Fitting Food Plots Into Pines And Hardwoods

With a little work preparing the soil, and with the right combination of seeds, you can create high-quality food plots in your pines or mixed pine/hardwood stands.

Kent Kammermeyer | October 1, 2008

Whether you own or lease your deer-hunting property, chances are good that you do not have enough food-plot acreage to attract and raise a high-quality deer herd for maximum recreational enjoyment year after year. Not having the time, money or equipment is one thing, but not having suitable sites is another. Most of the logical and obvious food-plot sites are old fields, log landings, pine-beetle kills, powerlines and gas lines. Do you have any pine plantations, hardwood drains and old roadbeds running through these areas? I can almost guarantee that you do, and I submit to you that many of these areas have potential for food-plot establishment. Maybe not big plots, but planted in the right crops with partial sun- light, they are big enough for feeding deer and harvesting deer on a consistent basis. All you need is 1/10 to 1/4 acre in any shape, but linear is usually the best.

A linear food plot of lush grass and clover is a deer magnet in a sea of planted pines, and a great place for a stand.

First, a little background information is in order. The value of high quality agronomic food plots for deer is no longer in question. A 1-acre plot properly limed and fertilized can produce from 2 to 5 tons of dry-weight forage for deer and turkeys annually. Much of this production occurs in the cool-season stress period when native deer forages are dormant and low in protein and digestibility. This com- pares to only 10 to 100 lbs./acre in mature shady forests and up to 1,000 lbs./acre temporarily in sunlit clearcuts. Thus food plots beat woodlands for deer-browse production by 10 times on the low end and up to 1,000 times on the high end, acre for acre!

The next question is how many acres of food plots do you really need to accomplish your goals of more deer or bigger deer with better body weights and antlers? Recent research in north Georgia and other places indicates that as little as 1.5 percent of the land area in high-quality food plots can produce significant results. The average deer lease in the Georgia is about 500 acres, so as little as 7.5 acres will improve the deer herd and deer-hunting success. Since the benefits of food plots is on a sliding scale, 5 percent would be even better (25 acres in our 500-acre example) if resources and finances permit. If you do not have enough acreage, here is how to find more.

Plant Plots in the Pines
Hate pine trees? I have been there, and I bet you have too, looking down those long straight pine rows wishing for better deer habitat or wishing for more hardwoods. There are lots of pine plantations Georgia between 15 and 20 years old that have recently been thinned or need thinning now. Timber and paper companies know this, and most private landowners do, too. In most of Georgia, planted pines begin to reach merchantable size between 13 and 15 years of age. Third- row and fifth-row thinnings are now a common forestry practice to thin pines for pulpwood and create improved growth rates for the residual stand. Not only is every third or fifth pine row totally removed, the cutter reaches into adjoining rows and removes crowded and inferior trees. This creates lots of filtered sunlight reaching the ground, often 50 percent or more. Pine spacings of 8 by 10 or 8 by 12 at planting can turn into 16 by 20 or 16 by 24 after the thinning — enough room for a specialized, linear plot.

I first heard about this row planting technique from my friend Joe Hamilton, founder of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), who participated in establishing aeschynomene (also known as American jointvetch) row plantings along with Clemson extension agent Marion Barnes in the Low Country of South Carolina. A linear food plot 6 to 12 feet wide can easily be fitted in between the pine rows with 6 or 8 feet to spare on each side without injuring pine tree roots. Another selling point for the landowner or forester is that the fertilizer, lime and legumes in the food plot planting will increase the growth rate of the adjoining pines. Also, if three or four of these lanes are connect- ed and bladed for firebreaks it is much easier to burn the pine-needle litter before planting, and the breaks can become permanent for future burning. A 12-foot wide plot that is 350 feet long calculates into just short of a 1/10th of an acre plot. Here is your golden opportunity to add food plot acreage to your pine plantations. You do not have to remove the old stumps, but it does work better if you can. Joe says the perfect implement for this job is a Brush Master disk harrow that can straddle the rows of stumps while disking on both sides. Also, look in the same planted pine stands for gaps that were left from planting skips, root-rot, beetle and drought damage. No stumps to worry about there. In any case, remove the pine-needle ground litter before plowing by burning, raking or dragging it to create a clean seedbed. If live understory vegetation exists, spray in August with 4 ounces/gallon glyphosate (Roundup) mixed with 1 ounce/gallon Quest or Amaze Gold (ammonium sulfate). Fertilize just prior to planting with 300 lbs./acre 19-19-19 and broadcast 500 lbs./acre of pelletized lime/acre. It is best to run 5- or 6-foot disk harrows across the plot, but in many cases a fall seed mix can be broadcast on this surface just prior to a soaking rain without plowing. The plot should be cultipacked, raked or dragged for better soil contact. If this is not possible, run over the seed repeatedly with a 4-wheeler.

