It is a rather universally accepted practice, especially among landowners and deer hunters who lease land to invest in fall wildlife food plots. It is a cornerstone premise of anyone subscribing to the principles of quality deer management. But is this enough?
Summer plot rationale
Fall food plots do not fulfill the total mission of enhancing wildlife with supplemental food resources. The other part of the equation is to provide quality nutritional plantings after the fall plots die off. Spring and summer food plots are necessary for wildlife — perhaps even more essential — especially for the whitetail deer to realize its full body and antler growth potential.
Some native habitats in Mississippi are completely capable of supplying the basic nutritional needs for a reasonably sized deer herd. This is not the case in many areas of the state, where unsatisfactory soils fail to produce enough high- quality forages to fully benefit local deer. These habitats can be improved, but often this falls short of adding additional quality plantings to what Mother Nature already provides.
Likewise, in many parts of the state, the overpopulated deer numbers are stripping the existing habitat down to its virtual nubs. In some areas, the situation is at a critical level.
The question is not whether summer food plots are necessary. The questions should focus on how landowners should go about planning, executing, and planting quality food plots year-round and not just in the fall solely to attract deer to the harvest.
Planting summer food plots lays a critical nutritional foundation for deer looking forward to the hunting seasons that come months later. Whatever supplemental food plot work is laid out and executed early in the year can offer nutritional benefits to deer throughout the summer. This is especially the case for yearling bucks and nursing does with newly dropped fawns. Bucks and fawns require quality nutrition early on to stay on the natural track to maturity.
When hunting season rolls around, hunters will begin to see the benefits. It won’t all happen in one year, however. Eventually, deer will be healthier, and body weights will increase. Over time, antlers will start to show improvements in the number of points, spread dimensions, and total trophy point scores if combined with quality harvest restrictions. These are benefits that can be achieved in part by a dedicated, year- long food plot effort.
Observations from the field will report does with well-rounded bodies without rib cages sticking out from a lack of decent summer forage. Hunters know a healthy deer when they see one, and that’s a goal of all quality deer managers. Healthy looking antlerless deer, energy laden fawns and enhanced buck stocks are characteristics that deer managers love to see. Supplemental summer plots can contribute greatly to these outcomes.
“Implementing plans to ensure that our deer have high quality food sources all year long begins with summer phase plots that give the existing deer plus new birth deer the best start early in the growing season that will carry them along until we provide new fall plots,” said Jay Herrington of Brandon, a proponent of the QDM philosophy.
Now let’s take a look at how to get this done.
Replanting fall plots
For landowners with existing fall plots, this is not rocket science. By late spring or early summer, most fall plantings have passed their potential as a wildlife food source. This is the time to consider which plots can be prepared again and which seeds to plant to yield the greatest return on the investment through the summer months. Here are some basic tips to get the process underway.
When food-plot soils finally reach a warm-up temperature in the range of 50 degrees, work should begin. If there is any question about this, just observe what local farmers are doing. If they are plowing and planting, one can assume the green light is burning and serious food plot work can commence.
Getting started means the soil has to be in the best condition to accept new seeding to maximize germination. Seeds simply will not sprout well without a well-prepared seed bed. A fall plot that was planted the previous August or September may be tough to disk up. Prepare the seed bed well with multiple pass disking. The more disking you can afford, the better.
If available, another consideration would be to drill in the seed right over the old field bed after it has been mowed. Farmers have found benefit in the no-till option of leaving behind the moisture-holding capacity of leftover plant residues after harvesting or mowing down the remaining plant stubble. Either alternative should produce a good seed bed ready for a summer crop planting.
The new seed bed preparation via disking breaks up the hardened earth surface after a long winter spell, and it also alters the leftover plant fibers, ridding the soil of most unwanted early growth weeds and grasses. This practice could reduce the need for later herbicide treatments. This activity will also ultimately stimulate insect activity. This is an additional plus for small game species like quail, resident dove, wild turkeys as well as song birds.
Planting small plots of 1 to 3 acres or smaller dispersed uniformly about the property in key locations is a highly preferred management strategy. Plots laid out in strips are better than one large field. The goal is to provide added nutrition for deer and other wildlife, not to raise a commercial crop for sale. The idea is to maximize deer access to additional food sources to supplement native browse.
