Spring Food Plotting Q & A

By Tom Peplinski

By April of each year, if you haven’t already, you should be planning for the year’s food plots. The number one question I get each and every year is always centered on WHAT to plant? There are probably hundreds of specific scenarios that can play out for individual hunters, but generally speaking how good a food plot performs comes down to some fundamentals that don’t change much from farm to farm or hunter to hunting group. April is about spring planted food plots and really preparing for a good seed bed for your fall plots. Let’s get started!

Q1: I am putting in a new small food plot outside the timber about a half-acre in size. The area is open but hasn’t been planted in many years and is mostly grass and weeds now. What should I plant and how do I get it done?

A1: Any time I’m putting in a small food plot of a half-acre or less, regardless of its location, I’m always thinking about putting in a green food plot. Any time I’m putting in a new food plot I’m always thinking about weed control. In this scenario you have both issues. To do this the best way, you should be thinking about getting this plot ready for the fall…by starting this spring. My first objective would be to get the ground ready for seeding in the fall. Fallow ground that hasn’t been planted for many years is full of weed plants and seeds and is thick with thatch on top the soil surface. Mowing and/or burning would be a good first start in getting at this issue.

If you can’t burn, at least try to mow the plot. Now, sit back and let the grasses and other weedy plants come up in the spring until they are about 3-6 inches tall (usually early May or so). At this point, spray the plot with 1.5 to 2 quarts/acre of glyphosate herbicide to kill off the weeds. After about 2 weeks, work the ground the best you can to stimulate new weed growth. Let the weeds come up again to about 3-6 inches and spray them again with glyphosate. This strategy of working the ground, letting weeds come up, and spraying will get you out in front of weeds in any new food plot. Doing it twice will get you to about mid to late July with a very good weed free food plot. Around mid-August work the ground one last time and put down your seed. I like a blend of winter rye, appin turnips, purple top turnips, and dwarf essex rape for these fall planted food plots. Add in clover if you want to convert this plot into a perennial clover plot for following years. The clover will come up next spring and the weeds will have been put in their place!

Q2: I have a perennial clover plot that was starting to thin out and get overrun with weeds last year. What do you suggest I do with it this year?

A2: I hate weeds. For a farmer, weeds represent lost yields and future fights with the unwanted plants. For a food plotter, weeds are much the same. Any time I have a perennial plot being taken over with weeds I want to act. Clover is a very good nitrogen fixing legume so if there is a way to take advantage of the nitrogen it has fixed I will do it. If planting corn is an option, till the plot under and plant corn. If the plot is small or corn is too costly of a plot for you, mow it several times in the spring and early summer and then kill it off with glyphosate in late July. I would once again plant the winter rye, appin, purple top, and rape mix in mid-August. Brassicas love nitrogen so this is always a good follow up to a clover plot!

Q3: Do you prefer to frost seed or spring plant perennial plots like clover or alfalfa?

A3: Neither! The biggest problem I have had over the years with perennial plots is weed control. Although using the right herbicides help, I have found that establishing perennial plots in the fall works much better than trying to establish them in the spring. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but frost seeding is not the greatest method even though it’s been a popular topic in recent years. There’s a reason very few farmers frost seed. A late summer or fall established perennial plot works great for a food plotter.

Q4: Should I establish several food plots on my hunting grounds or just one bigger one in the middle?

A4: Depends. If you are hunting alone and don’t have a lot of time to hunt throughout the season, you might consider just one bigger plot broken up between a green food source and grains. This is because with limited time to hunt, it is easier to pattern deer movements down if you know they are concentrating on just one food source location. If you are hunting with a partner or two…or you have quite a bit of time to hunt throughout the season, you should consider several or many smaller plots. Having several plots to hunt will give more opportunities for more hunters and/or allows hunters to move around. This keeps hunting pressure on any single plot down to a minimum.

Q5: Do I need a planter to plant soybeans or corn? If not, can you explain how to plant grains without a planter?

A5: You don’t need a planter to plant any food plot. All food plot varieties can be planted by simply broadcasting your seed over tilled ground and then discing or dragging to cover the seed. Break up the ground as best you can, spread the seed (using a seeder or throwing it out by hand), and then cover the seed by working the ground some more. The bigger the seed the deeper they can get buried. For corn 1.5 to 2 inches deep, soybeans 1 to 1.5, and so on all the way down to small seed like clover or brassicas…barely covered to maybe a half inch. I use a tractor and disc to put the vast majority of my food plots in (including corn, soybeans, small grains, etc.).

