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"Got lime?" This is my first question for the hunter on the phone who wants to know what to plant in their food plots. If the answer were "yes," they could come close to doubling their food plot production and greatly increase their protein and digestibility (DO use lime on food plots).
Lots of folks like to take shortcuts, and I was one of those when it came to deer plots — until I learned the hard way. We had to have lime to grow anything other than KY31 toxic fescue in our food plots in northeast Georgia.
Our soil tests were showing pH levels from 4.8 to 5.2 (extremely acid). Soil tests recommended three to five tons of dolomitic limestone per acre. Twenty-five years later, we still put over 400 tons of agricultural lime each year on parts of our 900-acre food plot system on 14 wildlife management areas.
There is no doubt in my mind that lime is the backbone of our clover plot program. Without it, we would be sunk. Why? Acidity is the number one soil problem in the entire eastern U.S. Past loss of topsoil, native acidity of woodland soils, and intensive use of croplands have all contributed to increased soil acidity. Nitrogen fertilizers, crop removal, and the loss of calcium and magnesium by leaching all combine to push soil pH downward. If allowed to remain, the soil cannot hold necessary nutrients and plants can't grow properly.
Agricultural lime begins to work immediately upon contact with acid soil. However, a full reaction may take as long as 12 to 24 months. Lime can be applied at any time of year, especially under dry spreading conditions and unbroken ground.
The performance of lime is enhanced by applying well in advance of the growing season. It is very important to incorporate lime into the top four to six inches of soil where it is available uniformly to the plant root systems. Lime does not move quickly downward in the soil profile.
Besides supplying calcium and magnesium which neutralizes soil acidity (increases soil pH), lime also promotes desirable bacterial activity in the soil, improves organic matter decomposition and increases a plant's ability to efficiently use fertilizer elements. Fertilizer without lime is about as effective as a deer rifle without bullets.
Most crops grow well at a soil pH of 6.0. However, to get even better performance (especially from legumes), we shoot for 6.5 or higher, which also increases the interval between lime applications by a couple of years or more.
Other tips include using a spreader truck wherever possible for convenience and price. Spread lime costs $20-35 per ton, versus pelletized lime costing $200 or more per ton plus labor to spread it in a fertilizer distributor. I know hunters who have done it with a four-wheeler or even shoveled out of the back of a pickup truck. If it has to be, it has to be, but try your best to locate your plots so they are accessible by lime truck and big enough to be worth a trip. Two acres or better usually equals a minimum of four tons of lime on an 8-ton capacity truck.
In summary, to get the most from your expensive seed and fertilizer — or even to get it to grow at all in many cases — apply lime according to soil test or even higher than recommended. It will contribute to higher protein, higher production, better digestibility and directly to better antlers. Lime is calcium, a major component of deer antlers.
Got weeds? Weed control is a complex subject which varies from one piece of ground to another, depending upon the seed species or root systems already in the soil, and even the last time it was plowed. There are hundreds of species of weeds, both annual and perennial, waiting to jump on your planting and take advantage of all that money you spent on lime and fertilizer (DON'T let weeds win the war).
In late winter and spring, you could be dealing with both categories of food plots — a cool season planting of clover, alfalfa, or trefoil which is now being invaded by grasses or a warm season planting, planted in April, May or June with corn, grain sorghum, or warm season legumes. Each has its own set of problems and remedies.
Let's go through a few questions and answers to simplify a complex problem and help us win the weed wars: Is it a broadleaf or a grass? What species is it?
If you can't identify the weed, bring a sample to your agricultural extension agent, university agronomy department, or even a nearby farmer. Some of the most commonly-encountered broadleaf weeds include pigweed, ragweed, horsenettle, thistle, jimsonweed, morning glory, milkweed, and coffeeweed. Grasses include fescue, bermudagrass, johnsongrass, crabgrass, and many others.
