Drought Proof Food Plots
By: Ryan Foster
South Texas is famous for its big whitetails, not dependable rain fall.
In fact, the region only gets an average of 18 inches of rain in a good year. When compared to other parts of the country — the central regions of Georgia and Michigan average 34 to 36 inches each year — growing high-quality food plots can be a challenge. At the Tecomate Ranch, Dr. Gary Schwarz has developed several dry-land farming techniques and consistently grows green, lush, high-quality food plots without the aid of irrigation. These high-quality food plots, in conjunction with our careful harvest regimen, have produced some amazing bucks over the years. This article details some of the techniques we use on our ranch to grow food plots under extreme drought conditions.
While some of the techniques and timing might not be appropriate for your area, the article should provide you with some ideas on how to beat the droughts you may face in coming years. Remember to use the resources available to you — area farmers, extension agents, back issues of Quality Whitetails — and experiment until you find the combination of techniques that works best on your hunting property. This will allow you to maximize the amount of high-quality forage to your deer herd in wet and dry years, making the most of your time and money.
Summer and early fall are generally the driest and hottest times of the year, but critical for antler development and fawn survival. You should plan for drier than normal conditions to ensure forage is available during this late-summer stress period. Having your fields prepared ahead of time will aid in plant establishment and allow your plants to live longer, produce more forage, and feed more deer for a longer period of time.
It is possible in most areas of the country to “double crop” your fields — plant both winter and summer plots on the same site. In areas where moisture is limited, it’s best to plant spring and fall plots on separate fields to promote optimum plant growth during even the worst of droughts. South Texas usually receives good fall and winter rains. This moisture can be saved and used for a later spring planting.
This method of “banking moisture” during the off season is readily used in dry-land farming practices across the country. At the Tecomate Ranch, we plant our spring fields with fall moisture that was carried over by turning our food-plot soils into sponges, collecting all the available moisture and storing it for spring planting. In order to bank moisture, it’s important to have your ground deep tilled early so you will lose less precipitation to runoff, evaporation, and weed competition. These fields should be deep plowed and allowed to sit fallow until the following spring planting begins, usually in early March depending on ground temperature (60 degrees or warmer).
The previous September and October, we plowed approximately 18 inches deep, with a Bigham Brothers paratill or a John Deere 6-blade, switch bottom plow. The paratill and bottom plow are both heavy-duty, deep-tillage implements that prepare the soil to bank moisture.
We start plowing in early fall, after our Lablab plots have been exhausted. The first step is to mow any remaining Lablab. Then, depending on soil texture and type, we use either the paratill or the bottom plow to break up the field. In hard soils, we’ve found the paratill works best. In loam soils, we use the bottom plow. One of the unique features of the John Deere switch plow is its hydraulic system that allows deep-soil penetration, while leaving a smooth soil surface. These two pieces of equipment are heavy, dig deep, and generally require a 125- to 200-horsepower tractor.
Some soils, if disced the same depth each year, develop what we call a “hard pan” just under the worked ground. This is another reason why deep tillage equipment is so important. This hard surface can impede the flow of moisture and root penetration that is crucial for plants when rainfall is lacking. To avoid creating this hard pan, we plow the ground deeply every few years. You can acheive this deep tillage with a 2-shank sub-soiler or a 3-blade bottom plow behind a 70- to 90-horsepower tractor. Some soils — loams and sandy loams for example — may not develop this hard pan, and may not require deep tillage every year. Every food plot should be deep tilled at least every third year.
Try not to disturb these clean fields to avoid the loss of banked moisture. Prior to planting, lightly disc the surface with a finishing disc or field culitvator to eliminate the hard crust layer that sometimes forms over the winter. Before discing, be sure to check each field for moisture depth. Finding moisture depth is simple, just dig down until you find moist soil. Set your discs to break ground just above this damp layer to ensure that no moisture is lost during the tillage process.
After finding the soil moisture depth, we calibrate our row crop planter or grain drill to place the seeds in that layer of moisture. This is the great advantage of using a precision-planting implement. Broadcast methods of planting, which often leave seeds too shallow or buried too deep, do not offer this level of precision and seed-germination rates suffer. In areas of higher rainfall, broadcast seeding is acceptable because soil moisture is not as critical. You can simply wait on the rain to bring the moisture to your seeds.
Another effective method to conserve moisture is no-till drilling. A no-till drill does just that, punches the seeds into the existing, dead crop with no further tilling. This helps avoid moisture loss. Typically, the field is sprayed with a glyphosate (GLYFLO, Round-Up) to kill all vegetation before planting. For successful no-till drill seeding, it is important that the soil is loose and not compact. If you can not easily push a soil probe into your food plot’s soil, the ground is too hard for the use of a no-till drill and tillage is required. Keep your planting passes — all tractor operations on a food plot — to a minimum to prevent the loss of moisture and soil compaction.
Planting at the proper seeding rate is crucial in producing quality food plots during drought conditions. Many people plant well above the recommended rate for food plots thinking they are going to produce even more forage. The idea that more is better is not always true. In fact, it is usually the opposite when it comes to seeding rates in low-rainfall areas. Extremely high plant populations can cause overcrowding, stunting plants and shortening their life span. When moisture is limited, it is better to space seeds out so the plants will not use all the available moisture at once. This allows plants to grow larger, live longer, and produce more forage. Pay close attention to the suggested planting rates and experiment to find out what is best for your area.
Choose plants that are adapted to dry climates for the best production. Most subtropical legumes are a great choice for annual, warm-season food plots. We have experimented heavily with Lablab and Siratro (among others), and found they work really well on our Starr County, Texas, property. These plants are highly digestible, high in protein, palatable, and best of all, drought tolerant. These plants are designed to produce a long tap root that enables them to utilize deep moisture. The key is finding what varieties work well in your climate and your soils.
To grow food plots effectively in low rainfall conditions, it is important to have only the desired plants in the plot to avoid losing moisture to weeds and grasses. Weeds are your plant’s number one competition for the precious water we worked so hard to conserve. Herbicide applications can be extremely effective for keeping fields free of unwanted vegetation and prolonging the life of desired plants.
There are many choices and it is important to choose the proper one for your use. Selective herbicides and preemergent herbicides are your number one tools to stop weed competition. Again, consult with local farmers, extension agents, or your local seed dealer to find the best product or herbicide combinations to fight weed problems. Be sure to review and follow all labels and cautions before applying any chemicals to your food plots.
More often than not, it is the field preparation and planting methods that fail and not the seed. The use of good farming equipment is a plus in any food plot program. The proper implements and techniques used correctly can make the difference in success or failure. While we all would love to have a tractor shed full of brand new implements and the tractors to pull them, that is not always feasible. A paratill runs about $6,000, a switch plow $8,000 or $10,000, and a grain drill or row crop planter can cost $8,000 to $20,000, depending on size. At least a sub-soiler is fairly inexpensive, around $1,000 depending on make and model.
If you do not own equipment, your options are a bit limited, but workable. Contact area farmers and see if they would like to make some extra money on the side working your food plots. Talk to equipment dealers about used equipment and read the market bulletin. Being a member of a QDM cooperative can be invaluable because you can pool resources and split equipment costs.
Properly grown food plots can provide an abundance of quality nutrition year around, even during the driest of years, if done correctly. Be sure to pay close attention to planting dates, seeding rates, technique, and soil condition to provide optimum production. By planning ahead and using good judgement, your food plots can be “drought proof.”