The Pros and Cons to Food Plots - Think Outside the Food Plot!
Last weekend I finished planting the food plots at the farm. Most of the plots are a mix of forage sorghum, milo and soybeans. I have one large plot of glyphosate resistant corn and beans mixed together--better known as the succotash plot. Today's rain should get the sorghum plots going and we need some warm weather for the corn. I have a suspicion the sorghum plots were once again seeded too heavily. I do it every year. A little extra seed here and a little extra there. I can't even listen to my own advice on following seeding rates. I'll have to find a way to thin out the plots. It would have been easier to seed them at the right rate.
I have a feeling over the weekend several other landowners were busy planting food plots. It's late May, which means turkey season is over (at least in Missouri), the crappie spawn is almost over, the mushrooms have disappeared and the fields have finally dried out enough to work (at least in parts of the state). Some landowners will work feverishly into the night--in dry fields and wet fields--to plant their food plots before returning home.
Some landowners and hunters will tell you food plots are essential if you want to have good quail habitat. The truth is a well managed warm-season grass field with a variety of forbs and legumes and shrubby cover is much more attractive to quail than a grass field with only a food plot. I admit planting food plots is fun, but planting food plots is probably the last thing you should do for quail on your property. Making sure you will have good brooding, nesting and shrubby cover is more important than planting food plots each spring. Below is an average food plot on the farm. Notice the forage sorghum in the background with ragweed in the foreground and downed cedars (shrubby/woody cover) to the left.
Pros to Planting Food Plots
•Grain food plots can provide a dependable food source for wildlife when native food sources are scarce. No surprise here. If you plant food plots, wildlife will likely use them. It is like putting a pizza in front of a bunch of high school boys. Give them food and they will eat it!
•Grain food plots create an annual disturbance, which produces good brooding cover for quail. By disking the soil, you will encourage plants like foxtail, pigweed and ragweed to germinate. Consider disking and planting only half of the plot in the spring. Leave the other half idle, as it will provide excellent brooding cover and food over the next year. The next year, plant the idle half and rest the other half--flip-flop that food plot! Below is a great picture of an idled food plot on a conservation area in northeast Missouri. The old food plot was intentionally left idle. As you can see, the plot is full of partridge pea and other annuals. Typically you don't see this much partridge pea in an idled food plot, but when you do, there's usually a lot.
•Establishing food plots can create good hunting and viewing opportunities. This is the real benefit to planting food plots. Look at the back shelf at the local feed store. I bet there's a lot of specialty clover mixes for deer.
•Food plots are fun to plant and fun to watch grow.
•Long linear food plots around the edge or through a field can double as firebreaks when it is time to burn. Plan ahead. If you plan on burning in the fall or winter, plant the food plot to wheat that fall or only disk up half of the fire line/food plot. If you burn in the spring, the disked fire line will be ready for planting that spring.
Cons to Planting Food Plots
•Food plots are of no value to quail if the basic habitat requirements of bobwhite quail are not nearby. Planting a food plot is a waste of time if you do not have shrubby, nesting and brooding cover in the area. Look at the picture below. Will this food plot be of much value to quail during the winter? Probably not since there is no shrubby/low-growing woody cover nearby. There's not much nesting or brooding cover around either. I wouldn't count the food plot as being good brooding cover because there's not a lot of plant diversity in the food plot (my guess is clean tilled and heavy herbicide usage). Read about brooding cover on pages 7 and 8 in the Missouri Bobwhite Quail Habitat Appraisal Guide.
•Food plots will not make up for poor habitat. Realize time spent planting food plots could be better spent improving habitat on the rest of the farm. Create good habitat first and plant food plots second. Does the food plot in the picture below improve this fescue field and tall trees for bobwhites? The answer is no. The field could easily be improved by ignoring the food plots until the fescue is eradicated and established to little bluestem and wildflowers. I'd also cut down most of the trees and leave them where they fall in the field. Then, and only then, should the food plots be planted.
•Quail will only occasionally use food plots in the middle of large grassland fields where there is little shrubby cover. Establish food plots next to good shrubby and grassland cover.
•Food plots will not provide as much food or variety as a well managed grassland. Ragweed, grass seeds, annual lespedeza, beggars lice and other seed-producing plants thrive in frequently disturbed fields. Establish only 1/4 to 4 acres of food plots on each 40 acres of habitat and focus on improving your grassland habitat around your food plots.
•Small food plots (less than 1/4 acre) or less than 30 feet wide are often over browsed by deer in the summer or early fall; well before late winter when quail and other wildlife might need a supplemental food source. Make sure your food plots are at least 1/4 acre and 30 feet wide.
•Food plots that are not fertilized usually produce little grain. Consider taking a soil test to determine the condition of the soil. Fertilize and lime if the test calls for it.
•Food plots sprayed to control “weeds” will contain very little ragweed, foxtail, prickly sida and pigweed (some of the top quail foods). You are not trying to produce 50-bushel beans or 200 bushels of corn per acre, just enough grain for the plot to be beneficial throughout the winter. The ragweed, foxtail, sida and pigweed are just as good, if not better than the grain growing in the plot. Only spray a food plot if the annual plants start to out-compete the planted grain or if you have problem weeds like Johnson grass or cocklebur (to name a few). I do spray my glyphosate resistant succotash plot, but with a light rate of glypohsate and only once in early June. I still end up with a good seedy plant crop. The picture above is a great example of a "barren food plot." There's not much brooding cover. However, there are exceptions. The picture below is of a few biologists next to a sunflower food plot they couldn't spray because of wet fields. As you can see, the Johnson grass has taken over the plot. I think these were the only sunflowers in the entire field. Not the best for attracting doves, but still decent quail cover. We had a good laugh over the "big" sunflower crop.
•Corn, soybean, milo and sunflower plots are often over-browsed in areas with high deer populations. Try forage sorghum or millet in areas with high deer populations.
Food plots do provide a dependable food source to quail but are worthless if there is not already good nesting, brooding and shrubby cover nearby. Focus on providing good nesting, brooding and shrubby cover first and then plant your food plots.
Habitat is the Key!