BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. — Many Panhandle hunters and wildlife enthusiasts put a good bit of time, money, and sweat into growing cool-season food plots to feed and attract deer. I count myself among you. However, if you want to maximize your property’s wildlife and environmental benefits, also planting your otherwise abandoned-till-next-fall food plots with a diverse mix of warm-season, wildlife-friendly species is one of the best practices you can implement!
The benefits of planting summer food plots are several. First, while most of us are feeding animals in the winter, supplemental nutrition for the “big three” Panhandle game species (Whitetail Deer, Bobwhite Quail, and Eastern Wild Turkey) is critical during summer, because all are engaged in energy intensive activities – lactating whitetail deer females are supporting fawns, quail breeding season is in full swing, and wild turkey hens are busy raising poults. Planting a mix of species consisting of seed-producing grasses, high-protein, bug-attracting legumes, and other beneficial broadleaf plants addresses these nutrition needs by providing a constant buffet of high-quality food for all the above species.
Also, adding summer plantings to your food plot program ensures that a green, soil enhancing cover blankets the soil year-round. Practiced for years in the agricultural community, cover crops play a key role in soil conservation and increased plant performance. Functioning as a cover crop, your summer food plots can help reduce soil erosion, moderate soil temperatures, build organic matter (key for holding nutrients in soil and a good indicator of soil productivity), add nutrients (particularly when nitrogen producing legumes are included), and encourage beneficial soil organisms to flourish, further increasing the productivity of your food plots!
Now that I’ve hopefully sold you on planting summer food plots, it’s time to consider plant species selection. As mentioned before, when selecting your species mix, I prefer to include at least one each of a grass, a legume, and a non-legume broadleaf. Each of these plant categories serve a different purpose. Taller grasses like Pearl Millet and Grain Sorghum provide excellent, season-long structure for vining plants like Cowpeas and Lablab to cling to, produce large quantities of seed for birds, and serve as quick-growing cover for plants that are vulnerable to early deer browsing, like Cowpea and Forage Soybean. Smaller grasses like Browntop and Proso Millet are useful to produce a quick seed crop (45 days after planting or DAP) and help protect slower establishing species from browsing. Including a legume like Cowpea, Forage Soybean, Sunn Hemp, Alyceclover or Aeschynomene increase the nutrition of your summer food plot (all these species have crude protein levels that exceed 15%) and pumps nitrogen back into the soil for future crop use. The article, “Annual Warm-Season Legumes for Pastures, Cover Crops, or Wildlife” outlines each of the above legumes in detail. As mentioned earlier, I also like to include a non-legume broadleaf like Buckwheat or Sunflower in a mix for variety, seed production, pollinator attraction, or even just aesthetics – as a sunflower bloom here and there in a food plot always brings a smile! In 2022, I planted my summer food plots in a 7-way mixture of ‘Tifleaf 3’, Pearl Millet, ‘Dove’ Proso Millet, ‘Iron and Clay’ Cowpeas, ‘Laredo’ Forage Soybean, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, and Aeschynomene. I love planting large mixtures with diverse age of maturity like this as there is always something growing, flowering, making seed, attracting bugs, etc.
Once you’ve figured out which species you want to plant, next comes determining seeding rate. There are several methods to help you determine what seeding rate of each species to include in the blend. Penn State University has an excellent video to help determine rates of individual species in a cover crop mix.
For a less scientific approach that will get you close, simply divide the full monoculture seeding rate for each species by the number of species you are including in the mix. For example, if the monoculture seeding rate for Pearl Millet is 25 lbs/acre when planted in 7” grain drill rows and you are mixing 4 other species with it, you would plant the Pearl Millet at a 1/5th rate or 5 lbs/acre. For more information on species’ growing requirements and seeding rates, take a look UGA’s Planting Guide to Grasses and Legumes for Forage and Wildlife in Georgia.
Don’t get discouraged if your mix isn’t perfect the first year! Planting summer wildlife forage mixes is as much an art as a science. After each year, evaluate how each species did, if each species’ rate was correct, and if the wildlife you are managing for used or avoided what you planted. You can then adjust rates or swap out species and eventually you will dial in the species mix and planting rates just right to achieve your property’s summer food plot goals! For more information about summer wildlife plot plantings or any other agricultural subject, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.
–Daniel Leonard, UF/IFAS