Breaking Down Brassicas

A detailed look at which brassicas are best during various times of the season and under different conditions.

Breaking Down Brassicas

Not all brassicas produce large root bulbs or tubers like this big green globe turnip, but they do all produce tons of nutritious, sweet green forage.

In 1984 I started a food plot program on my home property in southeastern Minnesota. Back then, if you wanted to provide food for late-season attraction or wintertime nutrition, corn was about the only alternative. Then, during the 1990s, brassicas became all the rage — for good reason. For whitetails, brassicas out-compete corn in almost every desirable characteristic — they produce much more food (tonnage) per acre, they’re more palatable and digestible, and they have far greater nutritional benefits. While corn can still have a place in a food plot program, brassicas are my “workhorse” from late August through the winter — or until they’re browsed to the ground.

From the time Toxey Haas and BioLogic first steered whitetail deer management into the age of planting brassicas, we have been researching the plants, learning more about them and understanding better how to utilize different ones to help us accomplish a wide variety of management goals. If you have enough ground to devote to your food plot program, most landowners would agree the goal is a diversified food program with an assortment of plants that will offer your deer herd what they need, regardless of the time of the season or current conditions. Some of the plants you choose would likely be perennials such as clover, but for the best in attraction during hunting season, it’s hard to beat a food plot full of luscious late-summer/fall-planted annuals such as brassica.

When it comes to annuals, brassicas are, in my opinion, the best deer food God has given us. They are my favorite plantings because they’re highly attractive and nutritious, produce the best yield, easy to plant (see sidebar), and hardy. Combine these attributes with the fact they’re also great for the soil and what’s not to like?


Why Whitetails Love Brassicas

Much has been learned about brassicas during the past 30 years. For a long time it was thought that cold temperatures caused the plants’ high levels of starch to convert to sugars. If this were the case, increased sugar levels would explain why deer are attracted earlier to brassicas in the North than in the Deep South. While cold temperatures will slightly elevate sugar levels in several brassica types, it also elevates the starches. So, the old theory that the starches are converting to sugar is incorrect, and has recently been proven so in a scientific study conducted by the National Deer Association.

It is more likely that deer in the North begin eating brassicas earlier than southern deer because they require the nutrients the plants contain — specifically, the high levels of carbohydrates — sooner because of the colder temperatures incurred. During colder temperatures, carbohydrates mean energy and “heat.” This is why you’ll see deer switch from high-protein foods such as legumes (example: clover) to high-carbohydrate foods like brassicas and corn during fall.

With an average crude protein content of 24 to 38 percent (depending on the cultivar and stage of growth) and TDN (total digestible nutrients) of over 70 percent, it’s no wonder deer love brassicas.
With an average crude protein content of 24 to 38 percent (depending on the cultivar and stage of growth) and TDN (total digestible nutrients) of over 70 percent, it’s no wonder deer love brassicas.

Working for BioLogic has enabled me to learn a lot about these plants. Everyone who considers planting them should know a few things. Many years ago, before brassicas became a popular planting, BioLogic ran into a couple instances of having to battle the “whitetails’ learning curve” — when you introduce a plant they’ve never seen before it can take them a season or two to become accustomed to it. However, that was rare and I haven’t heard of it happening in years. However, if you’ve never planted them before, keep an open mind.

Brassicas and other annuals, in general, are typically easy to plant, and because these are a late-summer/early fall planting (depending on your location), the summer weed cycle should be over. While always referred to as a “fall planting,” you’ll see that I call these “late-summer or fall plantings.” Why? Because in the North, if you wait to plant these until it’s literally fall (in 2022, the first day of fall is September 22), then you’ll end up with a food plot failure. Or, at the very least you’re not getting the most out of the plants, especially brassicas. (See sidebar “When to Plant.”)

When brassicas were first introduced, varieties of rape were used most often. Since then, other types of brassicas have been introduced that become desirable to whitetails much earlier, and even in the South, they’re likely the best attraction and nutrition you can plant — bar none.


