|By: Kent Kammermeyer - Certified Wildlife Biologist/Consultant|
Deer season is long gone. Now bird, rabbit, and squirrel seasons are over. It’s time to go fishing and turkey hunting and forget about deer, right? Wrong! It is entirely possible that spring and summer are the times when your deer herd needs you the most! You cannot assume that you can forget about deer now and they will automatically be big healthy wall hangers next fall. You have protein to deliver, antlers to grow,
Take a stroll through your seed and feed store in early spring and see what is on the shelf for spring. You will be amazed at the wide selection of spring plantings for sale. Somebody is buying and planting these, why don’t you get in the game! Good advice is to be suspicious of any variety or mixture that is promoted to grow in a broad range of adverse conditions or solve all of your deer nutrition problems in one pretty bag. Be especially wary of products from Texas and those that need to be grown behind a fence. That sounds a little silly and a lot of work! A recent survey of Southeastern states identified no less than 62 plant species commonly planted for deer. Wheat, rye, ladino clover, corn, oats, ryegrass, grain sorghum, soybeans, crimson clover, and Japanese honeysuckle were planted in the greatest acreage. Soybeans, alfalfa, cowpeas and ladino clover were given the highest respective preference as spring/summer plots. All potential food plot plantings apply to the North also. See more about this later in this article.Cool Season versus Warm Season
Successful deer managers need to identify seasons when native forages are most limited and select food plot plants or mixtures which will fill this void. In most of the country, winter is by far the most limiting season due to cold temperatures causing early dormancy of native plants. Dormant plants are low in protein and palatability and high in lignin and cellulose, conditions which potentially cause deer to lose body weight even when forage quantity is high. Therefore, cool season forages which are actively growing in fall (portions of winter) and early spring are the best or most appropriate supplemental planting in most of the country. That said, most of the country also has a summer stress period for deer, especially in drought years. Deer do benefit from warm season plantings because they are often much higher quality (both protein and digestibility) than native forages. Even at their peak in spring, native plants contain 15% or less protein (it drops to less than 10% in late summer) while legumes (pea, bean and clover family) in food plots contain 20-30%. Carefully selected, effective warm season plantings supply high quality warm season forage both when native range quality is good in spring and low in summer. They also attract and hold deer on
On southern ranges, native forages are low in energy and minerals for at least seven months of the year, mostly in summer. In the North, most of these months are in the long winter but summer is still lacking. Spring and early summer are overlap periods among cool and warm season plantings and usually supply high quality native or naturalized vegetation for a while, but not always high enough or long enough. Furthermore, this time slot covers key early and late antler growth, gestation and milk production of does, critical fawn birth weights and fawn rate of weight gain (for them it is the first and most important year of buck growth, and a fast start heavily influences trophy antler potential three or four years down the road).
High quality spring nutrition is important for quick recovery of deer body weights after winter which takes priority over new antler growth, and to improve fawning success. Consequently, deer use of food plots is usually very heavy from mid-spring through late summer.
Warm season food plots for deer are needed under conditions where summer vegetation quality is poor enough to cause nutritional stress for deer. Where summer nutritional stress caused by heat and drought result in low protein and high cellulose levels, this certainly justifies warm season deer plots.
