Plant Spring Food Plots To Improve Your Deer
Warm-season plots boost the nutrition available to deer during lean times.
Kent Kammermeyer | February 23, 2010
Spring and summer may be the times when your deer herd needs you the most. Don’t assume you can forget about deer now, and they will be big, healthy deer next fall. There are antlers to grow and fawns to feed!
There is an amazing selection of spring plantings for sale. A recent survey of Southeastern states identified no fewer than 62 plant species commonly planted for deer.
Cool Season vs. Warm Season
Successful deer managers need to identify seasons when native forages are most limited and select food-plot plants or mixtures which will fill this void. In most of Georgia, winter is by far the most limiting season due to the dormancy of native plants. Dormant plants are low in protein and palatability and high in lignin and cellulose, conditions which potentially cause deer to lose body weight even when forage quantity is high. Cool-season forages which are actively growing in fall, and that carry forward into winter and early spring, are the most appropriate supplemental planting in most of the state.
That said, the entire state also has a summer stress period for deer, especially in drought years. Deer benefit from warm-season plantings because they are often much higher quality — in both protein and digestibility — than native forages. Even at their peak in spring, native plants contain 15 percent or less protein, while legumes (pea, bean and clover family) in food plots contain 20 to 30 percent protein. Carefully selected warm-season plantings supply high-quality forage when native forage quality is good in spring, but lower in nutritional value, and when native forage quality is poor in summer. Warm-season plots also attract and hold deer on your property for spring and summer.
Spring and early summer nutrition affects antler growth, gestation and milk production of does, fawn birth weights and rate of fawn weight gain. A buck fawn’s first year is its most important year of growth — a fast start heavily influences trophy antler potential three or four years down the road.
High-quality spring nutrition is important for quick recovery of deer body weights after winter, which takes priority over new antler growth in a buck’s use of nutrients. Consequently, deer use of food plots is usually very heavy in early spring and again in summer. Warm-season food plots for deer are needed under conditions where summer vegetation quality is poor enough to cause nutritional stress for deer. This can be the entire state.
There is no perfect ratio of cool-season vs. warm-season plantings on your hunting property. A general rule for winter stress areas (such as north Georgia) is 70 percent cool-season plots and 30 percent warm-season plots. For summer stress areas like south Georgia, this can probably be balanced to 50/50 percent. Much depends on the property, the deer herd, habitat quality, access to nearby agriculture and the size and distribution of food plots. Remember, red and white clovers can double as cool-season and warm-season plots.
Warm-Season Plants and Mixes
Just like cool-season plots, the best spring and summer plots are made up of legumes including cowpeas, soybeans, grain sorghum, alfalfa, alyceclover, red clover or aeschynomene (jointvetch or deer vetch). Red clover has been shown to be very productive and nutritious in the summer except in drought years. Deer managers must remember, however, that late-summer stress periods are often caused by drought and deep sandy soils. Almost any food plot planted as a summer supplement is subject to the same drought stress as native plants unless it is irrigated or has a deep tap root.
Alfalfa may be best-suited for deer in arid or drought-prone regions as a combination cool- and warm-season forage. It has a deep root system that withstands droughts, and it maintains very high production (4 to 6 tons of hay per year) and quality (20 to 30 percent protein). However, alfalfa definitely has its drawbacks. It does not persist as well in south Georgia, it is expensive, and it requires high maintenance, high pH and high soil fertility. Alfalfa is also subject to weevil damage and weed encroachment. Alfalfa is usually managed for hay and not for grazing. Young stands can be easily overgrazed or out-competed by weeds. Contact your local agricultural extension service for advice about alfalfa varieties and suitability in your area. In general, large-field, commercial agricultural crops may not be appropriate for a small woodland food plot for deer. This applies to alfalfa.
Warm-season mixes are best formulated by mixing legumes and grasses for both efficient use of nitrogen (N) in addition to weed suppression and vertical structure. With this in mind, I recommend grain sorghum mixed with soybeans, cowpeas (catjang, red ripper, blackeyes, combine or iron clay varieties), buckwheat or aeschynomene (see table above for rates).
An alternative to the grass-combined-with-legume rule would be a mix of alyceclover/aeschynomene, like Rackmaster’s Deer Vetch Plus. A tall growing, bird-resistant sorghum (5 lbs/acre) would be perfect for this mix, but these are getting harder to find every year. The 4 1/2- to 5-foot height of this sorghum helps shade out competing weeds and provides a strong stalk for cowpeas, beans and aeschynomene to climb. The bird resistance is supplied by a tight, dark-colored closed seed head as well as tannic acid (bitterness) which resists consumption by most all animals early on, especially large migrating flocks of blackbirds in August. As the mature seed stands in the weather, it gradually becomes more palatable to deer, turkeys and other animals. In good acorn years, bird-resistant grain sorghum seed may last until winter before it is consumed by deer and turkeys. There are several commercial mixes of grain sorghum/legumes on the market, but unfortunately most contain WGF grain sorghum which is short (2 1/2 to 3 feet) and does not do a good job of shading weeds and hiding young legume seedlings from deer. However, convenience is a big advantage. The Rackmaster Deluxe Spring/Summer Deer Mix and the Rackmaster Summer Extreme Mix are good mixes that contain legumes, buckwheat and grain sorghum.
