Cumberland Times-News

June 22, 2013

Columnist takes, passes Food Plots 101

Dave Long
Cumberland Times-News

— For years I have wanted to try my hand at planting a wildlife food plot and have finally taken the plunge.

This turns out to be somewhat harder than I would have initially thought. Those fancy plot-making machines you see on the TV ads make it look like a snap to create acres of wildlife habitat. Just pull it along behind an ATV and it churns up the dirt just as pretty as you please.

Well those types of implements are made for the soft and sandy soil of the south, not the shale enriched hillsides of our ridge and valley country.

Fortunately, several years ago I purchased a tractor, mostly to plow snow from my driveway, but also acquired a mold-board plow and disc harrow. Real farming equipment. The only trouble is that I am not a real farmer and I quickly realized that my lack of experience could make a mess, or possibly cause a wreck.

Believe me, I gained a new and vast respect for those of you who make your living in agriculture.

It took some hands-on lessons from a good friend who had grown up in the farming life for me to feel confident that I could get on the tractor and actually do something without killing myself.

So I ordered a food plot mix from the conservation group Pheasants Forever.

The mix is called Winter Survival and is designed to create a thick tangle of corn, sunflowers and sorghum to both feed and shelter birds through the harsh winter months.

Yes, I know that there are not any ring-neck pheasants around here, but I am by nature a bird hunter so that mix sounded right for my place and, besides that, they offered free shipping.

I figured that it might be possible to attract a stray flock of turkey to the plot, or at the very least enjoy watching cardinals, chickadees and titmice feeding there next fall while I waited along the edge of the woods to shoot a nanny deer.

I sod-busted a small patch along the back edge of my hay meadow, disking the plot several times to break up the root system from decades of growing grass. Following the planting instructions closely I even bit the bullet for some — probably not enough — fertilizer. Add to all that a decently wet late spring and, presto, there was germination.

Here we are deep into June and the sorghum is knee-deep, the corn is doing great and the sunflowers, well the sunflowers are what I wanted to tell you deer hunters about. It would appear that the deer absolutely love the things. They are leaving the sorghum totally alone, and nibbling the corn a bit, but the sunflowers do not have a chance.

The deer will wander through the patch and nip off every sunflower that they can find, apparently even sticking their head down in the sorghum to sniff out the smaller sunflowers growing underneath.

Some of this could possibly be blamed on rabbits, because we have a ton of them here this year, or maybe a ground hog, but the tracks and droppings point most firmly to Odocoileus viginianus.

Obviously this information is of no use to you guys who gun hunt in November. But for you early season bow hunters the sunflower could be your ticket to success. I was thinking you could go to your favorite hotspot in late August, scratch out a big patch of bare dirt and sow some sunflower seeds. It is still warm enough then that they would germinate and start to grow.

By the time bow season opens in September you could very well have the deer coming to your little stand of deer candy in the woods.

Going by what I am seeing on this little food plot at my place it seems obvious that deer truly enjoy a meal of young sunflowers.

My plot apparently is not going to bloom with big yellow flowers. But there should be enough seed on the sorghum and corn to keep the local songbirds happy. And just maybe that stray flock of turkeys too.

Dave Long is a retired West Virginia natural resources police officer and a frequent contributor to the Outdoors page.