Gerald Almy: Best seeds to plant for summer food plots

Gerald Almy

Clover and alfalfa fields have given whitetail deer, bears, turkey, rabbits, and geese lots of good forage to munch on during March and April. But now that May is here it’s time to plant foods that will thrive in high temperatures with minimal moisture. After all, that’s generally the type of weather our summers here in the Shenandoah Valley dish out.

I’ve found that the best plants to put in the ground for this period are annuals. You want crops that come up quickly, grow fast, offer protein-rich forage in their leaves, and are drought tolerant. Sure, clover will still provide some forage, but it tends to dry out and become less attractive to deer and other animals during June-September.

The three best choices for summer annuals according to food plot experts with the Quality Deer Management Association are cowpeas, soybeans and lablab. These plants all provide large quantities of forage and often grow so thick and tall that they offer cover as well as food — particularly soybeans and lablab.

Plant these seeds ½ to 1 inch deep, after making sure the pH level is adequate (6.0 or higher) and adding a fertilizer such as 5-10-10 or similar. For plots where you haven’t grown any legumes recently, add a more balanced fertilizer such as 19-19-19, with more nitrogen in the mix.

Cowpeas are an acceptable choice, but don’t grow particularly tall or produce enough forage to be the best choice of these three plants. Lablab is also a very good plant for deer, but it can be damaged easily by over-grazing. It’s not available in a Round-Up ready version, either. This makes it harder to control weeds, and the first hard frost of the year will also kill lablab.

This leaves one plant choice left — soybeans. The main thing to realize is that there are two types of beans — those traditionally grown for seeds and seed products and those grown for forage. The latter are best for deer plantings, because they are bred to be resistant to foraging and continually produce more green leaves as deer or cattle eat them down. However, if you’re growing soybeans for agricultural seed production as well as the leaves, forage soybeans definitely can still produce a cash-crop of beans to sell in fall.

Several companies make forage soybeans, but I have yet to find any that match those sold by Eagle Seeds. Eagle is unique in being a company run and owned by a husband and wife team, Brad and Joyce Doyle, who both have doctoral degrees in the science of soybeans.

Eagle Seeds has produced a number of different varieties of soybeans, but the two that I’ve found most impressive for deer are their Large Lad and Big Fellow, as well as a mixture of the two called Gamekeeper. The names are well chosen. These beans grow especially large leaves — up to nine inches. That provides a lot of forage for deer or for cattle.

The plants also grow very tall and dense. They can reach seven feet or higher, and can grow so thick that deer not only feed in the plots, but actually bed in them because they offer great cover. Providing both food and cover in a small area is the best way I know to keep deer content during the summer.

Studies have shown production of up to 10 tons of forage per acre with Big Fellow and Large Lad plantings. Not only that, but the protein level typically ranges from 35-42 percent! That is perfect for growing healthy does, fawns and bucks with heavy antlers.

Large Lad and Big Fellow are Round-Up ready. That means they can be treated periodically with a glyphosate herbicide without harming the plants to keep weeds controlled.

These hardy soybeans grow well even during weeks without any rain because of a deep taproot. They are also resistant to most foliar diseases, phytophthora root rot, and stem canker. I’ve planted these beans for four summers now and am always impressed with how fast and large they grow.

Plant the soybeans 50-75 pounds per acre. You can mix them with corn but they do best when planted alone. One of the most important benefits of these beans is that they produce forage far longer into the fall than most other varieties, which go to seed in late summer. Large Lad and Big Fellow mature later and continue to produce high-protein green forage for 4-8 weeks after most beans have turned yellow.

Be forewarned, though. If you only plant a small amount of soybeans, deer will probably destroy them. Try to plant several acres to overwhelm the animals with food. If you can’t do that, protect young plants for 4-6 weeks with either electric fencing or repellents such as Plot Saver and Milorganite fertilizer. After a 4-6 weeks of growth, animals can feed on them all they want and the plants will continue to thrive and produce more leaves and protein-rich forage.

For more information on these plants, check out the company’s website at eagleseeds.com. For other types of soybeans, cowpeas and lablab for summer wildlife plots you can visit websites such as basspro.com, cabelas.com, or sportsmansguide.com.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.