Spring is here, and it’s an early one this year, so the wildlife on your land has been carried through the sparse months of winter on the food plots you offered. The browsers have made it to the season of plenty, and for birds, spring means the return of insects. Soon there will be fruits and berries and the smorgasbord of feed that comes with spring, summer and early fall.
So, what do you do with your food plots? Boosting nutrition isn’t a concern during the summer in most of Georgia, so you should look at other considerations, like available cover, wildlife viewing, and hunting opportunities in September.
On my family’s farm in Wayne County, we are planning to turn one food plot into chufa in May, but otherwise we’re not disturbing the others. The rye and oats we planted last fall has gone to seed, so we intend to let it ripen to provide feed for game birds during the summer. Additionally, a wide array of native grasses and forbs (also known as weeds) is now joining the rye. Rather than convert these weed/seed plots back to clean dirt or a clean summer crop, we’ll let them go as brood habitat for quail and turkeys, then replant in the fall.
If you’ve got enough plots to leave a couple fallow for the summer and plant one or two others, then there is a good selection of summer crops that do well in Georgia and will draw the wildlife, whether you want to watch the deer this summer and keep up with antler growth on your property or have them coming to these crops when bow season opens. Here, in more detail, is a look at some of the best choices.
Grain Sorghum: probably one of the best picks for a crop that will fill in any nutrition gaps between the early-summer smorgasbord of greenery and the early fall appearance of fruits and mast, and it fills this role for deer, turkeys, quail and non-game birds. Planted in April (south), May (north) or into June (anywhere), sorghum matures in August or September, at which time, according to biologist Kent Kammermeyer, it may be eaten immediately or it may stand for a month or two before being eaten-depending on how the acorn crop turns out. Deer and birds feed on the seed heads of sorghum, just as they feed on ears of corn, which is advantageous because the deer won’t normally browse the growing sorghum plant. If they do, you’ve got a population and/or habitat problem.
Kent calls sorghum "poor man’s corn," because sorghum requires less maintenance than corn, yet like corn, sorghum is very high in fat and carbohydrates and offers moderate levels of protein. Corn is tougher to establish, takes lots of fertilizer, requires insecticide applications, and it requires you to do all the weed fighting.
"Sorghum can withstand weed competition a little better," Kent said, "and it doesn’t draw all the weevils and ear worms that get into a corn field, so you don’t have to spray for that. Who’s got a spraying rig out on their deer lease?"
Sorghum will do well anywhere in Georgia, but like any crop it needs fertilizer at planting time. To be sure about how much fertilizer you need, go get the proverbial soil test through your county extension agent. Broadcast or drill the sorghum at a rate of five to 10 pounds per acre, then throw on 10-10-10 at a rate of 300 to 800 pounds per acre (depending on your plot’s needs). Come back in a month or two and top-dress the plot with 100 pounds of ammonium nitrate to the acre, and ideally, if you have the resources, you should throw on some ammonium nitrate when you plant as well.
"Nitrogen goes away in 30-60 days," Kent said. "By splitting the application, once at planting time and again when you have about knee-high growth, you are ensuring plenty of nitrogen through to maturity."
Kent added this recommendation: purchase a bird-resistant variety of sorghum. The seed head in these varieties is loaded with tannic acid and too bitter for game birds to eat, but the tannic acid fades with weather and time. This way, the seed head will be around when the real stress period hits in late fall. If your goal is to attract deer only, and only during the early hunting season, then plant a non-bird-resistant variety and the birds and deer will tear into the seeds earlier. However, expect the food source to be gone after September, Kent said.
Tropical Corn: Biologist Steve Ruckel, who works out of Game Management’s Albany Office, said that for those landowners who want to try corn, despite its drawbacks, he recommends tropical corn, a variety that is adapted to hot, dry conditions, which are often the conditions in south Georgia in late summer.
"I first saw it in a sandy food plot in Stewart County," Steve said. "It had been planted real late, in June, and it still made. It only gets shoulder high and the ears are smaller than field corn, but it does produce. Deer will eat it, as well as quail and turkeys."
Tropical corn can be planted as late as July, and it can survive dry spells. A crop planted at the Albany Nursery got a total of five inches of rain in a summer, and it still produced. Fertilize the plot just as you would regular corn, and Steve recommends drilling the seed so that the rows can be cultivated to keep down weeds.
Jointvetch: also known as deervetch or the often misspelled name, aeschynomene, this reseeding annual is an excellent summer browse that has qualities which make it preferable to most peas and beans as a summer crop. Deer will browse this low-growing, vine-like plant from the day it emerges throughout the summer, but be aware that this food source won’t survive the first frost. Jointvetch tends to do well in damp soils.
The main advantage of jointvetch is its resistance to overbrowsing. Jointvetch will bounce back from browsing far more quickly than any type of pea, soybeans or alfalfa. Steve said that several plots of jointvetch planted last year on Mayhaw WMA were very successful in this regard.
"We had never grown it before," Steve said, "and it took a while for the deer to find it and learn what it was, but toward the latter part of summer and early fall they used it heavily. There were places where it looked like you’d taken hedge clippers to it, and it would just branch out and send a new shoot out the side."
Drill or broadcast the seed at a rate of 20 pounds to the acre, and don’t forget that jointvetch, which is a legume, will have to be inoculated so that it can fix nitrogen from the soil. One combination crop Kent suggested that you might consider is a sorghum/jointvetch mix. The jointvetch provides green browse while the sorghum matures, and the jointvetch will also provide the sorghum with nitrogen, reducing the necessary amount of ammonium nitrate. Mix in five pounds of sorghum with 15 pounds of jointvetch to the acre, and cut back to 50 pounds of ammonium nitrate at planting time. Fertilize according to your soil test.
Millet/Sorghum Mix: this mixture is a good pick for land managers who are more interested in quail, turkeys, doves or non-game birds. Planted in April through June, the browntop millet will mature in 60 days, thus seed is provided in July and August while the sorghum is still maturing. Afterwards, when the millet has played out, the sorghum seed heads take over.
Plant a mixture of five pounds of sorghum and 15 pounds of browntop millet to the acre. Both the millet and sorghum are summer grasses, so they’ll need regular amounts of nitrogen.
Alyce Clover: another summer-long browse for deer, planted in May or June, and fading out in the fall. Alyce clover is a good protein source during the summer and more graze resistant than most peas and beans.
Plant 20 pounds to the acre and fertilize with 300 to 800 pounds of 5-10-15, depending on your soil test results. Again, you’ll inoculate the seeds, so nitrogen is less important. In fact, you can cut out the ammonium nitrate altogether. All this clover needs is a little nitrogen at the start to get going.
Beans & Peas: this includes soybeans, cowpeas, iron clay peas, etc., which are all good summer crops for wildlife, except for the fact, as Kent said, that they are not resistant to grazing. And in most parts of the state, these crops will see browsing pressure not long after they break the dirt. One method that we tried in Wayne County last year was planting peas in late August. The peas came up and the deer came out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, bow season came in, and we were able to harvest two does over our peas. The peas never made any crop to speak of because of the initial browsing, then the first frost finished them for good, but by then we had accomplished what we wanted to do.
Use this information to choose a summer crop that is right for you, and remember to offer a diversity of benefits: leave some old plots fallow for now, plant some others, and, if you have turkeys in mind, save another for a May planting of chufa, which will be on the menu next month. We’ll discuss how to plant and manage this warm season tuber.-