There are several appropriate seed mixes possible, but the mix must contain mostly small seed and species that are shade tolerant such as clovers, rape, turnips or ryegrass. A logical mix for north Georgia is 5 lbs./acre Durana white clover, 10 lbs./acre crimson clover, 2 lbs./acre rape, 30 lbs./acre cereal rye and 30 lbs./acre wheat. Timing of sowing is appropriate for September and February. In south Georgia, use 10 lbs./acre arrowleaf clover, 10 lbs./acre crimson clover, 2 lbs./acre rape, 30 lbs./acre cereal rye and 30 lbs./acre wheat planted in October or February.

If the plot is burned in late winter, plowed and sowed in April (north and south), use the same fertilizer and lime rates (and glyphosate, if needed) but sow 25 lbs./acre buckwheat and 20 lbs./acre aeschynomene.

Plots in the Hardwoods and Mixed Pine/Hardwoods
Any holes in the overstory canopy are fair game for small food plots fitted with the size of the hole and the sun- light reaching the ground. Shoot for 50 percent sunlight hitting the ground, but 30 percent will work with the right seed mix. If there are no existing holes made by blowdowns, dead trees, previous tree cutting or other means, you can create your own holes with a chainsaw. Obviously, don’t cut mature oak trees but certainly sweetgum, poplar, maple, hickory, elm, birch, basswood and ash are fair game for the chainsaw. This procedure was first published by Ed Spinazzola in central Michigan. Ed is the author of “Wildlife Food Plots Easy as 1-2-3,” and “Ultimate Deer Food Plots,” (both available at or (800) 209- 3337).

Wide roadbeds winding through the woods are often ideal for food-plot planting if you are on a budget.

You must realize up front that there are difficulties with this method of establishing food plots in hardwoods because of the dense shade cast by hardwood leaves as well as heavy leaf drop occurring in November and December. One advantage of these sites is that soil fertility is generally better than that on pine sites.

If chainsaw work is not needed, spray understory plants with 4 ozs./gallon glyphosate mixed with 1 oz./gallon Quest or Amaze Gold in August or May. About three weeks later, return and remove as much dead material and leaf litter as possible with rakes, leaf blowers, drags and whatever it takes. Disk lightly if possible. If not, scratch the dirt with a drag or rake, apply lime and fertilizer (same rate as in pines) then sow 5 lbs./acre Durana clover, 10 lbs./acre crimson clover, 2 lbs./acre rape, 30 lbs./acre cereal rye and 15 lbs./acre tetraploid annual ryegrass. (Tetraploid is a hybrid that produces more forage and less seed than regular annual ryegrass). Scratch again for good soil contact. This mix works north and south except on pure sand soil. Normally, I would not recommend annual ryegrass for deer and turkeys, but it cannot be beat in very shady conditions and will usually reseed itself consistently until the canopy hole closes. You may have to blow leaves off the plot in late fall to release the seedlings for better growth. If the plot is hit hard by deer grazing early on, you may lose the crimson, rape and rye, but I can’t imagine losing Durana and ryegrass which both stand up well under extreme grazing pressure.

If chainsaw work is needed, winter is the best time to start cutting. Remove cut brush, spray glyphosate in April, spray again in June and again in August. Sow in September with the above mix.

