Warm Season Food Plots For Quality Deer Management
Size, placement and design of food plots as important as what seeds you plant this spring.
By Rans Thomas and Blaine Burley
Interest in food plots and quality deer management are at an all-time high with hunters and hunting-land managers across the nation. Producing better deer herds is the main goal. Given this increase in interest and available information on the subject, it is surprising how many food-plot programs consist of scratching in a few bags of cool-season cereal grains with 10-10-10 fertilizer in early fall. Cool-season food plots planted only with cereal grains do not provide the vital nutrients that your deer herd needs during the spring and summer. Growing nutritious, warm-season food plots is a key component in consistently producing quality deer herds on your property.
The spring and summer months are when does are supporting fawns through lactation, older fawns are relying heavily on browse, and bucks are developing antlers. The importance of providing as much nutrition as possible to your deer herd at this time is obvious. Healthy, well-fed does will produce healthier fawns, which increases fawn survival and recruitment rates. And what better time to be providing bucks with good groceries than when they are developing antlers? Warm-season food plots can also enhance your early-season hunting by providing excellent hunting locations.
Before starting or changing your warm-season food-plot program, determine your objectives. Literally thousands of variables can come into play here, such as property size, location, soil types, total food-plot area that is available, the size and quality of the deer herd you desire — the list goes on. Because each individual’s resources like money, land, equipment, manpower and time will vary considerably, we are going to recommend techniques that will apply to hunters with very liberal land-management options and large equipment as well as those with limited resources and smaller equipment such as ATV implements.
Total Plot Acreage
The first step in establishing any food-plot program is to determine the total acreage of food plots needed to support your deer herd. One method you can use is based on estimated deer density. On average, a one-acre quality food plot will support about three deer. If you know your deer density and total land acreage, you can calculate the total acres of food plots needed to support your local deer herd. For example, if you estimate your deer density is 35 deer per square mile (one square mile equals 640 acres) and you have 1,000 acres of property, you would have approximately 55 deer to support (35 x 1,000/640 = 54.7) and you would need approximately 18 acres of food plots to do so (55/3 = 18.3). Another more common method is based on total land acreage. It is estimated by most biologists and land managers that to have a positive effect on a deer herd’s nutritional intake you must plant no less than 2 to 3 percent of your property in food plots. For example, to plant 3 percent of 1,000 acres in food plots you will be planting 30 acres of food plots. On average, that is a lot more acreage than your typical 1,000-acre hunting property devotes to food plots. There is no maximum percentage rule of thumb — the more the better.
Individual Plot Size and Location
Where you plant your warm-season plots is very important. Since warm-season plots are primarily planted as forage plots and not hunting plots, you can locate them farther away from established bedding areas — but not too far. A good rule-of-thumb is that deer should not have to travel more than one-half mile from obvious bedding areas to your plots. This will ensure utilization and limit the energy needed to travel to your plots.
Since lime, fertilizer and seed rates are prescribed in units per acre, it’s also very important to know the exact acreage of your plots. Proper soil preparation is critical. You should pull soil samples yearly or at least every other year and don’t skimp on lime, fertilizer or seed-bed preparation.
One very important factor that plays a role in selecting plot size is a crop’s browse survival. For any of you who have already tried to plant a few small iron/clay pea patches, soybeans, lablab, sweet blue lupine, buckwheat or other warm-season “ice-cream” plants, you may have experienced a very common problem — ice-cream plants sometimes melt. It is very common for deer to eat these plants to death. Planting larger plots may help you avoid this, but no method is foolproof if you have a very high deer density. Until you establish an appropriate annual doe harvest in that situation, warm-season food plots may be difficult for you to establish. Some “ice-cream” plants, especially lablab, are much more tolerant to deer browse after they are a few weeks old and establish a good root and stem system. In larger plots, deer simply can’t browse as fast as the plants are growing. This option is a much more available to large landowners, and they should exploit it; not only to avoid overbrowsing but to maximize the amount of nutrition available during these critical months.
The concept of food plots having variable missions (forage plots vs. hunting plots) is gaining momentum. Forage plots are larger in size, usually uniform in shape to make planting with large equipment easier, and are not hunted at all. It should be noted that plots of uniform shape (round or square) with limited edges are more productive for food-plot plants than irregular-shaped plots with lots of edges due to “brush-draw” from nearby native vegetation. The trees, shrubs and forbs on the edges of your food plots compete with your crop for available nutrients and water. Increasing edges and ecotones by creating irregularly shaped openings is a great concept in overall wildlife habitat management, but if you are devoted to producing a high-quality forage plot, reducing the amount of plot edge can help.
