Saturday, September 9, 2023

Food Plots Update: Summer 2023


Another growing season is coming to an end at Hunter's Eden Homestead. This season I decided to focus mainly on planting perennial species in my plots and while most of them have turned into successes, the few failures we have had have become important learning experiences that will help us design our plots in the future.

In early spring in our main large food plot we planted a pretty diverse mix of perennial species which included cicer milkvetch, crownvetch, small burnet, blue flax, chicory, alfalfa, falcata alfalfa, aberlasting clover and birdsfoot trefoil. This mix did very well for the most part. However the cicer milkvetch and the crownvetch did not do as well due to being outcompeted by the faster growing alfalfas and aberlasting clover, which were planted at much too high of a rate for the planting. This next year's plot we will remove them from the seed mix altogether and increase the rate of the cicer milkvetch and the crownvetch so they will have a better chance at establishing. We also decided to remove the birdsfoot trefoil from future mixes due to its low forage preference. Also something interesting that happened in this plot was that both the cereal rye and the german millet from last year reseeded and did quite well. This means that I will probably add these annuals into most of my future mixes because of their reseeding abilities and high forage value during hunting season. Another thing that happened in this plot was that it had a lot of perennial grass weeds come up in it either from the tarps not getting a complete kill or from grass seed blowing in from adjacent grass areas. Because of this I had to mow this plot several times to keep the grass from going to seed. I also mowed the perimeter of the food plots and current tarped areas in order to prevent grass from seeding into the new upcoming plot once the tarp is removed. Hopefully this will help prevent grass establishment in next year's plot so mowing would be less necessary. I also decided to leave the tarps down all growing season (March- October) to get a complete kill of the sod. 

Later in the fall we are planning on expanding this food plot and we will dormant seed it with a new mix that includes cicer milkvetch, crownvetch, small burnet, blue flax, chicory, little bluestem, big bluestem, switchgrass and basin wildrye. We are choosing the legumes and forbs in this mix because they are highly preferred forages that should still be green and palatable during our fall and early winter hunting seasons. The bunch grasses in this mix were chosen for thier vigorous growth to add organic matter to the soil and to help keep out less desirable sod forming grass species as well as to provide forage for wildlife and livestock. Also next year after this plot is mostly established I will likely add in some of the other more aggressive species such as cereal rye, german millet, forage plantain, alfalfa, aberlasting clover and red clover. By splitting the mix up and planting the more aggressive species the second year I can hopefully ensure that the less aggressive species have time to establish without being outcompeted and hopefully I will still end up with a highly diverse plot with all of the species being represented. 

This year we also created a new plot on the dry hillside above our pond. We burned off the vegetation in the early spring then seeded it with cicer milkvetch, alfalfa, falcata alfalfa, small burnet, blue flax, birdsfoot trefoil and aberlasting clover. After broadcasting the seed we harrowed the seed into the soil by hand by dragging the harrow across the hillside. This plot did not do very well because of competition with already established weeds such as sulfer cinquefoil, canada bluegrass, medusahead and yellow starthistle. Also this is a very dry site because of it's steep southern exposure. During the summer I mowed it twice to reduce weed pressure and I believe that helped somewhat. We will see what all comes back next spring but I believe we got some decent establishment from the small burnet, blue flax and possibly some of the alfalfa. I will probably plant a high rate of cereal rye here this fall just to have something green growing during the hunting season and to improve the organic matter on the plot. At some point I may also try to plant basin wildrye here as it is a large robust and drought tolerant perennial cool season bunchgrass that should do well here and be able to help build the soil.

Another area we seeded this spring was an area I had cleared out as a firebreak on the border of our property. Most of it already had established perennial grasses but some of it was bare ground where I had cut back shrubs and small trees such as roses and hawthorns. In these areas there was enough bare ground where I could broadcast and rake in our seed mix. I used the same mix I seeded onto the hillside plot. In this area, however, most of the species I planted seemed to establish quite well especially in areas that were partly shaded by adjacent trees and brush. The soil here also seemed to be richer and more moist. This area probably had the best establishment of cicer milkvetch out of all the areas I planted this year so that was encouraging to see. 

