Recommendations for haying in a wildlife-friendly manner

Ken Plourde

A pintail hen and her ducklings make an escape to better cover. 

Photo courtesy of Ken Plourde 


Haying season is fast approaching, along with critical nesting and brood-rearing periods for Montana game birds like pheasants, grouse, Hungarian partridge, and waterfowl. Many of these birds try to nest or raise their young in hay fields, which can cause big problems for them when haying equipment comes around.

Each year, many nests are destroyed, and hens, chicks and deer fawns are killed by haying equipment. However, just a few small conservation measures during the haying operation can reduce those losses by 60 percent or more. For landowners haying this season, please consider adopting some of the following practices to give game birds and other wildlife a better chance of surviving:

• If possible, wait to hay or mow until after July 15, or better yet Aug. 1. By this time most nests are hatched and chicks are big enough to run and escape mowing equipment.

• Raise the mower deck to 4-6 inches off the ground. This reduces the chance any nests and eggs will be destroyed when the mowing implement passes over.

• Hay only during daylight hours.

• Use a flushing bar. These simple devices give hens a chance to flush from nests far enough away from the mower that they will not be caught. 

• Drive slower in areas where wildlife is more common or has been observed in the past, like near brushy areas or wetlands.

• Hay the field in a pattern that allows wildlife to escape the field safely. A common practice is to circle the outer edges of the field first then work the way towards the center. This “death spiral” pushes wildlife towards the center of the field where they are eventually run over, or forces them to cross open space and risk predation to reach safe cover. Instead, consider beginning at one end of the field and work back and forth across, pushing wildlife towards an area of safe cover. Another pattern is to begin in the center of the field and work outwards. 

• Leave borders around the field of 20-60 feet wide. Research shows that most pheasant hens nest within 50 feet of the field edge. Leaving a little habitat around the edges can go a long way towards reducing wildlife mortality.

By trying just a few of these haying practices, landowners can greatly increase the chances that wildlife will survive haying season, and may lead to more robust populations on their property year-round. If anyone would like more information or recommendations about small ways that you can help game birds and other wildlife on your agricultural operation, call your nearest Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist.


Ken Plourde is employed by Fish, Wildlife and Parks as a Region 6 Upland Game Bird Specialist.



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