Warm-Season Food Plots For Summer Protein, Better Deer

Scott Hodges | May 2, 2023

Lots of attention is given by deer hunters to plant food plots and to keep feeders full during the fall and winter deer season, but providing quality foods packed with protein during the summer growing season is key to growing quality deer.

Spring is almost over, and the long, hot days of summer will be here before we know it. Many of us are dreaming of cool, fall mornings, big bucks chasing does and enjoying good times with friends at deer camp. While most are only dreaming, some are actually working on making the dream a reality.

Those big mature bucks that we all dream about are beginning to recover from three months of fighting, chasing and dodging cars and hunters, and they have now begun to grow a new set of antlers. Late summer can be the most stressful time in the Georgia deer woods. Hot, dry conditions mean the food that’s out there is low in nutrition. New growth packed with protein is almost non-existent. Yet, during the time bucks are pouring energy into growing antlers and does are nursing, most food plots are depleted of those annual plants from the previous fall or tilled to dirt in preparation for the next fall planting.

Many hunters concentrate on planting fall food plots they can hunt over. Likewise, many deer feeders are empty during the summer months. Hunters start feeding deer right before bow season and keep it up during the season to attract deer, believing those feeders will “hold” deer on their property.

There is a huge benefit to a local deer population when landowners and hunting clubs plant warm-season food plots and supplemental feed during the “growing season” for Georgia deer. During the summer, bucks are growing antlers and does are nursing fawns—this is the most important time for quality nutrition.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bruce Swearingen, owner of 4S Wildlife, who just held their first “Deer Grower Field Day,” an event he hopes to make into an annual opportunity for the deer hunting community to come meet like-minded people and enjoy seminars from biologists and land managers from across the state. When it comes to growing healthy animals, Bruce has a lifetime’s worth of experience. From growing registered cows and goats as a young man, his love of the outdoors and hunting led him to find new and better ways to grow healthy deer. Bruce started producing supplemental deer feed commercially in 2008, but prior to that he was constantly experimenting with different food sources to help consistently produce healthy deer.

“Summer food plots have really become a must-have for many landowners and hunters, but we have noticed over the years that there is some valuable info missing as far as methods and ways to maximize the outcome of this valuable tool,” Bruce said.

The best option he’s found in terms of providing lots of high-quality forage that is packed with protein is Round-Up Ready soybeans, which some tests have shown can provide tons of forage per acre and very high protein.

“Although there are many options to choose from as far as seed selection goes, soybeans have always been the clear go-to due to high levels of protein and attractiveness.”

The downside to soybeans is that deer love them, so much so that if you have a high deer population, a smaller plot of beans can be wiped out, and they don’t grow back well after being nipped by deer.

“Depending on how many deer you have, how many plot acres you have and how much other food you have available can dictate whether or not you need to fence soybeans to keep your deer out long enough to get the growth needed for survival,” Bruce said. “Although putting up fences sounds expensive and time-consuming, it’s actually not a huge deal. Over the years there have been many studies done and products created to help ease the way of doing this without much headache. I designed a fence system years ago using milorganite that’s super affordable and fast, but it’s only about 50% effective, although we still have guys including myself that use it. We have a video on our YouTube (Advanced Wildlife Solutions) about what’s needed and how to do it, but the best fence system we have seen is the Gallager Depth Perception Solar Electric Fence.

“One thing is for sure, if you ever successfully plant and grow beans, you will probably never not do it again. I know that’s true on my farm. Many other guys we talk to say they have a much better chance of tagging a trophy whitetail hunting over early season soybeans than even during the rut.

“If you decide to go with soybeans, there are some options out there, but the most sought-after types are the Round-Up Ready, forage, pre-inoculated, late grouping beans. We have a product called 4S Record Buck Beans that is an example of this type of soybean customized for deer food plots. The later grouping beans just means that they will have a longer growing season. As said before, there are some other great options for summer planting and some of these are known at times to not need fencing, but as far as we have seen, nothing is as attractive as soybeans.

“Also, most other things you can plant will probably not be Round-Up Ready, which is obviously a very useful thing,” Bruce said.

If you’re going to go through the time and expense to plant food plots, try to budget for fertilizer. Legumes like beans don’t require nitrogen, so 5-20-20 would be good or a 15-20. You can apply fertilizer prior to drilling or planting, and one application should be sufficient.

