As we saw in last week’s column, plants with bluish-green leaves called brassicas are among the best choices for fall food plots. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “brassica crops have a number of beneficial attributes including rapid fall growth, high biomass production, a well-developed taproot, excellent nutrient-scavenging ability, competitiveness with other plants, and special pest resistance capabilities.”
As a food for deer, brassicas are high in vitamin C, digestible fiber and selenium. Protein levels can top 30%. Once I looked at the label on a bag of rape and it said to be careful allowing pigs to eat too much of it because its protein levels are so high it can blister their skin! Thankfully, that’s not a problem with deer. They can eat as much as they want. And if you plant a few good-sized plots of say a half-acre each, chances are they’ll have all they need.
That’s because these plants don’t just offer high protein levels. They also offer tremendous quantities of food per plant. Oats, clover, chicory, and alfalfa are excellent for deer, but none of them can match the sheer tonnage of food that brassicas yield. Steve Scott, Vice-President of the Whitetail Institute, says these plants can produce “up to eight tons of forage per acre, with an average of around six tons on well-managed plots where everything is done right including fertilizing, seeding rates, weed control, and site preparation.”
In some areas, as I found out with my first ever brassicas plot mentioned last week, it takes a season or two before deer become totally committed to eating them. But once they realize these plants offer a nutritious food source, they’ll hit them hard. And on many properties deer will feed on them as soon as they come up, not just after a frost that turns the starches in the plants into sugars.
To some extent, of course, this depends on what other foods are available and how they are doing. If you have plots of clover and chicory that are holding up well in spite of the heat and dry summer conditions, the deer may continue to focus on that forage instead of the brassicas. They seem to sense that those big-leafed annuals will be taller and sweeter later in the fall. But if your clover is struggling a bit from drought or you don’t have enough other summer crops available, the deer will turn readily to the young Winter Green and Tall Tine Tuber plots in August and September, well before the first frosts.
Once the leaves have been eaten down, some of these plants such as turnips and radishes still have a root or bulb left in the ground. Deer will dig those up with their hooves and dine on them during winter when other foods are scarce, providing crucial energy at that difficult time of year.
Up to a point, brassica leaves will also grow back after deer munch them down. The best strategy, however, is to put in enough acreage so that the local whitetail herd can’t mow down the entire plot. The goal is to have them eat some plants down to the ground, but have enough growing that they don’t even touch others. If you do that, deer will have both leaves and bulbs for nutrition right through winter.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of planting and managing brassicas, it’s important to say a word or two more about timing, which we touched on briefly earlier. Perhaps more than any other type of food plot forage, brassicas and turnips must be planted in a fairly narrow time frame.
If you plant brassicas too early, they will look good for a while but soon the summer heat and long hours of daylight will get to them. Some of the plants will mature and flower, becoming unattractive to deer. Summer’s scorching heat and dry conditions will take a toll on the others.
But on the other hand, don’t wait too late, either. Do that and the plants won’t have time enough to become large and offer the tremendous amount of forage they are capable of producing. This is the lesser mistake since they still will grow and attract deer. But do you want four-inch leaves or leaves over a foot long? I know which I prefer. So for the Shenandoah Valley, August and early September are the prime times to plant.
You know what that means. Time to get cranking!
Next Week: Planting and managing fall food plots