Planting Warm Season Forages for White-tailed Deer
By: Dean Stewart
While native vegetation management has a greater potential to increase total deer forage production than do food plantings, plantings can be important seasonally to meet specific nutritional needs. The two most critical nutritional times annually for white-tailed deer are (1) late summer when deer population levels are high and native forage quality is low and (2) late winter when forage quality and quantity is low and hard mast (acorns, etc.) is scarce.
Value of Warm Season Forages
Research conducted in Mississippi has shown that as little as 1 percent of an area planted to both cool- and warm-season forages can increase deer observations, deer density, deer condition, and consequently, hunter success and satisfaction. It is commonly accepted that cool-season forages can aid hunter harvest and improve deer condition, but the benefits of warm-season forages often are overlooked. Summer forages may be just as important as cool-season forages, since antler growth and fawn production occur during this period. Seasonal comparisons also reveal that deer consume the greatest amount of food in late summer.
The Planning Process
Warm-season food plot planning requires careful thought and on-the-ground evaluation. Existing openings like powerline rights-of-way, abandoned secondary roads, and firelanes can provide economical locations for food plots. Other factors including equipment needs, access points, soil quality, size and distribution of plots, seedbed preparation, and species of forages to be planted must be considered. Designate enough planting sites 0.5 to 3 acres in size to plant 1–2 percent of the managed area. Make plots relatively long and narrow, but do not exclude sunlight from plots in forested areas. Evenly distribute warm- and cool-season plantings across the area.
Deer abundance and condition are related directly to soil fertility. Soil fertility may vary widely on a given area, with higher fertility generally found near drainages and in low areas. If available for planting, these sites generally produce the best warm-season plots since they are both fertile and provide increased soil moisture during the summer months. Initially, soil tests should be conducted for each new food plot. Your local Extension Service office can provide soil test kits and soil analysis. Soil test results will be tailored to give specific fertilizer and lime requirements for each planting. Proper fertilization will dramatically increase forage production and utilization by deer. Liming, if recommended, will increase soil pH and dramatically increase fertilizer efficiency and forage production. To be effective at the time of seed germination, lime generally requires application 3 months prior to seed planting. Legume seeds must be treated with the proper inoculant at the time of planting.
Planting Equipment and Techniques
Depending on size and number of plots, planting and management can be accomplished with a wide range of equipment ranging from a tractor and traditional farming implements to an ATV and specially designed planting equipment. Plots should be limed, disked, and allowed to settle before planting. Broadcast seeding requires an increased seeding rate over similar drilled crops. Most of the larger seeds of warm season forages should be lightly covered with 0.5–0.75 inch of soil after broadcast seeding. This is not true with very small seeds such as clover where the seed can be killed if covered with more than 0.25 inch of soil after planting. Frost seeding, or over-seeding crops like red or arrowleaf clover, birdsfoot trefoil, or winter hardy forage oats on closely mowed or grazed vegetation in late winter, can be effective and inexpensive. Frozen ground allows seeds to contact and germinate in mineral soil.
Warm Season Forage Choices
Choices for warm-season deer plantings are somewhat limited compared to the myriad of cool-season favorites. Also, the vast majority of the warm season forages are annuals, meaning that they must be replanted each year. However, there are several that meet the criteria of spring-summer production, high protein levels, and palatability to deer. The most commonly planted warm season forages in the Southeast include Alyceclover, American jointvetch, cowpeas, and soybeans. Other good choices include Lablab, Forage Brassica (rape), and corn.
Description: A warm-season annual legume that provides high quality forage in the summer and early fall. Especially important to white-tailed deer and is one of the few warm season forages that holds up well to grazing pressure.
Soil Adaptation: Suited to most moderate to well drained soils including bottomland sites.
Fertilization: Apply according to soil test or apply 200 lbs/acre of 0–14–14 after planting.
Lime Requirements: Apply according to soil test or as necessary to bring pH to 6.5–7.0.
Planting Dates: May 1–June 15.
Planting Rate: Inoculate seed. Broadcast 15–20 lbs/acre or drill 16 lbs/acre.
Soil Preparation: Disk and plant in a firm seedbed.
Companion Plants: Plant with cowpeas and/or American jointvetch. Reduce seeding rate to 10 lbs/acre when planting combinations.
