Maximize Clover Food Plots for Deer with Winter Maintenance Now

February 1, 2023 By: Mark Turner
clover food plots

Perennial clover is perhaps the most popular food plot planting for deer, and with good reason! Clover food plots provide attraction during hunting season, high-quality forage during spring and early summer, and several years of production when properly managed. However, perennial clover is not an option for those who aren’t committed to managing their plots.

Weed encroachment and decreased soil fertility can both lead to reduced growth and vigor of clover food plots over time, but winter is a great time to prepare for clover management practices you may need to apply in the spring.

Weed Control in Clover Food Plots

“What can I spray to kill this weed in my clover?” must be the most common question on any habitat management forum or social media group.

Food plot managers consistently struggle with weed control in perennial food plots despite several great options for chemical control. Managers often use frequent mowing to manage weeds, but Dr. Craig Harper, Bonner Powell, and I have demonstrated that to be an ineffective practice. A single mowing during late summer/early fall is necessary to maintain perennial clover, but continuous mowing is not a good strategy to control weeds.

Common problematic cool-season broadleaf weeds include chickweed, henbit, deadnettle, curly dock, and plantain. Grasses such as foxtail, crabgrass, and cheat also can outcompete clover if they are not controlled. Sedges also may be a problem, especially on plots in wet locations. 

Grass Weeds

This wide variety of weeds that compete with perennial clover requires a variety of herbicides for effective control (read and follow the label instructions and guidelines for all herbicides you use). Both warm-season and cool-season annual grasses can be effectively controlled with the grass-selective herbicide clethodim.

The first step to maximizing forage production should be an obvious one: don’t mow your clover frequently! Frequent mowing doesn’t improve forage quality, but it can absolutely reduce production.

Timing of application is important with clethodim, as it is most effective on young, actively growing grasses. Multiple applications in a year may be necessary, especially during wet years when annual grasses germinate several times throughout a summer. If sedges are a problem, bentazon provides control of sedges as well as several broadleaf weeds.

Broadleaf Weeds

Imazethapyr and 2,4-DB are effective choices for control of most broadleaf weeds.

Imazethapyr is a broad-spectrum selective herbicide, meaning it has activity on some broadleaf and some grass weeds. In addition to postemergence control, imazethapyr also provides preemergence activity against many species. This is a major benefit, as preemergence weed control may reduce the need for multiple treatments during a growing season.

2,4-DB is a broadleaf-selective herbicide often used as a substitute for imazethapyr, as it is typically less expensive per gallon. However, they are comparable in price per acre. Furthermore, 2,4-DB has limited activity on chickweed, henbit, and deadnettle, which are common problematic cool-season weeds. If you choose to use 2,4-DB, be sure to check the label and make sure your problem weeds are controlled. Additionally, do not use 2,4-DB on plots with chicory, as it will kill the chicory. 

You can’t mow your way out of this! Broadleaf dock, Carolina horsenettle, and warm-season annual grasses are about to take over this plot, and only serious effort will buy you a few more years of production.

Dock and Plantain

Some of the worst weeds in clover plots are dock and plantain species. They can be very difficult to control and may require increased herbicide rates, different herbicides, or spot-treatment. They both can be controlled with a relatively high rate of imazethapyr while young.

However, often managers are faced with mature plants, and these require a different strategy. Dock often occurs in patches around a field, and spot treatment with either glyphosate or imazapic can work. Both glyphosate and imazapic will damage the clover, but it typically recovers following several weeks.

Plantain is generally more evenly distributed, and the best option is generally a moderate to high rate of imazapic. High imazapic rates will damage the clover temporarily, but it can be an effective last-ditch effort to save a stand overrun with plantain.

Maximizing Forage Production

The first step to maximizing forage production should be an obvious one: don’t mow your clover frequently! Frequent mowing doesn’t improve forage quality, but it can absolutely reduce production. In fact, frequent mowing may reduce forage production by over 50% throughout the growing season. Limiting mowing to a single time in the late growing season is an easy way to ensure you are producing as much forage as possible in your perennial clover.

Soil fertility strongly influences the vigor and productivity of perennial clover plots. Soil testing every two to three years is a good practice, and nutrient deficiencies should be addressed as soon as they are detected.

It is important to consider mobility of certain amendments, as lime and phosphorus especially are not readily mobile in the soil. This highlights the need to adequately incorporate amendments into soil during plot establishment as well as anticipating deficiencies before they become extreme.

In April, this plot is receiving great use by pregnant does and bucks starting to grow antlers long before soybeans are in the ground! Perennial clovers are one of the best options for providing high-quality forage during the early growing season.

Lifespan of Clover Food Plots

Many clover plots eventually reach a point where clover density is less than desired. Whether this is caused by weed competition or an extended period of drought, adding seed to the plot can extend the life for several years.

Frost-seeding involves no-till topsowing seed onto existing plots and allowing the freezing and thawing of the soil to ensure adequate seed-to-soil contact. Red clover, white clover and chicory can all be frost-seeded into existing plots during late winter. Alfalfa cannot be frost-seeded into existing plantings, as the existing alfalfa produces allelopathic chemicals that prevent new alfalfa from establishing.

Exact seeding rates vary depending on how sparse your existing planting is, but remember approximately 50% heavier seeding rates will be needed relative to conventional planting. 

All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes. This applies to perennial clover plots, as certain problems are difficult to overcome. For example, Carolina horsenettle is nearly impossible to eradicate from clover plots and can become widespread enough to warrant killing the entire plot. In cases with especially problematic weeds, it is best to rotate the plot out of perennial clover to allow for weed control.

Fortunately, rotation provides you an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the free nitrogen production of perennial clover. Cool-season grains, warm-season grains, and brassicas are all excellent choices to follow clover, as they have high nitrogen requirements and allow for different herbicide applications. Knowing “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em” applies to perennial clover, but most plots provide years of high-quality forage before rotation is needed.

Nutrition and Attraction

Perennial clover food plots represent an efficient option for attraction during hunting season, as well as high-quality forage during early antler growth, late gestation, and early lactation. They are a staple for food plotters, but few people manage their clover plots for maximum longevity. I hope this article provided a few suggestions and details on management to help ensure your perennial clover plots are productive for years to come!

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