According to research, if at least one percent of an area is planted in year-round forages, the plots can have a positive effect on nutrition and quality of white-tailed deer.

While most hunters think of cool-season plots when they think of plantings for deer, warm-season plots are largely overlooked. Both does and bucks need food sources high in nutrition in summer for fawn-rearing and antler-growth.

Deer eat the most food in late summer, and warm-season food-plot use declines from March through June. But this use peaks again in August before declining again in September.

So while you may consider a cool-season food plot of wheat or oats to be the ultimate deer food plot, think again. If you really want to grow healthy deer and keep them on your property, consider a year-round plot plan that begins with warm-season food sources.

 

Plot planning

When planning warm-season plots, first consider the amount of sunlight that will reach your plot through the trees above. Adequate sunlight is not much of a problem in the dead of winter when the trees are bare, but in the summer, a plot that receives enough sunlight is essential.

You should place plots in an area large enough to sustain high browsing activity also. A quarter-acre fire lane in the middle of 80-foot tall pines may not be the best option for a warm-season plot. If you can utilize existing openings such as fire lanes, utility rights-of-way, roadsides and small fields, use those areas. If you must create openings where there are none, try to remember that plots need to be about one acre or larger. However, it is better to have multiple two-acre plots scattered throughout the property than it is to have one large 10 or 20-acre plot.

Deer and other wildlife also prefer plots that have lots of edge and escape cover. No land animal is overly excited about walking 200 yards into the middle of a 10-acre square plot where it is in danger in the wide-open. Instead, most animals would rather step a few feet out from the edge of the forest or thicket and feed where they have the option to quickly run back to cover.

For the hunter's sake, plots that create choke-points and funnels, or plots that are designed to provide stealthy access behind screens or a point of woods can be beneficial.

Also remember that plots planted close to public roads are highly subject to poaching by no-good road riders and night hunters. If you must plant a plot within eyesight of a road, consider planting a screen of some sort to block the plot from view. Poaching won't typically be as much of a problem in the summer months as it will be in winter, but believe it or not, there are people out there who will snipe a deer in July, August and September. Keeping a plot full of velvet-clad bucks out of view in August is just as important as it is in December.

Also consider creating your access roads at angles from the main road to keep road hunters from making a 400-yard shot from the comfort of their vehicle.

 

Soil fertility

Soil tests are often ignored by hunters putting in a quick plot, but the benefits of proper pH and fertility are huge. A soil test will show you how much lime and fertilizer your soil needs, if any. A detailed analysis of exactly how much calcium, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, zinc and sodium are needed will be in the report. A soil test result will also tell you if you need to add lime to balance the pH or not.

And of course, all of these factors will depend on which type crop you plan to grow on a particular area. If you didn't know it already, proper liming can make all the difference in the world in how your plants take up the nutrients in the soil or the fertilizer you add to it. For example, in extremely acidic soils with a pH of 4.5, only 30 percent of nitrogen, 23 percent of phosphate and 33 percent of potash are available to your plants. You waste more than 70 percent of your fertilizer!

On the other hand, a neutral pH of 7.0 makes 100 percent of the nitrogen, phosphate and potash available to your plants. So getting the proper pH is crucial to plant development, and the only way to do that is by testing your soil. It may seem like an unnecessary and expensive thing to put out a few tons of lime on your property, but just think how much money you'll save on fertilizer when you have the proper pH.

Soil samples should be taken from multiple locations across your plot, from the top 6 inches of soil. For the purpose of these relatively small plot areas, you can mix all of these samples together to get an average representation from your plot. Be sure to label each sample with a plot name so you will remember which plot needs what when your results come back.

 

Crop selection

Now that you have your soil test results, you can decide which crop you want to plant and what needs to be done to the soil to get the nutrients and pH in order. When selecting the type of crop you want in your warm-season plot, there are a few things to consider. The first is how much time and effort you want to put into the plot. Clovers need regular mowing and herbicide treatments in summer months to keep them going strong, whereas forage soybeans can get by with a spraying or two as needed.

The second thing to consider is what type of soil you have. Heavy soils with little drainage may be great for soybeans or peas, but you'll need sandy soils that drain well for a corn crop.

It's also important to consider how much fertilizer you may need to apply to a particular crop, such as nitrogen-guzzling corn, versus a legume that produces its own nitrogen. The point of the matter is that if you aren't planning on following through with crop health after planting, you might as well save your money and not plant the seed in the first place.

So what exactly is it that you want to plant? If you want something that will feed nursing does and bucks with developing antlers in mid-summer, then choose one of the legumes like clover, vetch or cowpeas. If you want something for cover and a high-energy food source later in the year, then plant corn. If you want a fast-growing, protein-rich source of foliage for the heat of the late summer when browsing activity is heavy, look to forage soybeans.

Mike Jones with Specialty Seeds in Anguilla says most of the warm-season crops suitable for the Magnolia State are members of the legume family.

