Food Plot Rotation
Deer management is a lot easier when you’re dealing with thousands of acres than when you’re only dealing with dozens. You can afford to make a few mistakes when you have many acres committed to food plots. You also have the luxury of flooding the area with food – at least as much as the budget allows. However, one of the biggest problems faced by deer managers on small properties is determining the best planting for a limited number of acres. They don’t have the luxury of being able to make mistakes because they can’t simply shift over to a different part of the property. They have all their eggs in one basket and if that basket doesn’t provide both summer and winter food sources the property is less attractive to deer.
There are also other challenges that deer managers must face. When they work in areas with high overall deer numbers they don’t have as many options available to them and must get a little more creative. Here is a basic plan for establishing whitetail food sources that will nourish and hold deer for the entire year.
Warm Season versus Cold Season
As an example of the various elements involved in planning an effective food plot program, let’s take a quick look at the shortcomings of planting only one crop. Most deer managers consider clover to the universal food plot crop. Granted, it is a great starting point, but let’s follow clover through the year to see where it comes up short.
During the summer, clover is at its peak production and is utilized most heavily by deer. It grows vigorously and comes back quickly after being clipped or grazed, which keeps a steady supply of lush food available to the deer at all times. On top of this, clover is high in protein – exactly what bucks need in the summer to grow antlers and does need to produce lots of high quality milk for their fawns.
When properly fertilized, ladino clover (the best protein producer of the clover family) has roughly 24 percent crude protein at peak points during its growth cycle (by mowing it every 4 to 6 weeks you can keep the plant at this point for much of the summer). Compare this to other common food plot crops: oats – 8%, soybeans – 16%, corn – 7%, red clover – 15%. Only a few typical food plot crops produce more protein than ladino: alfalfa at the bud stage, puna chicory and BioLogic from Mossy Oak (the last two were developed in New Zealand specifically for feeding deer). Also, ladino clover does well in most soil types - all but the driest conditions.
Summertime Food Plot Crops
I’ve covered ladino clover in some detail, but there are other options, as well. Generally, any kind of legume serves as an excellent summer food source because they are very good at producing protein and drawing important minerals out of the soil. Bucks in particular seem to really love to wade out into a soybean field in July and gorge on the nutritious leaves. They will also feed heavily on the beans themselves after they ripen and begin to dry down later in the fall. Soybeans are not tough to establish making them another good summertime choice.
I’ve planted alfalfa as a commercial crop and a few times in my food plots. Deer like it just as well as ladino clover, but alfalfa is more difficult to establish and maintain. It is more pH sensitive than clover, is more susceptible to choke out if you clip it and leave the residue, requires well-drained sites and is much more susceptible to insects such as leaf-hoppers. In other words, unless you are managing your alfalfa as a commercial crop and plan to bale it, it won’t perform as well as clover in all situations.
Clover other than ladino also have their place. For example, red clover is inexpensive to establish and is better suited to a wider range of soil and climatic conditions, but it does produce less protein. Alsike clover does well in a wide range of conditions including damp bottomlands. All of these legumes will do well in either the north or the south. There are other legumes, however, that seem to do best in the south. If you are hunting in the bottom tier of states also consider cowpeas, lablab (proven effective in Texas), peanuts and alyce-clover.
Typically, these legumes should be planted at a time when sufficient moisture will be forthcoming so the plants will properly germinate and start growing a root system. In the south, the best time to plant your summer food plots is in the spring – March through early June. (Clovers and alfalfas, being perennials don’t require annual planting.) In the north, spring planting works, but you can also plant in September to take advantage of a wet season that typically occurs from mid-September through November.
What happens in Fall
I’ve made a mighty strong case for ladino clover as the best summertime food plot crop, but before you run out and buy enough seed to plant the whole county, lets see how it does during the rest of the year. Into the early part of the hunting season (October in most areas) the clover is still growing, but very slowly. Deer are still utilizing it, but much less heavily than they did during the peak of the summer. As the growing season ends, the clover increasingly lays down on the ground becoming less accessible to deer – especially if there is a snowfall on top of it.
Later in the season and into the winter the clover has totally stopped growing and begins to lose its appeal. The protein level starts dropping fast. Deer will continue to use it, even digging through snow to reach it, but only when more preferred sources aren’t available.
