With the recent discovery of CWD in Florida and the subsequent prohibition of feeding deer within the CWD Management Zone there has been some additional motivation applied to hunters/land managers to establish new food plots. Moreover, the timing and unexpected nature of the discovery have hunter/land managers somewhat in “scramble mode” to make the shift away from feeders to plantings before archery season starts (10/21 in the Panhandle). Whether or not you are in the CWD Management Zone or if you have been contemplating establishing food plots for a long time the following comments are worth considering as you work through the process of establishing a new food plot.
First, food plots are not corn feeders. That is to say that food plots should be viewed as habitat improvements, not attractants (even though they may well improve the likelihood of seeing deer and other game species at a specific location) and their success should be evaluated accordingly. Food plots have the most positive impact when they are maintained year-round with cool and warm season plantings. They are long term investments.
When it comes to food plots, size really does matter. Food plots need to be no less than ½ acre in size, preferably between 1 and 5 acres. Maximum habitat benefit being reached when food plots make up approximately 5 percent of the managed acreage. The kinds of plants in food plots are, by design, ones that wildlife find highly desirable (because they are highly nutritious). Considering this, it is easy to understand why plantings smaller than ½ acre struggle to establish – the plants simply don’t get a chance grow past the seedling stage.
After a location is identified, it is crucial to manage unwanted vegetation prior to preparing the soil and planting the food plot. If it is not eliminated, existing vegetation will compete tremendously with food plot plantings. Even if mechanical disturbance (disking, tilling, etc.) appears to remove the existing vegetation, much of it will regrow. This regrowth from established root systems will be more than a match for new seedlings. Apply herbicide before you begin soil preparation. Equally as important, give the herbicide sufficient time to do its work before mechanically disturbing the site (weeks, not days). Specific herbicide recommendations will vary depending on what vegetation you are trying to manage, but most food plot site prep applications will involve fairly high rates of glyphosate. Don’t hesitate to call me (850-638-6180) – we can discuss your site and dial in an herbicide recommendation. You do not want to skip this step; get in front of weed pressure before you plant.
If you want a food plot to be productive and successful you must effectively address soil fertility. First and foremost, soil pH must be corrected. Any needed applications of lime/dolomite need to take place first, well before any other fertilizer is applied (ag lime can take months to go into soil solution and alter soil pH). If fertilizers are applied before the soil pH is corrected the nutrients may still be unavailable to the plants. Once a food plot site is determined, collect a representative sample of the rooting zone soil and submit it to a lab for analysis. This is the best way to get the information needed to make informed choices regarding lime and fertilizer applications. Talk with the folks at your local Extension Office for more info on how to collect and submit soil samples. Take and submit soil samples now. Apply any need lime soon, during land preparation. Apply recommended fertilizer (N, P, K, and micros) at planting or soon after emergence. Fertilizer applied when there are no plant roots present to adsorb it is wasted.
By far the most common food plot question I receive is “what should I plant?”. I intentionally held this until last because if the topics above are not addressed properly plantings will not be successful. I included the table below to help answer the “what should I plant?” question. To accompany the table, here are some additional statements to help guide your crop selection.
Forage varieties matter. Use varieties that will work in Florida (see table for specifics). There are lots of forages sold that will not grow well locally. Sourcing seed can be challenging, start now.
The concept of blending forages is great, and highly recommended. That said, be careful with pre-packaged mixtures. You’ll generally get more of the “good stuff” by putting together your own blend. When making your own blend, use ½ of the high end of the seeding rate for each forage you include. Don’t go crazy, 3-5 different forages is plenty.
Try to utilize forages are well adapted to your site. The table shows varieties that are adapted to Florida and includes comments on site preference as it relates to drainage. You need to account for your site’s drainage characteristics when selecting forage varieties. Excessively well drained – deep sands; Moderately well drained – good soil by FL standards; Poorly drained – stays damp and/or will stand water seasonally.
If deer are the primary game species you are managing, focus on broadleaf plants (legumes and brassicas), not grasses. Hunters like grasses because they come up fast and are relatively easy to grow, deer like broadleaf plants because they are generally more digestible and higher in nutrients. Some grass in the blend is fine but don’t skimp on the broadleaves.
