For many years, Mississippi sportsmen have planted winter food plots to improve the nutrition available to their deer herds and to help increase their chances of harvesting trophy bucks.

While winter food plots are effective in achieving these goals, there is another season of the year that white-tailed deer may be nutritionally stressed. In late summer, our native warm-season plants mature and decline rapidly in quality.

During this time of year, does are lactating and bucks are developing antlers. These biological functions require a quality diet that only comes from actively growing plants. A deer's diet should consist of at least 12-percent crude protein to meet these physiological demands. And during late summer, the browse quality is rarely adequate.

According to research conducted by the Noble Foundation, the crude protein content of summer deer browse decreases dramatically from spring to late summer. For example, the percent crude protein of sumac drops from 22 percent in April to 8 percent in August. Greenbrier, a favorite of white-tailed deer, contains 32.5 percent crude protein in April and a mere 9.5 percent crude protein in August.

Therefore, it is easy to see how summer food plots can play an important role in supplementing deer diet quality.

Proper plot planning

Before you go running off to plant something, take a few minutes to properly plan your warm-season food plots. A good food plot program should provide high-quality nutrition for deer all year long.

Research indicates a minimum of 1 percent of a property should be planted in food plots in order to have a measurable impact on body weight, antler size and reproductive success. Planting 3 to 5 percent of a property in food plots is even better. The larger acreage provides more forage and ensures a good crop despite poor site or weather conditions. And don't forget to evenly distribute summer and winter food plots across the property.

"I often divide a large food plot in half, planting cool-season mixtures in one half and warm-season mixtures in the other half," says noted wildlife biologist Jimmy Bullock. "By doing this, I am able to provide high-quality forage all year long. Also, I prefer food plots from 1 to 3 acres in size. The larger food plots offer me greater flexibility when transitioning from winter to summer food plots."

Additional factors such as equipment needs, access points, soil quality, seedbed preparation and forage species to be planted must also be considered.

Soil quality

There is a direct correlation between soil fertility and deer abundance and condition. Soil fertility may vary considerably on a given property, with higher fertility generally found near drainages and low-lying areas. Where available, these sites are the best choices for warm-season food plots since they are fertile and provide soil moisture during the dry summer months.

Once your planting sites have been identified, the next step is to have soil samples analyzed. Your local county Extension Service office can provide soil test kits and soil analysis. By specifying the forage to be grown, the soil test results will be tailored to give very specific fertilizer and lime requirements for each plot. Proper fertilization will optimize forage production and dramatically increase utilization by deer.

"Lime is an essential ingredient for a successful food plot," says Keith Crouse, soil testing director at Mississippi State University. "In most cases, lime is even more important than fertilizer. Liming increases soil pH and significantly increases fertilizer efficiency and forage production. In order to be effective at the time of seed germination, lime needs to be applied at least three months prior to seed planting.

"Lime is most efficient at neutralizing the soil's pH when it has maximum contact with the soil. Cultivating the soil soon after lime is applied will help maximize soil contact. However, lime will have little effect on the soil pH if the soil is dry since moisture is required for the neutralizing chemical reactions to occur."

Equipment needs

Today's sportsmen have several options to choose from when it comes to selecting equipment to prepare and maintain their food plots. For large acreage or numerous plots, a tractor and traditional farming implements work best. But for a few small plots, an ATV equipped with specially designed planting and tillage implements might be just the ticket. And if you don't want the added expense of owning and maintaining equipment of your own, you can always rent what you need from any number of farm equipment dealers across the state.

Summer deer options

When it comes to warm season deer plantings, the options are somewhat limited. In addition, the majority of warm-season forages are comprised of annuals that must be replanted each year. However, there are a few that meet the criteria of summer forage production, high protein levels and palatability to deer. Here are some of the more commonly planted summer forages in the Magnolia State:

• Alyceclover

Description: A warm-season annual legume that provides high-quality forage in the summer and early fall. Especially important to white-tailed deer, and is one of the few warm-season forages that holds up well to grazing pressure. Soil Adaptation: Suited to most moderate to well-drained soils.

