3 Factors in Smart Food Plot Seed Mixtures

July 3, 2024 By: Mark Turner

About this time each year, shelves at sporting goods stores begin filling with bags of food plot seeds, many with a picture of a large buck or two on the bag. Some hunters purchase these seed blends for their plots, whereas others create their own mixtures. Understanding why certain mixtures are recommended and others are not may be useful whether you are creating a new custom blend of your own or selecting from among existing commercial blends on those shelves. 

Do You Even Need a Blend?

Most commercial food plot seed bags contain a mixture of several different types of plants, but there are times when blends are not necessary. For example, wheat or oats may be planted as relatively inexpensive monocultures which provide attractive forage to deer during the hunting season. Single-species cereal grains also provide the opportunity to control problematic cool-season broadleaf weeds with broadleaf-selective herbicides. 

Planting a mixture can be advantageous in many instances, as attractive forage often is provided over an extended period. Consideration should be given to three primary factors when selecting a mixture, including growth form, maturity timing, and weed control options. 

Growth Form

The first step to designing or selecting a food plot blend is selecting species which complement each other. Growth form dictates much of this, as some forages complement each other better than others. For example, wheat and oats work very well in mixtures with annual and perennial clovers as long as the cereal grain seeding rate is relatively low at 40 to 50 lbs./acre. Conversely, cereal rye does not work as well with perennial or longer-lived annual clovers. The tall bolting of cereal rye tends to outcompete many clover species by shading them during the same period the clovers should be at their most productive. 

Growth form also may hinder initial establishment, as is the case when planting brassicas with either clovers or cereal grains. Brassicas tend to grow quickly after germination, and their large leaves and sprawling growth form cast shade and outcompete clovers and cereal grains. This often results in a relatively thin clover or cereal grain planting in late winter and spring after the brassicas have been largely eaten. Reducing seeding rates for brassicas helps this issue, but it often is a better idea to separately plant these cool-season species. 

Problems with growth form also may occur in warm-season plantings if appropriate seeding rates are not used. Sunflowers often are blended with cowpeas to act as substrate plants for the cowpeas to vine up, but their large leaves cast shade which can be a problem if they are planted too densely. As a general rule of thumb, blending taller species with shorter species should only be considered if the taller plants are planted at a relatively light rate. Dense plantings of taller species usually outcompete the shorter plants, and money was wasted by including the shorter plants in the mixture. 

Timing of Forage Production

Perhaps the largest benefit to planting a mixture is extending the period a food plot is attractive. Mixtures of cereal grains and annual clovers can do this extremely well, as the wheat or oats provide forage relatively quickly after planting. Crimson clover can provide attractive forage during the fall, but most tonnage is produced in early spring. After crimson clover and wheat produces seed, an additional clover such as arrowleaf can provide forage until the middle of summer. These individual species don’t compete with each other, as the timing of greater biomass production is staggered. 

One additional consideration on timing of growth is to ensure the species being used are planted at the correct time. In general, it is not sensible to plant annual warm-season species in fall, or to plant annual cool-season species in the spring. One exception would be including an attractive warm-season planting like soybeans in a cool-season plot to provide quick attraction during bow season. This approach may work, but don’t rely on the soybeans to produce much tonnage before they are killed by frost.

Weed Control

Weed control should always be a consideration in food plot planning, especially when it comes to planting mixtures. Monocultures can allow for easier weed control, but there are options if you carefully select a mixture. 

Generally it is best to avoid mixing warm-season grasses and broadleaves such as corn and sunflowers. Very limited weed control options exist for such a mixture, and nearly all herbicide options will be preemergence.

Annual grasses such as foxtail or crabgrass often are the most problematic weeds in warm-season plantings and are easily controlled with postemergence clethodim applications. Cowpeas, lablab, soybeans, and sunflowers are all labeled for clethodim applications and can be incorporated into mixtures if desired. Alternatively, mixtures of cowpeas and sunflowers can be treated preemergence with pendimethalin or S-metolachlor to control several annual grasses and broadleaf weeds. There are good options for warm-season herbicide treatments, but many managers leave themselves to the mercy of the seedbank by eliminating herbicide as a management tool when they mix grass and broadleaf species. 

Weeds may be less problematic in cool-season food plots, but fields should be evaluated prior to planting mixtures of grasses such as wheat and broadleaves such as brassicas or clovers. If heavy weed competition is not expected, these mixtures may be used. However, there are situations when particular weed problems should guide mixture selection. 

For example, ryegrass is a real problem in many food plots in the South, and in these fields cereal grains should be excluded from mixtures to allow for postemergence control with a grass-selective herbicide. If broadleaf, cool-season weeds such as thistle, chickweed, or henbit are a problem, you may choose to only plant cereal grains to allow for control with broadleaf-selective herbicides. Incorporating anticipated weed problems into your planting selection is important, and be sure to consult herbicide labels for more information before use. 

Have Fun With Mixtures

It can be a lot of fun to design and test various food plot seed mixtures, and there are countless options which can successfully be used. Giving some thought to a few basic principles can ensure your food plots provide maximum attractiveness and forage availability.

About Mark Turner:

Mark Turner is an NDA member and Level 2 Deer Steward who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee working under the direction of Dr. Craig Harper. His research is investigating how nutritional carrying capacity and land use influence deer body and antler size across the eastern United States. Instagram: @markturner442