It’s a crisp fall morning. A hint of fog still hangs in the air, a few brightly colored leaves have found a resting place atop the base of your stand, and you just know the beautiful deep green wheat field on the other side of a nearby heavily timbered ridge is full of whitetails that may soon parade by your location. You think; “it just can’t get any better than this!” But can it get any better? Sure, the timing is great and the wheat in the distant field will be attractive through mid spring, but then what? Your thoughts turn to a possible spring planting of clover, or possibly alfalfa, or maybe trefoil. But, what about that possible summer drought that is so common for the region? What about the lack of food plot attraction and nutrition when the plot is re-planted and the new growth is too young to be of any benefit during the critical period of spring? And then, that annual attractant sure seems great for hunting season but you really don’t have too many acres to plant and you know the local deer herd would love a good spring through fall food source as well…..what do you do?
For years the primary focus on our property has been to offer the most food to the local deer herd for the longest amount of time, while at the same time completing the activities in an orderly rotational basis that benefits both deer and hunter. The following is a description of a four season food plot planting strategy that you may find appropriate to incorporate into your property management activities. This strategy has been “fine-tuned” over the past several years and has become a vital component in the continuing management or our food plot program. The purpose of this design is simple: To establish an annual attractant and perennial base with a planting date aimed at offering the most food for each month of the year with an emphasis on the most critical months, with soil or plot disturbance taking place during the least critical month of the year. With this type of design you should expect to experience the effective use of annual seed blends throughout the hunting season and winter months, followed by the remaining benefits of the established perennial base for the months of spring through early fall.
To fully experience the benefits of this food plot strategy or any other planting strategy your plot must first be ready to plant. Your food plot is ready to plant when potential weed problems and ph levels have been corrected, and you have used the results from a soil test to make a proper determination of what type and what amounts of fertilizer need to be applied to your plot. Late summer is the perfect time to establish a four season plot. The plot area can be designed in the spring, limed, and sprayed multiple times to effectively control any potential weed problems by the necessary planting date. In our area late summer is one of the most abundant times in the woods for total food and forage for the local deer population and it is at this time you are ready to begin.
The four season planting begins with one of the strategy’s most important ingredients, the seed. A combination of annual rye, oats, and clover has been our most successful combination and each seed provides a specifically targeted goal. The time to plant is determined by the appropriate time to plant rye and oats in your area, for example, from mid August in northern MI where we live to early September from PA to WI.
A four season annual and perennial blend of rye, oats, and clover is easy to establish and success is high when broadcasted into a well prepared weed-free seed bed. The use of a cultipaker or drag of some kind, including a spring-toothed harrow, chain-link fencing, pallet, or even the sideways use of an ATV ramp can be more than adequate. Broadcasting just before an approaching rainstorm or during a damp period will virtually guarantee success.
After experimenting with various grain ratios and seed amounts a per acre mix containing 50#’s of rye, 50#’s of oats, and 6-8#’s of clover with an added pound of chicory works very well. The rye is the workhorse of the blend. Annual rye is one of the most tolerant seed types relative to soil quality, soil ph, and seed life. Annual rye will remain green the entire winter, and will be used by deer until the clover awakens in the springtime. Too little rye can result in diminished attraction throughout the late fall and winter but too much rye can out compete the clover in the spring. Balance is needed with this type of planting strategy and that balance is provided by the use of the oats. Some may say that late summer is the wrong time to plant oats because they will die during winter but this is exactly the intended result! The oats are a great food source for most or all of the hunting season but after freezing and dying they offer no competition to the continued establishment of the clover the following spring.
The clover is the base of the planting and with only 50% competition from the rye in the spring the clover shines. Contrary to a spring planting, when moisture decreases as the season progresses, the late summer clover becomes established very well throughout the increasingly damp fall, followed by winter dormancy, and then receives another shot of moisture and growth during the spring. If light areas of clover growth appear in the spring, a frost seeding can be used to thicken the stand. By mid-July it is common for the clover to be knee-high and extremely thick. The clover will be available for new born fawns, nursing mothers, antler growing bucks, and offers a great food source for many months. Adding chicory to the clover mix at planting time further enhances the attractiveness and efficiency of the plot especially during periods of summer drought.
Simply, the four season planting strategy will give you the most “bang for your buck”, with the life of each seed variety designed to be at its peak for a particular season or seasons. You and the deer will enjoy the attractiveness and hardiness of the grain throughout the entire fall, winter, and early spring while at the same time the clover is strengthening it’s roots and preparing for immediate growth and usefulness soon after the beginning of spring green-up. You can count on an entire year of growth, nutrition, and attractiveness from the planting but your plot strategy does not have to be finished yet!
