Blue Collar Deer Management with Jeff Foxworthy
By: Brian Sheppard
Jeff Foxworthy is one of the most well-known people in the entertainment world. We are all familiar with his stand-up comedy and “Blue Collar” TV. In hunting circles Jeff is also recognized as an avid hunter. But what most people, even deer hunters, don’t know is that Jeff is one of the most committed quality deer managers in the country. When you get to know Jeff Foxworthy, you find that he is dedicated to God, his family, his career and quality wildlife management.
The Foxworthy Farm, known as “The Beloved Home Place,” is located in west central Georgia in Harris County, one of a trio of counties in this area that feature countywide antler regulations (antlered bucks in these counties must have at least four points of an inch or more in length on one side to be legal for harvest). The antler-regulation program was first started in Harris County followed by Troup and then Meriwether counties. Historically, this area of the state has produced quality whitetails, but with antler restrictions and increased management awareness, the already high caliber of bucks produced has become even better.
The food-plot and habitat program that Jeff has implemented on his property is top notch, and having a hand in this program has been an education in itself for me. For most of us it is interesting to read about a celebrity who plants food plots and shares our dedication to QDM, but this article holds more practical applications — there is much that smaller-scale deer managers can learn from Jeff’s experiences.
Jeff’s farm is part of the original Callaway family property encompassing more than 40,000 contiguous acres that have been managed primarily for wildlife for more than 50 years. Much of this land is known for the famous Callaway Gardens Resort. The Callaways have been recognized for their conservation and still continue to make every effort to preserve their properties through sound land management practices.
In 2002, Cason Callaway Jr. embarked on a commercial hunting operation on his personal 5,000 acres, a venture known as Rocky Branch Plantation under the management of Glenn Garner. Unfortunately for the public hunting community, it was short lived and closed after the first year. But what a year it was! Several bucks over 150 B&C were harvested, including the famous “Big Moe,” which gross scored 217 Boone & Crockett points.
In 2003 Cason Callaway’s 5,000-acre property was divided and sold to several individuals including Jeff Foxworthy, who purchased 2,000 acres. Thanks to the hard work of Glenn, who orchestrated the land sale between Mr. Callaway and the other private individuals, this property was saved from commercial land development and a proposed 36-hole golf course.
The 5,000-acre Callaway farm was originally managed specifically for quail in manicured, plantation-cut pine and broomsedge fields that were designed by the renowned quail biologist Walter Rosene. The planting of bicolor lespedeza, partridge pea, Egyptian wheat and milo, along with controlled burning, helped provide an abundance of food and cover that is essential for quail. At the same time, the original managers worked hard to harvest does, keeping deer densities low and reducing competition between deer and quail. This worked in Jeff’s favor — Glenn and I were able to begin the deer management program with a low deer density, older age structure among bucks and a large land base.
Fortunately for Jeff, the area that he purchased was in the core of the Callaway property that had an abundance of open land ideal for large food plots. Glenn and I had already begun to convert many of these grass/hay fields into food plots during the commercial hunting start-up. These fields were a deer managers’ dream, allowing us to implement a full-scale nutritional program consisting of intense agriculture.
Glenn also changed habitat management practices by conducting controlled burns on a three-year rotation, which would encourage more cover and browse. Along with burning, he used Arsenal (imazapyr) and Garlon (triclopyr) herbicides to limit invasive hardwood encroachment and increase native browse quality.
Along with habitat and food-plot management, we started a supplemental feeding program consisting of commercial protein pellets. We established trough feeders at one feeder per 160 acres throughout the 2,000-acre farm. The supplemental feed is available after hunting season ends through mid-March and again during the peak growing months of June, July and August. We view supplemental feeding as a bonus but do not base our program around this practice. As our native habitat has improved and food-plot acreage has increased, use of the feed stations by deer has drastically decreased as expected.
One of the most important steps in the initial stages of the food-plot program was to soil test all food plots and fields and map them using GPS. This helped identify the better soil types and attain exact acreages, information needed in a realistic plan for annual and perennial forage plantings. An amazing feature of this farm is a concentration of large fields that range in size from five to 25 acres in the nucleus of the property, lying in very fertile bottomland soils around Rocky Branch Creek. Large upland fields are located throughout the remainder of the property. The available food-plot acreage on the 2,000-acre Foxworthy Farm totals 187 acres, 9.3 percent of the property — enough for an intense food plot management program. This was a dream scenario for any deer manager, particularly a food-plot addict like me!
Realizing the acreage we had to plant and maintain, Glenn took an equipment inventory to determine what farm implements and the size tractors that would be needed to perform the jobs. Jeff spared no expense when it came to providing the best equipment, which is critical to how efficient and successful your farm program will be.
