Journal Story – Warm Season Food Plots
May 4, 2017

Journal Story – Warm Season Food Plots

by Ben Koerth

It’s usually pretty easy to get people to plant food plots for deer in the fall. That’s when deer and deer hunting are definitely forefront in people’s minds. There are no doubts the benefit of fall food plots for deer are many. They serve to draw deer out of hiding into places that are easier for us to see them. If the decision is to shoot, with either bow or gun, then the animal presents a clear shot free of obstructions.

Food plots also tend to keep deer in the open longer than around feeders. Not every hunter is able to make quick decisions and pull off a fast and accurate shot. Antler restrictions in some counties make it imperative we get a good look at a buck before shooting. Young or inexperienced hunters may need a little extra time to prepare themselves and their equipment for a good shot.

Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about non-target animals eating the expensive feed or maybe even scaring your deer away. There is no worry about batteries, timers or other equipment

Granted this is a short list of fall food plot benefits. I can name many more and I’m sure you can as well. However, I don’t care how well your fall food plots grow, no amount of extra nutrition is going to put another inch of antler on a buck that already has stripped his velvet and has hardened antlers in preparation for the rut. The time to make bigger antlers is during spring and summer when the antlers are growing. This is the time to focus your efforts on additional nutrition if you really want more and bigger deer.

There are several key things to keep in mind when you are considering spring food plots. First, you have to decide what to plant. When looking through the advertisements for fall food plots you can find a vast array of different plant varieties. Most companies put most of their effort into developing and promoting plants that will generate the most income. Thus, most of their effort goes into plant varieties that grow during the hunting season. Some work better than others for a variety of reasons we don’t need to go into here, as spring plots are the focus.

Plants designed to grow during the summer for deer food plots provide a much shorter list. Mostly the types of plants that will work in Texas will be some variety of legumes (peas and beans).  The most popular and reliable are cowpeas, soybeans, and lablab. Many people hear the word peas and immediately steer to common varieties of garden peas because they are cheap and familiar.

They will grow. Deer will eat them. The problem with garden variety peas is they were developed to grow a lot of beans for people to eat. They were not designed to provide a lot leaves that grazing animals use for food. Your objective in a summer food plot is a plant that will provide copious amounts of leaves for the longest time possible.

Of the three go-to plants mentioned above, lablab is the newest kid on the block and may not have a name that’s as well known as the other two. Lablab originated in Africa and today is cultivated throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Lablab will grow in a variety of soil conditions. However, it’s best suited to well-drained soils in relatively dry conditions.

It will not tolerate wet soil conditions. An advantage is lablab tends to grow a little longer through the growing season than cowpeas or soybeans. A disadvantage is the modest availability of seeds typically commands a higher price tag compared to soybeans or cowpeas. You will have to decide if any advantage outweighs the cost to your wallet.

Everyone probably has read about or seen television shows with big deer walking belly deep in soybean fields in the Midwestern parts of the country. This publicity has convinced many people that soybeans must be the ultimate summer time deer food. The truth is it’s a great deer food if you get the right variety. Soybeans can basically be divided into either grain or forage categories. Grain varieties tend to produce abundant amounts of seed early and are somewhat resistant to grazing. Grazing resistance generally comes from the amount of hairs on the stems and leaves. The more hairs the less deer will want to graze them.


Forage soybeans, on the other hand, typically have a little longer growing season than grain soybeans and generally have more leaf production for forage. Hairs on the leaves and stems are minimal, so grazing by deer isn’t deterred. If soybeans are allowed to get well established and produce seeds before the first frost, deer will eat the bean pods well after the plants themselves have gone dormant, thus extending the time the plants can be utilized. Fortunately, companies developing seeds for deer food plots have already selected forage varieties, so a lot of the decision processes in picking the right varieties has already been done for us. While soybeans grow well in the breadbasket of the country, some of Texas is pushing its environmental limits and may need a very moderate year in terms of temperature and rainfall to reach their potential.

Of the three contenders, cowpeas remain the go-to plant for much of Texas. The most common variety is called Iron and Clay cowpeas. Iron and Clays tend to be very drought hardy and can be grown over a large part of the state. Generally, anything east of Interstate 35 has potential for cowpeas. West of that arbitrary line and you may do well with an unusually wet spring, but in many years none of the previously mentioned plants will work.


