The Drought Dilemma Dry weather doesn’t have to be the end of your food plot

By David Hart

Blame it on a string of unfortunate weather events or an act of God. Whatever the reason, this past year was one of the driest on record. More than half the contiguous United States was under what the National Climatic Data Center labeled moderate to exceptional drought in July 2012, and 78 percent was abnormally dry. Although autumn rains did help in some regions, things haven’t improved much throughout a large part of the country since. (I’m writing this in November 2012.)

If that’s not enough, consider this: At least one region of whitetail country has been under an exceptional drought for at least the past six years. More bad news? Some predict the drought will become the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history if the current weather trends remain in place. And there’s a good chance they will, according to the National Weather Service. That’s troubling news for deer hunters who plant and maintain food plots. What should be a guaranteed way to draw deer and keep them on your property has turned into a gamble.

First, the Bad News

Few if any food plot plants planted in the spring just a few months before the rain stopped, not even the most drought-tolerant ones, could survive through the extreme drought conditions parts of the country dealt with in 2012. Not only did the recently planted food plots struggle at best and most die, so did such crops as genetically modified soybeans, corn and wheat, all designed to withstand dry spells. Short of irrigating a food plot, there isn’t much a deer hunter can do to overcome the worst conditions.

Hope for the hopeless

There are, however, plenty of steps that can help reduce the effects of abnormally dry weather, said Whitetail Institute vice-president Steve Scott. First, the most important thing a food-plotter can do is get the soil right by conducting a soil test and amending the soil with the recommended amounts of lime and fertilizer. “Healthy plants in properly prepared soil will usually survive most drought situations,” he said. “Most of the food plots that we grew looked pretty bad during the worst of the drought, but once we started getting rain near the end of the summer, they ended up doing pretty well because we made sure the soil had the proper fertilizer and pH before we planted the first seed. We were also careful to make sure our perennial plots were in the best shape possible before it got dry.” That’s just part of the drought-defeating equation. Not only is it mandatory to get the dirt right, it’s also very important to choose the plants best-suited for that soil. Imperial Whitetail Clover, for example, isn’t the best choice for well-drained soil or a high spot that won’t hold moisture. Because they are shallow rooted, clovers tend to do best in heavier soil that holds moisture. That’s not to say clover won’t grow in a slightly drained soil but it is just less drought tolerant on that type of site. “Use a product that’s right for the type of soil you’ll be planting in and you won’t have to worry as much about negative weather situations,” Scott said. “Alfa-Rack Plus, Edge and Extreme are our most drought-tolerant perennial products because they include plants that are extremely deep rooted and are better adapted for well-drained soils.”

The Right Plant

All of the above-mentioned products are perennial blends that offer a variety of forage options for the deer. Blends stand a better chance of giving the deer at least one food choice during harsh weather conditions. If one plant goes dormant, another might stay more vibrant and provide a more consistent food source. Blends will be much more likely to outperform single-seed products in adverse soil conditions that are common in food plot areas. As mentioned earlier, the seeds in Alfa- Rack Plus, Edge and Extreme grow a deep root system, so they can reach moisture deeper in the ground than plants like clover. That allows them to endure everything but the most extreme dry spells. The leaves might wither and appear dead during a drought, but most often the roots are just dormant, waiting for a good dose of water. When they get it, they’ll most often sprout new stems and leaves and do just fine. Imperial Whitetail Clover doesn’t have roots that grow as deep but it can tolerate some pretty harsh conditions if it’s already established before dry weather sets in. It might shrivel up and appear dead during the peak of a drought, but when it gets ample rain in the fall, it will most often rejuvenate and grow with vigor.

Timing is everything

How well food plots do depends on when you plant them because no matter what you choose to plant, when you broadcast your seed will often determine the success of your food plots. Follow the recommended planting dates from Whitetail Institute. When the directions are followed, including the recommended planting dates, you should expect great results from various annual spring planted seeds like vining soybeans, lablab and other annuals found in Whitetail Institute’s Power Plant. The key, said Scott, is to get PowerPlant in after the last frost and after the ground temperature reaches 65 degrees but before the summer dry spell sets in. “When planting perennials in the spring, push the plant date as early as you think you can get away with it,” he added. For fall planted seeds, instead of pushing the early date, aim for the tail end of the recommended planting dates. Put your clover in too early and it might get enough rain to sprout, but that rain might be followed by another hot, dry spell that can ultimately kill any tender sprouts. “The first rain is important, but the second rain is even more important,” Scott said. “Watch the weather. Although you can’t always count on the forecast, it at least can give you a pretty good idea if it’s a good time to plant.”

Be Nice to Your Plots

By itself, a long, hot, dry spell can be tough on a food plot, but mowing or spraying it at the wrong time can spell the end of a plot hanging on the edge of survival. Scott said one of the worst things a food plotter can do is attempt to control the weeds when the plot plants are already stressed. Whether you use mechanical weed control like routine mowing or you prefer to spray herbicides, both can be the kiss of death to your plots if done when the plants are already struggling from hot and dry weather. There’s no question unwanted plants like grasses and invasive broadleaf weeds rob your plots of critical moisture and nutrients, and can crowd out the “good” plants. However, it’s far better to leave the plot alone and wait until they get some rain and recover somewhat before mowing or spraying. “If it’s hot and dry, the weeds are probably dormant anyway, so there’s really no point in attempting to knock them back with a bush hog or a herbicide. Plants have to be actively growing in order for a herbicide to have any effect, and mowing during these hot and dry times will most likely do more harm than good,” Scott said. Spray or mow only after your plots become green and vibrant, even if it means waiting until the fall or even next spring to conduct some routine maintenance. When it’s hot and dry, doing nothing to a food plot is far better than doing the wrong thing.