Believe it or not, many old truisms, proverbs and old-time sayings teach valuable lessons when farming for wildlife.

food plot for whitetail deerI had the pleasure and opportunity to know my grandparents when I was young. My grandparents were born in the early 1900s and lived long lives. This provided me with many years of wonderful relationships … and the good fortune of gaining knowledge from a perspective I couldn’t obtain from any textbook or lecture hall.

Both of my grandfathers were farmers who loved the land. They worked their farms to a point where the farm was a part of the family. They lived and worked when horses provided the power, holes were drilled in wood by hand and phones, electricity and indoor plumbing were only vague dreams. Self reliance wasn’t only an admirable attribute, it was a necessity.

There was no weatherman to say when the rain was coming or computer monitor to let you know the correct seeding rate of your corn crop. When to plant the crop was decided based on the observations of nature rather than a long-term forecast.

I remember sitting in the shade of large elm in an old metal swing in the front yard of Grandpa Harper’s house. He and I would sit there and rock while he told me stories. Then, out of nowhere, he would say something like, “Hear that rain crow? Going to rain by tonight, I would say.”

Other times he’d say, “See how the leaves on the trees are turned over? Big storm coming.”

My Grandpa Davis would say things like, “There’s enough blue sky to make a pair of britches for a Dutchman. It’s going to clear off.”

Back in the day, a food plot was the family garden tended to for vegetables and everything was done by hand, horse, plow or a sometimes fussy tractor, far unlike today's hunting food plots designed for enjoyment.
Back in the day, a food plot was the family garden tended to for vegetables and everything was done by hand, horse, plow or a sometimes fussy tractor, far unlike today’s hunting food plots designed for enjoyment.

To this day I have no idea how big the Dutchman was or how much blue sky was needed to make his britches, but Grandpa’s predictions seemed to be right more often than they were wrong.

I was told many of these sayings and proverbs through the years by my grandparents, and as I grew older, I studied them to get a more complete interpretation of what they meant and how they were derived.

Over time, I learned these were words of wisdom — not haphazard bits of information. In fact, when I started planting food plots for deer, I found myself basing many decisions off of “Grandpa’s Rules.”

Here are some of my favorite pearls of wisdom that my grandfathers passed down to me.

1. “Don’t Plant Corn Until the Oak Leaf is as Big as a Squirrel’s Ear.”
You might have heard of this one before, and the logical assumption is that it deals with ambient temperatures and growing conditions. If the growing conditions are such that an oak leaf is of a certain size, then growing conditions should be right for planting corn. This assumption is correct in that moisture levels, soil temperatures and sunlight needed for oak leaves to bud are similar to the needs of corn to germinate and grow.

However, there is another aspect to this saying that’s often not considered. Before the advent of glyphosphate-resistant corn, keeping weeds controlled in a corn patch was done by cultivating. Cultivating was an arduous and costly practice, so minimizing the number of times you needed to stick the cultivator in the ground was important. By the time the oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear, many of the early weeds had sprouted. Killing these weeds by disking before you planted meant one less pass with the cultivator.

2. “Sow on the Snow in March.”
I’m not sure if this is a universal saying, but it’s one that I heard a lot while growing up in Iowa.

This practice is called “frost seeding,” and normally involves clover or alfalfa, which are small, hard seeds that maintain their germination ability through long periods in harsh conditions. The trick was to sow the seed fairly close to the last snowfall of winter. That way, as the snow melted, the seed would gradually move into the soil as the daily freezing and thawing of the soil seated the seed in the top layer of dirt.

This gradual process allowed better germination and uniformity as opposed to seeding before a heavy rain, which could wash the seed away. Seeding too early could result in the loss of seed integrity or cause false germination during an abnormal warm spell in mid-winter.

Of course, whether you sow in February, March or April depends on where you live. The key is trying to time it close to the last snowfall.

3. “If You Plant in the Mud, Your Crop Will Be a Dud.”
Germination and seedling survivability depends on many factors, including the condition of the seed bed. A muddy seed bed typically results in poor germination and lower seedling survivability. Muddy soil often becomes cloddy or hard baked when it dries, and neither condition promotes good germination or seedling survivability. With larger seeds, such as soybeans, the integrity of the seed can be damaged sitting in watery, muddy soil, especially when the soil temperatures are cooler.

