Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

Deer are a lot like people. They all seem to have varying taste preferences. Some people love chicken, others steak, others vegetarian food. Some deer prefer brassicas, others relish oats or wheat.

Last week we looked at fall planting for wildlife and found that two types of forage were best for deer in the Shenandoah Valley – brassicas and cereal grains. Now let’s look in more detail at these two major groups and how to plant them. As far as timing, the best period to put these seeds in the ground in Northwestern Virginia is from July into early September.

Brassicas

These mustard-type plants with large, bluish-green leaves provide up to 35% protein and are especially favored by deer in fall after the first few frosts transform their starches into sugars and raise their taste appeal. Once deer eat the leaves and any regrowth, some of them have large bulbs they can consume such as radishes, sugar beets and turnips. Those can be particularly important in winter when other foods are scarce.

An acre of radishes can yield up to 12,000 pounds of dry leaf forage and another ton of roots. Kale, rape, true brassicas and turnips can offer 20-35 percent protein levels. It’s no wonder these plants are so favored by deer managers.

Brassicas are not only great for attracting deer and providing them nourishment. They can also help your plots become more productive for future plantings by adding nutrients and combating two common food plot problems – weed competition and compacted soil.

The large leaves in a fast-growing brassica plot will shade out and kill many troublesome weeds and grasses. They also make vital nutrients such as phosphorous, calcium and nitrogen more readily available for future plantings on that site by scavenging them from deep in the soil and leaving them at higher, more accessible levels when they die.

Some of these plants, particularly radishes, can also aerate compacted soils that are a common problem in food plots from years of shallow tilling with no deep plowing. Radishes grow a taproot over 3 feet deep that breaks up and aerates the soil when the root decays, allowing more moisture to penetrate. That enables future plantings to grow deeper and utilize more of the soil’s nutrients.

To prepare a plot for planting brassicas, first kill the vegetation present with glyphosate herbicide. Do a soil test to find out lime and fertilizer needs. Apply those, or add about a ton of lime per acre and a 19-19-19 or similar fertilizer if you haven’t tested. (Testing is far preferable.) Till the soil repeatedly until it’s smooth and there are no large clumps, and then cultipack it to get a firm seed bed.

Broadcast the seeds at the rate the instructions suggest, typically about 4-8 pounds per acre for pure brassicas. Barely cover the seeds, about ¼-inch, then pack lightly for best results. Simply spreading them on top before a rain also works.

To add to the appeal of brassicas you can also mix in annual clovers. Several wildlife seed companies offer mixtures such as this.

Brassicas will withstand light to moderate deer use. If too many deer utilize the plot or they feed on it before the leaves get large, they can destroy it. Try to plant more or larger plots to spread the pressure out. You can also fence off the plot with electric fences or use a repellent and ribbon system such as P2 Plot Protector while the plants are young.

Mixtures that contain cereal grains and brassicas help combat this problem by spreading the grazing pressure out to the other plant varieties in the mix that can bounce back better after heavy feeding pressure. That brings us to the second part of the one-two punch for fall annual food plots — cereal grains.

Cereal grains

When native green forage becomes less available from fall through spring, these crops will attract large numbers of deer and provide valuable nutrition to help them through this difficult period. What’s more, they’ll come back strongly and continue producing more green forage as they are eaten down by deer.

These cultivars can attract whitetails any time from late summer through early spring, but they are particularly valuable both at the beginning and end of this time frame. Before the starches in brassicas turn into sugars and make them especially attractive, freshly emerged cereal grains will draw deer to your plots.

They provide prime early-season nutrition and excellent hunting opportunities when planted as soon as August or September. They will come up in days and attract deer quickly, taking pressure off brassicas so those plants can grow more green forage and larger tubers.

Next week: Part Three of the series on fall food plots

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