What to Expect When Planting Summer Food Plots

Summer food plots provide valuable protein-rich forage for whitetail deer, but weed competition and browse pressure are two things you'll have to combat.

What to Expect When Planting Summer Food Plots

I love summer food plots. They grow fast and lush in the hot summer sun and provide deer herds with valuable high-protein forage, which is needed for antler development in bucks and fawn development in does.

It’s a big piece of the habitat puzzle and a tool wildlife managers can use to improve overall deer quality on their property. Upon my recent trip to our hunting property, it's true that I saw some good things. But I also saw my arch nemesis of summer food plots — WEEDS!

Herbicides are almost a necessity when planting summer food plots. This before-and-after photo shows the importance of herbicide use for summer plots. The photo at left shows heavy grass competition 3 weeks after planting. The next shot, the photo at right, was taken 5 weeks later after a grass-specific herbicide was sprayed. The herbicide suppressed the grass while not harming the summer crops that grew more than 4 feet tall in 5 weeks. 

Weeds are often the number one headache of land mangers growing summer food plots. While the hot summer sun is great for forage crops like soybeans, it’s also great for warm-season weeds.

These weeds come in two types:

  1. Grasses
  2. Broadleaf weeds

Unless you plant Roundup Ready crops, you'll typically need different herbicides to attack these problems. There are also some newer farming practices that allow winter grains to nearly mature in the spring. Once they do, roll over them with a heavy roll crimper to terminate the crop. Then use a no-till seed drill to drill seed directly into the soil. This not only helps with weed competition, but also helps conserve soil moisture too.

However, this method does require a substantial monetary investment up front for the equipment. While my hunting partners and I aspire to one day own this equipment, we currently plant about 5 acres of summer food plots with a tractor, Bushhog, disc, ATV sprayer, ATV spreader and a heavy-duty cultipacker.

And I suspect many of you do the same, so that'll be our focus here.

How We Plant Our Summer Food Plots

Our hunting land is in east-central Alabama, but much of these techniques apply to anywhere in the nation. The biggest difference would be seasonal timing due to the weather variances by state and region.

In late April, I bushhogged our winter food plots of cereal grains and clover. By late April in Alabama, the cereal grains had already grown tall stalks with seed heads just beginning to form. Then a week later, I used an ATV sprayer to spray a 2 percent mix of glyphosate (same chemical in Roundup) on the plots to terminate them. About three weeks later, I came back and disked the sprayed fields. Then we applied the proper amount of fertilizer (and lime if needed), sowed our summer blends of seed, disked again to cover seed and rolled smooth with a cultipacker.

We planted Eagle Seed Glyphosate Resistant soybeans (forage soybeans) in some bigger plots and Whitetail Institute PowerPlant, which consists of forage soybeans, peas, and a small percentage of sunflower and sunn hemp seeds that grows taller and acts as a structure plant for the vining legumes to climb.

How Each Food-Plot Turned Out (So Far)

We’ve been blessed with lots of rain this summer, and our food plots have responded well. I recently checked on our plots in mid-July and they are really producing a lot of tonnage. The deer are absolutely hammering the plots, too.

Soybean fields and browse pressure

We have a brand-new food plot that is close to an acre in size and we planted it with the Eagle Seed soybeans. At first glance, you wonder why it isn’t growing like the other plots. That is until you step foot in it and see that the seeds came up great, but the deer are keeping it mowed down. Fortunately, the Eagle Seed beans are forage soybeans and can handle heavy browse pressure without killing the plant. It just keeps producing new leaves where the deer nipped it off. This is my first year planting these soybeans and I’m very impressed with the browse pressure they can take.

All of our fields are getting hit hard where there are soybeans. It’s typical of smaller-acreage plots to get browsed heavy. If you have a high deer density on your land than you might want to consider only planting plots that are several acres in size so they don’t get mowed down. I know many land managers who use electric-fence systems to keep deer out of their plots long enough to get them established before being browsed, too.

Field Featuring the PowerPlant Mix

Whitetail Institute's PowerPlant is a blend of forage soybeans, peas, sunflower and sunn hemp. This blend has a great tolerance for producing tonnage even while being heavily browsed. This 1/4-acre plot of PowerPlant is being devoured but continues to produce high-protein forage.

