Food Plot Buyer's Guide
One of the first things that every fledgling wildlife manager learns is that nutrition is the key to attracting and keeping big bucks. The second thing they learn is how expensive it is to grow good food plots. This buyer’s guide offers a practical approach to planning and planting effective plots that won’t break the bank.
What to Plant
A deer’s nutritional requirements change throughout the year. For example, carbohydrates and fats from grains such as clover, winter wheat, sorghum, etc. are desirable fall/winter foods. These should comprise about 1/3 of your food plot acres. High protein forage such as soybeans, peas, alfalfa, clover, etc. are good spring/summer foods because they provide needed nutrition for does during lactation and bucks during antler growth. These plots should comprise the other 2/3 of your food plot acres.
Sources for seed:
The ideal way to acquire corn and sorghum seed for your food plots is through conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever, Quail Unlimited, local Quality Deer Management Association chapters, etc. Seed companies must dispose of low germination seed (generally anything that falls below 90% is not accepted for commercial sale) and by giving it away to conservation groups they can do something positive in the process.
The day to maturity of the seed planted doesn’t have nearly as much affect on production as the amount of fertilizer applied. Ideally, you get 110 day corn and sorghum if you plant on or before mid-May and 90 day seed if you plant in mid-June. However, in the final analysis, the best variety is the one you get for free!
There is little you can plant that draws bucks like soybeans. Beans provide protein, but the plants must also taste good. By all means, you should consider some beans in your management plan. You have two basic choices in soybeans, Roundup Ready and non-Roundup Ready. The Roundup varieties have been altered genetically so that a week or two before the beans start to canopy you can spray them with Roundup and not have a single weed.
The cheapest way to plant beans is to use non-registered non-Roundup bin beans. Talk to a few local farmers to find one that’s cleaning bin beans for planting. You can buy these (you plant about 1 ½ bushels per acre) for a lot less than commercially available registered seed. By the way, it’s illegal to plant non-registered Roundup Ready beans (even for food plots) so shy away from these. Here’s a rough breakdown of costs (including chemicals) for growing soybeans:
- no-till non-Roundup Ready bin beans: $45 per acre
- full-till non-Roundup Ready bin beans: $30 per acre
- no-till Roundup Ready beans: $60 - $65 per acre
- full-till Roundup Ready beans: $45 - $50 per acre
It’s been my experience that alfalfa is tougher to establish than clover. It is more sensitive to pH, requires a well-drained site and is susceptible to various diseases and insects. Alfalfa is also more expensive to establish; you have to figure on $80 to $100 per acre. On the upside, you can expect a good alfalfa seeding to last for five years, or more, and if managed correctly it can produce an income while still feeding your deer. Good alfalfa hay can bring anywhere from $25 to $40 per large round bale in most markets (more in some areas) and your half of a sharecrop arrangement should bring about $75 per acre per year. In the long run you can make a little profit on alfalfa.
If you don’t plan to market your alfalfa don’t even plant it. You are better off planting clover instead. The right variety will test about equal in crude protein and be a lot cheaper and easier to establish. Clover won’t yield nearly as many tons per acre, but it will be enough for deer.
Clover: Test data suggests that at 24 percent, ladino clover has the highest crude protein content in the clover family. It is also very digestible – meaning deer can use most of what’s there to produce energy. Ladino does best in fairly heavy soils – clay based with limited drainage. Common red clover ranges right around 15% crude protein and is well suited to sites that drain easily and have relatively thin soils. If you must plant in poorly drained sites, alsike clover will also do well and is comparable to red clover in nutritional value.
With fertilizer and lime, establishing a plot of ladino costs about $55 per acre and it will last about three years before it starts to die off. Red clover and alsike clover can be established for about $45 per acre.
It’s a good idea to mow clover plots at least twice per summer to keep the plants lush and growing. It is ideal if you can get a local farmer to come in and bale it (even if you have to give him the bales) just to keep the residue from smothering the growing plants.
Herbicides and Pesticides
Your best chemical for burn-down in no-till applications is Roundup Ultra. It will kill any plant that has not been genetically altered to resist it. It takes roughly 1 ½ quarts of Roundup per acre for most applications, two quarts if the vegetation is thick and tall. Roundup costs about $40 per gallon when purchased in volume. You’ll need a chemical applicator’s license to buy any commercial herbicide so you might be best served to have a local farmer do the purchasing and application for you.
Residual broadleaf and grass killers are also available depending upon what you are planting. But residual herbicides should be selected carefully because some will impact what you can plant in the same field the following year. For example, atrazine and extrazine control broadleaf plants in corn and sorghum but will not permit a good establishment of clover or alfalfa on the same ground for roughly 18 months. Rely heavily on your local farmer’s cooperative when determining the best herbicides to apply for every crop.
Properly fertilized plants have a much higher crude protein content, relative nutritional value and palatability than unfertilized plants. In some cases, fertilizer is an absolute necessity (as with corn and sorghum).
Most commercial fertilizers are broken down into three ingredients, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium – N, P and K in farmer’s jargon. Generally you order fertilizer from your local coop by referring to numbers that specify blends. For example 13-13-13 is a common lawn blend of 13 units (a term that specifies the amount of active ingredient) each of N, P and K respectively. Most serious farming (and food plot) applications require that you customize the blend to the crop at hand.