Fertilization: Apply according to soil test, or apply 150 pounds/acre of 0-20-20 after planting.

Lime Requirements: Apply according to soil test or as necessary to bring pH to 6.5-7.0.

Planting Dates: May 1-June 15.

Planting Rate: Inoculate seed. Broadcast 20 pounds/acre or drill 15 pounds/acre.

Soil Preparation: Disk and plant in a firm seedbed.

Companion Plants: Plant with cowpeas and/or American jointvetch. Reduce seeding rate to 10 pounds/acre when planting combinations.

• Cowpeas

Description: A highly preferred warm-season annual legume. Small plots tend to be overgrazed quickly by deer. Varieties: Thorsby Cream, Tory, Wilcox, Iron Clay, and Catjang.

Soil Adaptation: Adapted to well-drained soils.

Fertilization: A soil test is recommended or as required to maintain a soil pH of 5.5-7.0.

Planting Dates: May 1-July 1.

Planting Rate: Plant 20 pounds/acre in 24- to 36-inch rows, or broadcast 40 pounds/acre and cover 1 inch. Inoculant required.

Soil Preparation: Plant in a firm seedbed.

Companion Plants: Other warm-season annual peas, alyceclover and browntop millet.

Reduce planting rate to 12-15 pounds/acre broadcast when planting combinations.

• Soybeans

Description: A warm-season annual legume. Provides highly nutritious and preferred forage for deer. Browsed heavily in early growth stages. Therefore, not recommended on small plots or where deer densities are high. Best used in combination planting.Varieties: There are hundreds of varieties available. Typical forage type varieties generally provide best performance.

Soil Adaptation: Adapted to well-drained, medium-textured soils.

Fertilization: A soil test is recommended, or use 300 pounds/acre of 0-20-20.

Lime Requirements: Apply according to soil test or as required to maintain a soil pH of 5.8-7.0.

Planting Dates: May 1-June 1.

Planting Rate: Plant 30 pounds/acre at 10-inch row spacing or broadcast 50-60 pounds/acre and cover 0.5 inch; inoculant required.

Soil Preparation: Plant in a well-disked, firm seedbed.

Companion Plants: corn or grain sorghum. Reduce planting rate to 30-35 pounds/acre broadcast when planting combinations.

• American Jointvetch

Description: A warm-season annual, reseeding legume that is highly preferred by deer.Soil Adaptation: Adapted to moist, and wet, light-textured soils. Do not plant in sandy soils.

Fertilization: A soil test is recommended, or use 300 pounds/acre of 0-20-20.

Lime Requirements: Apply according to soil test or as necessary to maintain a soil pH of 5.5-6.5.

Planting Rate: Broadcast 10 to 15 pounds/acre and cover 0.25 inches; inoculation required.

Soil Preparation: Plant in a well-disked, firm seedbed.

• Other Forage Choices

Lablab is a relative newcomer to the deer food-plot scene. This warm-season annual legume differs in that it is very drought tolerant and can be planted in locations with little soil moisture.Alfalfa has always been excellent deer forage. Its only shortcoming is that it requires a much higher level of management than is necessary for many of the other warm-season choices. The good news for those interested in planting alfalfa is that there are quite a few very good varieties that are adapted to our climate.

Another group of forages gaining popularity is the brassicas (rape and kale). The brassicas are highly attractive to deer, average 30 percent protein and are over 70 percent digestible. The most commonly planted U.S. variety is dwarf essex rape. New Zealand varieties are available in several commercial blends with chicory and plantain.

Though popular, corn is by far one of the worst forages for summer food plots. White-tailed bucks need a high protein (16-percent minimum) diet to produce the best sets of antlers they can grow. Also, because antlers are a form of bone, bucks must have adequate levels of calcium and phosphorus to produce large antlers.

Corn is low in protein (7-9 percent), calcium and phosphorus. Corn is also deficient in certain amino acids. Deer readily feed on corn due to its sweet nature, but in doing so, can significantly reduce body growth. Corn is high in carbohydrates, which is good if you want to put fat on an animal.

