Cover Crop Cocktails for Year Round Food Plots
Just as hard liquor is better when mixed, cover crop seed is better when combined into a diverse mixture of plants that benefit the soil and the wildlife and maximize the biomass being produced about ground as well as the biomass of bacteria and fungi below ground. Year round food plots require multiple crops and two-season planting (double cropping).
Cover cropping is not new, nor is the idea of double cropping in agriculture, but it has not really caught on in the food plotting community for some reason. I have been advocating it for years but as most of my advice, it falls on deaf ears.
Now, mixing seeds in a package of Super Whitetail Megabuck Monster Chow is not what I am talking about. Seed companies targeting hunters mix a variety of seeds that will most likely produce something in any type of soil condition. Many have some rye, berseem clover and other cheap seed to fill the bag and green up so the customer is happy with his purchase.
What I am talking about is a mixture of cover crops that will suppress weeds, fix huge amounts of nitrogen from the air as well as pull nutrients from the subsoil and protect soil moisture. Oh, yeah, and feed lots of deer for 10 months out of the year, or maybe even provide a year round food plot for your deer.
What I try to do in my food plots is to make sure the plate is never cleared on the limited land I have to work with. Recently, my farmer neighbor was disking up a field adjacent to my food plot and asked if I wanted the food plot disked. NOOOO! After my winter cover of brassicas, oats, wheat and clover froze, died or got eaten, what is growing there now is a nice stand of clover plants greening up well in the “cool season” and providing good palatable forage for deer. Tilling the field would eliminate, albeit temporarily, the good forage available now. I will drill in my cover crop as soon as it quits raining.
Here is what I will plant. Remember, I have a patchy stand of clover that the deer loved all last year and now. I will add soybeans, cow peas, Sunn Hemp, radish, Sorghum Sudan and forage alfalfa. Mostly soybeans as the deer usually polish them off faster than they can grow. The Sunn Hemp and Sorghum Sudan grows tall, providing cover so deer fell safe and prevents poaching. Hemp is a legume and will fix N and has palatable leaves early on while Sorghum makes a very tasty seed head that deer will stand on their hind legs to nibble when ripe.
Now, in the fall we want to terminate this stand and plant our second crop on top of it. I use cows to terminate but I suppose you could mow or just drill in the second crop right into it, depending on what it looks like. Last year, there were no soybeans left, with about 30 deer feeding on them every night.
My second crop will certainly include brassicas, my favorite being T-raptor or Pasja (same thing) and I would like to try some canola as well because of its ability to overwinter and come up nice in spring early. These plantings have to be timed well. We need 60 days to get full growth out of the brassicas that will die in winter, such as turnips, radishes and t-raptor. But, if canola gets too tall, it will freeze out over winter. So, we should plant by hand brassicas in August and canola about the first of September. Same goes for my overwintering legumes. I want to put winter peas and hairy vetch along with winter wheat and rye in the mix. If timed right so as not to get too tall, they will overwinter and deer can dig through the snow to get at them. Mixed together, they do very well, better than if planted alone.
My farmer neighbor asked me what I plan to do for weed control and fertilizer. “plant more seeds” I told him. My cover crop and grazing system worked well last year and soil test shows no need for any fertilizer. I feel that a good cover crop that comes on strong and thick will smother most problem weeds. Many plants farmers consider weeds are good for deer forage and pollinators anyway.
You should experiment with different plants and see what works best on your soils. The important thing is to get at least 5 successful plants with legumes and broadleaf plants as well as some cereal grains. Try to figure out what plants will be winter hardy in your region and when to plant so that they will survive the cold months and green up early in spring.
Studies of cover crops show that mixtures do better than plots where species are planted alone side by side. Mixtures produce more biomass and are more drought tolerant than stand-alone plantings.
Year round food plots keep the soil covered and protect if from erosion and nutrient loss. CCCs build soil structure, conserve moisture and mine nutrients. They provide nutrients without having to use synthetic fertilizer.
Plants have different growth habits and leaf shapes and sizes for a reason. All the different leaf surfaces in a mix harvest more sunlight than a monoculture. The natural state of the prairie and forest is to grow over 100 species of plants in the same area. In forestry school I had to memorize the Latin names of 178 trees and shrubs. That’s just the forest cover. The same number of plants can be found in undisturbed prairie, which is what we are trying to duplicate. There are no monocultures in nature – it takes a lot of herbicide and site prep to create one. Better to have lots of different plants, some planted and some coming in on their own – weeds, than to constantly fight nature.
So, keep the soil covered with a high quality multi-species mix of summer annuals and plant another crop of winter cover to get the food plots through to spring. The deer will appreciate it. I support between 15 and 30 deer on 3 acres with mine. It would take a square mile of poorly managed (state land) forest to support that many deer.