Gerald Almy: Time to plan ahead for food plots

Yes, temperatures may be in the teens and the ground may be frozen as hard as concrete, but if you intend to put in food plots this spring or summer, now is the time to start thinking ahead and doing some planning and preparations.

One of the first things you should consider when the ground is soft enough to penetrate with a shovel is to do a soil test. These can be done at local places like farm co-ops or through companies such as the Whitetailinstitute.com.

This will tell you several vital things. For starters, it will give you the pH of the soil. This reading should be in the 6-7 range for most wildlife plants like clover, alfalfa, brassicas, wheat, and soybeans. If it’s lower than this range, the soil can “bind up” vital nutrients, making them unavailable to the plant.

Too high of a pH can be a danger too, locking up vital nutrients such as manganese, for instance, if it’s over 7. Fortunately, this is rarely a problem in the Shenandoah Valley. Usually soils are close to neutral or low in pH. The latter problem can be easily solved with an application of lime as dictated by your soil test, usually 1-2 tons per acre. Any time from now on that your ground is firm enough to get a truck in is a good time to apply lime.

Soil tests will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium the site should have for healthy plant growth. It will also indicate whether you need vital micronutrients such as boron, zinc, manganese and other major elements like sulfur. These can be added to the ground yourself with a spreader or you can hire a co-op or fertilizer company to apply them.

Clear away rocks, branches, and sticks so you can begin tilling or disking the fields as soon as the soil warms up sufficiently. Applying an herbicide such as glyphosate may be needed later as well if unwanted grasses and broadleaf weeds are coming up where you plan to put in the plot.

Ordering seeds ahead of time is also a good idea. Some seeds may sell out by the time you want them, such as forage soybeans and Power Plant. The latter seed mix should be in high demand this year because of a major change in the composition of the product.

Power Plant is a product of the Whitetail Institute and contains a variety of summer forages for deer mixed with structural plants. These latter plants offer some food value but also help offer structure for the viney forage plants like soybeans and cowpeas to cling to and grow higher. They also protect them from damage by early feeding pressure from deer.

Sunflowers are one of those structural plants, and until recently, sorghum was another. New for this year, the Institute is converting to sunn hemp instead of sorghum. Readers of past columns know that this plant has many virtues as a deer food and as a soil enhancer. It is a legume with high protein content in the 30 percent range and grows amazingly fast. It also benefits the soil.

“The attractiveness of sunn hemp to deer is nothing short of incredible,” said Steve Scott, Vice-President of the Whitetail Institute. “And so is the determination with which it continues to regrow (after being browsed on by deer.) This change increases Power Plant’s attraction, tonnage, and longevity even further.”

The new mix will also allow food plotters to spray Power Plant with grass herbicides such as Arrest MAX, Select, and Poast to keep competition down from unwanted species such as fescue and Johnson grass. When sorghum was in the product, this was not possible because it would be killed by these sprays.

The Whitetail Institute also changed the name and content of its popular Chicory Plus offering. The product is being renamed “Imperial Whitetail Fusion.” Chicory Plus is a mixture of Imperial Whitetail Clover and WINA-100 Perennial Forage Chicory, both proprietary products developed by the company’s research team.

Many people felt this product consisted mostly of chicory, because of the name. In actual fact, it is mainly Imperial Whitetail Clover, with a smaller amount of chicory. The chicory holds up well in poorer soils and during drought conditions of mid and late summer. The actual mix is 8 pounds of clover for every 3 pounds of chicory.

The company felt “Fusion” was a more accurate name. Of course any bags of Chicory Plus you have or order will still be fine mixes to put in the ground that have proven themselves for many years. New Fusion will just be a bit better. That’s because in addition to the name change, the new clover being used in the product is an enhanced version of Imperial Whitetail Clover. Developed by agronomist Dr. Wayne Hanna, it has greater taste appeal to whitetails and is more drought and cold-tolerant.

And the chicory in this mix grows roots up to three feet deep, allowing the planting to stay green and healthy even during the driest conditions. That’s something that every food plotter in the Shenandoah Valley has to contend with most years. For more information on these and other wildlife seeds, visit whitetailinstitute.com.

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