The last area we planted was along the roadside on the top end of our property that used to be almost pure starthistle, but that we had removed the majority of it by weed-eating it the last few summers. We also planted it with the same mix we used on the hillside plot and the property line plot. This mix did not do well due to being outcompeted by weeds, mostly annual grasses. Also our chickens that we free range kept getting into this area and scratching up the newly established seedlings which didn't help anything. This fall I will likely broadcast basin wildrye onto this plot in order to create a visual barrier for our property from the road. If this species was able to establish it should be able to create a "plot screen" effect that habitat managers in the east use switchgrass for when they are designing corridors to sneak to a blind or treestand in order to not be detected by deer. If this is successful then I could see using it for the same purpose on my plots in the future, but I will test it out on the roadside first.

This year has been another busy one, but productive as well. And this fall I am planning on continuing my food plot progress by expanding plots and planting new areas. And next spring I will tarp grass areas that I will be able to plant the following year. Slowly but surely I am turing our property into a hunting paradise and I am learning a ton along the way that could help give me the knowledge to help other's do the same on thier properties. One day I'd love the chance to help others make their hunting property dreams come true and I'd ideally like to make a career out of it some day. But for now I'm still learning the on the ground lessons that I will need to gain in order to have the wisdom to become a master of wild game habitat management. 

Friday, February 24, 2023

Food plots 2022: Year in Review

This year was by far our most successful year in food plotting. Not only did we have lush productive plots, but my fiance and I were able to harvest animals off our property that were being attracted by them. My fiance was able to fill a doe tag and I harvested my first elk, a huge cow, right as she was walking out of our food plot. It was an amazing experience and it feels so cool that we can attract and harvest game from our own property. This year was a huge success and a milestone for the game management on our property.

My last update was at the end of spring last year and at that point we had just started to see some good growth from our newly planted summer annual plots.  Because of our relatively wet spring last year, I was able to plant a warm season annual mix into our main food plot. It is split into two parts. On one side it had an annual cool season mix planted on it in the fall of 2021 and grew through the spring of last year. In June, we broadcasted our summer annual mix into the standing vegetation and then crimped it down onto the new seed. Because of crimping too early, however, a lot of the rye in this plot stood back up and/or regrew new flowering stems from its roots and competed with the newly planted summer annual mix. Because of this the mix did fairly poorly, but had some growth and provided a decent amount of food for the wildlife. 

The other side that was newly established last spring with the black tarp method did very well. Early on, every species sprouted and started growing. As time passed and the deer found the most palatable species, including soybeans, sunflowers, buckwheat and safflowers, they were almost completely wiped out, leaving only millet and a few sorghum plants. But, wow, did the millet thrive! Even though we got practically no rain from July through mid-September, which is normal in our climate, the millet, which was mostly german and white wonder varieties, was still able to grow and produce a lot of seed.  Because the actual grass leaves are fairly unpalatable to deer, the millet and sorghum were largely avoided while everything else was eaten to the ground. 

Even though this meant it was not providing a lot of food during most of the summer, after the seed ripened in early fall, it started attracting a lot of game birds such as turkey, chukar and quail. Once winter hit, it was also getting heavily used by deer and elk. And that's how we filled our tags from the attraction of the millet.  Also, the other side of the food plot was somewhat of an attraction as well, because when I had failed to terminate the rye in the spring, it grew back and ended up reseeding itself. When the fall rains started, we had new rye seedlings growing as well. I didn't even have to plant them. It was pretty cool to see such a success despite all of my mistakes and the harsh conditions of our climate. 

Going into the winter, we had one side with mostly dead standing millet that still had a lot of seed available to wildlife. On the other side we had mostly rye, but also some clovers, camelina and vetch that reseeded itself from the previous year's cool season mix. I am expecting this mix to do well through late spring. 

For the first time in a few years, I decided not to plant a new cool season mix anywhere on the property this past fall.  My main line of reasoning for this was I wanted to see what would naturally reseed itself from the previous year's planting. For example, on the roadside plot where I have been trying to reduce the invasive star thistle plants, I have been able to see a good amount of regenerating rye reseeding itself. I suspect we will get some other cool season annuals reseeding themselves also.

