SENATOBIA, Miss. — A few days ago, a man who walked into this field may have thought he'd stumbled into a fairytale land of giants. Tyrone soybean plants were so high that seeing the hardwoods ringing the field — even from a pick-up cab — was impossible. The bushy variety, which can grow from 5 feet to 7 feet tall depending on the soil variety it's planted in, blotted out the horizon. Then 2.5 inches of rain hit quickly, pounding the giant soybean plants into a matted (although still 3-foot-tall) lush, pod-heavy carpet.

It doesn't really matter. What does matter, says Steve Payne, is that deer trails are still evident and the beans are still harvestable.

It may seem strange that Payne actually wants these two things in the same field. But that would be before you know that Payne is a wildlife biologist who actually has a passion to restore old, forgotten forage beans to Delta land. There is a place for such varieties, he insists, especially in this age of food plots and hunting leases. It turns out that Payne, who runs Southern Wildlife Management, is the man to see if you're looking for old soybeans or new food-plot seed mixes.

Forage beans: then and now

Many years ago, forage soybeans were the ones to have. Old articles in agriculture publications speak about soybeans coming into Mississippi for forage. Little attention was paid to oil values. Now, hardly anyone talks about soybeans as forage.

That's changing a bit. USDA recently came out with three varieties — a Group 5, a 6 and a 7. Payne is now growing the Group 7 named Tyrone — “which produces 25 percent to 35 percent protein and is great for addition to silage or hay for cattle” — for Tennessee Farmers Coop in Laverne.

But finding a good, old soybean or a new exotic seed to blend in with wildlife mixes is what lights Payne's eyes up. Payne, a graduate of Mississippi State University with a degree in forestry and wildlife, says he is simply trying to fill a niche. When he graduated a few years ago, it was “obvious” that there was a big need for wildlife seeds and no one was filling that need.

“I have a friend at Mississippi State that helps me find old soybeans — like Laredo — that have been put back in seed storage for 15 or 20 years. Most of the seeds have lost their germ. But if we can get one or two plants, we can start a project and see what develops,” says Payne, who farms and manages a hunting club outside Senatobia, Miss.

Payne stops his truck next to a field of Laredo soybeans, a very old bush forage variety that gets about 5 feet tall and produces about 800 pounds of protein to the acre. The steady summer rains experienced in the Delta have muddied the roads. Payne, boots giving in the moist soil, walks down the road and into a field of Quail Haven soybeans and Egyptian wheat (another giant variety that grows as high as a basketball rim).

“Notice how the soybeans are growing up the wheat and pulling it over. MSU developed it in the 1960's to go in with silage corn to up the protein content. They found out they couldn't keep deer out of it.”

A healthy deer herd is clearly the goal for Payne and if the large number of deer trails branching through the field of Tyrone's is any indication, the herd is in fine shape. Deer clearly like the offerings. But the plants get so big, says Payne, that deer can't really hurt the crop. When the crop dries down, plant matter will be so low to the ground combines have a hard time picking it up. But it can be done, “you just have to drive through it slow.”

What about the Egyptian wheat?

Payne says a good thing about Egyptian wheat is it makes a great cover crop allowing deer to feel secure. It works very well along roadsides, shielding poachers from seeing fields. It grows up to 12 feet, but when it finally breaks, it does so mid-stalk. This still allows tall cover and the heads are close to the ground where deer. quail and turkey can get to them.

A typical growing year?

“We usually tell folks to plant in April and May to take advantage of rains. The forage soybeans have a much longer growing season. We've got a bean coming out in a few years that has a 140 day maturity.”

How to get started?

“You treat these soybeans like you would a regular soybean. Make sure your pH is around 6, make sure your fertility is good.”

When people see his wild looking fields, Payne often fields questions about how hard it is to revert to a controlled row-crop situation. He says the concerns are understandable, but nothing to worry about.

“I get questions about how similar this stuff is to kudzu. It'll climb all over tall weeds, but it's easy to keep back. I don't know why you'd want to kill it, but one shot of Roundup will definitely do the trick.”