Keeping Food On the Table

A common progression during the hunting season would see your whitetail herd switch from legumes (both, perennials like clover or alfalfa, or annuals like soybeans or cowpeas) to cereal grains (like oats, wheat or triticale), to brassicas (like radishes, turnips, rape and kale). While there are many other things we can offer our deer herd, with these three types of plantings your herd should have a palatable food choice throughout most of the hunting season, or until each type of food runs out.

Different crops will dramatically extend the palatability timeframe of a single food plot. To take this “variety approach” a step further, within each type of plant, a varying assortment of each will also extend the amount of time your plot will remain attractive, especially when it comes to brassicas.

From my experience, whitetails will attack daikon radishes first. They will first lay siege to the green tops, then finish by devouring every bit of the long root tubers. These aren’t your “auntie’s dinner radishes,” these are large tubers that resemble a huge, white carrot. My favorite blend is BioLogic’s Deer Radish; it’s not just my preferred brassica planting, it’s my favorite planting, period. Whitetails will begin eating these radishes as early as mid-August in the North and around early October further South (northern Alabama, Mississippi, etc.) until they’re gone. So if you plant enough, they can last throughout the season.

Next, your whitetails will typically set their sights on various turnips and beets. While sugar beets are actually in a different plant family and are not a brassica, they are very similar. Just like turnips, they hold a high concentration of sucrose; however, it is contained mostly in the root bulb. As opposed to brassicas, that have sugars contained throughout the plant. I usually see them hit these plants after the radishes. Here in Minnesota, I use them for attraction during the months of November and December, and on until they’re gone. My favorite blend is Winter Bulbs & Sugar Beets, and just like the radishes, they will consume the entire plant. First they’ll eat the greens and then the root bulbs. The radishes are easier for them to pull out of the ground to consume, so with turnips and beets you’ll often see partially eaten bulbs, or they’ll scoop out the top and inside of the turnip or beet so it looks like a “beet bowl” left in the soil.

Lastly, deer tend to hit rape, canola and kale after the radishes, turnips and beets. These last three brassica types don’t produce large root bulbs or tubers like radishes, beets or turnips, but they produce an amazing yield of sweet, green forage. I often use these last three brassica types as “winter nutrition.” The blend Maximum produces a yield of more succulent, nutritious forage than any other planting I’ve ever seen. While deer certainly may hit these brassicas earlier, if you have radishes and turnips also planted, they’ll typically consume rape after the other two brassica types.

Kale is especially cold hardy. Kale’s large leaves will stay green and attractive long into the winter, even if covered by several feet of snow. I like to utilize kale only as winter nutrition.

Remember that the timeframe I’m suggesting for these to be their most attractive is just an estimate. It can vary from year to year and region to region. As an example, in the big woods of the north or northeast, where there isn’t a lot of agriculture or other crops to back up your food plots, deer may eat any of these plants as fast as they come out of the ground. Or, if we have an unseasonably warm fall, deer may not need the carbohydrates as early.

The taproot of a daikon radish is like nature’s rototiller. It can break through compacted soil to open up channels for water and roots to penetrate.
The taproot of a daikon radish is like nature’s rototiller. It can break through compacted soil to open up channels for water and roots to penetrate.

A Second Opinion

I didn’t want to be too “northerly biased” in this piece, so I asked the “frenetic food plot scientist of Alabama,” Austin Delano, who also heads-up BioLogic’s Research and Development, “How do you notice whitetails reacting to each of these plant varieties throughout the South?” Austin said, “I definitely agree with the order. I think deer density, surrounding food sources (or lack of), a deer herd’s familiarity with the plot, weather conditions during that year are all variables that can determine how fast and when a brassica plot is consumed.” He also echoed how important it is to have a blend with varying maturity rates and palatability timeframes.

Delano continued, “As far as a North/South comparison, I do think deer consume brassicas earlier in the fall the further north you go. During the fall, a deer’s metabolism will change and increases their need for heavier carbohydrate foods like brassicas. I also believe that brassica consumption (regardless of type) increases over time and gets earlier in the year when they are planted in the same area every year. In other words, deer that have several generations of exposure to brassicas typically use them earlier and more often.” He’s also talking about the “learning curve” I mentioned before, but now it’s working in the opposite direction, in our favor.

