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Bill Marchel: Dealing with drought

If you are a land owner and manage your property for deer and other wildlife like I do, the current drought conditions are making planting and maintaining of deer food plots and other wildlife habitat enhancement efforts difficult or impossible.

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To water his apple trees, Marchel carried bucks of pond water to give the trees a drink during this spring/summer drought.

It’s no secret Mother Nature has been extremely skimpy with rainfall this spring and summer, at least in the central part of the state.

If you are a land owner and manage your property for deer and other wildlife like I do, the current drought conditions are making planting and maintaining of deer food plots and other wildlife habitat enhancement efforts difficult or impossible. In addition, the cost of seed, fertilizer, and fuel is rising making crop failure even tougher to stomach.

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This food plot of oats and annual clover was planted in mid-August after a dry summer and in one month looked like this. Even during dry summers, usually adequate rain falls in August and September allowing landowners to plant and get a crop before the end of growing season.

It’s difficult to express how frustrating it is to watch, for instance, a newly planted food plot of soy beans become overrun with weeds because the beans failed to germinate due to a dry spell. Equally taxing is when you discover that recently planted fruit trees are shriveling up due to a shortage of moisture.


For 25 years I’ve been managing my 70 acres for wildlife. Never have my food plots been so overrun with weeds as they are this summer. Pigweed is my biggest nemesis but lambsquarters is a close second. Both opponents do just fine under the current dry conditions, and in fact seem to thrive in the absence of rainfall.

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Under good growing conditions, deer-attracting plants will compete with weeds because they grow quickly and thus shade out most weeds. Also, periodic mowing discourages most broadleaf weeds.

However, mowing during a dry period can be damaging to clovers and other desirable food plot plants. Normally I would mow my perennial food plots at least two times during a summer, but this summer I haven’t mowed at all because I was afraid of damaging the more delicate and desirable plants. Now as I monitor my food plots during this growing season the results of not mowing during the drought are obvious: Weeds have proliferated.

All is not lost, however. During past years I’ve discovered several ways to salvage weedy food plots.

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Mowing clover food plots during times of adequate moisture as illustrated helps reduce weeds, but mowing during dry periods like we are now experiencing stresses the plants and should be avoided.

During July or early August I’ll spray the weedy food plots with a herbicide, or disc a weed infested food plot. Then during mid to late August after a good soaking rain I’ll plant oats. Some land managers prefer wheat or rye to oats, but I like to use oats because they are not cold hardy and will die during the winter. Thus, the food plot will be relatively clean the following spring, allowing me to disc or cultivate without all the old plant stems, which tend to clog my implements.

A few weeks after planting the oats food plot will resemble a lawn. Deer relish the new green growth and will gravitate to the oats. Granted, oats don’t provide the near year around nutrition that a food plot of clover or other perennial would produce, but remember, the oats planting is a “fix” for a previously failed food plot due to drought.


Another late summer remedy for a weedy food plot is to prepare the area as in the example above, but instead of oats, plant brassicas. Brassicas should be planted in mid-August. They grow quickly and stay green into the winter. The large leaves are most palatable to deer after a few hard frosts. Brassicas food plots make excellent spots for late season bow or muzzleloader hunts.

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On May 20 I seeded a one-half acre food plot with soybeans. Now, nearly a month later, I estimate only ¼ of the seeds have germinated. The high and dry sections of the food plot are completely barren of plants. The weeds, however, are doing just fine.

Even if adequate moisture falls in the coming days, I’m not sure the remaining soybean seeds will germinate. If they do, will the additional competition for moisture from the weeds that have sprouted ruin the food plot?

What I do know is that if the seeds don’t germinate, come August I’ll rework the soil and plant oats or brassicas.

Then I’ll pray for rain.

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BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.


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