Perennial Food Plot General
Perennial food plots can be a great source of year round food in your habitat management program. Common plants in perennial food plots are perennial white clovers (there are annual white clovers), high grade multi-cut red clovers (not to be confused with an annual crimson clover), perennial chicory and alfalfa. Other plants used include birdsfoot trefoil, delar small burnet and others. There are several varieties of white clovers, red clovers, perennial chicorys and alfalfa. We have conducted university type study plots and also reviewed university testing to select the best varieties possible for our perennial food plot mixes. Perennial plots provide food for deer, elk and turkeys during the downtime during fall and spring planting of annual plots. Examples of annual plants include corn (a summer annual) and winter wheat which is planted in the fall and matures in the late spring of the following year. Perennials can last 3-6 years without replanting under proper management. Perennials should be planted on soils that have good external and internal drainage. Deep soils are a must for alfalfa.
Planting of Perennial Wildlife Food Plots
Perennial seeds including clover, chicory and alfalfa are all small seeds. The planting sequence is listed in another article. The use of a grain drill is ideal as these small seeds should be planted 1/8″ to 1/4″ deep in a firm seedbed. Grain drills are expensive and very few food plotters own one. Instead, we always plant perennial seeds in conjunction with a cover crop. Thirty pounds of forage oats or a forage oat/wheat combination is recommended. The oats and wheat germinate and start growth quicker than the perennials. This provides quicker erosion control on mild slopes and provdes an alternate food source that is very desirable for wildlife while the perennials are slowly establishing themselves. We use 30 lbs of oats or oats/wheat as the cover crop per acre. Normally, 100 lbs of oats or wheat is needed to establish a one acre food plot.
Planting time varies by region. Here in the Mid-South planting can be accomplished from Mid-February to Mid-March or August 25 to September 15 (ok most years to September 30). Check your local extension service publications or personnel for planting dates for clover in your locale. The winter/early spring planting works best in years that have good rainfall spread out during the summer. However, root systems usually will not develop well enough when planted early in the year to withstand summer droughts. Therefore, fall planting is usually more successful. The gamble will work better on moist soil sites such as rich bottom land. Most perennials need full sun and well drained soils. Alfalfa especially needs deep, well drained soils. We do have a perennial clover mix that works well in partial sun where the field receives a minimum of 3-4 hours of direct sunlight per day.
It is usually not wise to plant perennials on newly established fields. It is best to whip the weeds, increase the soil fertility, and improve the soil tilth (the general condition of the soil seedbed) before planting perennials. Generally, the perennials should be planted as the 2nd to 4th planting of the food plot with annuals used in the beginning.
Perennial Food Plot Maintenance
There are 3 major goals of perennial food plot maintenance. They are:
- Weed control
- Stand density
Fertilize initially according to the planting guide elsewhere. Maintenance fertilization should be completed during the last two weeks of the early spring season (early March in the Mid-South) and again during the fall planting season. Because you do not till the ground during maintenance fertilization you cannot fertilize heavily. A light fertilization is broadcast on the surface as maintenance fertilization. Heavy fertilization can lead to a chemical burn of the plants and runoff of fertilizer causing pollution and a waste of your fertilizer dollar. This is why it is so important to improve the soil pH and fertility before you plant the perennial food plot. Always take soil tests. This will aid in applying the elements that are needed and not wasting fertilizer or causing an improper balance of soil nutrients for what you are growing.
Weed control is one of the most difficult tasks for food plotters. Weed control starts at the time of your initial planting. A reduction in the weeds before you plant using herbicides and tillage (plowing/discing) and proper soil fertility is your first line of defense.
Weed control is achieved by the following:
- Strong Feritility & Proper Planting – Actually this is the first line of defense against weeds. A healthy food plot can compete with weeds. Don’t underestimate the importance of a vigorous food plot!
- Mowing – Mow food plots at a height of 7-8″. It is important to mow before the weeds develop mature seed heads. Usually this is when some part of the vegetation is approximately 12″ tall. This could mean several mowings per year. It is best to mow with a sharp blade that cuts rather than tearing. An offset mower is ideal such as the mowers made for ATV’s that can be pulled with an ATV or a tractor. An early spring mowing can be shorter if the 10 day forecast has some rain predicted and the temperature is not going to be excessively hot. Short mowing eliminates the crop canopy and therefore the sunlight beats down on the soil and dries it out.
- Spraying for grass – There are weed sprays that only kill grasses. Poast is one of the most commonly used grass killers in perennial food plots. Please note that grass killers will kill oats, wheat, corn, rye and grain sorghum as they are all members of the grass family. Delay spraying if you used a cover crop of oats or wheat. They will die on their own in very early summer. Spraying can be accomplished with hand held, backpack type or pull behing tank sprayers. Be sure to follow label instructions. Common grass weeds in perennial food plots include fescue, bermuda grass and johnson grass. Spray when the weeds are actively growing and before the weeds develop seed heads.
- Spot Spraying – Small areas can be spot sprayed with a glyphosate (Roundup or similar) where obnoxious weeds are present. Thistle is one weed that comes to mind as especially troublesome. However, any concentrations of weeds can be spot sprayed. Spraying before the weeds produce seeds is very important.
- Broadleaf weed control – Often broadleaf weeds are not widespread enough to cause problems. Spot spraying can be beneficial where broadleaf weeds are present in high enough concentration in small areas.Most perennial food plot plants are broadleafs. This includes alfalfa, clover and chicory. Make sure you use a herbicide that is labeled for use with the above referenced perennials!!!
Perennials stands tend to thin out over time. This can be offset by over seeding with the same seed mix that you originally planted. Over seeding is best accomplished with a broadcast type seeder. Forage Tech staff uses over the shoulder type seeders for this purpose. Over seeding is useful when you have a reasonable stand of your perennials but also have some thin areas or small voids. An over the shoulder spreader can be used by spreading seeds from visual observation, distributing small amounts of seed where the stand is a little thin, skipping areas where the stand is thick and sowing at the planting rate in bare areas.
Over seeding is completed twice per year as follows:
- Late winter early in the morning on a heavy frost near the beginning of your planting season for clover. The frost heave raises small ridges on the soil and when the frost leaves the soil melts down and covers the small perennnial seeds.
- Early fall during the clover planting season in your area just before a rain or during a rain. The small splashing of soil during rains help cover the small seeds.
- Roundup Ready Alfalfa is not recommended for wildlife food plots and can create a huge liability for the landowner and/or planter.
- We recommend a limited use of herbicides for wildlife food plots. Small amounts of weeds may not look good but may not be as harmful as an excessive use of herbicides.
- Normally, over seeding should use approximately one to two pounds per acre.
- Picture to the right is a Forage Tech Clover/Chicory food plot in small bottom area