Attraction vs. Nutrition
By far, the most asked question that I receive regarding food plots is “what should I plant.” Many people have a round about way of asking it, and rarely am I given enough information the first go to answer the question properly. I need to know what the management goals of the property owner are. Do you want to enhance the health of your whitetail herd and grow big antlers? Or, do you want to simply attract deer during the hunting season? Because, how you go about implementing a plan and the plants that you choose to plant would vary depending on the goal.
When I try to clarify the wants of the property manager I usually get an answer back similar to; “I want to grow a Boone & Crocket buck and harvest one every season!” If this is you, I’m not saying this can’t be done, but let’s start with some realistic goals and plan properly.
Maybe you see numerous big bucks during the summer months but they all seem to disappear when the season rolls around. If that’s the case, then my main goal would be for attraction during the hunting season. Maybe last season you harvested a 120 inch 5x5 and brought the jawbone to the DNR to get it aged and you found out it was a 4½ year old animal. Some of that could be due to genetics, but if that were the case, then my main goal would be geared towards antler growth and nutrition.
What you plant in each plot would vary for each end goal. More than likely the size, location and design of the plots would also be different for attraction as opposed to nutrition. You have to consider what part of the country that you are in as well. For instance, for a nutrition plot in the north it’s hard to beat a perennial clover plot. But in the south some areas have a tough time getting perennials to come back because of the dry, hot summertime conditions so they have to rely on annuals like lablab or deep rooted perennials like alfalfa or chicory.
It is possible to do both, supply nutrition to help with overall health and antler growth, and have attraction in other areas to help with your harvest goals or viewing opportunities. Regardless of whether the goal is attraction or nutrition, because of their needs changing so often during the season, I never "put all my eggs in one basket". I classify my plots into two categories, "feeding plots" and "hunting plots". My feeding plots are relatively large in comparison to my hunting plots. I make exceptions to the rule but I typically don’t hunt these plots. My goal is to provide as much nutrition to as many deer as possible and I want them to feel comfortable about accessing this nutrition whenever they want.
In my “hunting plots” my goal is to draw them in so I can kill them, or to use it as a magnet so that I can intercept them on the way to the plot. In these plots, I try and “leave the table set” for them all through the season. If you just plant one thing in a specific plot you are limiting the time that you are going to be able to use it for a magnet. I will probably divide a specific hunting plot up into sections, how many depends upon how large the plot is. I will usually plant a clover / chicory blend in one of the spots, brassica cultivars in another, in one I’ll plant BioMaxx (Round-Up Ready corn and soybeans) and one area I’ll usually save and do a late summer / fall planting of a blend that contains a high ratio of cereal grains. By planting this variety I’ve given them something that is going to keep them coming to this spot from the opening of bow season to long into the winter, or until the food runs out.
One thing to note is that you must have adequate acreage to do this tactic justice. For instance if you have only a ¼ acre plot, you are probably better off planting just one blend. Otherwise, when a certain cultivar becomes palatable there’s not going to be enough of any one plant to keep them coming back. They’ll wipe you out too soon. In smaller plots with enough room to plant only one blend timing is important. You want to time your hunting to coincide with when the plants that you choose will be the most attractive.
If your goal is attraction, you want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for your herd for the entire time frame that you want to draw them. Actually, I would suggest that you provide good choices that will start attracting before you want to hunt the location so that you get the animals used to showing up to the areas.
If your goal is nutrition, in that case, you want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for them ALL YEAR LONG. For antler growth, so many managers feel that it is the most important to have the best food source available for the early stages of antler genesis. Although this is an important time, for a buck to really show you what he is capable of producing, good nutrition must be made available all year long. For instance, if during the fall or winter their diet is lacking, then when ample nutritious forage is available during the spring and summer months, they’re playing catch up rather then reaping the reward. Most whitetail biologists agree that for a buck to really show you the maximum set of antlers they are capable of growing they will need a consistent food source of at least 16% protein.
