Gerald Almy: Best seeds to plant for summer food plots

If you planted food plots early this year or last fall, they are likely thriving now. Those include clover and alfalfa fields that give whitetail deer, bears, turkey, rabbits, and geese lots of good forage to munch on during March and April.

Now that warmer soil temperatures are starting to arrive, it’s time to think about late spring and early summer food plot crops that will thrive well into fall. You want something that will grow well during the heat of July and August with minimal moisture. That’s the type of weather our summers here in the Shenandoah Valley usually produce.

The best choices for this type of planting are annuals. Choose crops that come up quickly, grow fast, offer protein-rich forage, and are tolerant of dry weather. Sure, clover, chicory and alfalfa will still provide some forage. But these plants tend to dry out and become less appealing to deer and other animals during June-September.

Three plants are good choices for this time period: cowpeas, soybeans, and lablab. These plants are all legumes. They provide large quantities of forage and often grow so thick and tall that they offer cover as well as food – particularly soybeans and lablab. They also add nitrogen to the soil.

Cover these seeds 1/2 to 1 inch deep, after making sure the pH level is adequate (6.0 or higher). In general, a fertilizer such as 5-10-10 or similar will be helpful. But doing a soil test is the best way to proceed. You may need boron, zinc, or sulfur besides the main three fertilizer ingredients — nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

Cowpeas are the summer annual choice of some food plotters. But these plants don’t grow particularly tall or produce enough forage to be the best choice. 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. That fact makes it harder to control weeds, and the first hard frost of the year will also kill lablab.

This brings us to one best plant – soybeans. It’s important to realize, however, 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. Even though they’re grown primarily for forage, these beans will still produce a cash crop of beans to sell in fall — unless the deer eat them first!

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

While Eagle Seeds has produced a number of different varieties of soybeans, the two that I’ve found most impressive for deer are their Large Lad and Big Fellow. A mixture of the two called Gamekeeper is also excellent. The names are well chosen. These beans grow especially large leaves — up to 8 inches or longer. That provides plenty of valuable forage for deer or for cattle.

They don’t just grow big leaves, though. The plants also grow very tall and thick. They can reach 7 feet or higher, and can grow so densely that deer not only feed in the plots, but actually bed in them at times because they offer great security cover. Offering deer both food and cover in a small area is the best way I know to make them content during the summer.

Scientific studies have shown production of up to 7-10 tons of forage per acre with Big Fellow and Large Lad plantings, with the protein level typically 35-42 percent. That is just what the doctor ordered for growing healthy does, fawns and bucks with large antlers.

Both types of seeds – 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.

Soybeans of this type grow well even during dry periods because of a deep taproot. They are also resistant to most foliar diseases, root rot and stem canker. I’ve planted these beans for many years now and am amazed at how fast and large they grow.

Plant the soybeans at a rate of 50-75 pounds per acre. You can mix them with corn or sunflowers but they do best when planted alone.

Another plus 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 four to eight weeks after the leaves of most soybeans have turned yellow. Once they turn yellow, deer will not eat them.

There’s one important thing you need to know, though, before planting. If you only put in a small amount of soybeans, deer will likely destroy them. Try to plant several acres to overwhelm the animals with food.

If you can’t do that, protect young plants for four to six weeks with either electric fencing or repellents such as Plot Saver, P2 Plot Protector, and Milorganite fertilizer. After a four to six 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.

If you want more details on these types of food plot seeds you can find it at eagleseed.com. For information on 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.