Cowpeas originated from Africa and have been grown in the United States for several centuries. But even though they aren't new to the New World, they are the new craze in the food plot world. Everybody is planting them, and a lot of deer are eating them. And for good reason — they’re highly attractive to whitetails and other wildlife. This highly digestible plant quickly becomes a significant part of the local herd’s diet when present.
Cowpeas are extremely prone to over-browsing — especially during the early growing phase. I’ve planted cowpeas on many occasions and several times resulted in failed stands due to decimation soon after germination. If planting a small plot and/or doing so in an area with high deer densities, it’s important to fence it off to prevent deer from consuming it too quickly. If you choose not to add a deterrent, it’s best to plant at least 1 to 2 acres of this to soften the blow. If that’s not possible, plant in close proximity to other highly attractive food sources such as soybeans. Either (or both) of these things should limit the amount of pressure deer put on your plot(s).
Once established, this plant species provides an abundance of food for whitetails. It begins feeding deer in summer and continues providing forage through late fall. I highly recommend planting this warm-season annual.
Cowpeas prefer more acidic soil. So, you’re generally a little more likely to get away with not taking a soil sample — especially in areas with known downfalls. That said, it doesn’t hurt to apply an adequate amount of 13-13-13 fertilizer just prior to planting.
As with most plants, this species requires good seed-to-soil contact. Spray for weeds a week or two prior to breaking ground. This limits competition and makes disking much quicker and easier. If broadcasting, plant about 60 to 70 pounds per acre. If drilling, plant approximately 40 to 50 pounds per acre.
When to Plant
In most areas, cowpeas can be planted from early May to early August. Plant too early and you risk frost and low soil temperatures preventing good germination. Plant too late and you risk an early frost terminating growth too early in the cycle.
Where to Plant
This plant species can do well in what for other species would be poor soil conditions. Cowpeas are more drought-resistant than most warm-season plants. Soil on the acidic side tends to be more ideal. Well-drained is another key factor to look for. It also tolerates shade — which is good for most kill plot situations. This allows you to plant in areas with heavier cover.
Oftentimes, in some places, it can be difficult to get your hands on cowpea seed. If you experience such trouble, there are several acceptable alternatives that do the job. The closest one that I’ve seen the best results with is iron clay peas. You can rest easy knowing it will draw deer and add a wonderful supplement to the herd’s diet.