If you have perennial food plots or agricultural fields such as white clover and alfalfa, you were probably glad to see them finally green up this year. After the incredibly cold winter and early spring I was wondering if my ladino clover fields were ever going to fully emerge. That finally occurred in mid-April. Some years these plants are green almost year-round. Most other years they emerge in early March. Not this year after our sub-zero winter.
So with those ag fields and food plots doing well, finally, now it’s time to put some forage plots in that will help deer, turkeys, bear, upland birds and other wildlife through the summer months into early fall. At that time, wildlife managers will want to plant cereal grains and brassicas. But now it’s time for warm season annuals. Those include forage soybeans, lablab and cowpeas.
These are the best choices because they offer large quantities of green forage, elevated protein levels, and grow well during the heat of July and August with minimal moisture. Almost without exception, that describes the type of weather here in the Shenandoah Valley during summer, with the notable exception of 2018, which of course was the wettest in history.
All three of these plants--cowpeas, soybeans and lablab—are great choices. 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 that future crops sown on that site can use.
Following planting, cover these seeds ½ to 1 inch deep. In general, a fertilizer such as 19-19-19 or similar will be helpful. But doing a soil test is the best way to proceed. You may need boron, zinc, magnesium or sulfur besides the main three fertilizer ingredients—nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
Neither lablab nor cow peas are available in a Round-Up ready version. That fact makes it harder to control weeds in the plot. Another negative of these two types of plants is that by September their leaves turn yellow and no longer attract deer.
This process of elimination brings us to one best plant to put in the ground now--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.
A couple of companies make good forage soybeans, but I have yet to find any that compare with those sold by Eagle Seeds (eagleseed.com), 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.
This company has developed a number of different varieties of soybeans, but the two I have experimented with and found extremely impressive for deer are Large Lad and Big Fellow. The names are well chosen. These beans grow especially large leaves—up to eight inches or longer. That provides plenty of valuable forage for deer or cattle for farmers.
They don’t just grow big leaves, though. The plants also grow very tall and thick. They can reach seven 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.
Research has demonstrated production of up to 8-10 tons of forage per acre with Big Fellow and Large Lad plantings, with the protein level typically 32-42 percent. That is exactly what lactating does and bucks growing antlers need during May to September. Both types of soybean plants are Round-Up Ready. That means they can be treated periodically with a glyphosate herbicide without harming the plants to keep weeds controlled. Certainly other forage soybeans can produce well. These are just the ones I’m most familiar with.
Plant the soybeans at a rate of 50-75 pounds per acre. You can mix them with buckwheat, sunn hemp, sorghum, corn or sunflowers. Those plants will shield the young soybeans from over-browsing by deer when the plants are young and vulnerable.
Try to plant several acres so the animals cannot kill all the plants. If you can’t plant a large amount, try to protect young soybeans for 4-6 weeks with either electric fencing or ribbon fencing soaked with repellents such as Plot Saver or P2 Plot Protector. Applying Milorganite fertilizer, available at local Shenandoah Valley farm co-ops, also helps to deter deer from damaging the plot. After a month or so of protection, animals can consume all they want and the plants will be strong enough to withstand the feeding pressure.
Few things in the outdoors are more fulfilling than planting a seed, seeing it emerge and grow from a tiny seedling into a tall plant, and then watching it help nurture wildlife. Even if you just have a small area, putting in food plots can be a rewarding experience.