Targeting Warm Season Food Plots
QDMA shares crops and tips for productive summer food plots.
Two years ago this May, the staff of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) moved into our new national headquarters outside Athens. While we are happy to be in a permanent, new and very practical facility, it is the 23 acres surrounding the building that most excites the staff members who love to experiment with food plots, tree plantings, trail cameras, minerals and habitat equipment. Literally, we have a small deer-management laboratory within steps of the front door of the office, and office productivity is often interrupted by deer in the food plots, which tend to pull employees toward the windows, binoculars in hand.
Last summer, a doe with a set of triplet fawns visited the plots almost daily, and desks would be emptied when word circulated that the triplets were out front. Bucks are less commonly seen in the plots closest to the building, except for a few days each November when they emerge from the woods and plots closer to the creek bottom and boldly disregard the building as they scout for does.
Using the three total acres of food plots on the property, we have learned a lot about different food-plot plants and techniques in a short time, especially warm-season plantings. We have now had two summers to try different species and mixes of warm-season annuals and are going into a third summer of testing to see how they grow in our soils and contribute to deer nutrition.
One thing we cannot test is deer preference for various plants. The QDMA National Headquarters is on the fringe of a heavy commercial, industrial and residential district where, as in many suburban areas, hunters have been all but excluded while ample deer habitat remains. So, deer population densities are too high for the habitat. The deer that use the 23-acre QDMA property will happily eat anything we plant, including the azaleas on the border of the parking lot and four tree seedlings of various species that we intentionally left unprotected (without a plastic tree tube) to see if deer would damage them. Test results affirmative!
While we cannot compare plant species for deer preference, we have learned a lot about how deer browsing affects both cool- and warmseason species and blends. This can be a critical factor in growing warm-season food plots, even when you are wisely managing the population density through doe harvest.
Let’s look at some of the top warm-season food plot species and how they can benefit your QDM program.
Why Target the Warm-Season?
While hunting-season attraction is involved with some warm-season species during bow season, the majority of these crops are productive throughout the late spring and summer. This fills what can be a weak period for deer nutrition, a time when few hunters are planting food plots, and a time when many natural forages are declining in palatability and nutritional value. All those forbs and grasses that were tender, tasty and full of protein back at
spring green-up gradually become taller, more stemmy, tougher to chew and digest, and lower in nutritional value. In the South’s longer growing season, plants hit the basement of quality long before help arrives in the form of fruits and acorns in the fall. Meanwhile, does are recovering from the demands of nursing and pregnancy, fawns are being weaned onto natural forages, and bucks are growing antlers. So, the value of providing succulent, nutritious plants in summer is easily seen.
Beyond this, especially if you are managing a small hunting property, as so many of us are these days, it is important to make your habitat attractive to deer all year long, not just during hunting season, so you can condition them to spend more time with you. Warm-season food plots are critical to that endeavor.
Finally, summer plots provide great deer-viewing opportunities. They can provide information about the feeding and movement patterns of bucks in bachelor groups in late summer, information that many skillful bowhunters have translated into early season archery success. Now that we’ve established the value of a summer food plot, let’s look at species options.
This annual is a leafy forb that grows about 1 to 2 feet tall. Buckwheat is a short-lived annual: it emerges quickly after you plant it, matures rapidly, and goes to seed and dies in a matter of about 80 days. But, it has several advantages that make up for this short lifespan.
It is easy to grow and tolerant of less-than-perfect soil conditions. While any plant will perform to its potential in soils that have been limed and fertilized according to a soil test and prepared well with tillage, buckwheat is forgiving and will still produce a decent crop if you haven’t performed your due diligence. This makes it a good choice for remote food plots, rough ground like logging decks or rocky ridge tops, or any dirt that is still in the renovation phase. In fact, that’s where buckwheat can really help — it is a great soil builder. After it has matured, disk the dead plants under, and they will add significantly to the phosphorus and organic matter in the soil, increasing its moisture-holding and fertility-holding abilities. Thus, buckwheat would be a good choice for plots under improvement, and you can easily convert a summer buckwheat plot to a cool-season perennial blend for the fall.
As for deer preference, while buckwheat gets browsed heavily along with everything else at QDMA Headquarters, deer may take some time to discover and begin to use this crop in areas with lower deer density and high-quality habitat. Given a couple seasons of exposure, most deer will eventually lock in on buckwheat.