Hardwood honey holes are a work in progress as the hole will rapidly try to close from the sides and above, at which time you will have to employ your chainsaw and/or glyphosate to keep it open or make it bigger. However, since plants in the mix are either perennial (Durana clover) or strong reseeding annuals (crimson and ryegrass), your stand should last for several years as long as the canopy hole is kept open and the plot is fertilized.

Planting On Existing Roadbeds In Pines And Hardwoods

Maybe the best situation for small hidden woods plots if you have the equipment or can rent it is an old roadbed winding through pines or hardwoods. Working on these accomplishes multiple objectives including erosion control, access across property and creation of a linear food plot. They are usually partially or mostly daylight- ed already but still may require some chainsaw work or dozer work to brush back the edges and widen the roadbed while increasing the sunlight reaching the ground. Because of compaction and poor soil, roadbeds often need ripping or heavy disking with a dozer. Establishing broad-based dips and water turnouts in the meantime greatly reduces erosion. Your county Georgia Forestry Commission likely has a dozer with heavy disk harrows combination with expert operator for rent for about $75/first hour and $7.50/every tenth of an hour after that (hour meter on dozer is in tenths). This machine is likely a John Deere 450 or JD550, both are more than adequate for dressing up roadbeds and daylighting roads. The JD550 dozers that are available cost about $80/hour with a $250 minimum. These dozers may or may not be avail- able for use in light or minor food-plot clearing projects especially when connected with firebreaks, roadwork and erosion control. Contact the Georgia Forestry Commission for details and a site visit.

When daylighting old roads, there is no set width but wider is obviously better. Minimum width should be about 12 feet. Concentrate on getting rid of adjoining hardwoods as again, they cast much denser shade than pines. When big oaks are encountered, work around them without damaging the tree or the root system.

Wherever possible, choose roads that are mostly oriented east/west rather than north/south as these will receive more sunlight during growing season and that detail may mean the difference between success and failure due to sunlight penetration or lack thereof. For roadbeds where erosion is not a concern, use the pine-row planting mixture. Otherwise, use the hard- wood mixture with the tetraploid rye- grass statewide. Keep vehicle traffic off of these as much as possible.

A Word About Durana Clover

You will note that Durana white clover from Pennington Seed Co. is recommended in almost all of the mixes mentioned above. I am a wildlife consultant who has done more than 40 consulting jobs all across the Southeast. I also spent 30 years managing more than 900 acres of food plots on north-Georgia WMAs. I was using and testing Durana clover in the late 90s before it even got on the seed market, and I have seen dozens and dozens of Durana plots since then. I have seen Durana survive dense shade (up to about 75 percent), low pH (down to about 5.2), record-breaking severe droughts of 2006 and 2007, and flood- ing of up to 4 feet depth for a week. It is in my opinion, the toughest, most persistent clover on the market today. If something manages to kill its extensive root system, it will still come back from seed given the right conditions of moisture, lack of weed competition and day length. I have known Durana to come roaring back from glyphosate spraying in mid-spring after all top growth was killed by the herbicide! It can appear stone cold dead from drought in August and come roaring back from live root segments and seed following rain in September or October.

Durana has one Achilles heel: it is a slow starter, sometimes taking three months or more to put on good top growth because it is establishing an extensive root system to support its strong perennial growth characteristics. Consequently, do not use seeding rates any heavier than what I have recommended above especially crimson clover, rape, rye and wheat as fast growth of these can choke out the slower Durana seedlings.

If you decide to substitute a cheap- er white clover, do not expect results to be as good as they could have been with Durana. Do not use ladino (big leaf clovers with less persistence and less shade tolerance), but you can use common or white Dutch in the mixes with very good persistence but much lower production.

Time To Hunt

Finally, as you have surely concluded by now, these unconventional plots tucked in the woods make perfect places to hunt. Deer, especially mature bucks, feel more comfortable entering and feeding in these small plots during daylight hours. On larger plots they are more likely to stage during the evening 200 yards back in the woods from a big food plot waiting until full darkness to actually leave the woods enter the food plot.

Just do not over-pressure the small plots with hunting activity. Probably hunting no more than twice per week per plot is the maximum pressure and once per week hunting would be even better. Evening hunts will likely produce less disruption of normal deer movements and often provide better overall hunting.

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