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Dryland Farming:

by: Ryan Foster

It is no secret that your chances of growing big bucks are increased when quality  year around nutrition is available.  In fact all wildlife prospers when conditions are optimal.  The idea is to create an ideal environment year around. When done correctly food plots are a great avenue to help insure that highly nutritious plants are in constant supply.  With weather climates constantly changing and rainfall often in short supply it is important for dryland farmers to be prepared for the worst.

Several steps can be taken to help effectively maximize forage production even during stressful dry periods.  Proper soil preparation, field size, planting methods,  and the right seed planted at the right time and rate can lead to incredible year around forage production.


It is important to have large enough plots to feed the amount of deer that will be utilizing them. Larger fields  are easier to maintain and produce more tonnage than small plots.  It is best to remove all trees and other vegetation out of the fields to better maximize moisture retention.   Most intense food source management programs allow for 2%-10% of their acreage towards food plots depending on deer density.  For the most part a 1 acre food plot can support 3-5 deer.  Be sure to choose a fertile site with plenty of sunlight for optimum photosynthesis. 


 It is highly recommended not to double crop in drought prone areas.  Planting winter and summer fields on separate sites is an important part of  dryland farming.  This method of water conservation allows plants to have more moisture readily available even during dry times.  Depending on the amount of tillable acres available it is often  best to plant a portion of the field in summer and the rest in winter or have entirely separate fields. 


Field preparation is one of the first steps in a dryland farming program.  It is important to have your soils deep tilled well before planting time.  Summer food plots should be deep tilled in the early fall to allow  the field to rest and bank moisture for the upcoming spring planting.  If rain comes during the winter it is then captured in the soil.  It is important to not allow the encroachment of unwanted plants(grass, weeds, oats etc) in the plot during the resting period; these invaders will steal the moisture you are trying to save.  Due to cooler days fall and winter moisture evaporation is less allowing more moisture to stay retained in the soil longer.  When spring time arrives there will be moisture available to help get the plants up and growing so the root systems can establish and prepare the plant in the event that drier times are ahead. Having a well tilled bed also allows the roots to penetrate deep thus not competing a heavy against one another. Using the same disc every year without running a deeper chisel plow, moldboard or paratill can often result in a hardpan base relatively close to the surface.  This can lead to more competition among plants, less moisture retention, and shallower roots.   Since having a well prepared soil bed allows moisture to be saved, there’s less moisture runoff and roots grow deeper. It is wise deep plow every 2-3 years. Sometimes a hard rain can compact the soil with a crusty layer on top, this is not always a bad thing.  This firm layer may help keep weeds down but also aids rainfall run off the fields and not be absorbed as well.  In this case it may be best to lightly disc or run a cultivator across the field to break the crust and allow the next moisture a more sponge like surface to gather more moisture.  This is best done if rain is in the forecast as not to disturb the current saved moisture.  It is best to try and limit the number of trips thru a plot to better retain moisture and minimize soil compaction. 


Spring plants need to be planted after the last frost and when soil temperatures start to rise.  And fall planting take place when temperatures start to drop in late fall. When warm season plants like Lablab, Buckbeans and cowpeas are planted it is best to keep them spaced out to keep competition minimal.   It is recommended to drill or row crop seeds in low rainfall areas.  This allows seeds to be pressed into the ready moisture and have them planted at a precise rate.  Broadcast seeding is not as precise and seeds are planted at different depths, spacing and often times over planting can occur. Over planting in low rainfall areas is not recommended, this will allow plants to die off sooner if moisture becomes limiting.  If plants are planted with a row crop planter they can also be cultivated until the forage is too tall.  Often you can cultivate lablab type plants 1-2 times before the plant becomes too big to go over.

Fall plantings are a bit more forgiving most of the time and often you can get away with broadcast seeding since more moisture is available in the fall and less is lost to hot weather.


Knowing what and when to plant can be just as important as the rest of the steps.  It is imperative for a year around food plot to supply enough quantity, quality, and dilatation to feed deer the entire season. For this to happen you have to select seed that are designed for forage product not seed production, and they must be able to survive the stressful dry periods while still providing adequate tonnage. Annuals seems to work better than perennials in low rainfall areas.  It is still accepted to use a perennial type plant such as clovers alfalfa etc but often go into it knowing that you will only be able to get one seasons growth out of it when moisture is lacking.


 Warm season plants such as lablab, buckbeans, and forage type soybeans do a great job in dry climates if prepared for properly.  These plants are able to produce long tap roots and produce  good tonnage even during drier times.  Often people plant more seed producing type plants and these plants are made to produce seed and then die. This slows down the leaf production and makes plants like lablab and buckbean more favorable to plant in a long warm growing season conditions.  With the right conditions and locations clovers, chicory and alfalfa can be planted in the spring with great success and provide forage for several years if taken care of.

Fall time plantings should always consist of combinations and preferably more legumes and chicory than anything.   Max Attract 50/50, Monster Mix, Alfafeast all help in producing protein supplying plants to the mix.   Often way too much emphasis has been made in planting mostly cereal grains such as Oats and wheat due to the cheap cost.  In actuality it is more beneficial and not much more to plant it with legumes and chicory to prolong grazing on much higher quality plants.   Cereal grains are a great energy source when they are young and tender, but do mature out and often become rank and unpalatable.  It is best to never allow more than about 50% of a mix to be a cereal grain.  Cereal grains do grow fast but can also choke out the needed legumes and chicory that will be coming up right behind them.  Due to the harder seed and a slower establishment the legumes and chicory seem to really kick in for southern climates in Decemebr-April.  This is a critical time for the post rut deer to gain body condition back and also start working on the new set of antlers.  These legumes and chicory have the proper protein building blocks needed to help get these deer back in shape after a hard winter and rut. 


Several other factors can help forage production in moisture lacking areas.  Herbicides both pre and post can be used in order to minimize the impact of invading pants that may want to rob moisture and nutrients from the plants that you are trying to grow.  Legume specific plants like lablab, clovers, alfalfa can be readily treated for pre and post emergent applications to help minimize competition. Mixing grasses, legumes and or forbs makes it more difficult to find herbicides that will work without harming at least one of the species that you are trying to grow. 


In order to provide enough forage while planting at low rates and trying to keep weed competition down requires that deer not be able to feed in plots until they are established.  This time frame can vary depending on soil type, nutrients, moisture and other climate factors.  Typically it is best to keep deer off the plots for 3-6 weeks to allow root systems to become established and the rows to fill in making it harder for weeds to become established.


Putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together will allow your plants a better chance at surviving dry conditions, thus feeding your deer when you need it the most.  Taking short cuts will often affect plant production if not done properly.  The old saying “you reap what you sow” surely comes into play in dry conditions.  It is not impossible to grow plants in low rainfall areas but your plant production will increase if steps are done right.