Brassicas And It’s Applications
As gamekeepers, some experiences in managing the land for wildlife just become riveted in your mind. One that I’ll never forget over decades of planting food plots is the first time I put a crop of brassicas in the ground many years ago. At the time, these plants were new to the world of food-plotting. Within days after spreading the seed a field of attractive, bluish-green plants came up. After growing mostly clover and cereal grains until then, I was intrigued with this strange-looking cultivar.
The deer? Not so much. They continued to nibble on the lush green oats and clover plots nearby and ignored the “new” food offering.
But the brassicas just kept growing and growing. By early October the plot in front of my office was 18 inches tall, with huge leaves. And it was still ignored by the deer.
Then, I returned from a short trip one day and discovered the plot of brassicas was nearly decimated. We had experienced sharp frosts while I was gone, and the starches in the plants had converted to sugars. Now the whitetails were extremely interested in the “new” food. It looked like a tornado had blown through the plot! From tales I’ve heard, I was fortunate that the deer on my land adapted to the new food so quickly. Some landowners, back then, said it might take a few years for the deer to get used to this new food source. That wasn’t my experience. In fact, in following years the brassicas would receive a good amount of feeding pressure even before cold autumn nights arrived, with deer nibbling them as soon as they emerged from the ground. With improvements in palatability in many brassica varieties, most property owners now see these foods consumed the first season they are offered.
Timing is Vital for Optimum Results
All food plot offerings have an optimum time for planting. For brassicas found in mixtures such as Maximum, that time ranges from late June through October, depending on your location. Plant them in late June or early July in far northern states and Canada. In central and southern states, it’s best to wait until late July or August. In the South, sow brassicas in September or October. Within a week after seeding Pending moisture and soil temperatures) you’ll have plants emerging.
Tip: To avoid disease and pest problems, don’t plant brassicas in the same plot for more than two years in a row.
Brassicas are members of the mustard family (Brassicaceae). They include many plants, some growing wild, some used in agriculture for livestock feed or cover crops, still, other strains developed especially for deer. Wildlife managers love them because they are simple to grow, offer high protein content, and are fed on eagerly by deer, but these plants also have other benefits for deer (which we’ll get into later). They are also good for the soil, future crop plantings, and the environment.
While these cultivars can be sowed individually, there are some strong advantages to planting mixes. This way you get the advantages of each plant, some of which might be at peak digestibility or protein content at slightly different time frames. Other strains may last longer into cold winters when planted in the North. Some offer bulbs that deer can dig up after the leaves have been consumed. A few are so impressive, however, that they are sold and planted individually, such as radishes.
Appropriateness for Deer
Brassicas were first popularized for food plots by Mossy Oak Biologic, which discovered that these plants were being used extensively in New Zealand where deer are raised commercially for venison. Breeders there found the plants were perfectly suited to the small rumens deer have because of their protein levels, tenderness, and high digestibility. The deer wound up packing on not only body weight, but also tremendous mass on their antlers, which are also marketed by the deer farmers.
Seeing these qualities made BioLogic focus on the little-known cultivars for deer hunters as they entered the wildlife seed business. For a while, this company’s wildlife seed products were synonymous with these plants, but soon they developed a broad selection of other quality food plot offerings.
And at the same time, the cat was out of the bag for brassicas. Other companies in the seed business all began coming out with their brassica offerings. Some used mostly the cheapest versions of this plant type they could find, typically dwarf Essex rape. Others put a bit more investment in their products and added more expensive and palatable varieties such as kale, turnips, radish, and other brassicas.
But being first in the field, Mossy Oak helped discover and develop new types of this plant that were especially beneficial to deer with the highest level of taste appeal possible, including many true brassicas such as the “Biomagic” brassica. Though there are hundreds of brassicas, the major groups used in deer food plot mixes include rape, kale, turnips, radishes, field mustards, and true brassicas.
This brassica is known for its high protein content. (One bag I saw in a feed store warned that the protein content was so high it could “blister the skin of pigs” if they got too much.) Dwarf Essex is the most inexpensive, but there are several improved versions available.
Kale is another important brassica, with tender, lettuce-type leaves that are easy for deer to chew. It has 18-25 percent protein and is one of the most cold-tolerant of all brassicas.
These plants develop a bulb that deer can dig up and eat after they’ve devoured the large leaves. The bulb has 12-15 percent protein, the leaves 15-25 percent.