Certain plants do a good job at both attraction and nutrition. Brassicas, clover, various beans and peas all do a good job at both attraction and nutrition. Timing and placement would dictate how the cultivars will be used. Even though I might be talking about specific plants, I would not suggest planting single plant plots. There are exceptions obviously, like Lablab, corn or sorghum, but “blends” of multiple varieties or species of plants will always outperform “mono-plots.”
Good examples of the types of plants that you would find in a typical nutrition plot in the north are; red and white clovers, chicory, alfalfa, lablab, soybeans and cowpeas would make good warm season choices for a nutrition plot. Good cool season choices are brassicas like rape, kale and turnips which give both good energy and protein. Corn, sorghum and milo are not good protein sources but they will provide needed carbohydrates (energy) and fat. Whitetails are good at breaking down proteins and turning it into energy, so many of the same warm season choices will remain beneficial most of the year.
Many of the same plants will work well for attraction in the north. Timing is everything when it comes to attraction. Certain annual plants like cereal grains and annual clovers are the most palatable in certain stages of growth. So you want to time the planting so as to reach its peak of attraction when you want to hunt. Good early season choices are clovers, alfalfa, chicory, soybeans, oats, wheat, triticale, rye and cowpeas. Throughout the season you’ll see a switch over to later season magnets like brassicas, corn, sorghum and the dried soybeans that are left.
For much of the south many of the same plants will work however, the timing is a bit different. For nutrition the same northern choices of red and white clovers, chicory, alfalfa, lablab, soybeans and cowpeas would make good warm season choices for a nutrition plot. It really depends upon exactly where in the south you are. Obviously Texas, for instance, wouldn’t have all of these choices available. Brassicas can also be an important wintertime food source in the south but expect consumption to happen later in the season and on into the winter.
The south relies more heavily on annual plantings for attraction. Plants like oats, wheat, triticale, rye, annual clovers and winter peas shine as great hunting time magnets. Late season they may also favor corn and sorghum depending on the conditions. Again, some of the same nutritious choices end up being some of the best magnets. A great plan is to plant a blend that includes a variety of these plants. As different plants mature and become palatable at different times you leave “food on the table” for a longer period of time by planting a blend.
I get many questions on whether or not brassicas are a good choice in the south. They are, BUT you need to understand a few details. Deer react differently to brassicas in different areas. Usually they won’t eat them heavy until after you get cold temperatures which help the starches convert to sugar. In the south obviously this happens later in the year.
In some cases, even in the north, the first time you try brassicas you may also have to battle a “learning curve” – Mother doe has taught her offspring to visit certain food sources at various times of the year, and they teach their offspring and so on…to feed on acorns this time of year, alfalfa this time of year, corn this time of year, etc. Now, you introduce a plant they have never seen before that if they have tried it early in growth it would have been bitter. Once they learn what this plant is, expect consumption to happen earlier each year. This learning curve can happen with all types of plants that they’ve never seen before. Brassicas are one of the best food sources for whitetail that I’ve ever seen. So if you’ve had a bad experience with them, don’t give up on them.
They also react differently to this plant in various types of habitat. In a “big woods” scenario, where there is no agriculture around, they might eat it as fast as it comes out of the ground. For instance, at Portland Landing, a property managed by BioLogic and Toxey Haas in Alabama, they wont let the brassicas mature, they eat them too fast. This area of the south apparently doesn’t need the freeze to happen for them to crave brassicas.
In an agricultural area, typically they will leave this plant alone until the freeze. As a whitetail manager this is good because it allows me to gain tonnage. With bigger plants I can feed more deer for a longer time.
If you live in the south I suggest trying brassicas before you dedicate vast acreage into the plant. And understand that they probably won’t eat them until cold temperatures turn the plants palatable. In the south, plant your brassicas in the fall. In the north you can plant brassicas in the spring or in the fall. Either in the north or south they are a great late season attraction and probably the best wintertime food source available to your herd.
Regardless of your goal variety is a definite key. During the year the climate is changing, plants are changing and a whitetail’s needs are changing. You want to make sure that you have a food to supply them what they need regardless of the conditions or time of year. You can put equal emphasis on both attraction and nutrition. A good management program probably will stress the importance of both good nutrition to help grow big, healthy whitetails, and attraction to help with animal sightings and your harvest goals.