In every article I write, I talk about identifying your farming challenges. Each property has unique obstacles that you will identify through trial and error. The key to reducing mistakes is by improved farming techniques and good record keeping, which allows you to monitor your progress and avoid the same pitfalls.
What seemed to be an ideal scenario for food plots was just the beginning of a humbling and educational experience. Dr. Gary Schwarz always told me “Let the land talk to you,” but in this case it roared! In the spring of 2002 we had visions of beautiful food plots like the ones I helped farm in south Texas, but in the Southeast we are blessed with ample rainfall. With it comes weed competition.
We began preparing our food plots with an initial glyphosate herbicide application on the existing grass/hay fields of fescue, Bermuda and johnsongrass. These are undoubtedly the most difficult grasses to control, especially in early spring. Remember, when trying to eliminate these grasses, a late summer or early fall herbicide application will be more effective than a spring application.
Fourteen days after herbicide application (ample time for the herbicide to take effect) we started deep tillage by subsoiling to disturb any hardpans, followed by tilling with disk harrows. This created a great environment for planting but was also the beginning of the weed invasion. Reclaiming a fallow field and bringing it back into agricultural production takes time and hard work. Each area of the country has broadleaf weed and grass species that are difficult to control. In our case they included sicklepod (coffeeweed), morning-glory, yellow nutsedge, nightshade and johnsongrass. A field that has been out of production for any length of time will be difficult to reclaim. Once the seedbed is disturbed and conditions become favorable, millions of weed seeds that have been dormant for years come to life. Failing to control broadleaf weeds and grasses is the most common reason for warm-season, forage-stand failure.
Our goal was to plant a combination of Tecomate lablab, ebony deer peas and conventional soybeans to provide the best nutrition during the growing season. Prior to planting we applied Prowl (pendimethalin) pre-emergent herbicide for control of most annual grasses and certain broadleaf weeds. For application after plants had emerged, we applied Pursuit (imazethapyr) and Select (clethodim). Pursuit works well sprayed over clovers, lablab, cowpeas and soybeans, controlling many broadleaf weeds and grasses, but you have to apply it while weeds are no more than three inches tall for effective control. Select is a selective grass herbicide that does an excellent job controlling johnsongrass and can be used over the top of clover, alfalfa, soybeans, lablab and cowpeas. The use of these conventional pre-emergent and selective, post-emergent herbicides had little impact on our major competitor, sicklepod. Not being able to control this weed species caused a reduced yield and lower forage quality.
Note: Currently, lablab is not listed on the label of any herbicide, as is the case with a number of food-plot plants. We treat lablab as you would cowpeas. Please read all herbicide labels carefully prior to application. If you have any questions on herbicides, please consult a chemical company representative, trained professional chemical applicator or your county Extension agent.
Later that summer we found ourselves scratching our heads trying to devise a food-plot plan to provide maximum nutrition throughout the year. Jeff and Glenn were committed to the farm program but wanted to beat the weed problems. The next year had to be a turning point, which meant exercising new techniques.
We decided to eliminate some of the spring planting burden by putting 25 percent of the food plots into a perennial blend of clover varieties and chicory. This would enable us to accomplish several things. First, the bottomland soils are ideal for growing perennial clovers and, if maintained, would fill the nutritional gap in late winter and early spring for two to four years. Second, it would provide an opportunity to get a forage crop established during the cool season when weed competition is less intense. The Piedmont region of the Southeast consists primarily of clays and loams that hold moisture and, with proper liming and fertilization, are ideal for growing perennial clovers. If you live south of the Piedmont, you may be limited to annual plantings unless you have food-plot sites that are in low, moist areas. Typically, the sandier your soil the less success you will have with cool-season perennial clovers during the hot summer months.
The remainder of the food plots were planted in cool-season annuals and would be double cropped: farmed in the fall and the spring. We planted a combination of cereal grains, legumes and chicory to act as an attractant during hunting season and provide nutrition well into spring before being converted back to a warm-season annual.
In the spring of 2003, it was time to focus on the mistakes and challenges that haunted us the previous summer. Glenn and I evaluated each food plot, determining which plots had the most problems with weeds and grasses. These “dirty” or weedy fields had to be farmed with the objective of eliminating the invasive weeds that had overwhelmed us the year before.
Technology is a wonderful thing. Extreme challenges require extreme measures, and though it wasn’t the avenue we wanted, it was our only choice. We made the decision to bring a Midwestern farm practice to the Southeast: a Roundup Ready program consisting of soybeans and corn. We had plenty of food-plot acreage to spare, and by leaving the corn standing, we would offer cover around our buffer zones, provide a carbohydrate and energy source during the fall and winter months and an attractant for hunting these large agricultural fields. We also left some fields in standing soybeans providing a backup protein source during the winter.