Remove any human presence or hunting pressure from forage plots so that deer don’t feel at all hesitant to utilize them even during daylight hours. Some forage-plot areas should be planted in a cool-season crop to provide a food source for the tougher winter months. Since we don’t have a very long or harsh winters here in Georgia, you may want to devote more of your forage plots to summer crops of both annual and perennial plants. If you are in the lower Piedmont or the Coastal Plain, you might consider planting as much as 60 to 70 percent of your plots in a warm-season mix. If your open space is limited to small woodland openings, field corners, logging decks or road edges, then you will need to work on finding more areas for these smaller plots and take other steps to avoid overgrazing like the ones we are about to cover.
What to Plant
An iron/clay pea mix is the most common annual summer food plot planted in Georgia. Some folks plant it even though their patches never make more than a carpet of yellow stems that are completely gone in about a month; they simply replant and sometimes more than twice. For the large landowner, good harvest management and planting large summer forage plots can be a viable and very productive option. You should establish and properly maintain large forage plots (five acres or larger if possible) distributed throughout your property using the best seed varieties on the market.
Growing nutritious plots begins with high-quality seeds such as lablab. Lablab is one the best sources of protein and vital antler-growing nutrients of any single food-plot plant. According to Auburn University tests, lablab is far superior to both iron/clay peas and other legumes. For instance, tests showed that lablab had 33.9 percent average crude protein versus 27.7 percent for alfalfa, 20.9 percent for iron/clay peas, and 20.3 percent for clover.
Also, lablab had a much higher percentage of phosphorus (0.56 percent) than iron/clay peas (0.30 percent), clover (0.16 percent), and alfalfa (0.18 percent). Lastly, the tests also showed that lablab was the only plant that had the perfect calcium-to-phosphorus ratio (1.7:1). The “ideal” calcium-to-phosphorous ratio for any deer forage, supplemental feed, feed mix, or mineral mix is 1.5-2.0:1. Not only is lablab attractive and productive, lablab is also very resistant to disease, drought, and insects. Like iron/clay peas and soybeans, lablab is somewhat susceptible to early grazing pressure. Lablab can be blended with other, less vulnerable, less attractive plantings such as grain sorghum to help screen the lablab and delay early grazing pressure.
An option for planting smaller food plots susceptible to browse damage is to use a bird-resistant variety of grain sorghum planted on a wide-row spacing like 18 to 24 inches (If you plant with a grain drill, simply obstruct every other seed chute with duct tape or some other means to get a wider row spacing). Then, by way of a small-seed applicator on your drill or a spreader, lightly plant aeshynomene (joint vetch or deer vetch) and alyce clover at about 3- to 5-lbs./acre each by spreading over the drilled grain. You can also use small, compact planting implements such as the Plotmaster, which has both a drag and cultipacker for planting both large and small seeds.
If you can only plant by broadcasting seed, then be sure not to plant the sorghum too heavy or it will shade out the vetch and clover — only about 15 lbs./acre. Both the vetch and clover are legumes, which mean they are nitrogen fixers and will provide nitrogen to the sorghum, so top-dressing with nitrogen (which also feeds any competing weeds that are present) is not usually necessary. Be sure to inoculate your legume seeds properly before planting, or they won’t effectively fix nitrogen.
Deer will browse the sorghum grass blades in the early stages of growth but almost never prevent it from forming a stalk and seed head. Deer will avoid eating the seeds that will develop in about 70 to 90 days until they have weathered on the stalk and lost some of their tannic acid content. The seed heads then provide a good source of carbohydrates in the fall and early winter. The vetch and clover will be browsed throughout the summer but usually not to death. Other annuals that aren’t “ice cream” that you could try in a mix would be browntop millet, which is low on a deer’s preference list but good in extremely high deer densities, easy to grow, and great for game birds; pearl millet; hairy indigo, which is an annual legume that is also a great soil builder, drought resistant, and has been analyzed to produce 22 percent crude protein in some tests; or Florida beggarweed, a common, naturally occurring weed species in Georgia that is not only a good deer browse plant but considered one of the most preferred native seeds by quail in the fall.
One option for the small-scale plotter is to focus on perennials. A perennial plant will grow year round and flourish for several years with proper maintenance. Chicory is one of the hottest new perennials on the food-plot market. Chicory is very attractive and nutritious throughout the year. It grows for three to five years in a variety of soils. It also has a very long tap root, which makes it very drought and heat resistant. Therefore, it grows very well in the South, even in the heat of summer when most other plantings go dormant or die.
Tecomate Wildlife Systems has also recently developed a blend of perennial beans, “BuckBeans,” that will grow two to five years here in Georgia. BuckBeans contain a new high-protein plant called burgundy bean which is a fast-growing, vining legume. Burgundy beans are shade tolerant and are not vulnerable to early grazing, which makes them great for small plots.
When to Plant
In Georgia, it’s often warm enough to plant summer crops in February, although it’s a bit risky. We prefer April, because there is usually an adequate amount of soil moisture left from the rainy winter months and early spring rains, very little chance of a killing frost, and there is tons of naturally occurring native forage available to deer. The new growth is highly attractive to deer and may distract them long enough for you to get your food plot established before the deer hit it. If you try to plant in early or mid summer, you can run into serious deer damage and drought problems.