For an added “twist” consider broadcasting a brassica blend into the field during spring, at a time when soil exposure is still adequate, moisture is in the air, and freezing night time temperatures have diminished significantly. It is also at this time that your rye should be roughly 6-8” high and a grass specific herbicide can be used at planting to eliminate a large portion of the competition for the future young brassica plants. Frost seeding brassicas into the plot should be avoided because excessive frost and low temperatures have the potential to kill young brassica plants. The option of adding the brassica blend into the planting in the spring has proven very successful if you keep in mind a couple of items concerning soil exposure. First, the timing of the grain planting is important because if the grain and clover is planted on time, and not too early, the clover will still be young enough to allow for adequate soil exposure in the spring. Also, consider cutting back on the initial clover and chicory planting to 5-6#’s so again, enough soil is exposed. At the same time it is important to follow accurate seeding rates to allow for each seed within the blend, including the spring planted brassicas, to have the opportunity to experience optimum growth and production. To further increase germination rates with a spring broadcasting of brassica the use of a cultipaker can be the “icing on the cake”. Finally, by utilizing and perfecting the spring brassica broadcasting you have the potential to expand your year round food plot into multi-season strategy offering a variety of nutrition and attraction while targeting each and every month during an entire two year window.
A very attractive aspect of this type of planting strategy is that when the local deer herd is recuperating from a long winter, does are expecting, and bucks are beginning to grow new antlers, your food plots are in full gear in growth, attraction, variety, and nutrition. Your late summer planting efforts that were completed at a time of abundancy in the whitetail world have set your plots up beautiful to be running full speed ahead at one of the most critical times of the year….spring! Also, the rye (or possibly wheat if your soils are adequate) provided adequate forage throughout the late fall and winter, so you had no “downtime” during the most critical times of the year. It is at this time that a possible long-term rotational maintenance of your plots can be considered.
Depending upon the size of your plots, a rotational annual planting of one-half, or one-third of a plot will significantly improve your strategy. Try to picture what can happen with proper planning. Your late summer plot enters the spring. You take your best half, broadcast brassica, you eliminate the rye competition at a time when it is conceding significant attraction and nutrition to the clover, and then during late summer when your plot is approaching it’s 1 year anniversary, you spray the non-brassica half with herbicide to eliminate weed competition if needed, work the soil and plant the same combination again. You can continue this rotation indefinitely but the entire plot will go through an outstanding transformation each year providing young clover, chicory, and brassica that may last through the winter months on one half, while the other half enters spring with a mature stand of clover and chicory and then is converted to a highly attractant grain field with a clover and chicory base while being planted at a time when summer food sources and overall herd health is at it’s peak. The complete planting strategy allows for literally the most food, for the most months, with no lack of production during the critical periods of late fall through spring, not to mention a great fall food source for your hunting enjoyment. Your plot will still need to be fertilized. I like to give special attention to the young brassica plants with an application of at least 50#’s of 46-0-0 every several weeks throughout the growing season while following the recommendations of a soil test for the perennial base. Also, mowing the clover is typically necessary but not until the 2 nd summer after the initial planting so that throughout the first full year your brassica planting has the opportunity to achieve it’s full potential.
Although after years of experimentation the seed combinations that have been mentioned have proven the most successful to our food plot program, there are several different annual and perennial blends that can possibly be utilized. Although other seed types may work best for you, the concept is still the same: To establish an annual attractant and perennial base with a planting date aimed at offering the most food for each month of the year with an emphasis on the most critical months, with soil or plot disturbance taking place during the least critical month of the year. This food plot strategy may not be for the individual with substantial food plot acreage that can afford to carry variety over many acres with numerous separate annual and perennial plantings, and you may not want to include this strategy on small harvest plots where only fall attraction is your primary objective. However, if your property is similar to ours in that food plot acreage is limited and planting efficiency is critical, this may be the strategy for you.
It can be better! You sit in your stand on a cool November evening overlooking an impressive sea of green in the valley below. Although recent temperatures have been unseasonably cool the oats and rye in the distant food plot have effectively displayed their hardiness and even the long shadows cast by the setting sun on a cold clear night can not hide the lush growth of your late summer planting. You smile because you know there is certainly more than meets the eye. Your planting also included a clover and chicory blend that at the present time is well established and by late spring should be available for newborn fawns and hopefully that young buck that has been feeding for the past hour below your stand. As the sun sets and you begin to climb out of your stand on the way back to a warm cabin and a hot meal, you also think of those young brassica plants that you plan to establish next spring within your four season planting and think; “it can’t get any better than this.”