Description: A highly preferred warm-season annual legume. Small plots tend to be overgrazed quickly by deer. Best used in combination planting.
Varieties: Thorsby Cream, Tory, Wilcox, Iron Clay, and Catjang.
Soil Adaptation: Adapted to well-drained soils, from sandy loams to heavy clay soils.
Fertilization: A soil test is recommended or as required to maintain a soil pH of 5.5–7.0.
Planting Dates: May 1–July 1.
Planting Rate: Plant 15 lbs/acre in 24–36 inch rows or broadcast 25 lbs/acre and cover 1 inch. Inoculant required.
Soil Preparation: Plant in a firm seedbed.
Companion Plants: Other warm season annual peas, Alyceclover, and Brown Top Millet.
Reduce planting rate to 12–15 lbs/acre broadcast when planting combinations.
Description: A warm-season annual legume. Provides highly nutritious and preferred forage, leaves, stems, and beans, for deer. Browsed heavily by deer in early growth stages. Therefore, not recommended on small plots or where deer densities are high. Best used in combination planting.
Varieties: There are hundreds of varieties including some re-seeding varieties such as Bobwhite and Quailhaven. Typical forage type varieties generally provide best performance.
Soil Adaptation: Adapted to well drained, medium textured soils such as sandy loams and clay loams.
Fertilization: A soil test is recommended, or use 300 lbs/acre of 0–20–20.
Lime Requirements: Apply according to soil test or as required to maintain a soil pH of 5.8–7.0.
Planting Dates: May 1–June 1.
Planting Rate: Plant 30 lbs/acre in 24–36 inch rows or drill 30 lbs/acre at 10-inch row spacing or broadcast 50 lbs/acre and cover 0.5 inch; inoculant required.
Soil Preparation: Plant in a well disked, firm seedbed.
Companion Plants: Corn or grain sorghum. Reduce planting rate to 30–35 lbs/acre broadcast when planting combinations.
American Jointvech (Deer Vetch)
Description: A warm-season annual, re-seeding legume adapted to moist soils. Highly preferred by deer and generally will not re-seed under moderate to heavy browsing pressure.
Soil Adaptation: Adapted to moist, and wet, light textured soils. Do not plant in sandy soils.
Fertilization: A soil test is recommended, or use 300 lbs/acre of 0–10–20.
Lime Requirements: Apply according to soil test or as necessary to maintain a soil pH
Planting Rate: Broadcast 8–10 lbs/acre and cover 0.25 inch; inoculation required.
Soil Preparation: Plant in a well disked, firm seedbed.
Management: Spring disking can enhance re-seeding; reapply 200 lbs/acre of 0–10–20.
Not very competitive—may require pre-planting herbicide application.
Other Warm Season Forage Choices
Lablab is a relative newcomer to the deer forage scene. Also planted in the spring, this warm season annual legume differs in that it is very drought tolerant and used widely in arid climates. For more information on Lablab, call Tecomate at 888-MAX-GAME.
Another group of forages gaining popularity is the Brassicas (rapes and kales). The Brassicas are highly attractive to deer, average 30 percent or more protein, and are over 70 percent digestible. Both New Zealand and U.S. varieties are widely used. The most commonly planted U.S. variety is dwarf essex rape. New Zealand varieties are available in many commercial blends with chicory and plantain (e.g., BioLogic). For more information on BioLogic, call 888-MOSSY-OAK.
Corn, another favorite, is planted as a general crop for deer, doves, turkeys, and other animals. While not accurate to call it summer forage, the grain matures in around 90 days, making it available mid-to-late summer. It is more important as a food resource during fall and winter and, while low in protein, it provides a good source of carbohydrates and energy. Peas can be planted with corn at the final cultivation and fertilization to help control weeds and add much needed nitrogen.
As with most aspects of deer management, the best way to see which forages will grow best on your property is to try several for yourself, especially in the early stages of your management program. There is nothing like personal experience when deciding what forages are the most beneficial and cost effective for your property and deer herd.
Dean Stewart is an Extension Associate with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Mississippi State University. Over the last 20 years he has managed white-tailed deer, other wild game species, and forests for landowners in Mississippi and across the southeastern United States. He makes his home in Starkville, MS.