The other great thing about brassicas is not only are they the best attraction I have ever seen, but they’re also without a doubt the absolute best nutrition you can provide for your herd. With an average crude protein content of 32% to 38% (depending on the cultivar and stage of growth) and a TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) of over 80% that would suit me fine, but add to it they yield more than any other planting AND they are great for the soil (especially radishes) – check mate, brassicas win!

More often than not, I plant my cereal grains and brassicas separately, for several reasons. However, if a manager wants a fast, simple, “one and done” plot, a blend of cereals and brassicas (and sometimes other plants) together may be your ticket. An annual or bi-annual clover is sometimes added to provide extra nutrition or a flush of nutritious forage reemerging after dormancy the following spring.

Delano also told me that in his home state of Alabama, he likes to mix oats with Deer Radish. He said, “It’s an easy to do, ‘one and then you’re done’ hunting plot. Provided you plant enough, this can keep deer coming back for more throughout the entire hunting season.”

One important thing to mention is brassicas can also be planted with perennials. In the North, we have traditionally planted perennials during spring, but in the South, this can be a great way to kill two birds with one planting. If you’re in the transitional region or North, and habitually have problems with weeds in your perennials, planting a brassica/perennial blend during late summer can produce a great start to a perennial plot.

With the perennial/brassica option, since obviously the brassicas are annuals and won’t come back, I suggest that you over-seed with a pure perennial such as Clover Plus or Non-Typical Clover the following spring to fill in any spaces vacated by the annual brassicas growing the previous year.

Variety in a food plot program is important, and as I’ve said previously, brassicas are my favorite food plot crop. All of the plants mentioned are great choices for a food plot, but they’re eaten at different times or under various conditions — exactly why it is wise to plant a variety if you have enough acreage to devote. Even with limited food plot acreage, when looking for attraction, planting the right brassica to target the peak of its attraction when you want to hunt the area is a great tactic because the plants are just like “deer candy.”


Sidebar: When to Plant

Many landowners plant brassicas when they have always traditionally planted their winter cereal grains (wheat, oats and rye). If you wait to plant that late, then you’re not getting the most out of the brassica’s huge yield potential.

In the northern region of the United States and into Canada, brassicas should be planted during July through early August, and winter cereal grains planted from late July (in the Far North around the Canadian border) through August or even into September further south (Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, etc.).

In the mid-tier states, if you have the moisture available, then July will work for planting brassicas for whitetails, but the month of August will be prime time and even into early September should yield good results.

Obviously brassica planting dates should be adjusted a bit later the further south you go, all the way into October for the Deep South.

Note: Every reputable food plot company publishes recommended brassica planting dates (with a map) on its website, and often on the back of the seed bag, too. Pay attention to these dates, and watch your local weather, too. It’s best to plant with significant rain in the forecast.

Brassicas have become a celebrated planting for whitetails because of how attractive they are during fall. They are loaded with carbohydrates, which to a deer means “heat” and “energy.”
Brassicas have become a celebrated planting for whitetails because of how attractive they are during fall. They are loaded with carbohydrates, which to a deer means “heat” and “energy.”

Sidebar: How to Plant

It’s difficult to keep exceptionally hardy brassica plants from growing. I plant small flats to bring to deer/sports shows so people can see the plants. I usually sit on my front porch to do this and always seem to spill some seed. In a few weeks, I have brassicas growing in my landscaping rocks and the cracks of my driveway.

Brassicas are best planted by spreading the seed on a well-prepared seedbed at anywhere from 6 to 10 pounds per acre depending on the variety, conditions and goals. Ideal planting depth is .25 inch or less. If possible, use a cultipacker to help cover the seed and ensure good seed-to-soil contact. It is said that broadcasting the seed on a well-prepared seedbed just prior to a rain also produces a good stand as the rain helps to bury the seed the appropriate depth, and it can, but I guarantee you that a cultipacker works better.

Disking is usually NOT a good method of covering the seed because it often buries the seed too deep. Brassicas can be used to top-dress (over-seed) existing clover stands, adding several tons per acre of nutritious forage during the fall. A mechanical grain drill is also an excellent method of planting.

Photos by Todd Amenrud/BioLogic


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