Age, nutrition and genetics are the trinity that combine to grow big bucks. Summer food plots in the South are absolutely critical to the nutrition of your deer herd. By adhering to the following guidelines for soil prep, seed selection, planting and protection, you will be successful at providing your deer herd the nutrition it needs during its most critical nutritional stress period.
You will have to fight heat, drought, weeds and generally high deer densities, but in the end you will be rewarded with better deer and a better hunting experience in the fall.
The three main factors associated with successfully prepping soil for spring food plots are lime, fertilizer and a good seed bed. A proper soil test is needed to properly lime and fertilize according to the specific requirements of the species you intend to plant. Most counties in the South have either an extension agent or farm services office that can send your soils to the testing lab for about $8 per sample. In the South, we primarily have highly acidic soils that range in pH from 4-5.5.
Unfortunately, most summer legumes thrive in the pH range of 6-7. This can usually be remedied by applying 1-2 tons of Aglime per acre. Fertilizer needs will vary greatly but almost always be required to grow productive spring food plots. Lime and fertilizer can be applied right before or immediately after plowing but prior to making the seed bed, and these nutrients need to be at the root level of the plant.
The seed bed is very critical for summertime plots because it is in this bed that your moisture will be held through the long dry summers. The best option for planting is mowing and poisoning your existing fall plots followed by no-till planting of the spring plots. For many hunters and landowners, no-till and row planters aren't available, so plowing is the only way to prepare a seed bed. In most upland food plots, you should attempt to plow as deep as possible and do so at least a month before your intended planting date so that you can "bank" spring showers into your bed prior to planting.
If you plow too late, your seed is at high risk of running out of important ground moisture at an age when it may not survive until the next rain. After plowing, use a drag or culti-packer to make a firm seed bed ready for planting.
Plowing will inherently bring many weed seeds to the surface that will later compete with your food species. These weeds can be sprayed prior to planting or you can plant Round-up ready species that can be sprayed throughout the growing season. Most warm season plants require a soil temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or higher to germinate and do not hold up well with a frost.
Because of these two factors, I prefer to plant with a 60 percent chance or rain or greater after May 1 across much of the South. Some areas in the deep South can be planted in April with no problem or chance of frost but they should always be planted with impending rain.
Selecting the proper species to plant in a given food plot should be dependent on location, purpose, and size of your food plot. Planting an eighth acre of soybeans in a thick area with little sunlight and high deer densities will have you giving up on summer plots almost before you start. You need to allow the species to work for you in every way that it can.
Some are fantastic in small plots in the shade and others simply need a lot of sun and larger areas to keep from being decimated by the hungry mouths of your herd. Keep in mind that some spring food plot species do not provide any added nutrition during the summer but are great for cover and early fall hunting plots.
These species are typically grains such as Grain Sorghum, Egyptian Wheat and Corn. The legumes are the highly nutritious and attractive species from the time they germinate until first frost. These legumes provide much needed protein and fiber to a deer's diet and also fix nitrogen into the soil, which can aid in fall food plot success. My favorite warm season legumes are Eagle Seed Soybeans, Lablab and Aeschynomene. There are also many commercial blends that can also be successful, such as BioLogic's Biomass All Legume and orginal Biomass as well as Tecomate's Buck Beans, and Lablab Plus.
There are also many other blends available at local feed and seed stores, but a word of caution: Always read the bag and make sure you want everything in it to grow on your property. I once had a client "pick up his own seed" and later found out that the main ingredient in the blend was brown-top millet, currently our second-most invasive weed on the entire property. Millet is great for birds and excellent at controlling erosion, but it does not belong in a warm season deer food plot designed for nutrition as it will choke out almost anything else you plant.
I use the cereal grains in smaller acreage plots and as buffers, cover and travel corridors in larger plots. Any of them will work in these circumstances but remember that if you plant Round-Up-ready beans, and you're mixing them with a cereal grain, make sure it also is Round-Up-ready. These cereal grains do not provide deer with summer nutrition, but they do provide shade, bedding, and early fall nutrition in the form of fats and carbohydrates.
The height difference in these cereal grains as compared to the legumes is generally drastic, which creates an additional "edge" on the food plot that all types of wildlife can benefit from. Grain Sorghum and Egyptian Wheat are both better in drought conditions than corn and will generally hold seeds later into summer and early fall better since their seed is higher and out of the reach of squirrels and raccoons, both of which feast on early corn.
