By Tom Peplinski
If you’re anything like me, once September rolls around you can hardly stand the anticipation for season opener. Even during years when my late summer scouting is showing no sign of a mature buck to hunt just yet, season opener brings with it the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm I felt on the first day of summer vacation as a kid. September is not season opener for Iowa whitetail hunters…but it marks the final push in many ways to get us there. Here in Iowa, for many hunters, we have only a small handful of weekends left to get our work done if we want to be prepared for a season that lasts well into next year. Whether you’ve been working all year on your hunting grounds or are the perpetual procrastinator, September is your last minute and last chance to get some food plots planted and ready for fall hunting.
Fall Food Plots
For most of the mid-west, September is a great time to plant green food plots. Many hunters believe it’s too late to get started if the spring and summer has passed them by. However, even if you’ve done absolutely nothing to get your fall plots ready, there is still time to get some really good fall food plots planted.
Cereal Grains I want to start with cereal grains because I believe that the best fall annual plots will always contain a base of these plants. Many years ago, I planted a test plot of winter cereal rye, winter wheat, and common oats where I lived. It was only about 200 yards from my house but fairly secluded from any roads or other pressure. My goal was simply to see if deer preferred one variety over the other. Now, my food plot test was flawed to some extent simply because I wasn’t able to observe deer beyond late November and I didn’t have game cameras to observe deer behavior when I wasn’t around. But what stuck out to me from that simple test is information that I still use today.
Deer would eat all three varieties…but on almost any given night, they would gravitate to the oats. Overall browsing pressure was highest on the oats, then the winter rye, and then the wheat. Another observation was the fact that the oats died after a killing frost. This put all the deer on the rye and wheat with what I observed as a slight preference for the rye. So, in a very non-scientific test, I drew the conclusion that for these three cereal grains, I now had a better idea of what deer preferred given a choice of all three popular plantings. Although deer liked the oats, it also had a major drawback in that it froze out early. There’s also no doubt that had only one variety been planted, deer most likely would have fed on it regardless of whether or not the other two were available.
Cereal grains are the perfect backdrop to any fall food plot plan. Why? Because they are about the easiest of food plots to grow, are very hardy, and will withstand a massive amount of deer feeding pressure. If you are only worried about an early season archery plot, you can get away with the more attractive oats, but for most scenarios using either winter rye or wheat is a much better choice because they last all winter long and still provide excellent attraction in early fall. Another good reason to use oats would be if you are a food plotter with limited equipment and time because the oats will not have to be tilled under or sprayed in the spring whereas the winter rye and wheat will. A blend of oats and winter rye is another great choice because you get a food plot with variety (something deer love) and you still get all the advantages of both grains.
Because cereal grains are prolific germinators and nutrient scavengers, they are also among the easiest of plots to plant and establish. Just get a seed bed established where soil is exposed and broadcast the grain seed on the ground. Lightly discing or dragging will assist in getting the seeds to germinate. 50-100 pounds of seed per acre will get you a very nice stand of oats or winter rye and wheat. Generally speaking, these grains won’t need fertilizer but if you want to add some in very poor soils a bag or two of triple 17 per acre is usually plenty.
Brassicas Brassicas seem to be all the craze these days. I think this is partially because food plot companies have to come up with something more than cereal grains to attract hunters. It would be pretty difficult to market winter rye that you can buy at the local coop or off Craigslist and convince hunters to pay premium dollars…thus the brassica wave. Now…I only like to make fun of this stuff because it is somewhat true, but brassicas do have their place for a food plotter. I like to plant brassicas that create root mass like purple top turnips a little earlier than September, but even this late in the game for brassicas and you will get some root growth. Other varieties like Appin turnips provide much more above ground leafy matter and are also a good choice. I seldom plant brassicas this late in the year all by themselves, but if you want to all you need is a decent seed bed, about 5-8 pounds of seed per acre, and a fair amount of nitrogen…a minimum of 60 lbs/acre. Brassica seeds are small so plant them no deeper than ½ inch.
One advantage of using brassicas is that they offer huge amounts of tonnage per acre. This is helpful for the food plotter that is limited on acres they can establish into food plots. I’ve also witnessed deer go from appin turnip plant to appin turnip plant devouring them not even stopping to give my oats or rye a second thought. By adding brassicas to your cereal grains you gain the advantage once again of adding variety to your plot. Variety is always good because it prevents you from hedging your bets on any one food plot plant to perform while giving deer several options to choose from.
Blends I’ve been mixing cereal grains and brassicas in my plots for a very long time. The cereal grains provide the backbone to my greens and adding brassicas like the appin turnips gives me more tonnage and variety. A great blend that will perform as well or better than any marketed food plot seed would be 25 pounds of winter rye, and 6 pounds of brassicas of your choosing per acre. If you want or like the idea of oats, substitute all or some of the winter rye with oats remembering that the oats will die with a killing frost. My favorite blend would be something like 25 pounds of winter rye, 3 pounds appin turnips, and 3 pounds of purple top turnips. If, at the beginning of October you find the plot thinning out because of deer browsing pressure you can always broadcast over the plot another 25 pounds of winter rye. Another option would be to start out with the same 25,3,3 blend only this time use all oats. Then, in early October broadcast another 25 pounds of winter rye over the plot. When the oats die from frost the winter rye will be coming in young and lush right behind the oats.
Establishing Perennials Fall is hands down the best time to establish a perennial plot of clover or alfalfa. For the purposes of this article I will concentrate on clover. Most weeds in the soil’s seed bank do not want to germinate and establish in the fall. For this reason alone, fall is a great time to establish a clover plot. The only drawback of fall establishment is the chance of not having enough forage for this year’s season as the clover is slower growing…by adding a cover crop like oats or winter rye this problem is solved. Apart from cereal rye’s attractiveness, it has great weed suppression characteristics which make it my choice of cover crops to establish clover. Use 25 and 5 pounds to the acre of winter rye and clover planted in a good seed bed no deeper than ½ inch. Add a low nitrogen fertilizer to the mix that is high in potash and the clover will establish quite well in the fall. The winter rye will not only protect the new clover through the winter but it will offer a great fall plot while the clover is establishing. This is the easiest and most effective way to establish a weed free perennial plot of clover that I have found. Next spring, as the winter rye reaches anthesis (the flowering period of the rye or when the grain is forming) all you have to do is mow the plot to terminate the winter rye. What will remain is a weed free plot of clover.
Like many hunters, I often find myself in hunting forums or watching You Tube videos on anything whitetails. It always amazes me the amount of hyped up food plot blends that hunters sow into the ground each year with testimonials of what works and doesn’t. All I can say is that it’s really not all that complicated if you stick to some basic green plots of cereal grains…adding in some brassicas or even establishing a clover plot or two. You don’t need to make it more complicated than that. There is no secret or cutting edge plot blend out there. If you think you’re too late to get some of these easy plots in yet you would be wrong. September is a great time to plant for lush green plots come season opener.