If you are standing in the weeds in June wondering what to do, it's too late for some of the best tactics. What weeds invaded this plot last year? Chances are it's the same species that you are looking at now. In other words, with good planning, if you have had past weed problems from the grass family, you should have planted a broadleaf such as clover, jointvetch or peas. Plant a grass such as grain sorghum if you have a broadleaf weed problem. This system allows for specific selective weed control using herbicides.
Of all the options — mowing, shading or herbicides — chemical herbicides are often the best choice. They are safe, effective, inexpensive, and cut plowing tremendously. How do I get started with chemicals? Obviously, you have to have some spraying equipment. Backpack sprayers can work, but if you are serious about food plots, you will need an electric or PTO driven spray rig for a 4-wheeler or tractor. Boom type sprayers are usually better than rainbow type sprayers.
What herbicide do I use? There are hundreds on the market. We'll concentrate on three — glyphosates (GLYFLO, Roundup), sethoxydims (VANTAGE, Poast Plus), and 2,4-D (HI-DEP). GLYFLO kills everything. It's best use is prior to use of a grain drill or disk harrow. With GLYFLO and a no-till grain drill, you can just about park your disk harrows or plows. In late winter and early spring, spray GLYFLO and drill clover, trefoil or oats. If no drill is available, spray, wait two weeks and plow and plant. GLYFLO can also be used as a spot spray for isolated invading weed clumps like fescue or thistle.
VANTAGE is a grass selective herbicide (with pre-mixed crop oil) that basically kills all grasses but no broadleafs. So, if we are standing in our food plot in May and the plot is a broadleaved perennial like alfalfa, white clover, or trefoil being invaded with crabgrass, or fescue, then VANTAGE is our weapon. Even new spring annual broadleaf plantings of peas, beans, clover, or jointvetch are candidates for VANTAGE. This is where last year's planning pays off. If this plot had grass problems last year, plow repeatedly and plant a broadleaf. When the noxious grass re-emerges, spray with VANTAGE for the knockout punch. Whichever scenario, if the noxious grasses are over eight inches tall, mow, wait a couple of weeks and then spray the regrowth.
HI-DEP is a broadleaf killer that has been around under many brand names for many years. It will not kill grasses. Grain sorghum or corn infested with coffeeweed, ragweed, jimsonweed, morning glory or any other broadleaf qualifies for a HI-DEP application. Grain sorghum is a little sensitive to VANTAGE, so read the label carefully.
HI-DEP, VANTAGE, and GLYFLO are all available over the counter with no pesticide license required.
Be sure to read the label. This cannot be emphasized enough. Do not apply any more chemical than the label directs. Use at least 15 to 20 gallons of water per acre for best coverage and effective kills. Effectiveness of GLYFLO and 2,4-D can often be increased by mixing with surfacants (spreader or stickers). Do not mix two herbicides unless it specifically allows this on the label.
Carefully calibrate your spraying equipment (your agriculture extension service can help with this) and measure your food plot acreage. I have seen many eyeballed 1-acre plots that were really only one half-acre thus doubling fertilizer, seed rates, and herbicides.
Weeds are most vulnerable to herbicides when they are vigorously growing or young tender seedlings. Do not spray when plants are wet or when rain is expected within 24 hours. Do not spray when it is windy. The drift can be harmful to the applicator and kill surrounding plants. Do not spray during an extended drought because weed control is ineffective and valuable crop species may be injured or killed.
In summary, herbicides are a safe, effective tool to manage deer food plots. Once equipment is available, effective chemical applications can be made for $15 to $50 per acre. Counting equipment and manpower costs, you cannot plow any cheaper than this and every time you plow, you will germinate a new crop of weed seeds to compete with your favorite deer plants.
The best planting and herbicide combination would be a treatment of herbicides followed by no-till drilling. Fewer weeds are germinated, soil erosion is greatly reduced, and seed placement is precise. Drilled plots can even be treated selectively with herbicide later as needed for final control.
By using chemicals, we have maintained vigorous ladino clover stands for five to 10 years without replanting. You too can win the weed wars by careful planning and judicious use of chemicals for weed control.
For more information on the Quality Deer Management Association, visit www.qdma.com.