As a consultant and avid land and deer manager, I often get the question, “What is the best thing to plant for deer during the spring?”
My answer is simple and the same for everyone – SOYBEANS. Even though my answer is the same for everyone, doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. There are plenty of instances where soybeans may not be ideal for you, which I’ll cover further down, but first, here’s why nothing matches the power of soybean food plots.
Soybeans provide quality forage nearly year-round
Compared to most other food plot varieties, soybeans trump them in terms of longevity. First, from the time they start poking their stems out of the Earth, soybeans are the go-to forage for deer. Nothing matches the nutritional quality of green soybeans. The green forage boasts crude protein levels upwards of 30%, which helps produce healthy fawns and big antlers throughout the summer. Bottom line is deer devour the forage of soybeans as long as they are green. If you want to scout summer bucks, soybean fields are where you need to be glassing during the evenings.
Depending on the length of maturity, and forage vs. grain-type beans, some varieties like Eagle Seeds Forage Beans will still be producing green forage into the early stages of the hunting season – up until the first hard frost. If green, hunt the beans. Eventually all beans will brown out and lose their leaves. Typically, there is a bit of a lull once the beans begin to yellow and brown until temperatures start to dip. But once the lose their leaves and dry out a bit, deer will start hammering the actual bean pods left on the stalk for the rest of winter or until the pods are gone. Thus, if the deer herd is in-check and an adequate amount of acreage was planted, soybeans have the potential to be producing high quality forage for nearly the entire year.
Another huge advantage soybean plots have is that many varieties are RR or “RoundUp Ready”, meaning you can control invading weeds by spraying herbicide right over the growing beans with no harm done. This is especially beneficial in first time food plot areas where weeds are often difficult to control. Even if it’s a small area, beans are a great tool to use for site prep of an area during the first year because they provide forage for deer while giving you the ability to control weeds. Any first time plot I make, I plant with beans just to get a handle on weeds while still providing a food source for the deer. Doing this makes it much easier to establish the plot with a different forage later in the summer or the following spring.
Bonus: Soybeans are a legume, meaning they fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere, thus reducing fertilizer costs.
Forage and Grain Varieties
These are the two broad categories soybeans can be placed. Which type you plant depends upon your objectives. For example, here in Wisconsin (farm country) I typically plant 50% of my soybean plots with a forage bean and the other 50% with a conventional agricultural grain bean. The reasoning? We have pretty rough winters with cold weather and snow during much of the late-season, thus I plant 50% grain beans because I want the deer to have a high energy food source during these times of stress. The 50% forage variety can better tolerate browsing pressure throughout the summer and will be extremely attractive during the early part of bow season when the agriculture grain type beans have long since browned out (depending upon maturation and date planted).
The above picture illustrates the difference in color between a longer maturing forage bean (left) and a conventional ag type bean (right) during the same time of year. Deer would still be hitting the nutritious green plot until temperatures begin to drop.
Forage varieties are developed to withstand grazing pressure, thus they are generally more viney and bushy,have slightly fewer pods, but more leaves and longer maturity. Grain varieties are what you typically see farmers planting and are shorter, stouter, and have fewer stems and leaves, but more pods. They put their energy into growing pods, not forage.
Bonus Tip: If you hold off and plant a grain type bean until late spring to early summer (beginning of June here in WI), there’s a good chance the beans will still be green during a portion of the early season. The key is to look at the maturation period of the seed and plan accordingly. On the flipside, you will risk the chance of limited pod production if they get hit with an early frost and/or drier growing conditions.
Just because soybeans are king, doesn’t mean they are magical. There are a few scenarios where I would highly advise against planting beans in your food plots.
Size of plot
Since deer love soybeans from the moment they poke their little heads out of the ground, areas under an acre in size typically get wiped out very quickly. Of course, the severity depends upon the surrounding food resources and local deer herd. For instance, browse pressure on a bean plot will be less in ag country where there are acres upon acres of bean fields planted by farmers, compared to plots planted in big timber country. Thus, a smaller plot can survive in ag country, whereas you may need a plot closer to 4+ acres to survive in big timber country where agriculture is nonexistent.
If you don’t have the size, I’d advise you plant something that will still be around come hunting season like a clover plot or a brassica/winter wheat plot. Better yet, do a double planting – soybeans in the spring and brassica/wheat mix in the late summer if it looks like the soybean plot isn’t going to make it.
Bonus Tip: Try fencing off your plot during the growing season with a solar electric fence to protect it until hunting season. Then, once hunting season arrives, open it up and you will have a hunting hot spot!
Site location includes factors like soil type and fertility, amount of shade vs. sunlight, and soil moisture to name a few. Generally speaking, beans are pretty tolerant, but they won’t do so well in saturated soils, shade, and/or acidic soils. The biggest thing is to make sure you take a soil sample and apply the appropriate lime and fertilizer recommendations. Find out how to collect soil samples HERE.
Size of deer herd
There have been plenty of times where I’ve had people tell me that they tried planting soybeans, but they never grew. My response, “Did you have a utilization or deer exclosure cage in your plot?” Most say no and ask what the cage is and what it has to do with the beans not growing. Well folks, a utilization cage is simply a four foot tall cylindrical fence about three feet in diameter staked down in a random spot of the plot to prevent deer from browsing anything inside. The purpose of these is to illustrate the browse pressure happening within the plot. I can guarantee you that had the “my soybeans never grew” individuals had a utilization cage, they would have likely had good growth inside the fence. However, without the fence it appeared as if the beans never grew, when in reality they were getting mowed down by deer.
In conclusion, the size of any given deer herd should determine your harvest goals and how much food you need to plant for deer. Just remember, if you have the acreage and right site conditions, nothing grows bigger bucks than soybeans.