By DAVID RAINER

Early August means that kids and parents are frenetically preparing for the opening of the new school year, and we hunters are looking for every opportunity to remind us that the hunting seasons are not far away.

With attention focused on the future seasons and what will lead to successful outings, hunters could possibly be playing catch-up if their preparations didn’t start earlier this year, according to Chris Cook, Deer Project Study Leader with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division.

“What you should have done back in spring is get soil samples and correct any problems with soil pH,” Cook said. “If you haven’t already done that, any lime application is not going to have time to be effective this fall. But go ahead and soil test and apply the proper lime, if needed, but don’t expect to see the results by the time you plant your fall crops.”

Whether the soil has been amended to attain the proper pH or not, Cook says it’s time to tackle the undesirable plants that inevitably pop up in the wildlife openings.

“The best thing you can do right now is start working on weed control to help make sure you will be able to prepare a really good seed bed to get the seed in contact with the soil,” he said. “This will allow the seeds to germinate and grow the best they can.

“A lot of people, instead of bushhogging the fields, will spray the fields with glyphosate (Roundup and equivalents), which makes it a whole lot easier to disc it up. When you spray a field, you don’t have to deal with all that green vegetation after you mow it. And it will limit the weed and grass competition if you spray it before it forms seed heads.”

For those who don’t have the proper equipment to spray or large enough equipment to easily prepare the seed bed, Cook suggests multiple mowings, depending on the rainfall that occurs in the next several weeks, to get ready to prepare the seedbed. Cook also suggests proper maintenance of equipment.

“You also need to make sure you’ve got the equipment you need for planting and it’s all functional,” he said. “You’ve got people who don’t get back to the hunting camp after turkey season closes until it gets close to the start of deer season. Sometimes those hunting-lease tractors are not the best, and you need to make sure they are functional. Some people won’t have the proper equipment to plant those expensive seed blends, so they’re wasting their money.”

Traditionally, ryegrass has been the most prevalent winter forage planted in wildlife openings, but plenty of options are available to landowners and leaseholders.

“If you go with your basic big buck mix that every feed and seed store has, it will likely have wheat, oats, clover, ryegrass and possibly some rape or some other brassica like that,” Cook said. “If you go with that basic mix, you don’t have to worry about ordering beforehand. But if you want to plant some of the different clovers or nontraditional seed mixes, you may need to get with your dealer or co-op and order to make sure you’ll have it when you get ready to plant.

“If your primary concern is just to draw deer in during hunting season, it’s hard to go wrong with the basic mix of wheat, oats, crimson clover and Austrian winter peas. That combo is hard to beat. It grows well during hunting season and for a little while after hunting season. It’s basically attractive by the time that small grain starts germinating. The deer start using it. As the rest of the crop comes on, they’ll use it as well.”

If you just want to see something green while hunting, Cook said it’s hard to beat ryegrass. But the deer may not be using it as much as a multi-species crop.

“Ryegrass will grow basically anywhere,” he said. “If there’s a little bit of sand in a parking lot, it will grow. And once you plant it, it produces a lot of seeds. So you’ll see it in future food plots unless you mow it down before it produces a seed head. It’s great for cattle grazing during the winter, but better options are available for deer food plots.”

Cook said those who plant just ryegrass or another single cereal grain are rolling the dice.

“Anytime you plant a single crop you have two issues,” he said. “There’s always the possibility of not getting a good stand. For some reason, those particular growing conditions don’t suit that particular seed. By growing a single crop, you don’t have the benefit of plants growing at different stages. Deer will change their preferences for plants, even wild plants, depending on what stage of growth they’re in. Plants will be more palatable at different times.

“If you have a monoculture out there, you may not get the use you want on the food plots. If you have a lot of rain and a lot of acorns, the grass may get knee-high before the deer start using it. Then it may not be as attractive to the deer.”

As farmers and those who maintain food plots know, timing can have a great effect on the success of the crop. That timing includes a weather component, but it doesn’t appear Alabama will be stuck in drought conditions like last year as fall approaches.

“If the rain continues and the temperatures are fairly mild, you need to anticipate that the native plants will hang on a little longer and provide a food source for the deer that they wouldn’t have in a year when it’s really dry and really hot,” Cook said. “If we have these conditions through August, people probably need to hold off on planting their food plots.

“To me, Labor Day is too early to be planting plots anywhere in Alabama. People are tempted to get the food plots finished in September, but if we keep having rain, those plants may get up pretty tall and not be as palatable. You can also run into issues with army worms, which can take the crop down to the ground. To play it safe, I don’t recommend planting until October 1.”

One of the most common mistakes Cook sees in wildlife plantings is a misappropriation of food-plot funds.

“I see people putting their resources into buying the most expensive seeds and then not getting the soil prepared like it should be,” he said. “People can waste a lot of money if they don’t get the soil tested. And a lot of people will buy expensive seeds and go cheap on the fertilizer.”

Cook said a ballpark figure for the recommended application rate of a balanced fertilizer like triple-13 is 300 to 400 pounds per acre.

“Most people don’t do half that, and they double the seed rate,” he said. “They’re putting more plants out there and not giving them enough nutrients to grow. That and not taking the time to prepare the seedbed to where you have good seed-to-soil contact are the biggest mistakes I see.”

Go to www.outdooralabama.com/sites/default/files/DeerFoodPlots.pdf for more information on food plots in the free publication authored by Cook and WFF Supervising Biologist Bill Gray.

PHOTOS: (Chris Cook) Now is the time to knock back the weeds and undesirable plants in wildlife openings by mowing or herbicide application. If the proper amount of lime wasn’t applied in the spring, go ahead and try to get the soil to the proper pH as soon as possible. Hunters and landowners can determine how food plots are utilized by building a small enclosure in the middle of the field.

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