Whitetails 365: Timing Your Fall Plots

By Tom Peplinski

As I sit writing the July installment of the Whitetails 365 column, I’m surrounded by farmers planting their spring crops with sudden urgency. The conditions are just right…warm enough, dry enough, right time of year. Millions of acres of corn and soybeans will be planted in really a very short period of time. Those farmers that get off to a slow start often times find themselves battling a wet spell later in spring planting. Those that jump the gun a little too early have to worry about that late spring frost. It’s a game of educated guesses and past experiences.

The whitetail food plotter is very similar. Only for most of us, we don’t have dozens of years of experience to fall back on, or the knowledge of several generations to tap in to. Fall planted plots can be just as tricky as spring planted grains; only a little different. The food plotter that goes too early will find themselves battling excessive heat, drought like conditions, seed that germinates then dies from scolding late summer sun and hit and miss rains. Those that go too late will have to deal with heavy browsing pressure and early frosts. It too is a game of educated guesses and past experiences.

In the upper Midwest it is much easier to plant fall food sources earlier in the season than in the lower Midwest. Portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and northern Iowa typically have better chances of rain and cooler temps than do southern Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois. It’s important to take this into consideration when the Facebook group you belong to says to start in late July…or wait until late August. They can both be right!

Timing is Everything!
My past experiences have led me to a more conservative approach to my fall plots. It’s all about risk management and being more efficient. Re-planting failed plots is avoided at all costs. Which means I have to make my educated guesses with my own past experiences in mind. Too often I chose a late July or very early August brassica planting because I wanted tremendous tonnage available for the deer at hunting time. Or because having the biggest turnips I could show off to friends seemed like the thing to do. But the low rate of success, or rather high rate of failure with this early (fall) planting resulted in too many re-plants and costly additional seed purchases. I don’t know how many times I had early plantings germinate and burn up or die because of a lack of late summer rains and hot sun. Sure, on some years, timely rains resulted in tremendous looking brassica plots. But the failures and re-plants got old and costly.

On average, rainfall actually decreases as you head into later summer and fall. So does that scorching sun that can ruin a young germinated plant. A quarter inch of rainfall in July can be burned up and evaporated in a day during the mid-summer heat, but can last a few days when the nights get cooler and the days shorter in early fall. Weeds like water hemp and marestail (horse weed) that have been controlled in the summer will no longer be a competitor when you reach late summer and early fall. In short, the odds are now on your side to have a successful food plot for the hunting season.

There is a very practical way to determine when to plant your fall green plots. It works well in timing the plot, and it makes perfect sense in making sure deer transition to your green plots as well. I’ve been using this method a very long time and it rarely fails me unless things like drought occur. To time my fall food plots, I will be ready to plant as soon as the first soybean leaves in my soybean plots start to yellow. For southern Iowa, this is around September 1st every year. Last year (2020), the bulk of my fall planted green plots were put in between September 5th and 7th. Most years, it’s this same time period.

In northern Iowa, where farmers might be planting an earlier class of soybeans, yellowing would occur slightly earlier…meaning you can start your fall plots earlier. This method works just about anywhere soybeans are grown for grain. What makes it a great tool to use is it takes the guess work out of planting dates. Even more important if you plant your fall plots just at the earliest stage of soybean leaf yellowing, your fall plot will germinate and start to grow lush green foliage just as the preferred green leaves of the soybeans in your area are dying. In many areas, this will also coincide with any fall bucks that are shifting within their home ranges to where they will be spending the majority of their fall. That’s a perfect timing for your fall plots!

I will also shift my planting a few days earlier or later (only if possible) so that I can plant just before a rain. This isn’t really critical though unless you are simply broadcasting seed on top the ground…in which case timing before a rain really helps to ensure seeds germinate and grow before critters and birds eat them. I’ve had seed that was planted and covered with soil sit dormant for weeks before a rain during hot falls with dry soils. Don’t fret this! Rarely will seed get bad or die if planted during this time frame if that forecasted rain misses you.

Early soybean leaf yellowing (maturing) is also the best time to overseed your soybean plots with winter rye. You get great germination from the partially shaded beans plus maximum green tonnage with your winter rye cover crop going into fall and winter. Overseeding soybeans with winter rye at leaf yellowing has been a favorite practice of mine for many years. It has the alure of offering a grain and green food source all in one.

Lastly, if you miss this window of opportunity to plant your fall plots, and the season is getting late, don’t forget about late planted winter rye. Winter rye is the workhorse of all food plot seed and can be planted or broadcast on top of food plots well into the fall and past freezing conditions. I broadcast some winter rye last year at the end of October and still got good germination and a green food source. Though it wasn’t ideal, it proves that even the procrastinators have hope! Heartland Seed of Missouri is a great resource for food plot needs.
Next month I’ll be talking about why I use cover crops in my food plots.