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:
Many Panhandle hunters and outdoor enthusiasts invest a good bit of time, money, and sweat into growing cool season food plots to feed and attract various wildlife. I count myself among you. However, if you want to maximize your property’s wildlife and environmental benefits, planting your otherwise abandoned-till-next-fall food plots with a diverse mix of warm-season, wildlife-friendly species is one of the best practices you can implement!
The benefits of planting summer food plots are several. First, while most of us are feeding wildlife in winter, supplemental nutrition for our “big three” game species (Whitetail Deer, Bobwhite Quail, and Eastern Wild Turkey) is critical during summer because all are engaged in energy intensive activities – lactating whitetail does are supporting fawns, quail breeding season is in full swing, and wild turkey hens are busy raising poults. Planting a mix of species consisting of seed-producing grasses, high-protein, bug-attracting legumes, and other beneficial broadleaf plants addresses these nutrition needs by providing a constant buffet of high-quality food for all the above species.
Also, adding summer plantings to your food plot program ensures that a green, soil enhancing cover blankets the ground year-round. Practiced for years in the agricultural community, cover crops play a key role in soil conservation and increased plant performance. Your summer food plots function as a cover crop by reducing soil erosion, moderating soil temperatures, building organic matter (key for holding nutrients in soil and an indicator of soil productivity), adding nutrients (particularly when nitrogen producing legumes are included), and encouraging beneficial soil organisms to flourish, further increasing the productivity of your food plots!
Now that I’ve sold you on planting summer food plots, it’s time to consider species selection. As mentioned before, when selecting your mix, try to include at least one each of a grass, a legume, and a non-legume broadleaf. Each of these plant categories serve different purposes. Tall grasses like Pearl Millet and Grain Sorghum provide excellent structure for vining plants like Cowpeas and Lablab to cling to, produce large quantities of seed for birds, and serve as quick-growing cover for species that are vulnerable to early deer browsing, like Cowpea and Forage Soybean. Smaller grasses like Browntop and Proso Millet are useful to produce a quick seed crop (45 days after planting) and protect slower establishing species from browsing. Including legumes like Cowpea, Forage Soybean, Sunn Hemp, Alyceclover or Aeschynomene, levels up the nutrition of your summer food plot (these species have crude protein levels that exceed 15%) and pumps nitrogen back into the soil for future crop use. A quick internet search for the article “Annual Warm-Season Legumes for Pastures, Cover Crops, or Wildlife” by UF/IFAS Extension Specialist Ann Blount outlines for you each of the above legumes in detail. As mentioned earlier, I also like to include a non-legume broadleaf like Buckwheat or Sunflower for variety, seed production, pollinator attraction, or even just aesthetics – a sunflower bloom here and there in a food plot always brings a smile! In 2022, I planted summer food plots in a 7-way mixture of ‘Tifleaf 3’ Pearl Millet, ‘Dove’ Proso Millet, ‘Iron and Clay’ Cowpeas, ‘Laredo’ Forage Soybean, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, and Aeschynomene. Large mixtures with diverse times to maturity like this ensure there is always something growing, flowering, making seed, attracting bugs, etc!
Once you’ve figured out which species you want to plant, next comes determining seeding rate. There are several methods to help you determine the seeding rate of each species included in the blend. Penn State University has an excellent video to help determine rates of individual species in a cover crop mix. For a less scientific approach that will get you close, simply divide the full monoculture seeding rate for each species by the number of species in the mix. For example, if the monoculture seeding rate for Pearl Millet is 25 lbs/acre when planted in 7” grain drill rows and you are mixing 4 other species with it, you would plant the Pearl Millet at a 1/5th rate or 5 lbs/acre. For more information on species’ growing requirements and seeding rates, University of Georgia Extension has a comprehensive guide to the topic. Another option is to come in to your local UF/IFAS Extension office and get one-on-one help with customizing your species mix and determining seeding rates for your food plots, one of the many services we provide to county residents!
It’s important to not get discouraged if your mix isn’t perfect the first year! Planting summer wildlife forage mixes is as much art as science. After each year, evaluate how each species did, if each species’ rate was correct, if the settings on your drill or spreader were appropriate (mine were not in year one!), and if wildlife used or avoided what you planted. You can then adjust rates or swap species to dial your species mix and planting rates and achieve your property’s summer food plot goals!
For more information about summer wildlife plot plantings or any other agricultural subject, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.
Further Processed Venison Photo Credit: Jennifer Bearden
I often get questions about eating wild game by new hunters. Questions like: Is it safe to eat? How do you process it? How nutritious is it for my family? Does it taste good? A group of agents and specialists joined forces and created 4 new publications to answer these questions and more.