The perfect percentage of cool to warm season plantings is a myth. A general rule for winter stress areas is 70% cool and 30% warm plots. For summer stress areas like the Deep South, this can probably be balanced to 50/50%. Remember that red and white clovers often double as cool and warm season plots. Much depends on the property, the deer herd, habitat quality, access to nearby agriculture and the size and distribution of food plots. For example, food plots are obviously more valuable in the Adirondacks and Appalachians due to poor soil, mature forest closed canopies and very little agriculture.Warm Season Plants and Mixes
See Download PDF File. Just like cool season, best spring and summer plots are made up of legumes including cowpeas (five or more species of cowpeas are appropriate), soybeans, corn, grain sorghum, alfalfa, alyceclover, red clover or aeschynomene (jointvetch or deer vetch). Red clover has been shown to be very productive and nutritious in the warm season everywhere except in drought years. Deer managers must remember, however, that late summer stress periods are often caused by drought and deep sandy soils. Almost any food plot planted as a summer supplement is subject to the same drought stress as native plants unless it is irrigated or has a deep tap root. Grain sorghum and alfalfa may be important exceptions to this
Alfalfa may be the best plant for deer in arid or drought prone regions for a combination cool and warm season forage. It has a deep root system that withstands droughts maintaining very high production (4 to 6 tons of hay per year) and quality (20- 30% protein). However, alfalfa definitely has its drawbacks. It does not persist as well in the Deep South, it is expensive, requires high maintenance, high pH, and fertility and is subject to diseases, weevil damage, and weed encroachment. Alfalfa is usually managed for hay and not for grazing. Young stands can be easily overgrazed or out- competed by weeds. Contact your local agricultural extension service for advice about alfalfa varieties and suitability in your area. In general, large field commercial agricultural crops are valuable where they already occur but may not be appropriate for a small woodland food plot. This applies to alfalfa.
Warm season mixes again are best formulated by mixing legumes and grasses for both efficient use of N in addition to weed suppression and vertical structure. With this in mind, I recommend grain sorghum mixed with soybeans, cowpeas (catjang, red ripper, blackeye, combine or iron&clay), buckwheat or aeschynomene (see Table 1 for rates). A tall growing bird resistant sorghum (5 lbs./acre) would be perfect for this mix but these are getting harder to find every year. The height of this sorghum (4.5-5 feet) helps with both shading weed competition and providing a strong stalk for cowpeas, beans and aeschynomene to climb on. The bird resistance is supplied by a tight dark colored closed seed head as well as tannic acid (bitterness) which resists consumption by most all animals early on, especially large migrating flocks of blackbirds in August.
As the mature seed stands in the weather, it gradually loses its tannins and becomes more palatable to deer, turkeys and other animals. In good acorn years, bird resistant grain sorghum seed may last until winter before it is consumed by deer and turkeys. There are several commercial mixes of grain sorghum/legumes on the market but unfortunately most contain WGF grain sorghum which is short (2.5-3 feet) and does not do a good job of shading weeds and hiding young legume seedlings from deer. However convenience is a big advantage. Rackmaster Deluxe Spring/Summer Deer Mix and Rackmaster Summer Extreme Mix are good mixes that contain legumes, buckwheat and grain sorghum.
Grain sorghum almost duplicates the food value of corn without some of the disadvantages. Late-planted (late May or June), dark-headed varieties mature later in summer during grape and acorn drop and resist early browsing. Varieties such as PennGrain DR, Pioneer 83G66, Asgrow A571 or Dekalb DKS54-00 are tall growing (4.5-5 feet) and are resistant to bird damage. Grain sorghum is much easier to grow than corn, and is subject to less depredation and insect damage but still requires a heavy application of nitrogen or poultry litter for proper growth and production. Food plots composed of one half grain sorghum/legume mix and one half red clover/arrowleaf clover/oats mixture make an excellent spring/summer/fall food supply for deer.
|This combo planting of Durana Clover and Chicory makes an excellent summer crop choice but there are lots of varieties besides clover to choose from.|
One logical exception to the grass/legume rule would be alyceclover/aeschynomene (two legumes) mix (Rackmaster Deer Vetch Plus) without grain sorghum because of too much potential for grain sorghum to shade out the alyceclover.
Corn is a highly preferred planting for deer especially on good soils. Corn is best incorporated in a deer management system where cooperative farming agreements can be made with farmers leaving 10 to 20% of the crop standing unharvested for the deer. The farmer is usually responsible for all planting expenses. Corn has some disadvantages when planted specifically for deer in small fields, It requires high fertility, herbicides (or cultivation), and pest control. Roundup Ready (RR) corn mixed with Roundup Ready Soybeans (resistant to Roundup herbicide) is a great tool for weed control if you have the necessary spraying equipment. Planted in small fields (less than three acres), a corn/soybean mix is subject to heavy depredation and possible kill out by deer, crows, squirrels, turkeys, raccoons, possums, beavers and other wildlife. RR Eagle soybeans are high protein, high yielding, climbing beans that resist heavy grazing if you can get them past deer pressure for the first 45 days.