Despite my huge success with these annual plots, going forward, I'd like to start focusing more on perennial plants. This is because, ideally, I'd like to create food plots that are largely self sustaining. That means buying and planting seed one time and then maintaining what grows for multiple years. It's really great that many of the cool season annuals are self-seeding. However, I suspect that over time, if I didn't plant anything new in these plots, then weeds, especially perennial grasses and forbs, would slowly take over.

Ultimately I need more permanent root structures in the ground to prevent perennial weeds from creeping in. I will likely still overseed reseeding annuals into some perennial plots in the future, such as using cool season annuals like rye in warm season perennial plots a la "pasture-cropping". However, I believe perennial plots should be the staple of my food plot management moving forward due to their ability to resist weeds and sustain themselves in harsh conditions.

This spring, I'm planning on turning both sides of my main food plot area into a diverse perennial plot using species like cicer milkvetch, small burnet, chicory, blue flax, alfalfa and kura clover. This means I will need to successfully terminate the rye to prevent re-seeding so that it doesn't outcompete my new planting of perennials. 

I'm also planning on tarping a new area of perennial grass to expand my plot, but I will likely not be able to plant it until the following spring. This will be where I will plant my "pasture-food plotting" mix. This is a project I'm really looking forward to.

Lastly, I am planning on creating some mini single-species test plots this spring to test out native wildflowers that I could use to create a pollinator friendly native food plot mix. This is something I've been researching a lot lately. There will be a lot of work this upcoming growing season and I'm super excited to see if I can hone in on the ideal food plot recipes for creating amazing wild game habitat on my property. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Management Determines Vegetation

The climate and soil of an area will determine the range of potential plant species that can grow in a particular area. However, it is management alone that will determine the actual plants growing in any one area. 

For example, apple trees do really well in my area because they are well adapted to the climate and soil on my property. However, if I simply planted 100 apple trees on a nearby piece of land in full sun conditions such as an open field environment and did no further management then most likely none of them would survive.  

Why is this you might ask?  Well it is because of the management of our area. Apple tree buds are highly sought after by deer and elk. These game species, especially the deer, have relatively high populations, and especially in winter as these game migrate from higher elevations to the lower elevation areas. So in this scenario the deer and elk would likely over-browse the apple trees until the point they would die out. So in order to get apples to grow in our area we would need to manage these high game populations. This could be done several different ways.

 One way would be simply through hunting to lower game numbers. However because game populations are managed through the state and only a limited number of tags are allowed per individual hunter it would be nearly impossible to control the deer and elk populations in my area to the point where the apple trees in this scenario could grow. 

Another, much more viable option would be through exclusion. By constructing a barrier, generally a tree cage or fence, one could prevent access to the apple trees from the game and thus allow them to grow without getting browsed into oblivion. Besides fencing, other barriers one could use would be piles of thorny brush around a tree or even planting the tree within a thick patch of roses or briars.

 In my area there are actually wild apples that have been naturally planted from wildlife eating and spreading the seed and because of the abundant roses some were lucky enough to have the natural barrier of a rose bush grow around them and thus allow them to escape the browse pressure from the deer and elk. I have used all 3 methods to plant trees on my property, that being tree cages, brush piles and rose bushes, in order to prevent overbrowsing and they all have been successful. 

Another example of management determining vegetation type is the large amount of invasive weeds, like yellow star thistle and medusahead grass, on south facing slopes in our area. These plants are growing in areas that used to be vibrant native prairies with native perennial grasses and wildflowers, but because of poor management annual weeds have been allowed to take over.

 These weeds dominate these areas mainly because of 2 management actions. These are overgrazing and rest. Because of the high wild game populations in the area the more palatable plants are overgrazed while the least palatable plants are avoided and left to mature and reproduce. This over time favors the unpalatable weeds such as starthistle and medusahead and the more palatable natives die out. 