Soybeans are a great source of nutrition for white-tailed deer. But if you're growing for an agriculture money crop, you may need to wait until you can 'pull down your trousers and sit in the dirt for a minute.'
Soybeans are a great source of nutrition for white-tailed deer. But if you’re growing for an agriculture money crop, you may need to wait until you can ‘pull down your trousers and sit in the dirt for a minute.’

4. “Don’t Plant Soybeans Until You Can Pull Down Your Trousers and Sit in the Soil for One Minute.”
This is one of my favorites just because of the humorous mental image it invokes. Soybeans will not germinate unless a specific soil temperature is reached. If you plant too early, you will end up with rotting seeds in the ground and very poor germination.

I once talked to a guy who planted a soybean/sorghum mix and ended up with a field of nearly all sorghum. He said he planted it in early April. The soil temperatures in the part of the country where he lived were nowhere close to the temperatures needed for the soybeans to germinate.

On the other hand, the sorghum withstood the conditions better and germinated when the soil temperature rose. The soybeans simply rotted in the ground. Although soybeans can germinate at lower temperatures, soil temperatures in the mid to upper 60s are preferred for quick germination and growth.

I am not sure whether your posterior is a good thermometer for testing soil temperatures, but sitting in 65-degree soil would be preferable to sitting in 45-degree soil.

5. “There Won’t Be a Frost Until the Cockleburs Bloom.”
There are times when plants can be the best predictors of weather conditions. One example is the cocklebur. I hated these nasty things when I was growing up, as I spent hours and days in the bean field pulling, cutting and hacking them out of the rows. However, they are a good indicator of frost.

A cocklebur must bloom before it can produce seed. If it does not bloom before the first killing frost, it will not produce seed and, in turn, cannot multiply the species. Cockleburs will bloom almost always before the first frost. Therefore, if cockleburs are green and not showing any signs of blooming, it will likely be some time before the first frost.

6. “Four Seeds in a Hoof Print.”
Grandpa Harper used to tell me that when he planted clover seed, he would check to see if there were at least four seeds in the workhorse’s hoof print. This was his way to check that the seeding rate was corråect. This might seem a bit heavy, but keep in mind that the seed he was planting was raw, uncoated seed that would not have as high of a seedling survivability rate as one of today’s coated seeds.

To this day, when I am seeding clover, I walk over the field when I am done seeding and count the number of seeds in my foot prints.

7. “A Year of Snow Means a Year of Plenty.”
Soil moisture content is vital for plant growth and survivability. This is especially true in the spring, when annuals are developing roots and perennials are coming out of dormancy.

Snow provides not only moisture to the ground, but it also provides it in a slow, saturating manner from the melting process. Deep snow cover results in high soil moisture content, thus promoting plant growth.

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Predicting the Weather
Countless old proverbs predict the weather.

• “The higher the clouds, the finer the weather” means that high, light clouds indicate fair-weather conditions.

• “Clear moon, frost soon” comes from the fact that a lack of cloud cover causes the earth’s surface to cool overnight. A clear moon in July doesn’t mean a frost is coming soon, but a clear moon in September or October might be another matter.

• “Ring around the moon, rain is coming soon.” A ring around the moon is caused by ice crystals from clouds passing over the moon and the reflection they cause. It also normally indicates an advancing warm front that might bring moisture.

• “A storm is coming if cattle seek shelter and put their backs to the east.” Animals sense approaching storms likely through changes in barometric pressure as well as other stimuli. When cattle head for cover, you might want to do likewise. Cattle will also turn their back side to the direction the wind is coming from (often east) before a major storm.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, more of these old sayings. What’s important is that we remember what our grandfathers taught us and understand how their advice applies to today’s world.

Of course, today I rely heavily on modern technology when planting food plots, but I also use these old-time rules as cross-references — kind of like looking at a map to make sure the GPS is working properly.