Q6: When do you plant soybeans in the spring? What about Corn?

A6: The technical answer is to plant when the soil temperature reaches a certain degree. But in practical terms, I plant my soybeans and corn when the farmers are. In terms of a date, most years in southern Iowa my beans and corn are in by early May. One year, my beans were in April 19th. Last year for example, I got my plots planted during a very brief window in early May when it got just dry enough to get into the field and just warm enough that the seeds wouldn’t rot. A few days later the skies opened up and it was almost a month later before I could get any equipment back out in the field. Many farmers never got their crops in! For spring planted grain crops in Iowa, targeting late April into early May is usually a good bet.

Q7: I’ve been planting soybeans for many years now in the same food plot. Do I have to rotate my food plots?

A7: So, what I’m supposed to tell you is YES, you should rotate your food plots. However, I have planted soybeans in the same plot for as many as six or seven years before rotating. The key thing with this is to watch your weeds and pests. If you see either, then rotate your food plot. I have a food plot right now for example that has been planted in soybeans for each of the past four years. Last summer, I noticed a number of broadleaf weeds that I needed to spray twice to get good control. I don’t want to promote herbicide resistant weeds. To help with this, I fully plan to rotate this plot into corn this year even though I prefer beans over corn…in this example I error on the side of weed control over another soybean plot. By switching to corn this year, I’m able to combine a broadleaf herbicide with my glyphosate to get ahead of the broadleafs. Of course, if you’re planting several plots why not rotate from the get go!

Q8: I want to plant a grain plot like soybeans or corn. Do you prefer one over the other? How do I know if I have a big enough plot so that the deer won’t eat them off or destroy them?

A8: I prefer soybeans over corn for a few reasons. The first is cost. My input costs for an acre of soybeans is usually around $120/acre or so…corn can be as high as $400/acre. Second, I think soybeans provide more food and are preferred by deer most of the time. Deer love the green plants and leaves and will pound the ripe pods later in the season. Lastly, roundup ready soybeans are so easy to grow and establish. You can broadcast the seed, disc them in, fertilize minimally, and they will grow good just about anywhere. Spraying is easy because they are glyphosate resistant.

The second part of the question is almost impossible to answer. Generally speaking, if your plot is all by itself away from other Ag fields you will need at least an acre. If it’s adjacent to an Ag field with the same grain planted in it, you can get away with a smaller plot. The only true way to tell is to try it. This is where soybeans really shine! Let’s just say you plant an acre of beans and by early August you are confident they are too browsed over and will never put on pods. You can then till under the beans and plant a good green blend like turnips, rape, and winter rye. The green plot will be able to take advantage of all the nitrogen your beans fixed all summer long up until now. On the other hand, if the beans look great just let them go and have some good hunting in the months to come. You really can’t go wrong.

Q9: I’m so confused about all the different seed blends and varieties of food plots out there. Why do some plots work for some hunters but not for others? Some years the deer love my plots and other years they don’t seem to even notice them. What’s going on?

A9: I truly believe this is the single most confusing issue for food plotters. And what makes it even harder to understand is all the marketing out there telling us that one seed blend is better than another. Attractiveness is entirely dependent on what is available to the local deer herd each year. In some areas, some years, a field of winter rye might bring in a bunch of deer…5 miles down the road nothing. Standing corn might be the hot ticket one year, the next year deer might not even notice it. Some people report deer annihilating brassicas all season long; others claim the deer will hardly touch them. In each case, it has very little to do with a certain seed blend or name brand seed being used.

What’s available will determine what deer will eat. This is why planning is so important and why you need to have a strategy for what’s out there and what will be out there after the fall harvest. If you’re planting food plots and the deer aren’t using them, I can almost guarantee you there is something in your neighborhood more preferred (or you’re putting too much pressure on the deer?).

In April this year, I will be planting almost my entire farm into soybeans once again…save that plot being rotated into corn. Most of the beans I plan on leaving all year providing a staple food plot for much of the season. Some I will till under and plant my turnip, winter rye, and rape blend. It’s my go to food plot strategy year in and year out.

In May, I will cover…cover crops. My favorite is winter rye and I’ll tell you why! I’ll also go over nitrogen fixation by legumes like clover, alfalfa, and soybeans and how we can use this to our advantage and to save money. Good luck in your food plotting this year hunters!