Planting in April also secures a very long utilization period from your food plots and may even allow you to get a jump start on competing weeds that will soon follow. If you can get them up, keep them healthy and maintain them until the first frost, you could get as much as eight months of production, especially in south Georgia. It is wise to remember that native vegetation nutrient levels, palatability and digestibility take a nose dive in mid to late summer, so maintenance of your plots is critical at this time to keep available nutrient levels as high as possible.
We like to fertilize our perennial plots each spring before green-up to help jump start the plots and produce healthier plants that are more drought and disease resistant. This will also make the plants more nutritious and attractive to wildlife.
Almost every acre of dry, upland ground in Georgia, including many oak and hickory forests, has been farmed at one time or another. Old farmland seed banks include a variety of summer weed and grass seeds that have a very hard seed coat and can lay dormant for decades before they are disturbed and germinate. The list of these nasty buggers is endless, but the most common in Georgia are sickle pod (coffee weed), crotalaria (rattle box), pig weed, cocklebur, sedges, nut grass, Johnson grass, chinkweed, henbit, fescue and the list goes on. These weeds will respond to any warm-season soil disturbance, even as early as March, and grow vigorously. They will out-compete the food-plot plants for moisture, nutrients and sunlight.
Herbicides are available to help combat the weeds; however, resource availability may restrict this option for many. There are two basic methods of herbicide weed control; the use of preemergent herbicides or postemergents like glyphosate (Roundup). Please refer to Kent Kammermeyer’s article “Winning the Weed War” in the March issue of GON for some great information on combating weeds.
For land managers who plant large food plots, there are also numerous types of preemergents available such as Prowl, Treflan and other similar brands. Preemergents attack and kill seeds prior to germination or just as they germinate before they break the topsoil. Like any herbicide, preemergents should be applied according to the label, but normally the application procedure requires total site tillage, application on bare dirt prior to weed response, some dependence on rain after application, and a two-week waiting period before the plots are planted.
Also remember that every preemergent is species specific, and none that we know of control sickle pod. One of only a few ways to control sickle pod emergence after you have planted your plot is by walking the plot with a backpack sprayer and hitting each individual plant with a postemergent contact killer like glyphosate. This is obviously labor intensive, but I have seen situations here in Georgia where a pre-emergent was used and sickle pod alone came back in such abundance that the food plot failed. Preemergents are generally applied at about 1 to 1.5 pints/acre, at a cost of about $5 to $8/acre. Your local herbicide dealer may offer a chemical boom truck to apply the herbicide. If you apply yourself using a tractor and boom sprayer, the cost could be higher given the recent rise in diesel prices at somewhere around $8 to $10/acre.
Soil preparation prior to planting a warm-season plot is critical. First, there is liming — if indicated by soil samples you should have it done in January to February, then cultivation, then herbicides if used. Then, preparing a proper seed bed, fertilizing, and finally planting. Warm-season plotters should also pay particular attention to whether their plots have a hard pan — a compacted layer of soil below the soil surface that forms at around 12- to 18-inches deep. Hard pans can be caused by farm equipment, livestock, logging equipment or old road systems. For you timberland lease holders, logging decks may be your only food-plot options, and they can have thick hard pans for obvious reasons. When plant roots hit a hard pan and quit growing, the plant stops growing, causing a loss in forage production. Hard pans can be especially detrimental in the drier summer months when they prevent plant roots from reaching moisture found beneath the pan.
To check for a hard pan in your food plots, get a soil probe, which is a long, pointed rod with a T-shaped handle. Push the tip of the rod into the ground as far as you can. In sandier soils you will feel resistance from a hard pan but may be able to push through — you should still sub-soil to break it up. In soils with high clay content, the hard pan will stop the probe, and you know it’s time to sub-soil. Talk to your local farm implement dealer about sub-soiling equipment. Deep sub-soiling equipment may require a tractor of 150 to 200 hp to pull the implement through the ground. For smaller plots and if you don’t have a large tractor, you may try a light chisel plow with only a few shanks to break up a hard pan.
There are always more problems than solutions with planting summer food plots. Trial-and-error may be required to lock down the best methods for your property. Wouldn’t you like a nickel for every food-plot article that advises you to contact your local county extension agent? Rightfully so. They are a wealth of information and can really help you with specifics in your region.
Food plots are like many things in life — you get out of them what you put into them. A “hot plots” program can not only increase the quality of deer on your property but can greatly improve your overall wildlife-management program.
Editor’s Note: Rans Thomas of Statesboro is a certified wildlife biologist and the consulting service manager for Tecomate Wildlife Systems. Blaine Burley of Wrightsville has an MS in Natural Resources Management, he is the president of Tecomate Wildlife Systems and the inventor of the Plotmaster. To inquire about Tecomate Wildlife Systems products or consulting services, call (888) 440-9108.
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