Eager to see healthy wildlife and happy hunting camps, wildlife biologist Steve Payne has all sorts of ideas about food plots. A long-time advocate of forage soybeans, over the last decade the north Mississippian has expanded his seed and variety offerings.

“I’m still doing a lot with soybeans, expanding into more varieties,” says Payne, who runs Senatobia-based Oak Haven Forages. “Originally, we came out with Quail Haven and Tyrone — long, tall forage soybeans.”

Four or five years ago, Payne began working with the  ‘TopGun’ vining soybean that is “similar to Quail Haven. One difference is TopGun has more plant matter.”

Another difference is the original Quail Haven was about 10 percent hard seed. TopGun produces 20 percent to 25 percent hard seed. The original Quail Haven would last two or three years before needing a replant. TopGun typically lasts five or six years.

“I had one TopGun field that was eight years old. I lost it last year because of an early frost Oct. 1-2. Those late soybeans were in the green pod stage and the seed hadn’t developed. The frost killed them.

“Of course, I save enough seed every year to replant. That field is back up and doing fine.”

For more, see Food plots and forage soybeans.

It sounds very odd, but for the last several years Payne’s biggest seller has been ragweed seed.

“Southern farmers may think I’m joking, but it’s true. Down here, it’s becoming Roundup-resistant and we’re trying to kill it and get rid of it. But, farther north and on the East Coast, there are many people planting ragweed for quail habitat. Ragweed is fantastic for quail.

“I get a ton of questions on ragweed — very few know how to plant it, propagate it and keep it coming back.”

And those planting ragweed for quail aren’t just above the Mason-Dixon; Payne is working with those building quail habitat in Arkansas.

“You’d think that land just west of Memphis would have plenty of ragweed. Over the years, though, farmers have done a good job of cleaning it up. Nobody seems to have hedgerows anymore.

“But, if you start driving through the Delta, look at the end-rows and turn-rows and check the tree lines. Airplanes applying Roundup have been taking out the trees; there’s very little edge left. I worry that the Delta will look like the Dakotas in another 10 years.” 

Now, he says, “Guys on Arkansas quail plantations are putting ragweed back along the edges and leaving it alone. And quail have come back there.

“I’m also working with folks in Illinois who are planting giant ragweed. Quail love to get in that, along with deer. It produces good cover because it can reach 10 feet tall.”

For more on food plots, see here.

About three years ago, Payne came out with the Everlasting Pea, which has proven popular.

“In the old days, before applying fertilizer became so common, everyone planted vetch,” he says. “They’d till it into the soil to provide organic matter.

“Actually, Kip Cullers — the producer in southwest Missouri who keeps coming up with record soybean yields — is big on organic matter. He doesn’t do a lot of no-till, but he’s very concerned with organic matter.

“Well, that’s what the vetches used to be used for — to put nitrogen and organic matter back into the soil. Of course, with the cost of fertilizers now, folks may be looking at that again.”

The Everlasting Pea is similar to a vetch, but grows about three times as tall and as fast. It’s one of the first green plants to come up in the spring.

“You plant it in September and October, but when everything goes dormant — even the clovers — in January and February the Everlasting Pea is the first to come out of dormancy.”

Deer are drawn to it because it’s the first green plant that emerges. Turkeys also love it because “it’s the first plant that brings bugs in, and they’ll eat the plant as well as the bugs.”

The ‘Bowdacious’ forage soybean, a late-Group 6/Group 7 conventional variety, is similar to those farmers may remember from the 1980s, says Payne. Hunting clubs have given the nod to the conventional varieties. 

“They like using the old Hutchinson, Ozark, and Bowdacious. On good soils, Bowdacious will hit five feet tall. Of course, a lot depends on the soils and deer pressure.”

Payne also makes use of hull-less oats in food plots.

“Often, the problem with an oat is that the hulls are so big.” When planting, “it can take three bags  (100 to 150 pounds) per acre. With a hull-less oat you can get by with planting 75 pounds per acre versus 150 pounds. Plus, it blends better and doesn’t cause trouble in planters or spreaders. “We’re also working with triticales, which are crosses between cereal ryes and wheat.”

Payne plants many forage soybeans on different clubs — especially those with a lot of bow hunting members. 

“As far as deer quality, it’s great to watch clubs steadily improve, especially when you’re dealing with land that’s behind the levee with timber companies. Often there aren’t a lot of areas suitable for food plots; you may have a right-of-way to work in, but not places to plant big food plots. That’s understandable — their interest is producing trees.”

When possible, “We shut off old roads and turn those into food plots. We’ll use power line rights-of-way and the like.”

A decade ago, taking a 130- or 140-class buck was a “superb” accomplishment on such clubs. After years of food-plot nutrition, “These clubs are producing 180-plus class deer. A few of them, like Catfish Point near Greenville, Miss., have been killing 180s regularly.

“We’ll drain old oxbows behind the levee and those make the best food plots ever. Of course, when everything floods, like last spring, those can be killed.”

Recently, many clubs that used to plant a lot of wheat and ryegrass have switched to more cereal ryes and triticales. “Those produce much more forage than regular wheat. A lot of folks think ‘a wheat is a wheat,’ but that isn’t the case. There are a lot of wheat varieties and deer have preferences.

“I’ve found a cereal grain niche through being able to fit them to different clubs. Which will produce the most growth? Which do the deer prefer? That’s why I switched over to a lot of triticales, hull-less oats and cereal rye. I don’t do much with wheats or bob oats.”

More and more of Payne’s work involves helping novice farmers.

“Sometimes I think that’s about all I do. With farmland hitting $3,000-plus per acre, there are a lot of people buying it for investment. February through October is ‘management season.’ I seem to stay on the phone and computer answering questions and shepherding things along.

“Honestly, I’m helping guys become mini-farmers. We even put planting directions on the front of our bags of seed. Most companies don’t do that with seed, but a lot of our customers need that information.”

With farmland currently so valuable, “One thing I’ll be interested to see is how much CRP land will remain in the program. Of course, I’m still working on putting marginal land into conservation programs.”