Avoiding common mistakes when planning and planting a food plot for deer and other wildlife can mean the difference between failure and success, said a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert. Dr. Billy Higginbotham, AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist, Overton, said growing warm- and cool-season forages for white-tailed deer is a good way to attract deer and meet their nutritional requirements in East Texas or areas that receive adequate rainfall. It’s possible in East Texas because the region generally supplies enough rain to establish forages that will get deer through summer and winter stress periods.
But producing sufficient yields to justify the costs of establishing food plots that can compete with weeds for sunlight, moisture and nutrients requires careful planning and variety selection.
Based on years of trials at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton, a good starting point is to plant larger plots of forage cowpeas in May to provide forage all summer long. Then, as soon as soil moisture becomes available in September, establish a winter hardy variety of oats or a combination of oats and rye. Chicory can also be added to the small grain planting.
Another good option for the September planting is a combination of winter hardy oats or oats and rye in combination with forage cowpeas and arrowleaf clover. The peas germinate quickly and attract deer to the plots. The small grains are available to deer through the winter and the arrowleaf clover provides additional forage in May and June at when a new establishment of summer forages becomes available.
Choosing the right site for your plots is critical to success, Higginbotham said. Aside from strategic values for hunting, Higginbotham said landowners should consider the required area size and the available land and drainage.
“Don’t plant a variety that prefers a well-drained soil in a poorly drained bottomland or vice versa,” he said. “If a site is subject to routine flooding during the plant’s growth cycle, look elsewhere for a planting location.”
The size of the food plot is an important consideration for producing forage that meets nutritional needs and provides an environment that deer feel comfortable in during daytime hours.
For the fall, Higginbotham recommends planting numerous small plots near escape cover so deer will feel more comfortable using them during the hunting season in daylight hours. For warm-season forages, plant fewer large plots, which can be located away from cover.
“Typically East Texans fail to plant large enough forage cowpea plots for summer grazing,” he said. “If the deer wipe out a 3- or 4-acre plot, then double or triple the size of the plot next year. A good rule of thumb is to plant a minimum of 3 percent of your land base in food plots, with most of the emphasis on warm season forage establishment to improve the nutritional plane during the critical summer months when bucks grow antlers and does must produce sufficient quantities of milk for their fawns.”
Acidic soils in East Texas can limit forage production and the benefits of fertilizers, so soil tests should be the landowner’s first consideration before breaking ground for the plot, Higginbotham said. Some clover and small grain varieties are particularly sensitive to soils that are too acidic. Soil tests will determine how much lime is needed and identify fertilizer needs necessary to grow specific forages.
Another important consideration is choosing the right forage varieties for the location. Deer forage should produce enough yield to justify establishment costs, be readily consumed, meet the quality requirements needed and be available in either the warm- or cool-season stress periods, which are late summer and late winter in East Texas.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the hype and slick advertisements accompanying some forage varieties,” he said. “However, just because a variety does well in Iowa or Tennessee does not necessarily mean it will perform well in East Texas. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket by planting every site with a new variety that doesn’t have a track record in the region until you know how it performs with a few test plots.”
Seed-bed preparation is an often-overlooked aspect of planting food plots. Most forage varieties require planting into a seedbed that is well disked and smooth, while other varieties may only require planting with a drill.
“Make sure you know the seed bed preparation requirements for the varieties to be established, otherwise poor stands and excessive weed competition may result, he said.
Failure to inoculate seeds before planting is another mistake many people make. Legumes, such as cowpeas and clovers, are plants that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere using bacteria that grow on plant roots.
“Inoculating seeds with the proper bacteria at the time of seeding provides nitrogen and can boost forage production,” he said.
When the seed-bed and seeds are ready to plant, Higginbotham said it’s important to plant them at the appropriate depth. Tiny seeds should be covered at a depth of a quarter inch, while larger seeds such as cowpeas and small grains should be planted at a depth of 1 inch.
“Usually when there is a mistake made, it’s that the seeds are planted too deep,” he said.
Planting the right amount of seed is also an important factor in establishing a good food plot.
“Planting too little or too much seed may result in poor stand establishment, excess weed competition, a waste of money or all three,” Higginbotham said. “Follow recommended seeding rates for the varieties selected.”
Post-planting management is also important for some varieties. Some varieties require follow-up fertilization or other attention after plants germinate and begin growing.
“For example, have you noticed how plots of wheat, oats or rye can start looking a little yellow in December or January?” he asked. “That’s a sign you need to follow-up with a top dressing of nitrogen fertilizer. Other plants, such as arrowleaf and crimson clovers readily re-seed every year. However, this process is helped along if the plot is shredded and lightly disked in late summer each year.”
Higginbotham said there is no perfect forage that allows for one-time planting and year-round food for a deer herd and landowners.
“If a forage sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” he said. “One test is worth 1,000 expert opinions, so by all means, try different forages, but always plant them side-by-side with varieties that you know are proven winners for comparison.”