Some of the broad-leaved plants, particularly clovers, are highly preferred by deer but somewhat slow to establish. This combination can make it appear that the clovers don’t come up at all or preform very poorly. Before you jump to those conclusions, I would encourage you to use an exclusion cage or two in your plot. The cage will show you how the plant performs without grazing pressure. A few years of observation can really enable you to dial in what your deer prefer the most and adjust your plantings accordingly.
Don’t forget about planting date and depth. To keep life simple, let’s say that everything included on the table should be planted between October 1 and November 15 (ideally, triticale, wheat, and rye would be held until after October 15). Planting depth is very important and is a major factor in determining which forages can/should be planted together. It is perfectly acceptable to plant the deeper seeded grasses first and then come back over the field to plant the shallow seeded broadleaves. To achieve a target planting depth of ½” or less the soil will need to be packed prior to planting.
Food plots are not simple, but they can be very rewarding. There are way more factors to consider than what I included here. See the additional resources linked below and contact your local Extension Office or myself to discuss further.
When I sat down to start writing this article, I was thinking it would be a rewrite of an article I posted back in 2016, Don’t Rush Wildlife Plantings – Wait for the Rain. The prolonged period of dry weather which the Panhandle has been experiencing and the time of year made the topic appropriate. However, I am happy to report that it has rained almost two inches at my house in Chipley in the past 24 hours. This changes things a bit – at least for those of us who were fortunate enough to have received rain. For those who did not get rain, see the aforementioned article. If you did get rain, it’s time to start getting some seed in the ground.
All that said, instead of just focusing on dry conditions I am going to share some highlights from recent conversations I’ve had regarding the establishment of cool-season food plots. For the sake of brevity, I may not elaborate fully on each point, feel free to call of email me if you have any questions or would like to discuss further.
Check your pH. Collect a good representative sample from each of your food plots and have it analyzed by a reputable lab. Contact you County Extension Office for help with this. Food plots are notorious for being planted on marginal sites (not good farmland) where the pH needs to be modified. Poor pH will inhibit plant performance and reduce plant response to really expensive fertilizer applications. In general, food plots perform the best with a pH of 6 – 6.5.
You’re gonna have to make those really expensive fertilizer applications if you want to see real plant performance. See the comment above about marginal sites. Even good soils require fertilizer to make a good crop. A lab analysis is the only way to know exactly what you need. Just for the sake of reference, applications of 300lbs of 13-13-13 per acre as soon as the plants are up good is a pretty standard starting point and generally multiple applications are needed during the season.
Deer like broadleaf plants considerably more than they like grasses. Cool-season grasses (oat, wheat, triticale, cereal rye) are relatively inexpensive and easy to grow. Deer will utilize them some and game birds will feed on seed heads in the spring.
Brassicas (Kale, Rape, Radish, Turnip, Swede) are broad-leafed and grow very quickly on a wide variety of soil types. Unfortunately, deer preference for them is somewhat hit-or-miss and they are not readily utilized by other game species.
Cool-Season legumes (clover, winter peas, vetch) are generally what deer show the greatest preference for and, when properly inoculated, do not require any nitrogen fertilizer. Cool-season legumes are somewhat finicky about what soil types they will perform well on. They all like moderately well drained heavier soils with some clay content (good upland farm ground) and they all struggle in deep, excessively drained sands. For sites on the wetter side (more poorly drained) look at white clovers. For sites on the drier side (well to excessively drained) look at the vetch, peas, and maybe crimson clover.
In general, seed size dictates optimum planting depth. Large seeds (grasses, vetch, peas) can be planted deeper (1-2 inches). Small seeds (clover) need to be planted very shallow (0-0.5 inches). This variation in planting depth likely will necessitate separate techniques for large and small seeds as small seeds planted too deeply will fail to emerge. Small seeds, like clover, need to be planted into a firm seed bed. To achieve a firm seed bed, prepare soil and wait for the tilled soil to settle and preferably become rain packed. If waiting is not an option soil should be firmed with a cultipacker or roller.
Much more information on cool-season planting options is available in the document:
The FWC asks people who plan to hunt deer, elk, moose, caribou or other members of the deer family outside of Florida to be vigilant in helping reduce the risk of CWD spreading into Florida. An important step is to be aware of and follow the rules that prohibit importing or possessing whole carcasses or high-risk parts of all species of the deer family originating from any place outside of Florida.
