FOOD PLOTS 101: SELECTING AND BUYING SEED

Clearfield Production System Black Oil Sunflowers

Here in the northern portion of Pennsylvania we are entering the food plot planting window.  Having planned our food plots for this growing season it’s time to purchase seed.  Buying seed may appear to be rather simple but the reality is that many considerations go into selecting seed.

SELECTING SEED

Seed selection requires an assessment of local soils/site conditions, type of food plot (seasonal v perennial), growing season constraints, management philosophy, and the goals you have set for your food plots.   Whatever combination of factors drive your planning, purchasing seed can become complicated.

Most seed used for plots have agricultural origins.  We’re talking soybeans, corn, sorghum, clovers, and many other crops.   Seed varieties need to be matched to your local growing season.  For grain crops this means the maturity time required by the crop needs to fit into the normal growth window where it is planted (i.e., varieties that match your spring and fall frost free dates). 

Corn is a great example.  Field corn is sold as specific varieties or hybrids that have varying maturity times (maturity being defined loosely as physiological maturity).  These estimates for corn hybrids can be listed as days from planting to maturity (i.e., 114-day) or the thermal time between planting and physiological maturity designated by growing degree days, growing degree units, or heat units.

When purchasing corn for food plots it is important to select a hybrid that fits your local growing season.  If you select a hybrid that has a maturation time longer than your growing season that variety will obviously not completely mature and provide the grain you expect for wildlife consumption.  So, match your seed variety to fit your growing season for all plantings.  Sort this out online with a seed producer, State extension publications, or contact your local food co-op or feed store – they can help you with seed selection and provide recommendations.

BUYING SEED

Another major concern is where you buy seed and the type of seed to buy.  There are many sources for food plot seed.  These include farm producers, seed companies with dealer networks, and companies catering to the food plot marketplace.  Additionally, seed is available for conventional producers including varieties that are produced to be used with or without herbicides, for organic producers, and others that have special production requirements.

Some farmers save seed from previous crops for replanting and this seed may be purchased directly.  While farmer produced seed can be particularly well suited to local conditions (especially if a seed variety has been grown for many years) you need to make sure it is fully developed with a high germination rate and free of weed seed.  Most farmer produced seed does not go through the cleaning and germination evaluations that are required for commercial resale. 

While locally produced seed often has good germination rates, I do not buy it because of the potential presence of weed seed.  The last thing I want to do is import someone else’s weeds onto my farm where I will need to control that species in the future.  Once you have a “new” weed on your property you probably will never eliminate it. 

I buy my seed from known sources or suppliers that sell seed that is “certified”.    Certified seed is seed of a known variety produced under strict seed certification standards to maintain varietal purity. Certified seed lots also meet specified standards for other crops, inert matter, weed seeds, and germination. Certified seed is also free of prohibited noxious weed seeds.

Any certified seed you buy from a reputable supplier will have a tag attached to the bag identifying the seed, its germination rate, and the percentage of weed seed and other constituents.  Certified seed is well worth the investment and is what I purchase for my food plots.

Also be aware that many seed types are genetically modified to be used with herbicides.  These are varieties that are sold as “Round-Up Ready” or with a similar trademarked herbicide designation.  These varieties are planted and sprayed later with the selected herbicide that controls weeds but does not harm the “resistant” planted crop.  Be aware that herbicide resistant varieties are considerably more expensive than non-resistant seed.  Last year I planted both conventional field corn and glyphosate ready corn.  Conventional corn can cost from $85 to $130/bag versus $230/bag for RR seed.  Other seed can be even more expensive.  I purchased Clearfield Black Oil Sunflower seed last year that is herbicide resistant (Imox Imazamox) and that cost $340/28 lb bag. 

So where to buy seed?  This is a very interesting question and can create a lot of discussion among food plotters.  Before food plots became big business seed was typically purchased from agricultural seed suppliers at a local feed store.  Today there are fewer feed stores in many rural areas so sourcing seed has become a bit more challenging.  Conversely there are now many suppliers that cater directly to the food plot market.  Many of these suppliers sell proprietary or “branded” seed and seed mixes.  Many are sold in small quantities like 3 to 5 lb bags.

I have planted or observed many food plot products.  All seemed to be of good quality and produced acceptable plots.  These branded products – Whitetail Institute, Biologic, Tecomate, Antler King – are all reliable and have a strong following of users.

I don’t use these products on my plots, or my client plots, unless they specifically ask for them.  My reasoning is because of the cost.  If you’re a plotter with one plot or a few small plots then buying in these small quantities is probably your best option. However, when you’re planting acres and acres of plots the cost/lb of seed is prohibitively expensive when purchasing seed this way.

I purchase seed for myself and my clients from my local co-op or feed store in bulk quantities.  I can specify exactly what I’m looking for and if they don’t have it, they can typically get it in a week or less.  I can then blend the seed for the mixes I like to plant that do well on the specific soils at a food plot location.  Buying in quantity, typically 50 lb bags, reduces the cost of seed dramatically and reduces the per acre cost of planting food plots.  Buying this way requires you to have the ability to weigh and mix seed and safely store seed.

Operating this way, I make my own perennial mixes (i.e., deer plot clovers) and seasonal mixes at a fraction of the cost of buying branded products.  For example, this spring I will be planting a mixture of conventional soybeans, buckwheat, spring oats, and Peredovik sunflowers.  This mix will cost approximately $125/acre.  I will plant this as early as possible based on soil temperatures for soybean germination.  I know that the deer will likely graze out all the soybeans but that will leave the remaining three crops for forage and seed production through the middle of August.  At that time, I will mow that stand and replant with a brassica/winter cereal annual mix for a late fall/winter food source for deer.  I will also purchase and mix the fall plot seed mix myself as well by blending bulk brassicas purchased from the co-op to the proportions I want.  That mix is generally one-third to one-half the cost of purchasing bags of branded brassica blends.

Hopefully what is presented here will help guide your seed choices and purchases for your next set of food plots.  Quality seed is an essential part of a successful food plot.  Sourcing that seed may not be too difficult but it can be expensive so shop wisely.

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