Corn is a highly preferred planting for deer, especially in north Georgia or on bottomland or irrigated land in south Georgia. Corn is best incorporated in a deer-management system where cooperative farming agreements can be made with farmers leaving 10 to 20 percent of the crop standing unharvested. Corn has some disadvantages when planted specifically for deer in small fields. It requires high fertility, herbicides (or cultivation) and pest control. Roundup Ready (RR) Corn mixed with Roundup Ready Soybeans (resistant to Roundup herbicide) is great for weed control if you have the spraying equipment. Planted in small fields (less than 3 acres), a corn/soybean mix is subject to heavy grazing and possible kill-out by deer, crows, squirrels, turkeys, raccoons and other wildlife. RR Eagle Soybeans are high-protein, high-yielding, climbing beans that resist heavy grazing if you can get them past deer pressure for the first 45 days.
Grain sorghum almost duplicates the food value of corn without some of the disadvantages. Late-planted (late May or June), dark-headed varieties mature later in summer during grape and acorn drop and resist early browsing. Varieties such as PennGrain DR, Pioneer 83G66, Asgrow A571 or Dekalb DKS54-00 are tall growing (4 1/2 to 5 feet) and are resistant to bird damage. Grain sorghum is much easier to grow than corn and is subject to less depredation and insect damage, but it still requires a heavy application of nitrogen or poultry litter for proper growth and production. Food plots composed of one half grain sorghum/legume mix and one half red clover/arrowleaf clover/oats mixture make an excellent spring/summer/fall food supply for deer. Buckmasters Ultimate Seed Mix contains five clovers and chicory but does not contain oats. You can mix in your own oats, but be sure to get this mix in the ground before March 15.
Timing of Production
To produce a food plot that combines attractiveness for deer during bow season and provides nutrition during late-summer stress periods, continued leaf production is critical. Rapid growth translates to high palatability and attractiveness for deer. Plantings that serve this dual purpose well include: Spring-planted plots of grain sorghum mixed with peas or beans; spring-planted plots of aeschynomene and alyceclover; and mid-summer plots of buckwheat or cowpeas.
Palatability, Digestibility And Nutrient Content
All three are different measures of vegetative quality which often go hand in hand to attract and hold deer. The most preferred (palatable) species also have the highest digestibility (lowest cellulose) and nutrient content (protein, fats, carbohydrates). This is where legumes excel because nitrogen (N) is the main component of protein. Legumes (with the help of soil bacteria) makes its own N from the air. Grasses, like corn and grain sorghum, must get their N from the soil where it is often limited, and N fertilizer is often required for optimum growth.
The young, tender leaves of legumes — and leaves that re-grow vigorously after browsing pressure — are full of protein (30 percent). They are also highly digestible and low in fiber. As leaf growth slows and the plant matures, fiber builds, digestibility wanes, protein declines and palatability becomes lower. The benefits peak in early spring, and then a gradual decline occurs through spring and summer until finally overall quality is at its lowest annual cycle until seed production, followed by dormancy or death of the leaf in the fall. Decline in quality is accelerated or accentuated by drought, low soil fertility and heat. Yet decline in quality is slowed by continuous deer grazing pressure that causes re-growth.
Can you use the most palatable species such as peas or beans in small plots of less than 2 acres? Generally, you can if they are planted early in April and are hidden by grain sorghum. Warm-season species like soybeans, iron clay cowpeas and lablab can be wiped out by heavy early grazing pressure within 30 days of planting. Catjang pea (also called Oklahoma game bird pea) is a legume that is more early grazing resistant than the others, but everything has its limits. However, there are new solutions for this old problem of early overgrazing.
Products that work well to protect food plots from early overgrazing include Plotsaver repellent system and Milorganite fertilizer. Information about both can be found online.
There is nothing more frustrating, or more preventable, than planting the wrong plant species on the wrong site. A classic example is alfalfa planted in bottomland with a high water table. Alfalfa’s deep root system is vulnerable to drowning and loss of an entire crop when roots are flooded. Another example is planting arrowleaf clover in the high mountains where it will surely be killed by winter freeze. Something as simple as mixing legumes with a very high rate of grain sorghum (10 lbs/acre) is an error, as the tall sorghum will inevitably shade out the slower, lower growing legumes.
In summary, there is no substitute for a good food-plot management program, which includes at least 2 percent of your acreage in high-quality agricultural food plots. Agricultural deer management includes identifying the most stressful seasons (usually late winter and mid to late summer) and planting productive, high-quality crops which fill the void created by low-quality native vegetation. An integrated system including both warm- and cool-season food plots has the potential to increase deer numbers and condition of the deer, and create a total quality-deer-management program. You need plots that attract, grow and hold deer and turkeys on your own property year-round. Half of that year is spring and summer.
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