Under the new rules, which took effect July 2021, people may only import into Florida:
Finished taxidermy mounts
Clean hides and antlers
Skulls, skull caps and teeth if all soft tissue has been removed
The only exception to this rule is deer harvested from a property in Georgia or Alabama that is bisected by the Florida state line AND under the same ownership may be imported into Florida. For more information about the new rules, see this infographic and video.
These rule changes continue the FWC’s work to protect Florida’s deer populations from CWD spreading into the state.
Spring can be a busy time of year for those of us who are interested in improving wildlife habitat on the property we own/manage. Spring is when we start many efforts that will pay-off in the fall. If you are a weekend warrior land manager like me there is always more to do than there are available Saturdays to get it done. The following comments are simple reminders about some habitat management activities that should be moving to the top of your to-do list this time of year.
Aquatic Weed Management – If you had problematic weeds in you pond last summer, chances are you will have them again this summer. NOW (spring) is the time to start controlling aquatic weeds. The later into the summer you wait the worse the weeds will get and the more difficult they will be to control. The risk of a fish-kill associated with aquatic weed control also increases as water temperatures and the total biomass of the weeds go up. Springtime is “Just Right” for Using Aquatic Herbicides
Cogongrass Control – Spring is actually the second-best time of year to treat cogongrass, fall (late September until first frost) is the BEST time. That said, ideally cogongrass will be treated with herbicide every six months, making spring and fall important. When treating spring regrowth make sure that there are green leaves at least one foot long before spraying. Spring is also an excellent time of year to identify cogongrass patches – the cottony, white blooms are easy to spot. Identify Cogongrass Now – Look for the Seedheads; Cogongrass – Now is the Best Time to Start Control
Cogongrass seedheads are easily spotted this time of year. Photo credit: Mark Mauldin
Warm-Season Food Pots – There is a great deal of variation in when warm season food plots can be planted. Assuming warm-season plots will be panted in the same areas as cool-season plots, the simplest timing strategy is to simply wait for the cool-season plots to play out (a warm, dry May is normally the end of even the best cool-season plot) and then begin preparation for the warm-season plots. This transition period is the best time to deal with soil pH issues (get a soil test) and control weeds. Seed for many varieties of warm-season legumes (which should be the bulk of your plantings) can be somewhat hard to find, so start looking now. If you start early you can find what you want, and not just take whatever the feed store has. Warm Season Food Plots for White-tailed Deer
Deer Feeders – Per FWC regulations deer feeders need to be in continual operation for at least six months prior to hunting over them. Archery season in the Panhandle will start in mid-October, meaning deer feeders need to be up and running by mid-April to be legal to hunt opening morning. If you have plans to move or add feeders to your property, you’d better get to it pretty soon. FWC Feeding Game
Dove Fields – The first phase of dove season will begin in late September. When you look at the “days to maturity” for the various crops in the chart below you might feel like you’ve got plenty of time. While that may be true, don’t forget that not only do you need time for the crop to mature, but also for seeds to begin to drop and birds to find them all before the first phase begins. Because doves are particularly fond of feeding on clean ground, controlling weeds is a worthwhile endeavor. If you are planting on “new ground”, applying a non-selective herbicide several weeks before you begin tillage is an important first step to a clean field, but it adds more time to the process. As mentioned above, it’s always pertinent to start sourcing seed well in advance of your desired planting date. Timing is Crucial for Successful Dove Fields
There are many other projects that may be more time sensitive than the ones listed above. These were just a few that have snuck up on me over the years. The links in each section will provide more detailed information on the topics. If you have questions about anything addressed in the article feel free to contact me or your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Natural Resource Agent.
Reminder: Spotted seatrout harvest is closed in the Western Panhandle Management Zone the entire month of February.
New regulations were put into place last year reducing bag limits and closing harvest during February in the Western Panhandle Management Zone. For more details see my previous post on the subject.When Spotted Seatrout season is open (months other than February) in the Western Panhandle Management Zone the daily bag limit is 3 per harvester. Harvested Spotted Seatrout must be more than 15 inches long and less than 19 inches long. One fish, per vessel, over 19 inches my be included in the bag limit.
The Western Panhandle Spotted Seatrout Management Zone includes the State and federal waters of Escambia County through the portions of Gulf County west of longitude 85 degrees, 13.76 minutes but NOT including Indian Pass/Indian Lagoon.
Boundary between the Western Panhandle and Big Bend spotted seatrout management zones. Image source: www.myfwc.com
See myfwc.com for complete information on all game and fish regulations in Florida.