Land and wildlife managers have accepted the value of summer food plots as a long-term tool in deer management, providing nutrition for deer at the time when bucks are growing antlers and does are preparing to or are already feeding fawns.
As with any endeavor these summer plots, which are planted in the spring, can be as simple or involved as you wish them to be. If you have a fall plot or plots already then you are ahead of the game, and if you will be clearing or improving an existing plot, then you’re in for a bit more work.
The end result of a summer plot will be a healthier deer herd. These tips will help you succeed in reaching that goal.
The 10-month food plot
A traditional, well-balanced cool-season food plot comes to life in late October if the weather is benevolent, but falls rather flat in the fawning and antler growing periods of July and August, when deer need increased nutrition.
The cool-season mix of oats and wheat, with crimson and arrow leaf clover planted in combination with the grains, provides nourishment for about 10 months. Oats and wheat come on strong in the fall and peak in December and February, which is great for deer hunting season, but these grains decline quickly as turkey season approaches.
Crimson clover’s April spike will offset that decline, with a side benefit. Turkeys do love a clover patch in the spring, both for forage and bugging. Arrow leaf will climax as the summer heat begins to take its toll in July.
This leaves a void in supplemental forage at a time when deer need it most for antler formation and lactation.
Summer and winter
The dilemma faced is whether to change the fall seed mix, or till under a healthy stand of clover to plant a summer food plot. Deer are benefiting from the spring green-up that starts in March and April so why should it matter?
“Cool season food plots attract deer,” Dr. Bronson Strickland said. “But if hunters want to really help deer when they need it, they will focus on the benefits of warm-season planting. Warm-season crops, especially forage soybeans, provide does with much-needed nutrition during pregnancy and fawning. Bucks will be provided excellent nourishment while growing antlers. Remember, once the velvet on the antlers dies, the antlers are done growing for the year.”
Converting an abandoned food plot, or converting one or part of one to a warm season plot may just be the answer.
“Given all the other factors deer need, such as a feeling of security and good bedding cover, they will develop feeding areas,” Strickland said. “Being browsers, the food demands change, but deer will feed where nutrition is best. Hunters having deer come to a warm weather plot will most likely see the same deer coming to a cool season planting.”
Prepare the seedbed
Soil testing is a simple, money-saving task that needs to be done early in the spring to allow time for the proper application of nutrients prior to planting. Mississippi State University recommends the following method of collecting for a sample:
From numerous locations (10-20) around the food plot collect a handful of soil at a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Place all these sub-samples in a bucket or bowl and mix well. Remove about a cup of this blend and place in a sample container.
Containers can be obtained from the Mississippi State Extension Service. Label your sample with your name, address, and crops to be planted and send it to Mississippi State University, Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State, MS 39762-9610.
If sending samples from numerous plots, clearly label the plot number or name. The soil-testing lab can be reached by calling 662-325-3313, or online at msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html. Soil testing should be completed three months prior to planting to allow ample time for testing and fertilizer application.
If a cool-season plot is being put into service as a warm-season plot, there is a good chance it will need to be sprayed with an herbicide prior to being broken up. Many weed plants, such as ragweed, go rapidly and are generally germinated by late March.
Weeds can choke out desired plants and compete with them for nutrients. A tractor- or ATV-mounted boom sprayer is just right for food plots. Herbicides containing glyphosate will kill back a broad spectrum of weeds in food plots, and, as a post-emergent chemical, there is little or no residual effect on the soil.
To till or not to till
If fertilizer needs to be incorporated, then no-till is out of the question. No-till planting saves time and allows the soil to retain moisture. Planting forage soybeans is a good example of a no-till crop. Combined with Alyce clover (which is not really a clover, but a legume) will give the beans a better chance of survival from early grazing.
Disking is recommended where the soil needs to be turned under to incorporate fertilizer and/or lime. If you are converting newly cleared land or pasture into a warm season food plot, this is necessary.
Combination crops, such as corn, clay peas and vetch, will be best planted with a drill. Other planting methods, such as broadcasting, can be used was well.
An established cool-season food plot may be large enough to incorporate a warm-season plot as well. Practicing crop rotation will allow decaying plant material to be incorporated into the soil, a win-win situation.
Food plots are managed based on size, normally in the number of acres. Seed, fertilizer and lime are all calculated in pounds per acre. Herbicides, of course are figured in gallons per acre. A square acre is pretty simple to figure: 208.7 x 208.7 feet, or 43,560 square feet.