Yes, it’s true: Grandpa’s Rules will never leave me. In fact, I hope to one day sit in a swing with my grandchild and hear Grandpa’s words come out of my mouth…

“Hear that whippoorwill? Must be time to plant corn.”

— D&DH field editor Matt Harper is a deer nutrition specialist from Iowa.

By: Jeremy Flinn | January 2, 2017

As I walked down the trail enclosed overhead by bare oak branches, I crept past several green fields full of clovers and other growing plants. Farther down the trail, I stop at a secluded brown food plot that appeared to have been abandoned long ago. The lush, green soybeans from summer were now thin-stalked skeletons, with a mix of barely clinging hulls and pods. Several corn stalks, sparsely eared, were mixed into the bean field. I had reached my hunting spot that cold January afternoon.

Although many hunters would have gravitated toward healthier looking plots, that old brown field can be just as productive as it was during hot summer days. While most soybean or corn fields have long been combined by that time of year, many hunters are starting to plant and leave smaller standing fields of traditional crops for hunting and deer nutrition.

But don’t put all your eggs in one basket to maximize your property’s nutrition and hunting potential. You must be diverse.

As crazy as it might seem, a complete food plot program for a property will often resemble a jumbled mess. No matter a property’s size, its food plot strategy must contain a mix of autumn and summer annuals, as well as perennial plantings to enhance overall nutrition and hunting success.

Whether you’re looking to grow and shoot bigger bucks or simply see more deer, it will take more than an everyday green field planted each fall. Most hunters fail to realize the only thing standing between them and a complete food-plot program is a basic understanding of the various types of forages you can plant for deer.

The Tortoise and the Hare
In the classic children’s story The Tortoise and the Hare, the overwhelming favorite to succeed was the quick hare. However, the slow, steady tortoise crossed the finish line first. Where am I going with this? Well, as in the story, food-plot forages usually fall in line with one of the two characters, with a few twists.

Habitat management should involve a broad spectrum of things that may include food plot management, and consideration for year-round plots.
Habitat management should involve a broad spectrum of things that may include food plot management, and consideration for year-round plots.

Like the hare, annual food plot forages grow in quick spurts, providing potentially large amounts of food and nutrition for deer in a brief time (that is, hunting season). By far the most commonly planted food plot type is the cool-season annual, or what most call a hunting plot or green field. Some common cool-season annual plants include oats, wheat, brassicas, rye grain, winter peas and certain clovers, such as crimson or arrowleaf. These plots are typically planted in late summer or early fall to hit peak attractiveness during hunting season. Many hunters even plant them to peak at a specific time during hunting season, such as the rut or late season.

The counterpart to these is the warm-season variety. The most common warm-season annuals are soybeans and corn, but many hunters are beginning to incorporate plants such as lablab, buckwheat, grain sorghum, iron-clay or cow- peas and sunflowers, particularly in mixes.

Most warm-season plots are sowed in mid- to late spring, about the same time as many conventional crops, and provide a high-volume source of nutrition throughout summer. Although production (quantity of food) typically has tailed off during hunting season, those spots still can produce lots of deer sightings.

The tortoise of food plot forages is the perennial. Unlike annuals, perennials tend to be more consistent, slow-and-steady producers. Most never exhibit the giant peak in production like annuals, but they stick around and provide for deer much longer than a cool- or warm- season annual. This persistence of perennial plants is what I like to call filling the gaps. Most perennial food plots earn their keep during the lag between annual plantings.

These lags typically occur during late winter and early spring, and when your fall hunting plots are getting established and summer plots are tailing off. Most perennial deer forages are actually termed cool- season. One exception is sweet clover. Some of the most common are alfalfa, forage chicory and white, or ladino, clovers. Most perennials require more maintenance than annuals, especially to keep their production levels up from year to year.

In the end, The Tortoise and the Hare holds some truth. On a year-round production level, only the perennial — slow, steady tortoise — food plot forages can support a deer’s diet. Neither the cool- nor warm-season annual forages provide adequate nutrition by themselves or together. To create the silver bullet of food plots, your management plan should use all three types of plantings to maximize deer nutrition and hunting success.