Our tests indicate that deer show a decided preference for cowpeas over soybeans or lablab. That and the fact cowpeas are typically the least expensive make it a favorite summer time food plot for deer. If there is a disadvantage, it’s cowpeas may have a slightly shorter growing season than the other two varieties.

Whatever variety you decide to try, remember warm season legumes typically won’t germinate until the soil temperature reaches 68-70°F so planting too early is counterproductive. This raises the question: How do you know when the soil temperature is right? Most people are not in the field with a thermometer measuring soil temperature in preparation for planting their food plots.

One way is to simply go by your calendar. Typical planting dates for the mentioned varieties in much of Texas are the middle of April to the middle of May when soil moisture is good. That’s a pretty broad time frame, but it will serve you well in most instances. In some cases I use a few native plants as guides to help tell me when planting conditions are getting right so I know when to be ready.

Where mesquite trees grow I often use them as an environmental guide. As a rule of thumb, when the large old mesquite trees bud new leaves in the spring, then conditions are ready for warm season planting. In southern areas this can be as early as March, so going solely by the calendar might put you in the field a little later than desirable. In central and eastern Texas I look to old pecan or hickory trees. When they bud in the spring then the danger of frost is usually pretty much over.

Whichever one of the mentioned forage plants you choose, keep in mind that legumes will be highly sought after by deer. They will be attracted to the plants virtually as soon as they pop out of the ground. At that tender age any amount of grazing pressure will kill the plant. That means you will have to do one of two things to make your planting survive and provide meaningful forage for more than a few days.

First, if you can’t control deer access to your fields then your fields need to be fairly large. Plots less than 1 acre are destined to be destroyed quickly by the deer. If your plants are killed after the first bite then the benefits of your food plots have just been negated. Fields 5 acres or greater are desirable, unless you have a lot of small plots. Unfortunately, large fields mean you need relatively large equipment. Small equipment designed to be operated with four-wheelers won’t get it done.

Even if you have a ton of small plots, some will likely be destroyed by deer congregating on their favorite ones. However, hopefully there will be enough plots that some of the lesser used ones will have plants survive to an age where they can withstand grazing without being destroyed. The benchmark I shoot for is getting the plants at least “boot top” high. At that point they can withstand multiple bites from grazing animals and keep growing. If you can hold the deer off until the plants are waist high, it’s all the better.


The second way to protect your food plots is with fencing. Permanent high fenced plots are ideal but realistically they are out of financial and practical reach of most deer managers. Fortunately, there are other ways. The simple three-wire electrical fence I have previously written about still is one of our most used systems to protect tender young plants from deer.

By fencing your plots you no longer have to have giant plots to successfully grow legumes. We use multiple small fenced plots and open them to grazing once the plants reach a desirable height. We build our electric fence plots with a gate and each end. You will be amazed how quickly the deer find the open gates and learn to enter and leave the plots through those gates. Gates at opposite ends of the plot allows the animals easy escape routes if you happen to drive up unexpectedly and spook them.

Once 50-60 percent of a plot gets eaten we close the plot to grazing and let the plants recover while opening another plot to the animals. Often we can get multiple grazing events on each plot because we can control how much access the animals have to each one.

My best advice is if you’re just starting and don’t have much experience with spring food plots for deer is to use Iron and Clay cowpeas for the majority of your planting. You can always plant several small plots with whatever other varieties you want to test. However, on all your test plots, be sure to construct a small wire grazing exclosure in the middle of each plot to see how well the plants actually perform. The grazing exclosures I use are simple wire baskets about 3 feet in diameter and about 4 feet high. Each one is staked down with a T-post so it stays in position. What grows inside the exclosure is what deer cannot get to and will tell you how well the plant can grow. The difference in plant height between inside and outside the exclosure is how much the deer ate.

This simple device is used often in research, but is a very practical tool for every deer manager. If you find one of your test plots outperform cowpeas then you know definitively what to change to in your future plots.

Supplemental nutrition in the form of food plots can make a big difference in fawn survival, body size of adults, and, maybe most important to many hunters, allows antler growth on your bucks to reach their true potential. Spring and summer is the growing season for deer as well as plants. This is the time to make a difference in your deer management.






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