During the spring and summer months, food plots are often the furthest thing from most hunter's mind. After all, aren't food plots something planted in the fall to help attract deer within shooting range? Most of us have other things on our mind after deer season ends.
However, this is exactly the time for serious deer managers to be concerned. Oats, wheat and rye planted in September and October to help the hunter in November and December and then provide nutrition for the deer in the stress period of January and February has been the traditional plan for years.
Today, however, more and more wildlife biologists are looking at warm-weather food plots as a means to produce healthier and larger deer. The idea behind warm-weather food plots is simply to guarantee ample food supplies are available at the time when does are producing milk, fawns are growing and antler development is occurring in bucks. In many instances, traditional food plot locations can be used for warm-weather sites as well. However, there are some differences which should be noted.
Warm season species are more reliable when planted in bottomland soils that retain moisture during the drier months. Care should be taken to select a site that is not prone to flooding from nearby streams or rivers. Doughty upland soils will not serve as good site. If you are unsure about the suitability of a site for planting, it is often advantageous to consult a Soil Survey if one is available for your area. These Soil Surveys are published by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) and are chocked full of information about suitability of different soil types for agricultural uses. Whenever possible use existing openings to reduce costs in establishing food plots. Examples include fallow fields, pipeline and transmission rights-of-way, interior roads and fire lines. Areas adjacent to public roads are poor planting areas as attracting deer to the roads may encourage poaching.
The size and shape of supplemental food plots vary tremendously. Most are from one-half to three acres in size. Because deer are more apt to feed along edges of plots than in the center, several small plots are usually more effective than a single large plot. Larger food plots can be established, especially if the shape is long and narrow instead of square. Long, arrow food plots maximize the edge available and cut across more home ranges of deer.
However, plots must be wide enough to prevent excessive shading and moisture use from nearby trees and brush. A good rule of thumb is to plant from 1 to 3 percent of the total habitat in supplemental forage. Plots should be distributed at the rate of at least one per 160 acres of habitat. Because there is no single forage species that satisfies all the nutritional requirements of whitetails throughout the year, it is usually recommended you plant a combination of warm and cool season forages.
When choosing warm season species, be sure to select forages that will grow quickly and compete successfully with native vegetation. Research in East Texas has determined alyceclover and forage cowpeas to be an excellent combination planting for the warm season, producing three to four tons of forage per acre. This combination has been successfully used in other areas of the state as well. Iron and clay cowpeas produced higher yields and matured later than other forage cowpea varieties. Another forage which has proven successful in the Pineywoods during the warm season period is American Jointvetch, also called aeschynomene.
Warm season food plots usually should be planted between May 1 and June 15. However, the earliest planting date is determined by soil temperature. Germination of warm season forages usually requires a soil temperature of 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. If used in combination, cowpeas must be planted first before the alyceclover and/or jointvetch. Planting depth for cowpeas is about one inch. The smaller seeds of clover or jointvetch can be broadcast and simply dragged in. Seeding rate for cowpeas is 40 pounds per acre when planted by broadcasting or 30 pounds per acre if a seed drill is used.
Planting rate is 10 pounds per acre for alyceclover and 5 pounds per acre for jointvetch. Supplemental forages are not cur-alls for poor deer management. Without proper habitat management and population control, food plot establishment is a waste of time for the hunter, landowner and deer manager. However, food plots can be a important part of the overall management program for deer and is the most cost effective method of ensuring adequate nutrition on a year long basis.