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Successful Warm Season Food Plots - Part II
Last week we discussed the importance of having warm season food plots in your management program; and determining which plot size is best to support your deer herd. Today we’ll focus on what to plant, where to plant and preparing your soil.
What to Plant
Iron-clay pea is probably the most common annual summer plant species used in the Southern U.S. 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 (5 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 Lab Lab. Lab Lab is one the best sources of protein and vital antler-growing nutrients of any single food plot plant I know of. According to Auburn University tests, Lab Lab is far more superior to both Iron-Clay Peas and Soybeans. For instance, tests showed that Lab Lab had 33.9% average crude protein versus 20.9% for Iron-clay Peas, 20.3% for Clover, and 27.7% for Alfalfa. Also, Lab Lab had a much higher percentage of phosphorous (.56%) than Iron-Clay Peas (.30%), Clover (.16%), and Alfalfa (.18%). Lastly, the tests also showed that Lab Lab was the only plant that had the perfect Calcium-to-Phosphorous ratio (1.7:1). The “ideal” Calcium-to-Phosphorous range for deer is 1.5-2.0:1. Not only is Lab Lab very attractive and productive, Lab Lab is also very disease, drought, and insect resistant. Like Iron-Clay Peas and Soybeans, Lab Lab is dicotyledonous and is somewhat susceptible to early grazing pressure. Lab Lab can be blended with other less vulnerable, less attractive plantings such as grain sorghum, and/or BuckBeans to help screen the Lab Lab and delay early grazing pressure.
Another option for small plots is to use a bird resistant grain. Sorghum varieties 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) and by way of a small seed applicator on your drill or by spreading over the drilled grain, lightly plant aeshynomene (joint vetch or deer vetch) and alyce clover at about 3 to 5lbs to the acre each. 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 broadcast plant, be sure not to plant the sorghum too heavy (only about 15 lbs. to the acre) or it will shade out the vetch and clover. Both the vetch and clover are a legume, which means 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. This mix is also great for other wildlife like turkeys, quail, and songbirds.
Other non-ice cream annuals you could try in a mix would be brown-top millet (very un-preferred but good in extremely high deer densities, easy to grow, and great for game birds), pearl millet, hairy indigo (another warm season annual legume that is also a great soil builder, drought resistant, and has been analyzed to produce 22% crude protein in some tests), or Florida beggarweed (a common naturally occurring weed species in GA that is harvested for seed sales in Florida and is not only a good deer browse plant in the summer 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 an awesome plant! It is very attractive and nutritious throughout the year. It grows up to 3-5 years in a variety of soils. It also has a very long tap root which makes it very drought/heat resistant and grows very well down south even in the heat of summer when most other plantings go dormant or die due to the extreme heat and/or drought.
Tecomate Wildlife Systems has also recently developed a revolutionary blend of perennial beans (“BuckBeans™”) that will grow 2-5 years here in South Georgia and Florida. BuckBeans™ contain a totally new high-protein plant called Burgundy Bean, which is a fast-growing, vining legume that produces lots of antler-growing forage that deer crave. Burgundy Beans are shade tolerant and are not vulnerable to early grazing which makes it great for small plots.
When to Plant
When you plant can be a very important factor in warm season food plot production when dealing with a lot of hungry deer. Down South, it is often warm enough to plant summer crops in February although it’s a bit risky. I 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. April is the green up month, which means that small tree species, shrubs, and native forbs are all starting to bud and grow. 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 descend upon it. As I mentioned, many warm season annuals can withstand browse much better once they are two to three weeks old and have an established root systems. If you try to plant in early or mid summer you can run in to serious deer damage and drought problems.
Planting in April also secures a very long utilization period from your food plots and helps your food plot planting 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 6-8 months of production, especially in the Southern U.S. 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.
I like to fertilize my perennial plots each spring before “green up” to help jump start my plots which leads to healthier plants and makes them more drought and disease resistant. This also will make the plants more nutritious and attractive to the wildlife.
I also apply DeltAg™ Seed Coat and Plant Power, which is a mixture of plant bio-stimulants and micro-nutrients to all my seeds before planting and to my food plots once they come up. These bio-stimulants help the plants to establish a healthier, larger root system, which allows the plants to uptake more nutrients and water and makes the plant more productive, more nutritious and more attractive to the wildlife. It also makes the plants more drought resistant and more tolerant to heavy grazing pressure.