The problem comes in when experts tell us food plots should be one to two acres and that deer prefer long more narrow plots as opposed to square or round ones. Over estimate the size of the plot and you’ll be buying more seed and fertilizer than you need. Underestimate the area of the plot and your efforts may not reach your expectations.
One of the easiest ways to measure the size of your plot is with a measuring wheel. Once you know the perimeter, the conversion to acres is pretty easy. Because an acre is a measure of area, not length, it is defined in square feet. An acre can be of any shape — a rectangle, a triangle, a circle, as long as its area is 43,560 square feet.
The most standard shape for an acre is one furlong by one chain, or 660 feet by 66 feet. To find the linear measurements of other rectangular acres, just divide 43,560 by the number of feet you want on one side. A square-shaped acre would then be about 208.7 by 208.7 feet (because 208.7 x 208.7 = 43,560). An acre 100 feet wide would be 435.6 feet long (100 x 435.6 = 43,560) and an acre a foot wide would be 43,560 feet long.
Using a GPS or cell phone application is perhaps the fastest method, unless you are technically challenged.
Selecting the seed
“Selecting seed for a warm-season plot is just common sense,” said William Hamrick, a deer biologist at MSU. “Choose varieties with high protein, some drought tolerance and resistance to heavy grazing. There is a difference in forage soybeans and crop soybeans; the latter tolerates grazing better.
“Another good plant is deer vetch, or American jointed vetch. Doing a bit of research prior to planning will insure a good crop. Forage soybeans planted with corn produces a win-win combination.”
Other choices include:
• Alyce clover — This is a warm-season annual legume that provides forage in summer and early fall, filling the void in the aforementioned 10-month food plot. Especially important to deer, this plant holds up well to heavy grazing. Best planted in Mississippi from May 1 through June 15, Alyce clover is suited to most moderate to well-drained soils, including bottomland. Good companion plants include cowpeas and/or joint vetch. Plant it in a well-prepared firm seedbed.
• Cowpeas — This is another warm-season annual legume browsed by deer and rabbits, and its seeds are highly used by quail and turkey. Adapted to well-drained soils, it does well from sandy loam to heavy soil. Suggested varieties include iron clay, red ripper and combine. Cowpeas do well when planted in combination with Egyptian wheat, grain sorghum, corn, or other peas. Plant cowpeas in a well-prepared firm seedbed.
• Lablab — This is a drought-tolerant, fast growing, erect warm-season legume that is somewhat perennial but does not readily reseed. A favorite of deer it is widely used where dry conditions persist, especially in Texas. It does not do well in wet soils. Seeds need to be covered with one-inch of soil. Use a planting rate of 5 pounds per acre with a drill, or 10 pounds broadcast. Lablab does well when planted with corn, millet, Alyce clover or grain sorghum. It is susceptible to damage from early over grazing.
• Forage soybeans — One of the best warm-season plot foods, wildlife soybeans are highly recommended by the deer team at MSU. Forage soybeans grow well in a variety of soil types and conditions, providing excellent forage for deer and rabbits, and seeds for turkey and quail. Plant when all chance of frost is past, and up to June 15, in a well prepared firm seedbed. Good choices for companion plantings include corn, grain sorghum and Egyptian wheat.
• Deer vetch — Also known as joint vetch, the foliage is highly palatable and withstands heavy grazing pressure from deer. Growing to over 5 feet, it does well in almost any soil type. Seeds should be covered ¼- to ½-inch deep in a well prepared, firm seedbed. Drill at a rate of 15 pounds per acre and broadcast 20 pounds per acre.
• Corn — High in carbohydrates, corn is favored by most wildlife; therefore it should not be planted as a main warm-season crop on small plots. Crows and wild hogs will ravage a freshly planted field. Raccoons, hogs, deer and birds will feed on the emerging ears. Corn needs to be planted in rows so it can be side-dressed about three weeks following emergence. Most commercial varieties are okay, with dwarf tropical producing low-forming ears preferred by wildlife. Figure on 12 pounds per acre in drill. Leave the stalks standing through the fall.
Warm-season food plots are not a onetime planting. The plot should be managed and cared for just as a garden might be. Commit to several years and some experimentation to develop the best combination of planting based on your soil type and growing conditions. When a supplemental feeding plan includes warm and cool season crops, every creature benefits.