If you're going to plant food plots, take time to get your fertilizer application rates established to maximize the plot's growth. (Photo: Mossy Oak BioLogic)
If you’re going to plant food plots, take time to get your fertilizer application rates established to maximize the plot’s growth. (Photo: Mossy Oak BioLogic)

Laying Out the Buffet
Every serious hunter has experienced the ups and downs of deer hunting, particularly with deer sightings. Even as a biologist, it amazes me how I can see 10 or more deer in a food plot consistently one week, but the next week it’s like someone flipped a switch and they are gone.

Several factors can cause this, including hunting pressure and predators, but often it has to do with the stomachs of deer. All food plot forages have a unique set of characteristics. These include timing of peak attractiveness, like when oats and wheat are in a young grass stage, to the high amount of crude protein, such as in actively growing soybeans during summer. The key to maximizing deer nutrition and hunting opportunities is creating a food plot strategy that fulfills the needs of hunters and deer.

Give Them What They Want
You might think, “Is there really a difference between what deer and hunters want? The end goal is to get deer into a plot so they can eat or I can shoot them, right?” Yes. However, this is a lot easier said than done. Food plot forages often peak in attractiveness to deer at various times of year. This affects when deer will eat that forage and what nutrition they will take in, and also when a hunter at that plot might encounter deer.

Let’s look at the brassica family. A lush, green food plot in brassicas, such as kale and rape, looks like a giant deer salad bar. But after plant- ing in early autumn, many hunters will often notice that deer ignore the food plot until late autumn or early winter, when several hard freezes have occurred. Before the freezes, the brassicas consist of a lot of starches. When the plant has been exposed to several hard freezes, the starches change to sugars.

As with humans, those sugars are obviously much more desirable to deer. So if you planted all brassica plots throughout your property, they would likely not see much action until later into hunt- ing season. Although this is still beneficial to deer and hunters, planting other forages — such as oats and wheat — will offer a great early-season hunting spot. Because of their characteristics, I often don’t recommend planting forages such as brassicas in the deep South, where the climate might not let cold temperatures convert the starch to sugar.

Are You OVER Hunting Property?

Feed the Need
Supporting the nutritional requirements of deer strictly with food plots is impossible. That’s why native habitat management is a must for anyone looking to create a better deer herd and bigger bucks. However, providing high-quality forage via food plots year-round will dramatically decrease nutritional stress, especially during some of the hardest times, such as the post-rut recovery and antler-growing period for bucks, and pregnancy (gestation) and milk production (lactation) for does. But don’t think just planting any food plot will get the job done. You have to play to the nutritional needs of the deer during the time in which the plot will be growing.

An example is during summer, when bucks and does are in an extremely energy-demanding period. The need for high-quality forage, particularly protein, might never be more critical, especially when it comes to growing bigger bucks. Throughout the active grow- ing stage, antlers are made up of close to 80 percent crude protein. The extensive need for adequate protein is never more apparent with bucks.

But what about the does?

How can providing high-quality food to does influence the antlers on bucks? During summer, does
need a lot of quality food to contribute to the growing fawn they are carrying. But the real work starts when the fawn is born. Providing high-quality milk to a fawn is two to three times more taxing on a doe than when she was lugging the fawn around in her belly. Research shows that the quantity and quality of doe milk a buck fawn receives affects his antlers in adulthood, especially his first set. This demonstrates why having high-quality forage available during this period for does will help bucks on your property.

Planting warm-season annuals — soybeans, lablab and cowpeas — will provide bucks and does with the high source of protein they need during this time. Because of the high attractiveness to deer, planting these type of plots on a small scale — less than an acre — can be risky, because deer will browse heavily on the plants immediately after they sprout. However, a balanced food plot strategy for a property should also include perennial plots, with forages such as chicory and white clover, which will be available for deer during this time and should relieve some of the browsing pressure on a new warm-season food plot.

Planning a food plot program to provide deer nutrition and increased hunting opportunities might seem complicated or even confusing. No single forage will meet all the demands of deer or hunters. Creating a balanced strategy using a mixture of cool- and warm-season annuals and some plots in perennial forages, such as white clover, will maximize your hunting opportunities, let your property produce a quality deer herd and let bucks express their antler potential.

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