For combination bow hunting and late summer stress plots, continued leaf production is critical since rapid growth translates to high palatability and attractiveness for deer. Well-entrenched spring-planted plots of early planted grain sorghum mixed with peas or beans including cowpeas and/or soybeans or spring planted plots of aeschynomene and alyceclover or mid-summer plots of buckwheat or cowpeas will serve this dual purpose very well.Palatability/Digestibility/Nutrient Content
All three are different measures of vegetative quality which often go hand in hand to attract and hold deer. The most preferred (palatable) species also have the highest digestibility (lowest cellulose) and nutrient content (protein, fats, carbohydrates). This is where legumes excel because nitrogen (N) is the main component of protein and the plant (with the help of soil bacteria) is making its own N from the air. Grasses (corn and grain sorghum) on the other hand must get their N from the soil where it is often limited and lots of N fertilizer is very often required for optimum growth. Young tender leaves and leaves re-growing from browsing pressure grow vigorously, are full of protein (30%), highly digestible and low in fiber. As leaf growth slows and the plant matures, fiber builds, digestibility wanes, protein declines, palatability becomes lower. Beginning with a peak of the big three in early spring, a gradual decline occurs through spring and summer until finally overall quality is at its lowest annual cycle until seed production then dormancy or death of the leaf in the fall. Decline in quality is accelerated or accentuated by drought, low soil fertility, and heat. Decline in quality is slowed by continuous deer grazing pressure. Can you use the most palatable species such as peas or beans in small plots (less than 2 acres)? Generally, you can if they are planted early and hidden by grain sorghum. Warm season species like soybeans and iron clay cowpeas can be wiped out by heavy early grazing pressure within 30 days of planting. Catjang pea (also called Oklahoma game bird pea) is a legume that is more early grazing resistant than the others, but everything has its limits. However, there are new solutions for this old problem! Plotsaver repellent system www.messinawildlife.com/plotsaverplus.shtml (888-411-3337) or Milorganite fertilizer www.milorganite.com/home/ (800-304-6204) both work well to protect young seedlings from early overgrazing.Adaptability
There is nothing more frustrating or more preventable than planting the wrong plant species on the wrong site. A classic example is alfalfa planted in bottomland with a high water table. Alfalfa’s deep root system is vulnerable to drowning and loss of an entire crop when roots are flooded by water. Another is planting arrowleaf clover in the North where it will surely be killed by winter freeze out. Something as simple as mixing legumes with a very high rate of grain sorghum (10 lbs./acre) is an adaptability error as the tall sorghum will inevitably shade out the
In summary, there is no substitute for a good food plot management program which includes at least 1.5% of your acreage in high quality agricultural food plots. Agricultural deer management includes identifying the most stressful seasons (usually late winter and mid to late summer) and planting productive high quality crops which fill the void created by low quality native vegetation. An integrated system including both warm and cool season food plots has the potential to increase deer numbers or condition and create a total quality deer management program. You need plots that attract, grow and hold deer and turkeys on your own property year round. Half of that year is spring and summer. Go for it!
Warm Season Food Plots quick tips:
When developing your own seed mixtures, be careful of seeding rates especially when combining tall and short growing plants (see Table 1).
Generally, no-till drilled seeding rates are about half of broadcast rates.
Always inoculate legumes, never plant clover more than ¼ inch deep.
Use legumes whenever possible because they are high protein, have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air, and release some of it to companion plants.
Use plants which are productive in parts of both warm and cool seasons. These include alfalfa, white clover, red clover, arrowleaf clover, corn, grain sorghum and oats.