For those of you who are not familiar with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology, take heed. Roundup Ready plant varieties have been genetically developed to resist glyphosate herbicide. You can spray Roundup or any glyphosate over the soybeans and corn, eliminating weeds and grasses without damaging your crop. I was convinced that by implementing a Roundup Ready program for two consecutive seasons we would relieve some of the intense weed problems we had encountered.
It is important to study the Roundup Ready program and keep in mind that it is not a cure-all for your weed problems. Mother Nature has an uncanny way of staying one step ahead. To benefit from this program, be sure to follow herbicide labels and application rates. Extended use of any herbicide on a specific weed could cause that weed to build up tolerance. I recommend using the Roundup Ready program for two years then converting back to selective herbicides in a conventional planting. If intense weed competition still exists, revert back to the Roundup Ready program until you get control. An aggressive strategy for combating weeds would be a combination of proper tillage techniques, herbicide management and reduced or minimum-till planting methods.
“Git ’R Done”
If you have extreme weed competition that cannot be suppressed or controlled with selective herbicides, the use of the Roundup Ready program may be your answer. Prior to planting, apply a pre-emergent and mechanically incorporate into the soil through tilling: Prowl and Trifluralin are dinitroaniline herbicides applied prior to planting for control of annual weeds and grasses. The use of a pre-emergent will slow weed development, allowing your forage crop to gain a head start. After your plants emerge and the first flush of weeds explode, make the first glyphosate application before the weeds are three inches tall. Don’t get comfortable yet — approximately 30 days later you will get the second flush of weeds. At this point your forage crop should be 10- to 12-inches tall but not at canopy closure. Make your second and final glyphosate application, eliminating broadleaf weeds and grasses and producing a clean field. This program worked well enough the first year we tried it that several fields could be converted back to planting lablab and ebony cowpeas with the use of selective pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides the following season. Many of the “dirty” fields will go a second year under the Roundup Ready program or until we get a handle on the toughest weeds.
I would also like to point out that we have been successful at establishing soybeans, lablab and cowpeas because the large acreage we have to farm overwhelms the deer before they can overgraze the young plants (and it helps that the herd density is under control). We time our planting with spring green-up and plant all the fields in a seven-day window when soil temperatures are in the upper 60s — usually late April. Cooler soil temps will result in delayed germination and increased weed competition. For those of you with smaller food plots, the use of a deer deterrent such as Plot Saver or an organic fertilizer (Milorganite and many other brand names) may be needed to allow plants time to establish before grazing pressure begins. The two greatest challenges when trying to establish successful, warm-season food plots in the Southeast is weed competition and grazing pressure.
Though this property produced quality deer prior to implementing an intense food-plot program, the impact on deer numbers and quality is obvious and dramatic. We have increased carrying capacity of the property without damaging or degrading the natural habitat or browse quality. It is inevitable that by providing consistent year-round nutrition you are going to attract deer from adjoining properties that become resident deer.
An excellent measuring tool for the success of our program was to compare it to one that adjoins Jeff’s Farm. The 6,000-acre Lake Florence property has just under 50 acres in food plots (about 1 percent of the acreage), provides supplemental, free-choice feed and implements strict herd management that includes harvesting does and protecting young bucks — a strong QDM program in its own right. During the 2003-2004 hunting season the average field dressed weight of 4 1/2-year-old bucks on the Lake Florence property was 148 pounds. On Jeff’s property, during the same season, the average field-dressed weight of 4 1/2-year-old bucks was 177 pounds. This was a result of our aggressive, comprehensive food-plot program! As we continue to provide this level of consistent, year-round nutrition while monitoring our deer herd through sound record keeping of harvest data and observation data, the impact of this program will become more profound.
Today the Foxworthy food plot program is fine tuned, and each year we increase our acreage in legume forages, which are the protein building blocks. Listed is a breakdown of the property’s current summer food-plot forage plantings and amounts.
LabLab and Ebony Deer Pea – 31.7 acres
Roundup Ready Soybeans – 43.5 acres
Roundup Ready Corn – 40.0 acres
Perennial Clover/Chicory – 41.5 acres
From the beginning, this southern property has been a work in progress, and Jeff has the vision, patience and dedication necessary for managing quality deer and quality wildlife. His property has offered opportunities to learn from challenges and mistakes while allowing us to enjoy the fruits of our labor. No matter the acreage or the intensity of the program, that’s what Quality Deer Management is all about.
About the Author: Brian Sheppard is a regional sales manager for Tecomate Wildlife Systems and a food-plot consultant based in Georgia.