DDH Classic: Grandpa's Food Plot Proverbs and Secrets

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.