The second management action leading to these weeds is rest. Surprisingly it's the fact that there are not enough large animals on these landscapes that are allowing the weeds to dominate. This is because the weeds shade out any new perennial native seedlings before they can establish because the weeds are not being trampled to the ground, which is what the native perennial plants are adapted to. In the past larger herds of elk, bighorn sheep and even bison herds would have moved through the area periodically grazing and trampling everything to the ground allowing the native perennial grasses and forbs to thrive. And if you go back far enough there were even larger animals such as mammoths, mastodons, etc that would have definitely contributed to the periodic trampling of native plants. 

So if one were wanting to get rid of weeds in our area and return their property to a more natural prairie state then the best option would be to periodically allow livestock to graze and trample down the weeds and allow the perennials to come back. 

As you can see in these examples it's management alone that will determine what kind of vegetation is growing in any one area. This is an empowering realization that you have complete control over what types of plants could grow on your property (assuming they are adapted to the climate and soils), but it also means you have complete responsibility for managing it and any negligence would lead to undesirable outcomes including a lack of habitat for the wildlife you are trying to manage for. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to practice responsible management of the ecosystems in our control in order to create ecological paradises for wildlife and ourselves.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Occultation: The Ideal Small Food Plot Establishment Method

One of my biggest challenges since purchasing my property has been to find the best way to establish a food plot. Because my property was once part of an active cattle operation the majority of it is covered in perennial cool season pasture grasses such as Meadow foxtail, Smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass. This means the first step to transition a new plot into productive forage for wild game is to terminate these grasses and other weeds. 

The problem with these grasses, however, is that they are extremely resilient and hard to kill. Once they take hold they spread through rhizomes and will eventually create a dense impenetrable sod that prevents other plants from establishing. They also are very tolerant of close grazing and mowing. Even if you continuously scalped them with a weedeater every few weeks during the growing season some would still hold on and if you stopped they would slowly but eventually make a comeback and spread back to their original sod bound state. I know this from personal experience. So this ultimately is not a viable option to terminate them. 

Some other methods I've tried have been to use a shovel to flip the sod upside down to smother it. This was also unsuccessful because the roots would resprout even after being turned upside down and eventually would regrow through the upturned sod. This, like scalping with a weedeater, was a ton of backbreaking work, especially over a large area.  So, in order to terminate the sod I had to come up with something different. 

One option that would probably work, but that I wanted to avoid due to potential health hazards was the use of herbicides like glyphosate. While many people use chemicals like this to terminate pasture this was not a viable option for me because I am not comfortable using these potentially dangerous synthetic compounds in an area where my family, livestock and wild game would be frequenting. So at least for me my ideal sod termination method would have to be organic. 

Another potential option would be to use a rototiller or similar equipment to turn over the soil and terminate the grass. However, this would probably take multiple applications. Ultimately I would like to avoid tillage as much as I can to protect the soil health. My ideal method would preferably be no-till. 

After researching my potential options over the years I eventually came across the concept of Occultation.  While searching online for methods to terminate grass I came across some people who were using black plastic tarps to kill lawn grass to establish gardens in their yards. This method used the opaqueness of the tarp to smother and starve the grass of sunlight, killing it over several months. This method was both organic and no-till and also was relatively easy and didn't take a lot of backbreaking work. The one major downside being that it takes a long time to take effect. For me, this was totally fine, as I had plenty of time to establish my food plots. 

The more I thought about this process the more I realized how genius it was. In nature this is a very common way grasses die. As a meadow dominated by grasses gets invaded by shrubs and trees, they eventually block out the sun from reaching the grass and over time as the trees grow and their canopy covers more area the grasses cease the ability to photosynthesize. They eventually die out completely. This process in nature takes much longer than using a plastic tarp but the principle is the same. This is called occultation, which means to obscure from view. 

When we occultate a pasture from the sun with a plastic tarp we are preventing the grass from photosynthesizing. Over time the grass will use up all of its roots' energy reserves trying to send up new shoots to intercept the sun's rays. This process can also be observed when something such as a stack of firewood is left on a lawn for too long and eventually you create a bare spot because the grass has been starved of sunlight.

In my opinion, this is the best way to establish a small food plot. It is both organic and no-till and is relatively easy and affordable. 

