Those of us who have lived or hunted in the U.S. heartland all have seen the dew on the crop fields glisten with the first rays of sunshine and heard the distant sound of a combine's diesel engine fire up as a neighboring farmer begins his day. We admire this awesome image of fall in the Midwest as we sit on stand, waiting for the deer woods to wake up. If you're like me during those hours, you also have plenty of time to think about things and "solve the problems of the world."
OK, I might not have all the solutions, but I always have plenty of suggestions. For instance, one morning while on stand, I was thinking about how my father and I were going to plan next year's crops and set the farm up to save some money on the expensive venture of farming. I had gone to college and obtained a degree in Ag Science and learned the scientific basis for the practice Dad and Granddad had been using for years: that is, reducing costs through crop rotation.
Fertilizer during the past year had been on the rise, and herbicide wasn't getting any cheaper either, so it was starting to get a little tricky trying to figure the budget for the farm. As I sat back in my tree stand that day, I ran some scenarios through my head about how to save the farm money by rotating some of the different crops we already had planted.
Once I thought I had the farm half-way figured out, I began to think about ways to save money on a couple of food plots I'd developed on my family's CRP ground. How can I incorporate the same rotation method into those plots to save both time and money? I wondered. After an hour or so, I thought I had it figured out, and once again I focused on what I was in the woods to do: shoot a buck that had been prematurely harvesting one of our soybean fields.
A PLAN THAT WORKS
Wouldn't it be nice to be able to buy quality products designed for setting up a simple food plot rotation to save you time and money? Believe it or not, they do exist.
There are a lot of great food plot products on the market today. If you choose your seed wisely and use plots in conjunction with a proven mineral supplement and protein booster, you'll not only have healthier deer but also reduce your costs in time, fertilizer, herbicide and labor.
The idea is to select and use various crops that work in harmony with each other in an overall plan to improve your herd's nutrition. That, in turn, should lead to bigger-bodied, bigger-racked bucks, more productive does and higher fawn survival. In short, when all elements of a sound crop-rotation system come together on a hunting property, they work in a synergistic manner to improve deer health and nutrition -- and hopefully, your hunting results.
WHAT IS CROP ROTATION, ANYWAY?
Crop rotation is pretty well what it sounds like: a method of alternating certain crops, such as legumes (clover, peas, alfalfa, etc.) in specific locations so that future crops planted there will benefit.
What makes legumes so beneficial -- aside from the fact many of them are highly preferred deer forages -- is that they can pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and deposit it in the soil through a fixation process. If properly inoculated prior to planting, legumes form small root nodes containing fixated nitrogen. Over time, the plants can add large amounts of this important nutrient to the soil, where it can in turn be used by plants that don't pull nitrogen out of the air.
Nitrogen, the first element of a fertilizer formulation (N-P-K), is essential for plant growth and jump-starts germination in non-legume plants (e.g., cereal grains such as oats, wheat and rye) and is important in getting brassicas (turnips, rape, etc.) to grow strong. Many of these plants are themselves great deer forages.
Commercial nitrogen fertilizer comes in two common forms: urea and ammonium nitrate. It's expensive and can be corrosive to equipment if prolonged exposure occurs. The key benefit of using the crop rotation system I'm talking about is that you would not have to apply a nitrogen fertilizer every time you plant your food plots, because it is put back into the soil every growing season by the clover and beans.
The clover itself fixates up to 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre annually. When this rotation is used, a cost saving of up to 45 percent can be reached on fertilizer alone.
Based on the price of fertilizer in summer 2009, the savings on our family food plots was approximately $41 per acre (not to mention the savings in fuel and time because of less weight in fertilizer to be distributed on the acreage).
SIMPLE & EFFECTIVE
As shown in the accompanying chart, a simple rotation plan might involve two food-plot fields. In this case, Field A would contain a perennial legume blend, such as clover; Field B would be planted to an annual legume or legume mix in the spring, then replanted to a cool-season cereal grain and/or brassica in the fall.
The perennial plot (Field A) would either be frost-seeded in February or seeded on a prepared seedbed in March. The decision of exactly when to plant would be based on the location's USDA planting zone.
Field A should remain in perennial clover for three full growing seasons. Over that time, it will accumulate the nitrogen to act as a food source for non-legplantings that follow. Of course, another benefit of having the clover in for three seasons is that it will provide a year-round, high-protein food source for deer.
The year-round availability is key; you need good forage to nourish the herd and keep deer on your land when other plots and fields lack forage. A year-round nutritional program such as this is vital if deer are to reach their genetical potential.
After three full growing seasons, the legumes in Field A will be tilled under to make way for a cool-season forage crop, which will benefit greatly from the stockpiled nitrogen in the soil.
Field B, meanwhile, will be planted seasonally with annuals. In the spring, preferred legumes will be planted to fixate nitrogen and provide tons of leafy forage for wildlife during the spring and summer. The right legumes also will provide a lot of cover in Field B for turkeys and upland birds.
In my part of the Midwest, August is the time to till under warm-season annuals and plant cool-season crops. Several cereal grains and brassicas are excellent for keeping deer going through the tough months following the rut. Whitetails emerging from
winter in relatively good shape will get a jump start on the next year.
This same annual crop cycle will continue for a total of three years. Then, in the spring of the fourth year, we'll simply swap the two fields. Now the legume(s) originally planted in Field A will be planted in Field B, where they will remain for three years. Field A now will go onto a spring-fall rotation of annuals, with legumes in the warm season and grains/brassicas in the cool season.
The first year cool-season annual forage is planted, the field will require a higher amount of nitrogen fertilizer than in any other year. Thereafter, all three non-legume annuals will use the same low-nitrogen blend. For example, let's say we're going with an initial 300-pound-per-acre mix of 17-17-17. For as long as the rotation is in effect after that, all cool-season annuals will take the same fertilizer blend of 0-20-20 at 300 pounds per acre.
The great thing about this plan is that there will be no need to switch fertilizers from one plot to the other or to change settings on the fertilizer spreader that is being used. This is a simple and effective way to produce a viable food plot.
DEALING WITH UNWANTED PLANTS
Once your food plots are up and growing, keep an eye out for grass or weeds that can hinder their progress. But be cautious when using chemicals to treat weeds or grass; if the wrong type of herbicide is applied, it can damage or even kill the crop. Some seeds and even seed blends are compatible with Poast Plus grass herbicide. This reduces the risk of unwanted crop damage and creates a more productive plot. And with blends that are grass-herbicide tolerant, there's no need to recalibrate spraying equipment for a different herbicide or drain it and mix a different chemical for a separate seed blend. This makes treatment more time efficient and less expensive overall.
I've used Hunter's Specialties' Vita-Rack Nutrition System in crop rotation on our land, but the same principle applies to a variety of other seed blends as well. For instance, here in the Midwest, a lot of landowners do the same thing with soybeans, corn and clover.
I'm not an agronomist or a wildlife biologist, just a deer hunter who was raised on a farm in northeastern Missouri. But I know through experience that crop rotation is extremely effective in producing healthy crops for farmers here in the Midwest, and these same principles hold true for wildlife food plots everywhere.
If I knew there was a way to save money on expensive fertilizers and herbicides while saving time and fuel, you can bet that I'd be looking at it very closely and trying to incorporate it into my plans for the upcoming year. It might just save me enough time and money that I can take a vacation day during the rut and try out that new bow I was able to purchase with my savings!