Winning the Weed Wars in Your Food Plots
By: Kent Kammermeyer Certified Wildlife Biologist/Consultant
Well, you thought you did everything right. Let’s see, got that soil test, applied recommended lime and fertilizer, plowed vigorously and prepared a smooth seedbed, inoculated your legumes, carefully broadcasted your seed, covered lightly and prayed for rain. OK, then why are you standing here now and looking at an ugly patch of weeds choking out your deer plot? This is what they forgot to tell you about at the seed and feed stores. Maybe even the county agricultural agent or the wildlife biologist didn’t tell you either, because the infestation does not really occur at planting, but several weeks or more down the road.
Weed control is a very complex subject with a complex answer that varies from one piece of ground to another;depending upon the seed species or root systems already in the soil, the last time it was plowed and the weather (especially rainfall). There are hundreds of species of weeds, annual and perennial, ready and willing to jump on your planting and take advantage of all that money you spent on lime and fertilizer!
Why even bother controlling weeds? Because they can severely compete with your deer planting and thus lower the production, quality and utilization of your plot. A certain level of weed infestation can be tolerated, depending on what the invader is and what the final product of the target planting is - forage or seed production.
In late winter through mid-spring, you could be dealing with both categories of food plots – cool season or warm season. A cool season planting, planted last fall in perennial clover, alfalfa, or trefoil, which is now being invaded by warm season grasses. Or a warm season planting, planted in April or May with corn, grain sorghum, cowpeas, jointvetch, alyce clover, soybeans, etc. Each has its own set of problems and remedies we’ll discuss later.
Let’s go through this step by step procedure to simplify a complex problem and lead us to the best approach to win the weed wars.
1) Identify The Enemy. Is it a broadleaf or a grass? Is it an annual or a perennial? Was it here last year? If you can’t identify the weed, bring a sample to your Agriculture Extension Agent, University agronomy department, wildlife biologist, or even a nearby farmer. Here is a short list of some of the most common worst offenders by category: Broadleaf weeds include pigweed, ragweed, horsenettle, thistle, jimsonweed, morning glory, milkweed, coffeeweed (sicklepod). Grasses include fescue, Bermuda grass, bahia grass, johnsongrass, crabgrass, foxtail, panicum and many others.
2) Planning Is Important. In some respects, 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. Your planning effort from last year should have heavily influenced what crop is in the field now for the deer - a broadleaf or a grass. In other words, if you have had past weed problems from the grass family, such as crabgrass, plant a broadleaf (forb) such as clover, jointvetch, trefoil or peas. Vice versa, plant a grass such as grain sorghum (milo) if your weed problem has been a broadleaf. This system allows for selective control with chemical herbicides. In other words, you can get rid of your unwanted weeds by spraying right over the top without killing your target planting. See what I mean by planning? More about selective herbicides later.
3) Control Method (choose your weapon) – The three C’s: Cut, Competition or Chemicals. Many deer food plants are highly tolerant of repeated mowing or cutting. These include well established cool season crops like clover, alfalfa, and trefoil. You can often give your plants a good competitive edge by mowing the plot, which weakens or kills the weeds (slows down their re-growth) and stimulates quick re-growth of your target plant. This won’t work, however, with peas, beans, or grain sorghum, which are all warm season plants that do not respond well to cutting.
By planning ahead, you can also out-compete your weeds using shade. For example, if your weed problem last year was crabgrass, Bermuda or fescue, then you can plow in early spring, let sit, plow again and plant in grain sorghum (10 lbs/acre) or corn (15 lbs/acre), which grow tall and shade out these grasses. Broadcast rate is very important here (5 lbs/acre grain sorghum and 10 lbs/acre corn mixed or 10 lbs/acre grain sorghum by itself). You can even mix in iron and clay cowpeas (25 lbs/acre for a three-tiered level of shade. Variety can also be very important. For grain sorghum, use tall growing bird-resistant varieties (not WGF, a knee high plant) for best results. For effective control, you may have to do this shade plot two years in a row to really knock back your grassy weeds.
Of all the options, however, chemicals are often the best choice for your food plot. Chemicals are safe, effective, inexpensive, and cut manpower and plowing tremendously. From this point on, we’ll concentrate on chemicals.
4) Getting Started With Chemicals. Obviously, you have to have some spraying equipment. Usually a garden-type two or three gallon sprayer won’t do it if your weed problem is fairly extensive or your plot is big. You will quickly find yourself “under-gunned”. One possible exception is spraying thistle plants or fescue clumps individually if you have 25 or 50 of these isolated plants per acre in clover or other cool-season plots. A two percent solution of Glyphosate or 2,4-D can be used for this.
More likely, if you are serious about food plots, you will need a spray rig for a 4-wheeler or tractor. These are available in electric or gas driven for 4-wheelers and electric or PTO driven for farm tractors. Boom type sprayers are usually better than rainbow type sprayers because they minimize drift of spray over non-target plants as well as the operator. Sprayers range in price from $100 to $2,000, depending on size and features.
5) Read The Label. This cannot be emphasized enough. Do not apply any more chemical than the label directs! Use at least 15 to 25 gallons of water per acre for best coverage and effective kills. Do not mix herbicides unless it specifically states this on the label. Carefully calibrate your spraying equipment (your agriculture extension service can help with this) and carefully measure your food plot acreage. I have seen many half-acre plots that were eyeball estimated to be one acre, thus doubling fertilizer, seed rates, spray rates and everything. It’s a good way to waste money and reduce efficiency (not to mention accidentally kill good stuff). Read the labels!
6) Timing is Everything. Weeds are most vulnerable to chemicals 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; drift will render spraying ineffective and can be harmful to the applicator and surrounding vegetation. Again, when weed growth exceeds six to eight inches, mow, then wait two weeks and spray re-growth. Do not spray during an extended drought, weed control is ineffective and valuable crop species may be injured or killed.
In summary, chemical herbicides are a safe, effective tool to manage deer food plots. Once equipment is made 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 deer plants. The best of all worlds would be 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 eight years without replanting. This is really getting efficient and cost-effective. You too can win the weed wars through careful planning and judicious use of chemicals for weed control. The results will surprise you. Note: there are hundreds of herbicides that can be used on deer food plots. Check with your Agriculture Extension Agent for further information.
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