When you plant a food plot, inevitable when your food plot seeds sprouts and begins to grow, so do the weeds. Too many weeds can crowd out the crop your trying to grow. Soybeans designed and grown that can be sprayed with Round-Up means once that first batch of weeds comes up, the plot can be sprayed, and the beans take over. Just one spraying is most always enough.

Small Plots, Lots Of Deer 

Soybeans might not be right for some situations, like small food plots or areas with very high deer populations where landowners can’t protect the young growth with fencing. And there’s no exact formula for how big a soybean plot should be to withstand early grazing without fencing. If you have a half-acre or smaller plot, deer will likely wear out soybeans. There are plenty of other food plot options for providing summer protein.

“Food plots plants like alyce clover, sun hemp and joint vetch have been used by guys for years with some good success,” Bruce said. “We definitely are not declaring beans as the only way to go, but they are definitely the clear winner when it comes to choosing what serious deer growers prefer to use.”

Many premixed seed blends are good options for providing growing-season protein. Bruce and 4S have a blend called Summer Success.

The Mississippi Wildlife Department studied warm-season food plot production, and one of the do-it-yourself mixtures they found  that worked well is 40 to 60 pounds/acre of Iron Clay Cowpeas and 10 to 15 pounds/acre of joint vetch. They also declared soybeans as the highly recommended annual legume for summer plots—providing 45,000 pounds of forage per acre with 21% crude protein.

The timing of planting is key for a successful warm-season food plot.

“Large your garden, most summer plots can be planted once the soil temps are up and the threat of frost is completely gone,” Bruce said. “Mid to end of April is the time most guys plant. Although plenty of guys, including myself, plant some of their plots later into the summer, the reason for the early planting is to take advantage of cooler temperatures and to take advantage of more time when rainfall is more common than it can be in late summer. That means  you’ll have food available for more months.”

Generally, you’ll want to get soybeans in the ground by May, while some of the other seeds can be planted as late as June.

Another mistake landowners and hunting clubs make is when it comes to supplemental feeding. A lot of money is spent on deer corn that goes into deer feeders only during the hunting season. There’s a belief that feeding deer during the season will attract and hold deer. Deer like a variety of foods, especially in the fall when acorns are falling or deer candy like persimmons or muscadines are hitting the ground. Hunters who are serious about improving their deer herd would be better served to spend more money during the summer filling the deer feeders and using a high-protein feed instead of corn.

“Supplementing feeding has dramatically grown in popularity in the past 10 to 15 years,” Bruce said. “The main reasons for this is due to education and the clear advantage it gives hunters and land managers. For a lot of guys the idea of feeding deer is simply the use of corn, but with all the research and results folks are having by feeding high-protein pellets, corn is quickly becoming more of an attractant than a food source, and we can definitely see the difference in the quality of deer that are being harvested when high-protein feed is used, especially during the growing season. There are lots of good products on the market, and one thing we can say for sure as a testament is that I almost never see a person that was feeding properly ever stop. This means they are obviously are seeing the results.

“I have however seen guys that were not feeding properly stop due not seeing as many results as they would like, so when you start a feeding program, we suggest you do some research to ensure you’re on the right program. We just recently had a guy that had been feeding for years and decide he would skip a year of feeding, and within one missed feeding season, he had no choice but to start back due to the decline in the quality of the deer on his farm. The whole idea of giving your deer herd what’s needed to push them to grow body and antler just makes common since as well as being fun to do. We have had lots of guys start out as hunters and end up enjoying growing deer more than hunting. Folks that love whitetail deer also really enjoy feeding since it gives you a much better since of what’s going on on your farm and it’s also fun to be able to watch these deer grow from a fawn to a trophy buck and realize you had more of a hand in it. Bottom line results are always fun and rewarding and feeding and taking care of the wildlife on your farm gives you a special feeling to know that your doing some good, all the while growing bigger and better bucks than you were before. We realize that for many years deer hunting was a source of food and has grown into more of that plus trophy buck hunting so getting the increased growth that comes with a feeding program and improving the health and growth of the your deer is something has really become a staple for lots of farms.”

The Deer Growers Field Day, the first of what is hoped to become an annual event, was held on April 15 at the headquarters of 4S Wildlife Solutions in Reynolds.

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