Long Living Deer Food Plots

There is now an opportunity to plant deer food plots that will literally live forever, but are these plants designed for deer. Grass lives forever, yet deer will starve to death with a grass only diet, while cattle do very well on grass alone. Just what are we talking about when we say, “Long living deer food plots”?

First, we want a top class type of forage that is palatable to deer whiter it lives forever or two years. We will only cover perennials that are legumes. Perennials are plants that live two or more years. Legumes are plants that produce their own nitrogen through small nodules that grow on their roots. These nodules extract nitrogen from the air and change the molecular structure to a hydrogen- nitrogen compound. (example, ammonium, which is one part nitrogen and four parts hydrogen) and fix it to the soil.  Nitrogen in its free state is negatively charged, while ammonium is positively charged. Soil tends to be negatively charged and we all know opposites attract. So, the fixed ammonium is naturally attracted to soil particles. Planting legumes not only is an efficient method of applying expensive nitrogen fertilizer to the legume plant itself, you also get the benefit of having excess nitrogen available for non-legume forage, such as grass and chicory.

White clover

One very common plant that is an excellent source of nutrients for deer is the white dutch clover we see in lawns. Commercial white clover and its hybrid cousin ladino clover is also one good source and should be considered. These clovers have a two - three year life span for the plant itself, not the picture of forever is it? Yet, I recommend that you include it in your blend for it can live forever with proper maintenance. White clover and its close relatives spread their presence with dropped seeds and the runners, (stolens) it sends out to establish a new plant and root system. Think of strawberries and the runners it makes to establish next year’s plants and crop. Just mowing and keeping the competition in check will allow the white clovers to live indefinitely. We will cover the simple maintenance for long life later.

Site set up

I advise all to plant some food plots that are a blend of perennial forage. I also advise that you plant a single type of forage in some of your smaller kill plots that are either perennial or annual. Plant a designed perennial blend, where some plants can survive a drought, while others can take a good hit from a temporary flood, then others that have an early growth and still others that can take a severe frost and stay green under the snow all winter long. With the above plan you will be creating edges in your favor. Planting a single forage type in a kill plot is effective in that it encourages deer to move about. When you design your site layout it is advisable that it is set up to encourage deer to move from their bedding areas, to a luscious kill plot, to other bedding areas and other single or blended forage plots. You create secure travel lanes that deer use to move about your land and certainly place your kill plots in a secured area. You may need to plant a circle of tall dense cover around your kill plots. You want deer to move about during daylight and they will but only if they feel secure while traveling or eating. This is your key for success, (security). They do visit open spaces but note how dark it is when deer visit them.

Birdsfoot trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil is a legume that prefers medium to heavy soil and can take a hit from wetness. It will grow in lighter soils. It competes well with grass. It grows in a drought when nothing else grows. Birdsfoot trefoil is not highly preferred by deer when other more palatable forage is available, yet I highly recommend that it be part of a perennial blend. I have observed many times in a drought, where deer absolutely do not have any fresh clover available and the alfalfa becomes dry and course, and then like a message from beyond, deer will congregate in the birdsfoot trefoil area big time. Even during winter season following a dry summer and fall, deer will paw through two feet of snow to access birdsfoot trefoil. Birdsfoot trefoil starts blooming in early May and never stops blooming all summer long, no matter how dry it is till early October. As long as it is blooming it is growing new and fresh leaves and may be the only act in town. Think birdsfoot trefoil as an insurance policy. During spring green up most forage is nutritious, delicious and palatable to deer and birdsfoot trefoil is no exception.

Kura clover

We are all looking for that magic clover and I know of nothing more designed for deer food plots than kura clover. The digestibility of forage is crucial for deer and no clover comes close to kura’s 83% digestibility. The more digestible the forage the faster it moves through its digestive system and the sooner deer eat again. I like that. Kura originates from the black sea area of Russia and has many features that crown it, ‘King of Clovers’ It will grow in light or heavy soil. It can take a drought or a temporary flood. We mentioned how white clovers spread, through above ground runners, well kura has underground runners called rhizomes that create a root bud and presto a new clover plant. This underground runner makes it immune to dry conditions and animal trampling and it is well established that this feature makes kura a very competitive plant. Kura has a history of a very long life. Russia claims it has fields of kura that are over 100 years of age. In the US we have demo plots in Wisconsin and Minnesota that are 20 years old. In Michigan there are plots planted by Michigan State University that are 18 years of age and growing well still. Kura takes three years to get established and needs a clean field void of competition for establishment. Kura is very competitive once established to the point of out competing grass. Kura is naturally Round up ready, which means it can be sprayed with the herbicide Round up and keep on ticking, while the grass and weeds are zapped. Kura is vigorous in its growth. It can reach three feet in height and grow leaves as big as plums. Another feature is that, even though it looks like red clover in leaf shape and the same distinguishing watermark it has no hairs on the underside of the leaf or stem. This lack of small hairs is an advantage, for deer have a dislike for them. Crop-soybeans is another example, where they have these small hairs, while some forage varieties don’t. Deer prefer the hairless forage variety over the bean producing type.

Falcata alfalfa

Last and certainly not least we have for our deer’s pleasure, alfalfa, which is the deer’s favorite forage. Well, darn near favorite. It is a fact deer love alfalfa and grazing type alfalfa that is maintained is best. Hay type alfalfa such as the ever popular vernal grows tall thick main stems with lateral stems that grow leaves. Deer eat the leaves primarily. A mowing at the height of eight inches is recommended. The stem dies back about two inches and new side lateral stems grow from the original main stem along with a few new stems from the root stock. These new stems are smaller in diameter and more in number than the first growth. This is the second cutting we hear about that deer will only eat when baled. They will not eat the baled first cutting for sure except for a few leaves. So, try not to plant hay type alfalfa, plant grazing type alfalfa.

