Get the Food Plots in Good Shape for Deer Season
The Alabama summer has come and gone and most of us welcome those cooler October days. The early fall in the South brings with it that familiar smell and feel to the air and just gets your blood moving a little faster.
Some people may be running behind on getting their food plots planted for the fall because of weather, work and all the other things that get in the way of getting down to the farm. However, there is still time to plant some last minute food for your wildlife.
Cool season plantings, such as oats, triticale, winter peas and annual clovers, can provide some fast-growing browse with proper moisture and provide great early season attraction. Plantings in the Brassica plant family, including rapes, turnips and radishes, are great for mid to late season attraction. Blends that include multiple cultivars can be very effective for an all season plot.
I really like using a cool season cereal grain like oats or triticale at about 75-percent rate and adding radishes at 25- to a 50-percent rate. In pounds per acre, this translates to 65 to 75 pounds of grains and four to six pounds of radishes per acre. This has proven to be a deadly combination for a southern killing plot.
One common question I get from folks is, “What do I do with a field planted in the spring or summer that is still producing food, but I want to get cool season seeds planted in that same field?”
In the most southern parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida, warm season planted annuals like soybeans, peas, or lablab are usually still being browsed heavily and make great stand locations for evening hunts. Most corn is likely to have been harvested by this time as well. I have had some hunts where the deer barely wait for the combine to leave the field before they begin to come in for the spoils.
“What do I do with a field planted in the spring or summer that is still producing food, but I want to get cool season seeds planted in that same field?”
Whether it is a field you planted or a row crop field edge, these annuals are a large part of the summer feeding pattern for deer. You have a good chance of catching them before they start to get more nocturnal because of hunting pressure. This is a situation where using a trail camera on a time lapse setting to get pictures of an entire field, edge or corner can be very useful to determine where your deer are entering and exiting these food sources.
This tactic worked perfectly for me one year and helped me kill a really mature buck that was all but a ghost. I had a 2-acre lablab field in the middle of a large section of mature hardwoods full of white oaks. When preparing plots in late August, this lablab field was still producing a lot of food and the deer were wearing it out. Instead of mowing and disking the whole field for my cool season plantings, I left three long strips of lablab standing and planted deer radish and oats between them.
This left plenty of forage standing and I had new browse coming in on its heels. One day in opening week with two hours of daylight left, I watched two different bucks in the 5-plus-year-class literally run into the field followed by a harem of does.
Early season hunting can be a chore. Deer don’t always read the script, but sometimes they do and the reward is giving one a ride home in the back of your truck.
Seed Bed Preparation
Seed bed preparation is extremely important in growing successful food plots. Many planting failures can be attributed to poor seedling survival or lack of germination due to incorrect planting depth and poor seed bed prep. This is especially critical when planting small seeds like clover, chicory, brassicas or alfalfa. These seeds need a covering of no more than quarter-inch of soil.
Often, when plots are disked or tilled, the seed bed is left fluffy and is not conducive for small seeds to germinate. Many times when small seeds are broadcast onto a very finely disked and fluffy seed bed, even a moderately heavy rain causes some seeds to be buried too deeply and results in an uneven stand.
Ideally, when planting smaller seeds, fields should be cultipacked after disking or tilling to firm the seed bed up. Seed can then be broadcast, and for the best seed to soil contact, fields can then be cultipacked again. This process creates a great environment for seedling survival by incorporating the seed at the proper depth. Cultipacking also allows moisture to move through the soil profile properly and keeps moisture around the seed as it germinates. Leaving a seed bed unpacked and full of air space allows the soil to dry out much more rapidly and increases the chance of plot failure.
Fertilizing Food Plots
When consulting on properties and answering emails, a question I get so often is “what kind of fertilizer do I need to use on my plots?” That is a loaded question and one with a lot of variables. There is no substitute for an up-to-date soil test that gives pH and nutrient levels. Adding agricultural lime to neutralize the acidity of the soil is an often overlooked step, but one that is a major factor in growing good crops.
For example, soil with a pH level of 5.0 is 10 times more acidic than soil at 6.0. At a level of 5.0, 60 to 70 percent of the fertilizer added is unusable by the plants. Not only will food plot crops grow better in a less acidic soil, but deer will also utilize the crops because they plants taste better. For most food plot crops in either warm and cool seasons, a pH of 6.2 to 7.0 is ideal.
Many hunting clubs and individuals work on a pretty tight budget when it comes to planting food plots. When soil tests reveal a low pH level, money is much better spent on getting the appropriate amount of lime added to the soil rather than more fertilizer.