Also known as milo, this plant resembles a small corn stalk when it is growing, but it does not produce ears. Rather, it produces a seed stalk at the top in the same way that a corn stalk produces a tassel. The plant has almost no value as a leafy forage, and even the QDMA headquarters deer rarely bother it — the value is in the mature seed head, which is similar to corn in its nutritional value.
This seed head matures in late summer, perfect timing for deer when high-quality natural foods are tough to find. For wildlife purposes, make sure you buy the WGF variety of sorghum. In this variety, tannin levels in the seeds remain high as the seeds grow and do not diminish until the seeds mature, which deters birds and mammals from plundering the seed heads too soon. The change happens abruptly. I have literally left the office on late summer evenings, noticing on my way out the stands of tall sorghum (about waist-high) with full, heavy seed heads. Returning the next morning, I have been surprised to see most of those seed heads completely gone. Within a day or two, no seed heads remain. The seed heads are at perfect browsing height for deer, and they literally clip the entire seed head off, stalk and all.
This sounds like a rather narrow window of nutritional value, and it is. But sorghum has another value besides nutrition that makes it worthy of your summer food-plot plan. It provides terrific structure for climbing, viny legumes like peas. In such a mixture, sorghum stalks provide not only a “trellis” for viny legumes, I believe they also help camouflage and shelter the annual legume sprouts when they are at a very young, tender and vulnerable stage. While corn and sunflowers can provide the same structure and protection in a warm-season blend, deer may eat corn before it matures, and they will definitely draw a bead on young sunflowers and nip them with relish.
A recommended warm-season mixture, straight out of the “Mixtures” chapter of QDMA’s new book, “Quality Food Plots,” is 7 lbs./acre grain sorghum, 15 lbs./acre iron and clay cowpeas, and 15 lbs./acre quail haven soybeans. Refer to “Quality Food Plots” for many more useful mixtures like this one.
Peas and Beans
None of us has to be told that deer love peas and beans. They are advantageous as food plot crops because, as legumes, they fix their own nitrogen and save you on your fertilizer bill, and they are very high in protein and highly digestible. If they are planted in a blend with non-legumes, these other plants share and benefit from the nitrogen as well.
Iron and clay cowpeas, butterfly peas, quail haven soybeans and burgundy beans are just a few of the pea and bean varieties that work well for deer. I mention the “quail haven” variety of soybeans because you want a variety that puts more effort into leafy growth for deer forage and less effort into bean production. Farmers are more interested in producing beans, so steer clear of borrowing or buying just any old soybean seed from the local farm supply.
Peas and beans can be planted in April, or several plantings can be made across the calendar if you want to spread out production. And, you can even plant late in August to produce a bowhunting food plot for September and October. No matter when you plant them, the peas or beans will be killed by the first frost, but you can usually get in a lot of bowhunting before that time.
One of the big drawbacks to annual legumes like these is their vulnerability at early stages of growth. Consider clovers and other perennials, which are slow to emerge. They put on lots of root growth while the visible plant remains low and small, below a deer’s radar. By the time the plant’s top growth begins to flourish, it is well established and ready to handle browse pressure.
Not so with cowpeas and soybeans. Their most vulnerable parts shoot straight out of the ground shortly after the seed germinates. This juicy, green sprout is like a deer lollipop. In small food plots and in areas where deer density is too high, deer will often nip off all the lollipops, wiping out the food plot before it is established. Even in a large field of beans in an area where deer numbers are being wisely managed, one deer wandering through a moonlit bean field can put the guillotine on a large number of young plants. Once peas and beans make it beyond about 30 to 45 days, they can withstand heavy browse pressure and survive. To reach this point, you may have to keep deer out of the pea patch until the plants are ready. More on this later.
Like peas and beans, lablab is an annual, viny, warm-season legume. It looks a little too much like kudzu, and deer love it like kudzu, but luckily lablab is not known as an invasive or problematic species. It is high in protein, highly digestible, and has all the advantages that legumes offer, including nitrogen fixation. Like peas and beans, it is very vulnerable to deer browsing at early stages of growth, but once you get lablab beyond the critical first few weeks, it produces prodigious amounts of forage and will stay ahead of browsing pressure.
At QDMA headquarters, when planted in a mix with cowpeas and soybeans, it was obvious that deer went for the cowpeas and soybeans first before turning to the lablab — perhaps because of greater familiarity with the first two — but they also ate the lablab with relish.