In order to occultate an area of grass that you want to turn into a food plot you will have to first acquire an opaque plastic tarp. The most common type of tarp used for this purpose is a black silage tarp which can usually be purchased at farm supply stores. You can also sometimes find used ones for much cheaper or free from farmers who use them to make silage or to preserve haystacks.

 Another option that may work is used vinyl billboard signs. These can be found online from companies trying to recycle them. For the establishment of a food plot you will likely want to try to find the largest ones you can get your hands on. The one I have been using for the past couple of years was bought new and is 40'x100'. I have moved this to a new spot every year to expand the area of my food plot. You can do this every year until your plot reaches it's desired size or you can acquire multiple tarps to fit the size of your plot. 

 Once you have your tarp you will generally want to put it down as soon as grass growth starts in the spring. For me this is usually early March. Also you will want to prepare the plot the year before by mowing the grass short and keeping it short for a full growing season to weaken the roots. This will allow the tarp to kill the grass quicker the following year. You also want to make sure there are no cut stalks of stiffer weeds that could poke through your tarp and create a hole. If you do get holes, which you probably will after several years of use, you can always patch them up with duct tape. 

Once your plot is prepared and you're ready to put down your tarp you can unfold it and place it on the plot. Then once it is stretched out smooth you will need to weigh down the edges with stones or other objects to prevent wind from getting underneath and blowing it around. It's a good idea to check it every few weeks or so to make sure the wind hasn't moved it. 

After securing the tarp onto your future food plot in the early spring you will want to leave it there for at least 4-5 months to get a complete kill of the sod. If you prepared the area properly the previous growing season by keeping the grass short, then you will probably be able to kill the grass quicker. I would not do any less than 4 months, with 5+ months being ideal for a complete kill.

 Once your tarp has been sitting on your plot for the recommended amount of time then you can remove it and you will be left with the dead sod. At this point you are left with a blank slate and can plant a food plot using whatever method you prefer. 

For me, if I'm planting a perennial food plot, I will frost seed over the winter or wait until early the following spring to broadcast my perennial mix. Then, I will use my chain harrow to rake in the seed to get good seed-to-soil contact. If waiting until spring to plant, you may get some winter annual weeds coming up in your plot, but harrowing can help remove them. Also while your tarp is down you will want to make sure that no grass is producing seed anywhere near the tarped plot back to a minimum of 15' away. If you don't do this then the grass seed can blow in and germinate once the tarp is removed and could be very difficult to control without starting over.

That is the rundown of my preferred method for establishing a new food plot on virgin ground that is dominated by grasses and other weeds. This method was developed after years of research and personal experience and I think it is the best one for smaller food plots where you want to protect the soil from chemicals and tillage. 

For larger plots that you don't have years to create or the money to purchase all the necessary tarps then I believe tillage would probably be the next best option. While not ideal, because it can destroy the soil structure, this will recover over time as long as you are not repeating the tillage. A one-time till is a relatively safe option for a food plot establishment, in my opinion, although heavy weed pressure will usually be something that you will have to deal with.

 So there it is. Hopefully this information can help you establish your new food plot and you can create some great forage to feed the wild game on the property you're managing along with help you improve your soil health. 

Friday, June 24, 2022

Food Plots Update: Spring 2022

Since my last food plot update at the beginning of the year we have had some very interesting and mostly beneficial weather conditions and my food plots have really flourished up until now. My large test plot where I used the black tarp to kill the sod last year has done especially well. 

After planting it last fall with my cool season annual mix it germinated and grew very well before winter hit. Then we had a long cold snowy winter with continuous snow cover until early March. Then we had a very cool and wet spring up until mid June and because of the abundant moisture this plot performed amazingly. By late April this plot was getting quite dense especially with the winter rye and camelina. And then over the next month through the first week of June this plot exploded. In this short amount of time the rye grew from about 1 foot tall to about 6 feet and the Camelina also did exceptionally well. 