Reseeding?

Payne not only has soybeans that reseed, but also a variety of Egyptian wheat. Wildlife enthusiasts really like the ability of these varieties to come back year after year, says Payne. “You come in around February or March and lightly disk the soil and that produces a perfect stand.”

Seeding rates?

For wildlife plots, Payne says most milos and wheats go in at 8 to 10 pounds per acre. Quail haven soybeans need 18 to 20 pounds per acre. Tyrone's require about 35 pounds and Laredo's need 35 to 40 pounds. For silage or hay, seeding rates for Tyrone's and Laredo's jump to 40-45 pounds per acre.

Planting?

A good rule of thumb with any seed is the smaller the seed, the less it needs covering, says Payne. If you get into very small seeds, roll packing is the best planting method. With bigger seeds — like soybeans and milo — you're looking at .5 to .75 inch depth.

“One of the big problems I see over and over with food plots is disking the ground, throwing seed out and then disking again. That means the seed is way too deep and won't come up.”

Food plots are all about location, says Payne. You may have a hill that is clean and think it's a good spot to put a food plot with minimal work. “Well, the reason it's clean is because the fertility is so poor. Put food plots where they'll work — a well-drained bottom that will allow the crop to come up. Don't skimp on location. Another place to locate food plots are low, rolling hills. Look for an area with a wide variety of densely growing weeds. That's an indication that the area will produce well.”

What about no-till food plots?

Even those claiming success with no-till food plots will tell you the land needs some kind of prep work, says Payne. Even if that means going out with a weedeater, you have to get the plant matter out of the way to get seed-to-soil contact as well as allowing the germinated seed to get sunlight.

“If you have a summer re-seeder like Quail Haven, people generally come in during February or March and lightly disk it. With clovers and the like, you come in during July or August when they're heading out. At that time, you go in with a bush hog. Don't scalp the land, but raise it up a foot or so and knock the top off. That way you're spreading seed out and promoting new growth.”

Payne says the most important and cheapest thing for anyone to do is a soil test. “You can spend thousands of dollars prepping a field and it won't do a bit of good if you aren't applying the right things. The tests are cheap and quick.”

And bow hunters take note: If you plant a wildlife mix in September, you'll be lucky to get 6 inches of growth by bow season off the wheat. If you want something substantial for bow season, Payne says you need a Group 7 soybean. You can plant those anywhere between April and June and have it ready for bow season. And remember, heavy deer populations often need large plots sizes of between 5 and 8 acres.

“Next week, we'll start planting our fall food plots. We use a lot of New Zealand seed. They've been raising deer there for the last century like the U.S. has raised cattle. So all their forages are developed for deer while ours have been developed for cattle,” says Payne.

Another field, another mix

In a search for sunlight and to fulfill genetic predestination, Quail Haven soybean runners twist and curl up everything standing within the field. Soybean vines choke Egyptian wheat stalks. Exotic milo is likewise being assaulted. This is a whole new habitat from the low-lying, sparsely vegetated bottomland that was here previously — and it has arisen in mere months. This is a new place for deer to bed, hide and feed, a new place for turkey to scratch, a new place to cut lanes and place well-paying hunters.

A former college football lineman, Steve Payne is a substantial man. But 10 steps into the wildlife plot — a Mossy Oak Biologic Seeds product called “Fans and Feathers” that Payne blends — and he is lost in the vegetation.

Several years ago, Payne was asked by Mossy Oak Biologic to blend varieties for the company. He does the aforementioned Fans and Feathers along with “Biomass.” Biomass is just now beginning to bloom. It won't be finished until the second frost kills it. Included in both blends are bush soybeans, cowpeas, forage milo and “a bunch of other stuff.”

The good thing about the varieties he's helping keep alive, says Payne, is not only do they feed wildlife, but they also create habitat. “Many people have big, open fields that they want cover on. But they don't want anything permanent. These varieties and blends provide that.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com