Like peas and beans, lablab makes a great viny legume for climbing sorghum or other tall stalks in a mix.
Corn (RR and Tropical)
Corn isn’t planted to provide warm-season nutrition, and if your deer are eating the stalks in summer before the corn matures, you have too many deer and need to do some population management. Corn is grown in the warm season to provide fall and winter food and hunting-season attraction. A popular new combination is a mix of Roundup Ready corn and Roundup Ready soybeans. Planted together, this mix provides summer browse through the soybeans, and fall nutrition and attraction through the corn.
The Roundup Ready aspect helps managers like you and me deal with summer weeds. With Roundup Ready crops, you can make up to two applications of Roundup (active ingredient: glyphosate) after seedling emergence (always follow herbicide label instructions). This kills warm-season weeds, but the soybeans and corn tolerate the glyphosate and are not injured.
Of course, like conventional corn, Roundup Ready corn is still susceptible to drought, which can often terminate small food plots that are not under irrigation. One preventive step is to opt for tropical corn. This variety is more tolerant of drought, although it is not available in a Roundup Ready variety.
I saw a fine stand of tropical corn planted for deer in Mississippi last summer — it had survived, outcompeted weeds and produced impressive ears despite extreme drought. Since we can’t predict droughts easily, you might hedge your bets by planting both RR corn and tropical corn in separate plantings. One or the other, or both, is likely to be successful.
American Jointvetch Alyceclover
American jointvetch, also known as aeschynomene, is another warmseason annual legume that produces feathery, fringed leaves that deer love. We planted jointvetch at QDMA headquarters in the summer of 2005 in a mix with sorghum. After a few weeks, the difference in the height of the jointvetch inside our browse exclosures compared to outside the cages was astounding. The problem is jointvetch seed is very expensive and difficult to find. It is only grown in the southern half of Florida by a few remaining producers, and the fields have been contaminated by tropical soda apple, an invasive noxious weed. Production techniques required to produce jointvetch seed that is free of tropical soda apple seed are costly. In fact, if you didn’t buy jointvetch seed already, you likely won’t find any now. If you do, be prepared to pay a premium.
Alyceclover, a warm-season annual legume that is not actually a true clover, is touted as an alternative to jointvetch that produces similar nutritional values. However, because of this, alyceclover is also becoming more scarce and expensive! Both of these species make quality warm-season food plots, so it is worth considering them if you can find and afford the seed.
As I mentioned, if you are going to grow small plots of peas, beans or viny legumes like lablab, be prepared to protect these small plots in early growth stages. You have several options. The cheapest is applying an organic fertilizer produced from treated human sewage, which can be bought at lawn and garden centers. Milorganite is one common brand name. Research at The University of Georgia has shown applications of Milorganite at about 250 lbs./acre will repel deer from plots long enough for most legumes to become established. A reapplication at about 14 days may be necessary.
Repellents like PlotSaver are another option. PlotSaver is a system of stakes and ribbon strung around the perimeter of a plot, with a repellent liquid sprayed on the ribbon to keep deer out. Non-scientific tests at QDMA headquarters showed that PlotSaver definitely worked as long as we occasionally freshened the repellent. This had a stronger repellent effect than a neighboring plot treated with Milorganite.
A more expensive but more effective option is fencing. The “reversible” fence is a fence with a hinged lower section that can be raised once you are ready for deer to feed on the plot. Deer can duck under the fence once you raise the lower section. Electric fences are also available. Many companies market electric fences. Gallagher
Fencing is a company that is targeting food plots specifically. Gallagher makes solar-powered electric fencing that will keep deer out until you are ready to let them in, and they also make versions that will keep hogs and other unwanted animals out while admitting deer.
Field Day at QDMA
Many of the species mentioned here, as well as active demonstrations of some of the fencing and repellent options described, will be on display on Saturday, April 21, when QDMA holds its second annual spring foodplot event and seed sale. Speakers will be on hand to discuss soil-sampling techniques and plot-defense options. For more information, call (800) 209-3337 or see the Website at <www.qdma.org>. At the field day, the book “Quality Food Plots” will also be available for purchase.
This article only scratched the surface of warm-season food plots. If you really want to become an expert, take advantage of the knowledge of many experts in this 310-page reference manual, including much more detail on each of the species mentioned above. Also, you will find a detailed chapter on weed control — something you are guaranteed to need to become a successful warm-season food plotter.