The rest of the species in the mix such as the various clovers and the hairy/woolypod vetch didn't do quite as well which I mainly attribute to too low of a seeding rate, being overly browsed by deer and also by being shaded out by the rye and camelina. However the few clovers and vetchs that did survive seemed to be thriving. Only a small handful of the rapeseed survived and I believe that was because of a too short of a season after germination before going into winter dormancy as well as poor winter hardiness so I will probably not include this in my future mixes. I also didn't see any common vetch that survived in this plot so I will also remove it from future mixes. The only clover I didn't see in this plot was the persian clover so I will probably not include it either. And the rose clover was fairly sparse in this plot as well so I will not include it in my mixes for areas with higher quality soils, but it did thrive in my road cut plot so I will keep it in mixes for poorer soils. So for my future cool season mix I will likely narrow it down to just winter rye and winter camelina, both at lower seeding rates, as well as crimson clover, balansa clover, arrowleaf clover and hairy/woolypod vetch all with higher seeding rates. 

In early June I decided to plant an annual warm season mix, which included soybeans, sunflowers, safflower, buckwheat, sorghum, and 3 types of millet. I planted it into last year's tarped plot that had the cool season mix as well as in an adjacent plot that I tarped to kill the sod from March until June this spring. For the new tarped plot I used the harrow to break up the dead sod and broadcast my summer annual mix into and harrowed again after broadcasting. So far this plot has had very good germination with my mix and I expect it to do very well over the summer. The only problem I see in this plot is that some of the sod grass was starting to come back so I will probably need to keep the tarp down throughout the summer in new future plots.

Next to this in my winter annual plot I broadcast my summer mix into the standing cool season mix and then crimped it down on top of the new seed. I probably crimped it down too early because a lot of the rye hadn't even begun flowering yet and after I crimped it a lot of it stood back up or regrew and proceeded to flower and set seed. However, I'm not too worried about this because it appears a lot of my summer mix still germinated and is growing well even with the shade from the partially standing rye. In the future though I should try to wait at least until flowering to crimp the rye so it gets a better termination rate. 

In my road cut plot last fall's cool season mix did fairly well, especially the clovers and hairy/woolypod vetch. I also broadcast several perennial mixes here in March, April and May and most seem to be doing pretty well. My biggest mix was a frost seeding mix I planted in March which included red clover, Aberlasting Hybrid clover,  birdsfoot trefoil, small burnet, forage chicory, forage plantain, blue flax and sweet clover. In April my mix included crownvetch and yellow alfalfa. And finally in May I planted cicer milkvetch. Our wet spring should help these mixes establish well and hopefully by this time next year these mixes will be flourishing. I also did a small test plot of just cicer milkvetch in a spot with better soil since I think it will be a key component in my future pasture cropping mix that I decided to delay planting until next year. 

Last year I also planted the cool season mix on some of the poorer soil areas that had been covered in invasive star thistles and other weeds. Like the previous year I mowed the starthistle in the summer during flowering then broadcast my cool season mix in September. These areas had some growth but overall they did not perform well. I think that because of the abundant weeds in the area,  that were unaffected by my summer mowing, my mix was outcompeted, especially by invasive grasses, and therefore grew poorly. So in the future I don't think I will reseed these areas with my mixes until I have terminated all the plants using a black plastic covering as this seems to be the best method to terminate grasses and weeds on my property. I will,  however, probably use livestock such as my geese and eventually sheep to improve the soil in these areas and eventually I will use the black plastic and put in new plots but that will be a fairly long term plan. For now I will keep it in more of a fallow state until I can put my animals onto it. 

Finally my roadside plot that I was using weed-eating and a cool season cover crop mix to kill off the starthistle seems to be doing very well. There is still some starthistle in it,  but it is way less than last year. This year I will once again weedeat it at flowering to prevent the starthistle from going to seed. I think my future plans for this area is to remove the medium and large rocks here during the winter so I can mow it with a lawn mower next year and I will likely frost seed it with a perennial mix so that it will be easier to manage.

So that is how my food plots are doing so far this year. It's interesting to see how my mixes are doing with these wildly varying weather conditions over the past few years. Last year we had a record hot and dry spring and this year's spring was the exact opposite with very cold and wet conditions. But these variations really help me test how well my seed mixes are adapted to my climate and I'm really starting to understand their requirements and narrow down the best performers. Doing these experiments I am continuously learning about how to provide wild game with excellent forage all year long and it continues to be a very rewarding endeavor and I'm looking forward to what else I will learn in the future.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Pasture-food plotting?