Radishes, called deer, daikon, or oilseed radish, have become extremely popular because they are fed on readily by deer even before frosts, making them great plantings for earlier in the hunting. They also have some of the highest soil-enhancing properties of all brassicas.
True Brassicas and Field Mustards
These include many species, some of which grow wild. All share high protein levels and digestibility, growing best in well-drained soils.
One of the great things about brassicas is that they are among the best food plot offerings available for both small-tract landowners and those with large properties. Even a half-acre plot of brassicas can attract deer if most of the surrounding land is planted in corn and soybeans. This makes for great “kill plots” near bedding cover or transition corridors. But yet again, because of their nutritional qualities, brassicas are also great for large nutrition-plots meant to simply feed lots of deer in addition to improving the health and well-being of the herd.
Keep It Simple, Stupid…and it doesn’t get any easier than growing brassicas. They’re simple to plant and easy to grow. They don’t require inoculants or drills and do well simply broadcasted and lightly covered. They only require a pH of 6.0 to thrive (and will often do well in even more acidic soil as long as the required fertilizer and maybe some pelletized lime are added) and they respond aggressively to added nitrogen. For optimum growth, add an extra dose of this nutrient a few weeks after the plants emerge, and later if they struggle or lose their rich green color.
Another plus of brassicas is that they mix well with other plant varieties of forage such as cereal grains and annual clovers. Many of Biologic’s offerings such as Last Bite, Green Patch Plus, and Full Draw include these components to extend their time frame of peak palatability, nutritional content and appeal to animals with different taste preferences.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Brassica crops have many beneficial attributes including rapid fall growth, high biomass production, a well-developed taproot, excellent nutrient-scavenging ability, competitiveness with other plants, and special pest resistance capabilities.” Some varieties have high glycosinolate compounds and defend against certain competition.
Brassicas are high in vitamin C, digestible fiber, and selenium, as well as vital micronutrients such as copper, boron, and zinc. Protein levels can average 30 percent or more, typically ranging between 20-36 percent for the leaves, around 12-20 percent for the root bulbs. This is important in balancing out the lower protein content deer typically find in most natural forages, bringing them close to the optimum 16-20 percent level they require to thrive. The energy value brassicas offer is extremely high as deer prepare for the rigors of the rut and the challenges of winter. These plants are also tall enough to protrude above most snowfalls, allowing deer easy feeding access during winter when plants such as clover and wheat are buried.
The sheer volume of food the plants offer is amazing. They can produce up to 30 tons of forage per acre when proper care is taken with liming, fertilizing, and weed control.
One of the most appealing things about brassicas is that they are easy to grow. The biggest danger I’ve found for novices is over-seeding or not doing a soil test. Yes, brassicas can grow OK in lower pH than most other food plot crops, but they do best just under neutral, 7.0. With quality products from many of the major manufactures, nowadays one thing they should have in common is a high germination ratio.
Most managers use rates far too thick. If too many plants emerge, stunted growth is the outcome. Any seed from the surface to 1⁄4-inch deep (and deeper) will likely germinate. Follow the seeding rates or you won’t obtain the full benefits these plants can offer.
In fact, with brassicas, if you can keep weeds from filling in the bare spots before the crop grows large enough to shade out their competition, some feel that planting at a rate just under the recommended recipe works best. Brassicas can pump out some amazing yield, and if the plants can expand and saturate the extra space and they receive about 75 to 85 days of frost-free growth, amazing yields are possible. To grow the biggest root-producing brassicas (radishes, turnips) and beets, back off the rate by about 10%. Again, “IF” you can control the weeds.
To a certain extent, they’re very browse-tolerant new brassica leaves that will grow back after deer consume some of the plants. The ultimate strategy, however, is to put in enough acreage so there’s always a fresh supply of untouched plants. Then the plants can reach their “terminal yield” and you can feed your herd right through winter.
Buy Mixtures and Watch Your Timing
When you buy from a company such as Biologic, you’ll often be purchasing “blends” of brassicas and maybe other plants. This ensures you’re getting the highest quality varieties in proportions that complement instead of competing with each other, as determined by years of experimentation and testing. You can’t do that if you go to the co-op and try to throw together a few cheap generic offerings.
As mentioned earlier, it’s important to precisely time your planting to the best period for germination and maximum growth. If you plant brassicas too early, they will look good for a while but soon the summer heat and long hours of daylight will get to them. Some of the plants may mature and flower, becoming less attractive to deer.
On the other hand, don’t wait too late, either. In this case, the plants won’t have time to produce their maximum possible yield – you’re just not taking advantage of the brassica being such a prolific manufacturer. This is the lesser mistake, since they will still grow and attract deer, but they simply won’t produce as much food.
