agricultural practice, so if a hunter checks a field which has been disked and sown with wheat, it may be legal. Wheat must be evenly distributed, not sown more than one time in the same area, and cannot exceed a normal planting rate. If the wheat is in piles or deep strips, it is illegal. If there is an excessive amount of wheat, even though it is evenly distributed, it is illegal.