This year I'm planning on trying an interesting experiment with my food plots that I call Pasture-food plotting. It is a method directly based on Australian farmer Colin Seis's concept of pasture-cropping. Colin's basic idea is to grow annual crops in a perennial livestock pasture using special management techniques that allow both a seasonal perennial forage crop and in the opposite season an annual commodity crop. The main method used to allow this is a close grazing of the perennial crop during the end of it's season so it's roots will decay some and allow room for and provide nutrients to the following annual crop. Then at around the time the annual crop is ready to be harvested the perennial forage starts to regrow from it's dormant roots as temperatures become favorable and after harvesting the annual crop it grows up through the stubble and provides a normal season of growth for the pasture. Depending on climate this can either be done with cool season annuals and warm season perennials or vice versa with warm season annuals and cool season perennials.  This method is probably best suited for subtropical to warm temperate climates with precipitation spread fairly evenly throughout the year, but it is likely possible under some other climatic conditions as well.

So for my version of it instead of using a perennial pasture forage crop and an annual commodity crop I will be using a perennial food plot and an annual food plot both geared for ultimate wildlife forage value. I have decided to use a rotation of cool season annuals and warm season perennials. This is because according to Colin's pasture-cropping method you want to grow the perennials during the harsher time of the year for plants in your climate. For example in my climate summer is the harshest season. This is because we have a summer dry season and wild daily temperature swings. On the other hand our fall through spring period is relatively mild and wet and the natural vegetation in the area is mainly cool season plants to take advantage of these conditions. Because annuals need better growing conditions than perennials to do well I will be using them during our more mild cool season. Also unlike annuals, once established, perennial plants can tap into their extensive root systems to access moisture deeper in the soil during dry conditions and are overall better at handling harsher climates.

So now that I've figured out the seasonal growing habits of the plants I can use I can start to choose the actual species. For the cool season annuals I plan on using a fall planted mix which includes Winter Rye, Winter Camelina, Rapeseed, Crimson Clover, Balansa Clover, Persian Clover, Rose Clover,  Common Vetch, Woolly-pod Vetch and Hairy Vetch. This mix is the same one I used for my fall seeded food plots this past fall and over time once I see how it does I will likely alter it by adding and subtracting different plants to the mix depending on what does well and what doesn't. 

For my warm season perennial mix I think I will have a greater challenge finding species that will do well. This is because the natural plants in my area are mainly cool season because of our dry summers so I will need to find species that can tolerate drought conditions well. Also because of our large daily temperature swings during the summer I will have to make sure the species I choose can handle relatively cool nights down into the 50s and even 40s. I think this will greatly limit my options but I still think I should be able to come up with a good mix. One thing I've figured out is that I can look at other regions with similar warm season conditions but drier winters and see if warm season plants from those areas might work for my perennial mix. For example the northern plains and the eastern front of the rocky mountains have very similar summer weather to us in Idaho. Also like us they have a fairly wet spring time and most plants in these regions are warm season plants that get started in the wet springtime and grow through the dry summers. Unlike my area though these places have very dry winters so cool season plants are not as common.  Therefore I believe that if I can choose warm season perennial plants that do well in these areas then in theory they should also be able to grow well here. 

So after doing my research on warm season perennials that do well in the northern plains and along the eastern side of the rocky mountains I've come up with some species that could do well in my area. These include Illinois Bundleflower,  Purple Prairie Clover,  Cicer Milkvetch, Alfalfa,  Yellow Falcata Alfalfa, Sainfoin, Kura Clover,  Crownvetch, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Red Clover, Small Burnet,  Forage Chicory, Forage Plantain,  Blue Flax, Turkish Rocket, Goldenrod, Fireweed, Blue Grama, Little Bluestem, Buffalograss,  Switchgrass, Big Bluestem and Indiangrass. This is a fairly diverse mix and I fully expect a large percentage of these to not do well, however I think it's important to at least give these species a shot to see what will actually grow in my area. Also some of these species may be considered cool season perennials by some people, but I believe they all have the ability to grow during the summer months as long as conditions do not become too unfavourable so they should still work well for my experiment. 

