“What should I plant in my food plot?” This is the most common question I receive from deer hunters. Fortunately, my experience as a land manager has prepared me to answer this question. I also have the pleasure of spending plenty of time with Dr. Craig Harper at our Deer Steward courses, allowing me ample opportunities to pick his brain about food plots.
Providing deer with high-protein summer forages is crucial for antler development, milk production, fawn growth and making sure deer are healthy going into the fall. Planting season is right around the corner for most, so here are three easy and effective ways you can maximize the nutrition you provide for deer.
First, play in the dirt!
Healthy food plots start with the dirt, and if you want to ensure maximum production, a soil test is the answer. I highly recommend taking soil samples from all your food plots every two to three years and sending them to a nearby Extension office for testing.
This is relatively inexpensive and will save you a fortune in the long run by arming you with specific information and recommendations for the crop you intend to plant. This is the crucial first step that can be the difference between success and frustration.
1. Jointvetch and Alyceclover Food Plots
While recently on a Deer Steward trip with Dr. Harper, I asked him “What would you recommend as an easy summer food plot?” His immediate suggestion was the “Lowcountry mixture” he discusses in his book “Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants.” This simple mixture consists of American jointvetch and alyceclover at a rate of 10 lbs. pure live seed per acre for each.
Prior to planting, you may need to prepare the seedbed by killing existing vegetation with a glyphosate herbicide in the spring, and you can no-till top sow the mixture directly through the dead vegetation. Better yet, a pre-emergence herbicide can be used as a proactive strike against potential weeds. Or, you can prepare the soil through light disking and cultipacking to ensure good seed-to-soil contact and germination, and then broadcast the seed.
American jointvetch and alyceclover both clock in around 25% crude protein and around the same for acid detergent fiber, meaning they’re both highly digestible and loaded with protein. They may be a little slow to establish, but the alyceclover actually helps reduce grazing pressure on the more preferred jointvetch, which will leave you with a high-yielding, high-protein food plot all summer long through the first frost with just a little bit of maintenance. This mixture is simple, effective and is a no-brainer if you’re looking for an easy summer food plot.
2. Cowpea Food Plots
Let’s say you aren’t a fan of mixtures and prefer to plant a single species. That’s great too and can often be much easier and economical if your goal is to simply pump as much protein to the deer as possible. When it comes to summer food plots, lots of folks immediately think soybeans, but cowpeas might be a better option if you’re looking for “easy.”
Cowpeas are not grazed as heavily early in the growing season as soybeans, making them much easier to establish and maintain. Much like the previous mixture, a pre-emergence herbicide can be used to limit weeds, but if you run into any issues with grasses, clethodim can help you out with that.
Prior to planting in the spring, it’s important to prepare the seedbed and create a smooth, firm planting surface to achieve good seed-to-soil contact and germination. Once everything is ready, cowpeas can be planted as early as mid-April at a rate of 70 to 80 lbs. of pure live seed/acre if broadcasting the seed and 40 to 50 lbs./acre using a no-till drill.
To top it off, cowpeas can provide about 8,000 lbs./acre in forage per year and weigh in at about 30% crude protein. They are extremely digestible, highly preferred and are more browse-tolerant than soybeans, which is the perfect recipe for supporting antler growth, milk production and body weight. When considering a summer food plot, cowpeas are at the top of my list for ensuring a healthy deer herd while simultaneously limiting the amount of time and money I need to spend in the field.
3. Go Weedy
The last easy summer food plot relies pretty heavily on Mother Nature and doesn’t require a whole lot of work on your end. Simply stop mowing an open area and let the “weeds” grow. Yes, you heard me. Let the “weeds” grow. What a lot of folks view as weeds are actually moderate to high quality and often preferred deer forages such as beggar’s-lice, old field aster and wild lettuce.
In some cases with open areas like old pastures, you may need to first use herbicides to kill non-native grasses like fescue, orchardgrass and timothy, which will release the native plant seeds in the seed bank. Dr. Harper refers to this as removing the shag carpet to expose the beautiful hardwood floor underneath. The seed bank is chock full of various forbs just waiting for you to remove the grass carpet and allow them to germinate.
Forbs, or herbaceous broadleaf plants, are among the highest quality and highest preferred forage. In fact, about 70% of a deer’s diet in the spring and summer is forbs, and these early successional plant communities also provide cover for fawns, ground nesting birds, pollinators and a slough of other wildlife species, not to mention wild turkey brood-rearing cover.
You can continually improve these areas by spot-spraying non-native invasive plants with glyphosate as needed. Fire is your best friend in managing old fields and is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to create and improve food and habitat for deer and many other species. Let Mother Nature do the work for you, and don’t be afraid to let the weeds grow!
I’ll admit, I have made the mistake of planting a food plot based solely on what I thought was “best” for the deer, resulting in a lot of extra work and frustration on myself throughout the summer and into the fall. I have learned that it is extremely important to consider your capabilities, objectives, deer preference and weed control when deciding on a mixture.
Remember, not only do we want to provide high quality nutrition, but management should be fun and enjoyable, so don’t make it too hard on yourself and select an option that is easy for you to prepare, plant and maintain throughout the growing season.