We planted PowerPlant (forage soybeans, peas, sunflower and sunn hemp seeds) in our smaller plots. They are growing exceptionally well, and there isn’t any weed trouble. One of the quarter-acre plots is being devoured by deer, but it is surprisingly keeping up with the pressure and growing lots of high-protein leaves.

There’s another 1/2 -acre plot of PowerPlant that could literally be a poster child for the blend. The sunn hemp and sunflower have grown up tall and the vining forage beans are absolutely climbing all over each other. The only downside to this plot looking amazing is that the deer haven’t hit it yet. I have no clue why they haven’t touched it, but less than a ½ mile away is an acre of soybeans and the deer are keeping it mowed down. I’m not worried though, we’ve planted PowerPlant in the past and have had plots grow like this only to be suddenly hammered by deer.

Field Featuring Glyphosate-resistant soybeans and PowerPlant

Our biggest field is the thorn in my side. It’s a 2-acre field that we planted a mixture of glyphosate-resistant soybeans and PowerPlant. Originally, we were just going to plant the soybeans, but we didn’t think it would sown thick enough, so we came back through with the PowerPlant.

As typical when learning to grow summer food plots, weeds will be your biggest problem. The author lost sleep after seeing all the glyphosate-resistant pigweed growing in this soybean field. He'll be utilizing a dedicated plan of attack for this plot next year to reduce the pigweed in this field.

The only problem with this is that we can’t spray the field with glyphosate, because it will kill the PowerPlant crops that are resistant to the herbicide. So, about 3 weeks after the fields sprouted up earlier this summer, I sprayed them with a herbicide called clethodim. Clethodim is a grass-specific herbicide that won’t hurt the PowerPlant or soybeans, but it will kill the grass competition.

For the past several years of experimenting with summer plots, I’ve noticed that grasses have been our biggest weed problem, so the clethodim has worked great. However, clethodim won’t kill broadleaf weeds. So when I went to check on this field in mid-July, I was disgusted to see the field full of broadleaf weeds. When you work hard to do something right and it fills up with weeds, it just doesn’t sit well.

The good news: The beans came up very well and the deer were mowing them down even with the weed competition. So, all is not lost. However, I didn’t know what the tall broadleaf weed was, so I posted it to a habitat manager page on Facebook and asked for some help identifying it. Members of the page began answering my question and, to my horror, it’s pigweed!

For those that don’t know, pigweed is one of the few plants out there that has made a great reputation for being resistant to glyphosate. Now I’m not sure if the pigweed I have growing is glyphosate resistant or not because I didn’t spray this field with glyphosate, which would normally kill off grass and broadleaf weeds while not negatively affecting the resistant beans. This field was only sprayed with clethodim for grass weeds.

I received a lot of advice on how to combat the pigweed. It will now be something we have to deal with annually. The best thing is to get it under control so that you can literally hand pick the few plants that come up in a plot in the coming years. It seems as if I’m going to have to look at using a pre-emergent, and perhaps try a soybean that can withstand a broadleaf herbicide.

I haven’t fully decided which way I’m going to go for next summer, but I’ve got all winter to talk with professionals around the country to see what the best approach would be. For now, I plan to bushhog the plot down to just above the browsed soybeans and then come back a week later and spray with glyphosate. This is going to terminate any of the PowerPlant beans that are growing, but at this point I want to try and control what I can of the weeds before we disc everything under for our fall crop.

Glyphosate is used to terminate crops in the plot before summer planting and is also used with glyphosate-resistant crops. A grass-specific herbicide like clethodim will kill grass weeds without harming soybeans, clover and other forage crops.

Summer Food Plots Offer Great Value for Land Managers

While I used this article to highlight some common problems you’ll face when planting summer food plots, my intent is not to deter you from summer planting. It’s the opposite.

I encourage anyone who has the means and equipment to start planting summer crops for deer. However, unlike fall plots where most weed competition is killed off by the first frost, summer plots take a vigilant eye to look after them and it will take some flexibility to react once you do see a weed problem.

Summer plots might be the management piece of the puzzle that your property is missing. My recommendation is to start with one or two larger plots and see how it goes. You’ll learn a whole lot more once you start planting and growing than if you only read about it.


All article photos: Mark Olis


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