Legumes (broadleafs) are the backbone of any spring/summer planting program. My favorites are Lablab, Eagle Seed Soybeans and Aeschynomene as stand alone plantings and Biomass All-Legume as a ready-to-plant blend. All of these species have to be either planted in large plots (greater than two acres) or protected throughout most of the South. They are highly attractive and nutritious, but in smaller plots, without protection, they will not be able to survive the browse pressure of our high deer densities. Moisture is a serious factor when choosing which legume to plant.
Lablab is one of the most drought tolerant legumes there is; it can survive on an inch or two of rain all season if planted correctly. Aeschynomene on the other hand can successfully grow underwater, so if your plot is in a low area that holds ground water close to the surface for extended periods it is the species for you. Aeschynomene also can take browse pressure better than most legumes, thus making it a viable consideration for smaller acreage plots in areas of high deer densities. Eagle Seed Soybeans are forage beans that are designed to produce mass quantities of leaves and do so very quickly once they are established.
A client of mine had his Eagle leaves tested last summer by a lab and they tested out at 35 percent crude protein. There is no other legume that can make those claims. They are also Round-Up-ready, making them the go-to seed in areas where summer weeds are a significant problem. Eagle Seed soybeans do require more precipitation than Lablab but once established are quite drought tolerant.
Most summer plots below the Mason-Dixon line can be planted by May 1, but I cannot emphasize enough the need to wait until rain is pending to plant. Moisture is the single most important factor in establishing successful summer food plots; without it the plants simply will not survive. If you can time your planting to occur just prior to a half-inch of rain or better, you will be amazed at how quickly the plots will germinate and grow. I've seen Lablab germinate and have two leaves per plant within 48 hours of planting.
The cereal grains and legumes mentioned above should be planted about a half-inch deep but can be planted as deep as an inch. Unlike fall plots that can be "rained" into their seed beds, spring species need to be covered to ensure proper rooting. I use a Firminator to plant both spring and fall plots and adjust the angle of the front cutting discs to achieve my desired cover. This machine culti-packs the seed bed after dropping the seed into the dirt. A drag harrow can also be used in loose dirt to cover the seed followed by rolling or culti-packing to ensure good seed/soil contact.
Perhaps the most important and often over-looked aspect of summer food plots is adequate protection against over-browsing. There are several options available to protect your food plots and I've tried them all from using road barricades and barbershop clippings to full plot exclusion fences. Plot size is a good way to deal with browse pressure but is often not enough. This past spring, one of my clients planted a 10-acre soybean field in north Georgia and in three weeks time the entire field was all but eliminated. Fortunately for him, we were able to save the food plot by immediately installing a Gallagher fencing system around the field.
This allowed his soybeans to regenerate and thrive. You can protect your plots with visual, scent, sound or physical barriers that key on a deer's wariness to the advantage of your crop. Visual and sound barriers such as flashing lights, aluminum foil and propane cannons tend not to be very effective against southern deer.
Scent barriers such as Milorginte have been shown in studies to be effective when applied at a rate of 300 pounds per acre but can be costly and have a fixed efficacy of about 3-4 weeks. Two applications will cost about $110 per acre. Combination barriers like PlotSaver and Plot Protector tend to work well in medium deer densities, however they require reapplication of the scent product every 10 days to two weeks to be effective.
Physical barriers, however, can provide up to 100 percent exclusion from installation until removal and come in two different forms; high fences and electric fences. Most of my clients do not want to look at a rolled up high fence on their food plots during hunting season so they use electric fences.
The Gallagher electric fence system has provided us with greater than 95 percent exclusion in our summer food plots and often eliminates the need for herbicide in established plots because the food plot species, when not being browsed, will out-compete weeds for critical sunlight. Installation and take-down of this system can be done by one person with relative ease and the components can be stored until the following spring. Also, you can strategically remove the fence systems and place them on over-browsed plots, allowing them to recover while the deer are feeding in previously protected plots.
Although there are many challenges in planting summer food plots in the South, by following the guidelines above for site preparation, seed selection, planting and protecting, you can be successful at growing and maintaining attractive and nutritious plots year after year. With a little time, money, sweat and blood coupled with a lot of ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, gnats and no-see-ums, you'll have bachelor groups, nursing does, growing fawns and a host of other critters feasting and thriving on your land.