Summer seed choices
Choosing seeds for summer food plots can be made as simple or as complicated as one desires. Plenty of choices exist, and some would admit there are way too many. Often, the choices are simply driven by the available funds, and that might be as good a gauge as anything else. However, be careful not to waste money on seed varieties that may not achieve the kinds of nutritional values that the effort of planting demands.
One simple approach is to start with some universal basic selections, and then over time, try other mixes to learn firsthand what else might work well in your particular location. Rarely does just one forage plant supply all the nutritional requirements that a deer needs on a year-round basis. Quite often, a blended mix of localized favorite seed types is the most cost effective way to go.
Tim Thornton, of Custom Tractor Service prepares and plants wildlife food plots for deer clubs out of this Kosciusko, Miss., operation. “Over the years, we have found the best, least-expensive seed blends that work in our area come from the local farm co-op. In the fall, we do a standard wheat, oats, and ryegrass mix. For summer plots, we use vetch, cowpeas or soybeans, and sometimes corn. Some landowners want clover mixed in, too,” Thornton said. He added that fertilizing is always essential to ensure the plants get a good growth start.
The use of several different seed plants in the same plot offers measured results all summer. Each different plant type grows at its own rate, with varying terms of plant maturity, nutritional productivity, and seasonal longevity. Going this route produces the best chance for a food plot that will yield quality food resources from early summer on into fall months.
A recommended blend of cowpeas, soybeans, Alyce clover and joint vetch produces a protein yield of up to 19 percent, 21 percent, 16 percent, and 13 percent if planted together. The leaves alone, which deer love to eat first, can give even higher protein values. This is a good mix that has proven itself successful in southern soils as we have in Mississippi.
Other seed mix blends work well. Food-plot growers should try test areas with lespedeza, Ladino Clover, Red Clover, rye grass, bermuda grass, browntop millet and buckwheat, just to list a few. Even wildflowers can be a good wildlife food source, and don’t be afraid to try commercial blends such as Biologic or ABSeed’s “ABC” Deer Mix for summer use.
Use growth stimulants
Don’t skip the fertilizer. This is the final step to getting any food plot off to a good start. Without fertilizer, the success rates of seed productivity decline in both quantity and quality. Fertilizer is relatively cheap and easy to disperse. Providing adequate fertilizer will maximize plant sprouting, promote strong root systems and forage yield.
A simple 13-13-13 mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium usually gets the job done. Granular forms are easy to spread with the seeds, but liquid forms are available as well. Some deer managers choose to increase the nitrogen element to gain a quicker and longer lasting green up. It does cost more, but if soil conditions are margina,l it certainly might be worth the added expense.
If you have any doubts about what or how much fertilizer to use, ask the folks at the local farmer’s co-op. They can tell you which one works best for the soils in your area and the seed blends you pick. A typical application rate runs around 100 to 200 pounds per acre. More may be necessary if soil tests indicate the need.
One extra strategy to supplement Mother Nature on your property is to add a few simple embellishments to the existing habitat that will also benefit the deer. A full assessment of the property will certainly detail what native browse is in place. It then becomes a simple task in the spring to add fertilizer to these sites to promote additional growth.
Landowners should target natural stands of honeysuckle bushes, persimmon, wild crabapple, kudzu, greenbrier, wild grape, and dozens of other natural plants and shrubs that deer feed on. Take a hand spreader or even an old tub and a coffee can to spread granular fertilizer. The concern is not to be so precise as to how much you spread, but giving each site a good covering. Come spring rains, the difference will be noted immediately.
Supplemental plantings for long term benefit can also be accomplished this time of year. Fruit trees like apple or pear are good choices, because the fruit will eventually drop and be available to the deer. Oak trees can be planted for future generations, as can pecan varieties. Check with a well-stocked garden center or co-op to pick additional plantings.
Are summer food plots necessary? In the end, it depends on the landowner’s and hunter’s goals for the property. If the desire is for more deer, healthy deer with good confirmations and body weights along with bucks showing larger antlers grown on quality nutrition, then the best plan of action is to provide supplemental food resources. That can begin now with summer plots.