"Iron clay cowpeas, forage soybeans, joint vetch and alyce clover are what you typically see the most in summer plots," he said. "Alyce clover and joint vetch in the same plot is a good combination. Cowpeas are also an excellent choice - provided you plant them in a large enough plot to withstand heavy browsing pressure.

"White clovers such as Ladino persist throughout summer months with proper management. You can plant white clovers during the fall and possibly in the spring. Once the stand is established, keep the stand cut short with frequent mowing and control grasses with herbicide. Deer will feed in it all summer long. Clover produces high tonnage, and is a high-protein food source. It is good for lactating does that are fawning and bucks developing antlers."

Johnny St. Clair, manager of Rivers Run near Belzoni, sang songs of praise about forage soybeans. I rode around with St. Clair just before bow season in 2009, and looked at his soybean plots. As you know, it was a wetter than average year in '09, and the soybeans were stressed from too much moisture, but overall they looked great.

Leafy green soybean plants, most of them 5-6 feet tall and full of pods in September, covered the plots he had planted in May.

St. Clair planted Eagle brand Group 7 soybeans, some of them the Large Lad variety and some were Gamekeeper. Both of these were herbicide-resistant "Roundup Ready" varieties, which could be sprayed over the top with glyphosate herbicide without killing the crop.

"I use Large Lad Eagle beans because they produce a lot of leaves," said St. Clair. "Deer can feed really heavily on them, and they just keep putting on more leaves. Other varieties of beans seem to go dormant when deer feed on them hard. With the Large Lad, it seems like for every leaf the deer eat, the plant puts out two more. Deer can't eat them fast enough."

St. Clair says the key to success with the forage soybeans is to get the plots large enough to prevent overbrowsing and to get them planted in time to get growing well before the deer start to feed on them.

"I plant them in May," he said. "We put out pre-emergence herbicide in the spring, and that keeps the weeds held back usually until planting time. If needed, we spray Roundup at planting and then a couple of times throughout the growing season."

St. Clair plants his forage soybeans with a conventional row-planter on 18-inch row spacing. He doesn't use raised beds for the beans, but instead plants on flat ground.

But don't be dismayed if you don't have a planter on 18-inch spacing. A typical planter on 36 or 38-inch rows can be used. All you have to do is plant the field once, then come back and plant the middles.

"One of our soybean plots is about 6 acres in size," said St. Clair. "It has a natural funnel in the field where deer travel heavily during bow season. I can back off 500 yards and watch that plot all summer long from my truck.

"Some stands I leave year-round so I don't have to disturb the area come hunting season. We only hunt that plot when the conditions are absolutely perfect. But it is a great spot."

 

Equipment needs

Now that you have a few options on the table, you need to decide what you can plant with the equipment you have. Planting corn, soybeans and cowpeas may be a little more intensive than the traditional, "disk it and spread it" wheat plot.

Most planting guidelines recommend drilling warm-season plot seed versus broadcasting it. There are conditions where broadcasting soybeans and clover will work well, but as a general rule, if you want a good stand, you need to plant it in a well-prepared seedbed.

Agricultural row planters are a dime a dozen in the Delta, but may be a little more scarce in other parts of the state that aren't big farming areas. ATV disks and harrows work well for some managers, but there are many times when you have to have something with a lot more weight and versatility.

Disks, cultivators, planters, fertilizer rigs and tractors aren't cheap, especially if you only need them to do 8-10 acres of plots on your hunting lease. If you don't have a neighbor with some or all of the required equipment, renting it may be the only option. It would take you a month of Sundays to prepare and plant 10 acres with pull-behind ATV equipment, and a few hours to do it with tractor implements.

One of the most important aspects of any planting operation is a well-prepared seedbed. You may need to disk your plots several times before you can plant to break up hard-packed soil and to get rid of weeds and grasses. A follow-up trip with a field cultivator or a do-all may be needed to pulverize and smooth the seedbed even more. A well-prepared seedbed will ensure that your seed has good soil contact and minimal weed competition, a vital component to a uniform stand.

Planting, or drilling, with row planters and/or grain drills gets the seed into the moisture layer of the soil, where it is almost sure to germinate quickly and give you an even stand across the field.

Broadcasting on top of the ground and lightly covering is a less-favorable planting method, but will work under the right conditions. But usually when you disk, then broadcast and lightly cover the seed, you lose the moisture in the layer of soil your seed is in contact with. A timely rain soon after planting can solve this issue in most cases.

With the many herbicide-resistant varieties of food-plot crops on the market, post-planting tillage may not even be necessary. With herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans readily available on the market, a good pre-emergence herbicide and a couple of post-emergence sprayings can solve most of your weed problems.

With crops like clovers, a routine mowing schedule can be just as effective in reducing weed competition as herbicides.

So if you are serious about growing and holding deer on your property, talk with your local county agent or consultant at the co-op or seed dealer. They can custom-fit a plan that is suited just for you to ensure that you have a successful warm-season food plot program on your property.