Wildlife In Mind: March 2003

An unbiased look at brassica for deer food plots.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | March 1, 2003


If I told you to plant something in the “brassica” family for your deer, chances are good you’d give me a blank stare. But you’ve actually heard a lot about brassica — it’s the family of plants that includes collards, mustards, turnips, rape, kale, and any of the “greens.” You’ve heard of Biologic? Pennington’s Deer Greens? All of these are brassica.

Do an internet search for “brassica” or “deer greens” and you can find a lot of reading, but much of it is advertising disguised as information. Folks selling products in the brassica family will tell you how much better they are than clover and cereal grains. Folks selling clovers and cereal grains will tell you how much better they are than brassica crops. And traditional deer experts and researchers can’t always be looked to, because many of them are now employed by or under contract with seed companies.

After reading over what hunters have posted in internet discussions and talking to several hunters who have planted brassicas, I’ve learned that results can be just as mixed as the conflicting advertisements. For example, research for livestock production shows that brassicas have high nutritional levels, commonly producing protein levels of 15 to 25 percent, but you may hear that it will take deer a few seasons to “discover” that they like it. That wasn’t the experience of Tommy Hunter of Dacula, who has been planting dwarf essex rape mixed with wheat and arrowleaf clover on the border of Glascock and Jefferson counties, as well as in Madison County, for three years.

“The deer got on it the first time we planted it,” said Tommy, “and there was nothing like it planted anywhere near these lands. We had some that they didn’t even let get up four inches tall before they wiped it out.”

But not far from Tommy in Richmond County, Tom Mims of Hephzibah had to have patience with his dwarf essex rape over three years.

“The deer had to get used to it,” Tom said. “The first year they didn’t eat it much. The next year they ate it more, and this year they’ve eaten it very well. They’re still eating on it right now in February.”

Both hunters were mixing the rape with clover and cereal grains, both had a soil test done through the UGA Cooperative Extension Service, and both fertilized and limed accordingly.

In Morgan County, Kyle Peppers of Bishop may have to wait, like Tom did, to see better results. He planted rape back before last fall with millet and wheat, and he got a good stand of it. In fact when I talked to him in February it was over two feet tall and doing well. Deer never browsed it more than lightly, although they relished the millet and wheat growing with it.

Ask a group of hunters who have planted Biologic, turnips, kale, rape or mixes of greens, and you’ll get a range of stories from failure to success. Tommy Hunter buys his dwarf essex rape from Cooper Feed & Seed in Lawrenceville, and owner William Cooper echoed this range of results with brassicas.

“I sell a world of it,” said William. “You hear good reports and not-so-good reports.”

William has been doing his own research to be able to offer advice to his customers on when to plant brassicas and what to expect.

“From what I’ve been able to ascertain, the deer eat it most around January,” he said. “But then you hear somebody else who’s got a different story. I think it’s just like Chevrolet and Ford, some people love one and some people love the other.”

WRD senior biologist Kent Kammermeyer is one of the folks William has talked to. Kent said in some areas, brassica won’t be attractive to deer until after a serious frost or two.

“According to the agricultural experts I’ve talked to about this, frost causes the sugar content in the leaves of brassicas to go up, and the deer can detect that, and they jump on it like crazy in December and January,” said Kent. “But other places they don’t hit it at all, no matter what time of year it is. We really need some research on that.”

Although Tommy Hunter said his deer began eating rape as soon as it came up after being planted in early October, Tom Mims had results that mirrored what Kent had heard.

“Deer will eat it, but they do seem to eat it better after it gets cold, after a frost hits it,” Tom said.

This is a likely explanation for the range of results that hunters have found. Most hunters are planting their food plots in September and October so that they can capitalize on the benefits, boosting available nutrition but also creating hunting opportunities on food plots. Apparently, there are soil conditions, weather conditions, or other factors that delay the favorability of brassicas for deer in some areas, so hunters may not see the kind of use in October, November and early December that they would like to.

So, you may be pleased with brassicas, or you may find that it just can’t hold a candle to your clover/grass plots. But if you want to give it a try, here are some thoughts to consider that may improve your success.

Varieties: There are plenty of reports of deer loving turnip greens, but for food plots, remember that turnips and swedes (another brassica) produce significant root growth. Feral hogs might root up the turnips to eat the tubers, but deer won’t. Rather than allowing your fertilizer to help grow big roots, choose a variety that wastes little effort on roots and puts more resources into leaves — like kale and rape. Of all the brassicas, more hunters who plant them are using dwarf essex rape, and the reason is cost. This is the cheapest variety of brassica you can get, and it is as likely as any other variety to be a deer favorite. You can buy it at feed-and-seed or farm-supply outlets by the generic seed name. If you want to experiment, there are a number of brand-name varieties you can try, like Biologic, but they are more expensive. If you’ve never tried brassica on your land, don’t go out and buy 10 acres worth of brand-name products to start off. Start cheap and small and wait for success.

Seeding Rate: A little bit of brassica seed goes a long way. Most livestock guidance that I have read calls for three to four pounds of seed per acre if you are drilling or using a cultipacker. Double the rate for broadcasting. However, if you are mixing the brassica in with your clover and small grains, don’t go so heavy.

“There’s one thing I have learned,” said Tom Mims, “if you’ve got it in good soil and you get plenty of rain, it grows up so fast and so thick it shades out the clover. So when you plant it’s probably good to mix it lightly with grass and clover and maybe plant some 100 percent rape stands in addition.”

Fertilizing: There’s no doubt you will get the best results if you pull a soil sample for your plots, but without one be sure to lime the plot well (see last month’s Wildlife in Mind for lime advice), as brassicas require a pH of at least 6.0, and they must have adequate phosphorous and potassium. Without a soil test, put out 400 to 500 pounds of 10-10-10 per acre when you plant. 

You may also need to top-dress with nitrogen later in the season. Brassicas are heavy nitrogen users, so hit it with 30 to 50 pounds of ammonium nitrate if you see it struggling. This is not mandatory: Tommy Hunter said he has begun top-dressing with nitrogen, but even in the years before he started doing this, the deer didn’t seem to slow down their browsing.

Planting Dates: You can plant brassica almost any time except during the driest, hottest months of summer. Some of the hunters I talked to were planning to plant it this spring for a summer crop, or you can plant it in the fall for a winter crop. Again, it is likely you won’t get much use by deer until after heavy frosts, or you might be surprised and see good use during the spring and summer. It’s too bad you can’t predict your success with this crop, but it’s worth a try.

On the other hand, if you’re having luck with mixed clover and cereal grains, you might just stick with that. Clover fixes its own nitrogen and costs you less for fertilizer, it has high protein content, and is more reliable based on years of deer-management experience. But a sideline experiment with brassica can’t hurt.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.