Even though deer season has arrived, in one form or another, for many hunters across the Carolinas, September is prime time to plant cool-season varieties for the deer. For deer hunters, the fall plot usually gains more popularity than the spring varieties, but cool-season food plots are ideal vehicles to both attract wildlife and provide animals with the nutrition their bodies require. Nothing can give a hunter more pride than to harvest a trophy animal in one of his lush food plots.
These days, food-plot planting and maintenance costs are becoming more attractive, too. For instance, I saw a large bag of ear corn advertised at $12.99 last week. The days of cheap supplemental feeding appear to be in the past. Whether through global demand or price-gouging for local corn - and even cull sweet potatoes are tougher to find at a reasonable price - hunters must find other ways to entice deer into range. That's helping food plots gain in popularity across the Carolinas, and for good reason.
Again, food plots are the way to go for more reasons than one. And luckily, food-plot crops can be planted to offer immediate forage availability, as well as delayed production for the latter part of the deer season. This two-pronged scenario will provide deer with a season-long food source and hunters with a season-long hot spot. Some crops, including forage radishes and sugar beets, will provide forage availability above the soil surface during the middle of the season and then below the surface towards the end of the season.
Crops that mature at different times can be planted, either mixed together as a single planting mix or stagger-planted in corridors or alternating passes with planting equipment. While both methods have their merits, most land managers mix the seeds to provide a thick field with season-long production from one corner of the plot to the other and from below to above the soil surface. Luckily, most cool-season crops, including clovers, peas, brassicas and oats, grow to relatively low heights, and one species is not likely to shade out the other to the extreme causing poor production.
Some plants, however, should not be planted with others. Weed control is a growing problem in any food plot with adequate moisture and nutrients, but selective herbicides can be used to target weedy invaders without causing any harm to the crop. Most seed suppliers create mixes of several crop species, eliminating the possibility to prescribe selective herbicide treatments for critical weed control. Thankfully, weed growth will slow down during the fall because the soil temperature begins to plummet; weeds will be less of a problem than in spring/summer plots.
However, plants with similar growth requirements and patterns can be combined to form a mixed stand. Actually, some plants will grow better when combined with others, such as American joint vetch, which needs a companion crop to serve as a host. The vetch will creep onto the adjoining plants. Additionally, vetch is a legume and is a nitrogen-fixating crop that provides excess nitrogen to its companion crop.
Chicory is another good crop to be planted with other crops. Since chicory is a perennial, it is always wise to plant with another perennial such as white clover or even alfalfa. But chicory can also be mixed directly with annuals grains such as: oats, wheat and rye.
When not mixing seed, a 20-foot corridor of oats, wheat or rye (mixed or single variety) can be planted and then alternated with another 20-foot corridor of forage brassicas. The oats will emerge within a few days, providing immediate usage, and typically, deer will avoid brassicas after initial emergence. Deer will turn over to the brassicas after the first frost. At that point, the cereal grains will get a little relief from browsing when the brassicas become attractive to deer.
Plot size will control planting method, also. If plots are smaller than two acres, a uniform planting mix should be used across the entire plot. Trying to stagger plant corridors on small plots is just not worth the trouble.
Be sure to prepare all food plots before planting. Herbicide treatments, heavy plowing and fertilizer treatments should be incorporated into any planting regime. If soil tests were not performed, follow the recommended fertilizer treatments before planting. And it never hurts to wait until adequate soil moisture is available before planting any seed. If plowed during a dry period, wait several days until the soil moisture moves back into the soil prior to planting.