As you would with any food plot planting, do a soil test and add fertilizer as needed. Also, add lime if required to bring the pH up to at least 6.0. Kill any existing vegetation with glyphosate, and then till or disk the ground repeatedly until you get a firm, smooth seedbed. Cultipack, or use a weighted drag or harrow to smooth the seedbed.
Broadcast the seed and cultipack again for the best results. These seeds are tiny, so barely cover them with 1/8 to 1⁄4 inch of soil. They’ll sprout quickly with moisture, sometimes within 3 to 4 days. If rain is predicted, you can sometimes simply spread them on top and get good germination. After the plants have reached 4-6 inches tall it’s OK to add about 80-100 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer such as 34-0-0, 43-0-0, or similar per acre to enhance growth and tonnage of forage production. Remember, nitrogen fertilizers like these should be broadcasted before a rain (or if just planting, worked into the soil) so a large portion of “N” isn’t lost to volatilization. It’s said that without rain, depending on the soil’s pH, soil temperature, and moisture content you’re likely to lose at least 40 percent of the nitrogen applied as urea in the form of a gas.
In addition to providing high-quality nutrition for deer, brassicas also have many benefits for the land, the soil, future crops, and the environment. One of these qualities is the ability to aerate the ground and improve the soil, making it better for future plantings. Many plots suffer from hard, compacted soil. This makes it difficult for roots to penetrate deeply enough to obtain sufficient moisture and nutrients to thrive.
Planting radishes, and other brassicas, dramatically improve this situation. These grow a deep taproot that will break up or drill through the hardpan and aerate the soil when the root decomposes. This allows moisture to penetrate and enables the roots of future crops planted on the site to make use of the nutrients further down in the soil.
Beyond that, brassicas can also “scavenge” nitrogen from those deep levels and deposit it higher, making it more accessible to other future crops. That of course reduces fertilizer costs. The taproot of some brassicas such as radishes can penetrate up to six feet or more, while the main fleshy upper root can dig 20 inches down. This is an inexpensive way to break up hardpan, compared to deep ripping or other mechanical methods to reduce soil compaction.
According to the USDA “brassicas also provide excellent nitrogen scavenging potential and the taproots are outstanding at penetrating tillage pans and dense soil layers. An acre of brassicas can scavenge 40 pounds or more of residual nitrogen from the soil. The roots help to penetrate and sustain healthy organisms to restore soil structure.” They also scavenge calcium and phosphorous from deep in the soil which other plants in turn can use. When they die, brassicas quickly decay, leaving up to five tons of organic matter per acre, but without much surface residue to remove, making spring planting easy.
Preventing erosion is another benefit brassicas offer, making them popular cover crops. The plants also provide excellent weed control. These plants grow so quickly and have such a large leaf canopy and deep roots that they choke out most unwanted weeds and grasses in a plot, preparing it for a future planting of a different crop the following year.
A Midwest study showed that growing brassicas reduced weeds by two tons per acre compared to fallow fields. The USDA’s NRCS says “Brassicas can provide full-canopy cover to shade out weeds in just 3-4 weeks.”
As experienced food plotters know, weed-encroachment is usually your number one enemy. Brassicas will help you win that ongoing battle, readying the soil for planting corn, chicory, clover, or alfalfa the next year.
Here is one more biological benefit the USDA points to. “An additional special feature of most brassicas is that they produce compounds, called glucosinolates, which are toxic to soil-borne pests and pathogens. Biotoxins produced by brassicas when they decompose are toxic against many pests including insects, harmful nematodes, and weeds.” Studies show they can reduce the need for the use of pesticides by farmers, with over 100 different glucosinolates found in these plants.
A great high-protein food source from fall through winter, a terrific soil enhancer, a valuable tool for combating weeds, a nitrogen-scavenger that can control destructive pests— those qualities make brassicas one of the best plants you can turn to for late summer food plot plantings that will attract, hold, and nourish deer on your property throughout fall and winter, while also benefiting the land for future gamekeepers.
Now getting back to that lead scene where I had planted brassicas for the first time. Once the deer turned to the frost-sweetened plants, it was non-stop action every afternoon. That let me set up downwind and eventually put my tag on a heavy ten-pointer before the whitetails had obliterated the plot.
After that long-ago introduction to brassicas, I vowed to plant more of these “new” food plot forages. I did, and have every year since then for over two decades now.
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