Most of today’s soils are inundated with hard coated, noxious, summer weed seeds that may lay dormant for decades before they are disturbed, scarified, and germinate. The list of these nasty little buggers is endless but the most common are sickle pod (coffee weed), crotalaria (rattle box), pig weed, cocklebur, sedges, nut grass, johnsongrass, morningglory, and the list goes on seemingly forever.
These weeds will respond to any warm season soil disturbance, even as early as March, and grow vigorously. Since cultivation and soil disturbance is usually required to plant a food plot, then undesirable weeds will always be a problem. 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 broad spectrum, preemergent herbicides or postemergents like glyphosate (roundup). There are numerous types of preemergents available such as Prowl, Treflan, and other similar brands commonly called “yellow herbicides”; although many of them are now being produced as a clear liquid. 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 LABEL. This is just an average rule of thumb 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 planting. Also remember that every preemergent is species specific and none that I know of control sickle pod effectively.
The only way to control sickle pod emergence after you have planted your plot is by walking the plot with a back pack sprayer and hitting each individual plant with a postemergent contact killer like glyphosate. This is obviously labor intensive but I have seen situations 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 per acre, a cost of about $5.00 - $8.00/acre. Your local herbicide dealer may offer a chemical boom truck to apply the herbicide you purchase. 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 $8.00 - $10.00/acre.
The preemergent option is not usually available to those working with small food plots and limited resources. Use of postemergent herbicide in conjunction with low till or no-till planting is another option that may be available to you. The “burn down” method is becoming a popular weed control method with no-till and low-till farmers. It even works to a lesser degree with full tillage and planting.
First till the site heavily in April. Allow 3 to 4 weeks to pass or until you have a strong weed response. When the weeds are around 3 to 5 inches high you liberally apply glyphosate or in some cases you could use a cheaper herbicide like 2,4-D; however 2,4-D has some residual soil effects and drift issues so you may not be able to plant as soon after application as with glyphosate and you might burn up vegetation or even crops near the site if you apply under the wrong conditions. Allow the postemergent to work for at least two weeks so the weeds are completely dead to the roots. For best results, after the weed plants are dead; plant your crop with a no-till drill. If you have to till the site, use a planter that will minimize soil disturbance like the Plotmaster’s One-Pass planting machine.
With an effective kill you will have a much lighter weed crop to deal with although sickle pod may still be a problem. The other draw back to this method is that you will have to plant as much as 6 to 8 weeks later than with a preemergent.
Soil preparation prior to planting a warm season plot is critical. For almost everyone these are the most obvious steps to take.
First, there is liming if indicated by soil samples in January to February, then cultivation, then herbicides if used, then preparing a proper seedbed, then fertilizing, and then finally planting. What may go unnoticed is what is happening beneath the soil.
Most of today’s land has been farmed, grazed, or commercially forested at some point of time. These practices can create what is called a “hard pan”. A hard pan is a compacted layer of soil below the soil surface that forms at around 12 to 18 inches deep. Hard pan thickness is highly variable but on average it is around 2 inches thick. It can be caused by farm equipment, livestock, logging equipment or old road systems. In most cases, the hard pan is impenetrable to plant roots. When plant roots hit a hard pan and quit growing, the plant quits growing causing a loss in forage production.
During a drought, plants grow deep roots in search of water. If the available water lies just beneath the hard pan the roots will not reach it and the plant will become stressed or die. During a major rain event, hard pans can slow drainage of standing water and food plots planted in low-lying areas can drown. Even the slightest compaction with farm equipment on a food plot can create a hard pan or make one worse. For you timberland leaseholders, logging decks may be your only food plot options. These areas have been highly impacted with heavy forestry equipment and can have thick hard pans. Also note that logging decks usually have very low pH caused by the bacterial break down of the wood debris. They usually require heavy lime applications to bring the ph back up.
To remedy the problems associated with hard pans you should sub-soil your plots when you start your food plot program and continue to sub soil as needed. To check for a hard pan in your food plots get a soil probe, which is just 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. Remember that you must be able to sub soil as deep as the hard pan. Deep sub soiling equipment may require a tractor of 150 to 200-horse power to pull the implement through the ground. For smaller plots you may try a light “chisel plow” with only a few shanks if you don’t have a large tractor.
As you can see, there are many things that you must consider when planting warm season food plots. However, effective warm season food plots are worth their weight in gold when it comes to growing more and bigger deer. Again, contact your local county agent or a qualified food plot consultant for detailed information about planting in your region. Don’t cut any corners if you can help it. Food plots are like many things in life – you get out of them what you put into them.