This publication starts with safety during the hunt. It then talks about skinning the deer and getting the meat to below 40°F as quickly as possible. It also warns hunters about zoonotic diseases and how to protect from diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, and leptospirosis.
This publication talks about aging of meats, carcass cutting, grinding, storing, freezing and thawing. The ultimate goal is safe and tasty wild game meat in the forms that you and your family personally enjoy.
This publication emphasizes food safety concerns such as storage temperatures, minimum internal temperatures when cooking, thawing frozen meats properly. It also outlines how nutritious wild game meat can be.
Do you want to get into hunting and enjoying this safe, delicious, and nutritious food supply? We welcome new hunters! For Florida residents, check myFWC.com for residency qualifications, exemptions, and hunter safety requirements.
I routinely receive calls about “failed food plots.” My normal response is to ask about soil testing first. If they performed a soil test and applied fertilizers according to the test, I move on to more questions about the planting methods. I ask what was planted, how was it planted, when was it planted. In some cases, we don’t find the problem even after all these questions. This leads me to my next question: Did you put exclusion cages on your plot?
Exclusion cage in food plot with heavy deer feeding. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bearden
In my experience, I have seen wildlife feed so heavily on the food plot that you think it has failed. This can happen when you have high populations or where non-target animals feed on the plot. In one case, I saw turkeys feeding on newly sprouted plants so heavily that we had “bald spots” in the plot. In another instance, I was called to check a chufa plot that wasn’t performing well. When I arrived at the plot, there were rabbits digging up the chufas and eating them before they sprouted. In the photo here, I am showing heavy deer feeding on a demonstration plot with exclusion cages. Without exclusion cages, I would have assumed a crop failure.
Exclusion cages are simple structures that allow you to see what is growing in the plot versus what the wildlife are eating. They are easy to create and put in place. I use field fence with small openings. I use a piece that is about 5-6 foot long by 3-4 foot high. I roll the fence and make it into a circle that is about 18 inches in diameter. Then, I secure the cage in the plot with landscape staples or rods/posts. I normally install these directly after planting and fertilizing the plot.
Exclusion Cage in food plot with more normal deer feeding. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bearden
Exclusion cages are just another tool to use in evaluating food plot success. These simple tools allow us to see what is growing and compare that to what the wildlife are eating. This allows us to evaluate the food plot. I would also recommend using visual observation. Look for wildlife sign in the food plot. What tracks do you see? Do you see evidence of feeding on the forages? Game cameras are also helpful in determining what wildlife are feeding on the plot. Use your tools wisely to evaluate food plot success each season and adjust accordingly.
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.
I don’t know about you but I’m getting excited about planting cool season food plots! Now is the time to get those soil samples tested and start planning for this upcoming hunting season. Once we get our soil pH adjusted and our forages chosen, we need to turn our attention to weed management. There’s nothing more disappointing than growing weeds instead of what we planted.
Clover Food Plot Photo credit: Jennifer Bearden
A simple strategy is to start with a burn down treatment with a non-selective herbicide such as glyphosate. This is a safe and effective way to kill most everything growing in the food plot area. We want to apply the burn down treatment 2-4 weeks prior to planting. This will allow sufficient time for the herbicide to move into the plants and kill them.
Next step is preparing the seedbed. If the site is very weed infested, you may switch up these first two steps. Till first and wait a few weeks for new plants to emerge, then burn down weeds that emerge with a non-selective herbicide. Either way, we want a clean seedbed to plant into.
Next comes planting our desired forages. Remember that weed control becomes more difficult when we mix broadleaf plants with grasses. It’s not impossible however. Planting rate has a lot to do with weed control. If our planting rate is too low, we allow spaces for weeds to establish. Plant forages using the upper end of the seeding rate to help control weeds.
Follow up weed control options will depend on the planted forages, weeds growing and forage growth stage. We can use strategies such as mowing, selective herbicides and weed wiping with non-selective herbicides. When planting just clovers, you can refer to the following publication for chemical control options, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/wg214. When planting small grains, 2,4-D and dicamba are good options for broadleaf weeds. These need to be applied when small grains have fully tillered but have not jointed. We get better weed control when we apply herbicides to younger weeds. Weed wiping is a great option when weeds are taller than the desired forage. Here’s a good publication on weed wiper technology and use – https://www.noble.org/globalassets/docs/ag/pubs/soils/nf-so-11-06.pdf.
For help identifying weeds and control strategies, contact your local county extension office.