So if a fat buck with a tiny set of antlers is what you're after, feed your deer corn!

As with most aspects of deer management, the best way to see which summer forages work best is to try several for yourself. There is nothing better than personal experience when deciding which forages are the most beneficial for your property and deer herd.

Summer dove options

In late August, with the opening day of dove season fast approaching, hunters begin thinking about finding a place to dove hunt. Hunters with access to harvested grain fields or hay meadows have ready-made dove fields.

However, many hunters without access to farms or pastureland will contact the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks or their local offices of the Mississippi State University Extension Service to inquire about preparing a dove field on their hunting lease or other piece of property.

Unfortunately, by late August, it's too late. The time to begin planning a dove field is now.

Although doves will feed on a variety of different seeds, there are a few that stand out. The following are some of the more popular and productive crops used in dove fields in Mississippi.

• Browntop Millet

Browntop millet is one of the easiest plants to establish and manage for a dove field. Since browntop millet matures in 60 to 80 days, you will need to take this into consideration when determining your planting time.Since most dove hunters in Mississippi want a field ready for the September season, fields should be planted in mid May through early June. If you prefer fields for later hunts, you can simply adjust your planting dates accordingly.

One of the outstanding characteristics of browntop millet is that its seed will persist on the seedhead for a long period of time. Therefore, you can plant all your fields at the same time and delay mowing if you want to use a specific field for a late-season hunts.

When managed properly, browntop millet will produce 1,200 pounds of seed per acre. Browntop also tolerates soil acidity and drought better than other plantings.

Browntop millet should be planted on a well-prepared seedbed at a rate of 8 to 10 pounds per acre drilled or 20 to 30 pounds per acre broadcast. Broadcast seed should be covered lightly after planting. Applying excessive amounts of nitrogen will result in increased lodging and reduced seed production.

• Dove Proso Millet

Dove proso millet is similar to browntop millet in that it is a warm season annual grass and matures at 60 to 80 days. Although it is adapted to most soil types, it is not as drought-tolerant as browntop millet. However, it does produce 1,500 pounds of high oil content seed per acre, which doves find irresistible. The seeding rates for dove proso millet are the same as browntop millet.

• Peredovik Sunflower

Peredovik (black oil) sunflower is often referred to as the "ice cream" of dove foods. It is one of the best plants for attracting doves, but requires more effort to establish than some other crops.Weed control is important in growing sunflowers. Herbicides and soil cultivation can be used to control weeds. However, if neither is practical for your situation, you can broadcast sunflower seed at a high rate so that the sunflower plants will shade out most weeds.

Sunflower seed produces around 1,200 pounds of seed per acre. However, it takes 100 to 120 days to mature. So if you want to hunt a sunflower field on opening day of dove season, an April planting is necessary.

Sunflower can be drilled at a rate of 10 to 15 pounds per acre or broadcast at a rate of 30 to 40 pounds per acre. Once the seed heads mature, mowing, disking and/or raking will be necessary.

You may also want to reconsider planting sunflower in areas where deer depredation may be a problem. A few hungry deer can wipe out your sunflower crop in a short period of time, especially if it is a small field.

• Native Vegetation

There is an old saying about never looking a gift horse in the mouth. Such is the case when it comes to native vegetation. Native vegetation such as goatweed, crabgrass and barnyard grass should not be overlooked, since these native plants can be managed to produce excellent dove fields. These fields should be cut and manipulated in the same manner as planted fields. Haying or mowing and burning works best on grass fields. However, mowing alone can be effective in goatweed fields. Sometimes goatweed grows in sparse stands, so mowing is not always necessary.

A traditional southern dove hunt can provide wing shooters with a lot of enjoyment in September, but May is the best time to plan a hunt. So if you want to ensure yourself a great dove field this fall, you need to start planning and planting now.

Otherwise, you may have to settle for a mediocre but expensive private shoot. The decision is yours to make - but make it now.