Now we are on track for the right type of alfalfa and grazing is the name. Grazing type can be eaten right to the soil surface and bounce back, while the hay type cannot, for it will get stressed and not bounce back. Falcata alfalfa, (yellow flowered alfalfa) originates from Russia’s Siberia region near the artic circle. That alone gets my attention. Falcata is naturally a grazing type and all other grazing varieties are derived from falcata. Falcata came to the US in 1915 when an agronomist, N.E.Hansen from South Dakota brought it back from a visit to Russia. A rancher planted it and it is still growing in this same field except it has expanded. This is a new event for alfalfa, for alfalfa roots are self-toxic and what original plants emerge from a seeding will be the maximum number that will ever grow. It goes downhill from there. Well, Falcata alfalfa it turns out has a dense bushy root system that is not self- toxic and just like kura clover establishes an underground root bud about a foot from the parent and expands its presence until the cows come home. Falcata may be the best thing since sliced bread for food plotters. It can thrive in lighter soils typically found in hunting areas. It can survive a drought handsomely due to its extensive upper root system and deep tap-root. It has very good winter hardiness as expected and one can expect the plant and leaves to be alive and growing well after other alfalfas are quenched by a frost. It can compete very well with grasses and in fact, due to its excessive nitrogen soil fixing capability, Falcata enhances the growth and protein content of grasses and other forage around it. Many trials have shown that falcata is a dry land friend. Did I mention that, ”Deer love alfalfa”?

Maintenance of a long living perennial blend

The complete and extensive information needed to maintain all food plots is shown in our book, Ultimate Deer Food Plots’. Let us cover the essentials here for maintaining long living perennials. All of the above plants should be part of a perennial blend including others such as chicory and a mix of other clovers such as medium red clover. Deer not only prefer a large variety of forage but also need it for more complete health. I do not recommend including any type of grasses when planting a deer kill food plot. We normally try to get rid of grasses in our plots for as noted deer eat little grass except for spring green up and late fall and there is plenty of natural grass out there. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t plant grasses, I plant acres of it for different uses, early growing cool season medium height grasses, such as timothy blended with perennials for fawning areas, extra tall warm season grasses such as switch grass for deer bedding and travel lanes, thick grass cover surrounding water holes and these kill plots for maximum security and more. The following plan I find works fine. First there must be a correct ph of 6.5 or above. Take your time to correct soil nutrients before you plant the above. You need to get rid of competition, which is grass, weeds and their seeds first. Think of seeding around the first of August. This date allows you time to correct soil conditions and the late growing weeds will not have enough time to develop mature seeds prior to winter freeze. Your plot may be cleaner next year than the year you planted. It is best to start the year before with a fall spraying of round up followed by a spring spraying around mid May. Around the July 4th weekend broadcast fertilizer and till no deeper than four inches.  Around three weeks later, (August 1st) spray roundup to kill any weeds that emerged. Do not till, you have created an almost weed and weed seed free field. It doesn’t get much better. Broadcast a blend of many types and varieties of seed, including the magic four mentioned above. Follow with a slow double cultipacking. Note: it is highly suggested that the seeding and cultipacking follows a decent rain.

Now for the maintenance, mow the following year, (second year only) around the first of June, then the first of July and again the first of August. All subsequent years you mow the first of June and the first of august and no more mowing is needed. Broadcast your fertilizers soon after you mow. The first and second year you do not spray any herbicide and wont need to if you followed the above instructions. I recommend the spraying of Round up herbicide for weed control. You need to wait for the delicate root system to develop before spraying Roundup. This means you should not spray till the third year of growth. Rely on the mowing to control the weeds the second year.  The second year triple mowing and timing is designed to prevent the development of mature weed seeds. Your maintenance for weed control is simple. Around mid May, (wait for the grass and weeds to grow to a height of 8-9 inches) then spray. This height allows for the later emerging weeds to also get zapped. You need to have the soil condition to be somewhat moist. A really dry soil condition with a Round up spraying may create too much plant stress. This is not likely to happen that time of season but be forewarned. You apply one quart of Round up and one quart of sprayable ammonium sulfate per acre. For a four- gallon back- pack sprayer use one cup of round up and one cup of ammonium sulfate. It is that simple. Normally you spray every other year thereafter the method described. You make this decision whiter to spray after a close inspection of conditions. Depending on existing conditions you may miss a year or rarely spray two years in a row. The year of spraying eliminates the need for the June mowing. If you are uncomfortable with the use of Round up for the above perennials, do your own thing. I have never failed when following the above method. I killed many plots on purpose to find the answer. If the plot shows a drop in the desirable forage, broadcast a half rate of the original forage blend the same day of the mid May spraying and follow with a slow double cultipacking. This should not ever be necessary but you know what happens. Expect a productive, deer attracting, luscious and nutritious perennial food plot to live beyond your years. Do not eliminate annual plots, (soybeans, corn, sugar beets, forage rape, cow peas, wheat, winter peas etc) for they need to be present for that all- important variety. In fact I recommend that perennials need be no more than 1/3 of your total food plot plantings

Keep the fun in hunting!

Ed Spinazzola


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