So that is my plan. This year I will try seeding some of these warm season species into my current food plots in order to get some summer growth from my plots and then hopefully once established they will come back every summer. So once temperatures warm I will crimp or mow my mature cool season annuals onto the seeds of my summer perennial mix sometime in late spring and hopefully we'll get enough moisture after that to germinate them and have them grow through the summer. Then in the fall I will mow this mixture on top of the seeds in my fall planted annual mix and hopefully if the experiment is a success then I can do this every year and have diverse food plots providing great food for wildlife on a year round basis. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Food plots 2021: Year in Review

This year was a very valuable one for me in learning about my food plotting strategy. We had a record drought in the spring, record heat in the summer, a very warm wet fall and so far this winter we have gotten a ton of snow. All of these conditions presented unique challenges and helped me see which plant species were hardy enough to survive in the harsh and changing conditions.

After frost seeding a diverse mix at the end of last winter in March we experienced the driest spring on record for our area and that led to an almost complete failure in germination. The one big exception was the small burnet, which is proving to me to be an exceptionally hardy species and solidifying my decision to make it a key player in my future mixes. 

The mixes that I had planted in the fall of 2020 seemed to do fairly well despite our drought. Cereal rye continues to prove that it is a great hardy fall annual and provides a lot of forage and biomass. Also some clovers like crimson and arrowleaf have both proven to do very well in my area. This mix I think did pretty well because of it's fall germination and winter dormancy which made it already well established by the time it experienced the drought and is leading me to believe that as long as my seed mixes get a decent amount of moisture during the time of germination than they should be able to establish and survive through much drier periods.

This past year I did not plant a summer annual plot because of the drought, however I did decide to make a mini plot in my garden area where I planted buckwheat,  sorghum, sunflowers, lablab, cowpeas and scarlet runner beans. I gave this plot just enough water to keep it alive through the summer but only the sunflowers and buckwheat did ok. The rest barely grew and I will probably remove them from my future summer annual mixes.  I would like to try some other species this summer, however, to see if I can develop a hardy summer mix. Some species I'd like to try out are safflower, various types of millet, forage corn and forage soybeans. I think the summers in my area are just too cool for some of the more heat loving plants like cowpeas and lablab and it will be best for me to stick with warm season plants that are well known to thrive under somewhat cooler conditions. 

After our long hot and dry summer was coming to an end in September it was time to plant my fall annual mix. This fall I decided to come up with a very diverse mix and one which would be planted over the largest area of my property yet. I had a new plot where my large circular plot used to be where I had put down a large black plastic tarp in the early spring and left it into the summer to kill off the underlying sod. It worked very well and by September all the sod grass was dead. Then I decided to purchase a drag harrow to use to bury the seeds in the plot instead of just broadcasting over the dead sod. I actually broadcasted my fall mix first onto the dead sod then used the harrow to rake the seeds into the dirt and make sure they had enough seed to soil contact. This worked very well after our first fall rains in late September and we got excellent germination over the next month or so. 

I also spread my mix onto the roadcut that circles my property and it also had very good germination.  We had really good growth this fall because we had a wetter and warmer than normal fall. This allowed my mixes to put on some really good growth before they entered winter dormancy and I think we will get some great diverse and lush plots this spring especially since our winter up until this point has been very wet. 

Before this upcoming spring I will frost seed another mix onto my plots, mainly perennials, in order to make up for last spring and hopefully I can get some better germination than I got last spring. I also have plans to try out a very unique mix for an experiment I want to try out where I will be attempting the method of "Pasture-cropping" invented by Colin Seis from Australia. Although my experiment will be more like "Pasture-food plotting" and if successful could help me provide multiple seasons of forage in one single plot. More about this experiment in a future post so stay tuned. 

This year was another huge learning experience for me and I will no doubt be learning even more during this upcoming year and in future years. Also my food plotting areas will continue to grow in size and over the next few years I hope to have permanently established foodplots in every location on my property that is able to grow them. There's lots of exciting things to look forward to. I can't wait to see how it turns out.