At this time of the year deer are looking for high carbohydrate foods that produce fast energy and heat. Though protein will also be converted to energy by deer, the decreased protein levels in the clover make it a less attractive energy source during the winter. Besides, deer are more strongly drawn to grains at this time. Clover is clearly a second choice and if you don’t have a good fall/winter food source on your hunting property deer will start to drift off.
Fall and Winter Food Plots
When it gets cold, corn is king. It is high in the carbohydrates required to fuel their furnaces when the mercury drops. They seem almost desperate to get to corn when times are tough. Much of my fall and winter hunting is focused around cornfields. Even picked cornfields are utilized more heavily than clover. Deer just flock to corn when the temperature starts to drop. If you hunt late in the season you already know this lesson. Find the corn and you find the deer. It’s that simple.
Corn can also be a good winter food plot in the south, but it is slightly less drought-tolerant than other possible candidates. Corn is planted in the spring and requires a lot of nitrogen to grow properly – 75 to 100 units per acre even in food plot applications – which makes it a fairly expensive annual to plant. On average, considering that clover has a life cycle of about three years, corn will cost you about twice as much per acre as clover.
There are also other problems associated with corn. I spoke with the managers of Enon Plantation, in eastern Alabama, about a common problem that occurs when you try to grow grain crops in areas with fairly high deer densities. They confirmed what I’d seen in parts of the Midwest; in fairly high numbers, deer will eat the corn plant itself during the summer long before it produces a single ear, and thus eliminating any hope of a winter food source.
Corn goes through a growth stage in which it is very sweet and tasty to deer even though it has a low protein content and does them little good. It’s like Ho-Ho’s to a child – junk food for deer. Generally, this is just before pollination when the ears begin producing silk. I’ve seen five-acre food plots that looked great in mid-summer turn right around and look like they’d been mowed with a bush hog only two weeks later when the plant became most attractive.
Sorghum would seem to offer some hope in these settings. Deer won’t touch sorghum during the summer. But when the seeds reach the dough or milk stage - usually in September in most places – deer flock to it. Again, my experience and that of the managers at Enon Plantation suggests that very little will remain in a small plot past the first week of October. However, if you can get sorghum past the deer in September (either by offering so much they can’t eat it all or by mixing in the taller forage varieties) it serves as a good winter food source, and is more drought-tolerant than corn.
Green forage is a better winter food source than corn or sorghum in areas with high deer densities. These include winter wheat, winter rye and triticale. All three can take considerable grazing pressure while offering a reasonable amount of both carbohydrate and protein. They are eaten readily during the fall, winter and spring. Winter wheat is also fairly inexpensive to grow and easy to establish.
Dwarf essex rape is just beginning to gain its due attention from deer managers as a winter deer food. I don’t know enough about this plant yet to offer why deer are so attracted to it, but I do know it is in the brassica family and that progressive dairy farmers in some areas plant forage brassicas to raise the protein levels in their cows to increase milk production.
Without overstepping my technical knowledge here, suffice it to say that during the late fall and winter deer will eat dwarf essex rape right to the ground. The small plot of rape I planted last year was the most attractive plot on the farm last November. I’ve seen rape the size of a large broccoli plant eaten right down to the roots seemingly overnight. Like winter wheat, rape is easy to grow and inexpensive. One food plot seed dealer told me it is like a weed: “Just throw it out in a damp place and it’ll grow.” While I’d go to greater lengths to assure good production, it’s nice to be able to plant something that’s easy to establish with limited equipment.
Getting back to the challenges faced by deer managers on small properties, if you have only one field that you can plant each year, here’s a strategy to maximize that single source to the best of its deer-attracting ability.
Assuming a high deer density that would assure maximum utilization of the entire field, I’d plant it to soybeans in the spring and then come back in mid-September with a no-till drill and interseed a mixture of winter wheat and rape. (No-till drills are expensive, but you can probably pay a local farmer to run through your plot quickly.) Though damaged, most of the bean plants would have already filled their pods by mid-September. Deer would still utilize the beans even if the plants are flattened. The winter wheat and rape will benefit from the nitrogen the soybeans returned to the soil. The rape makes a great late season attractor and (assuming sufficient rainfall) would reach a height of about six inches by the end of the growing season.
In areas with lower deer densities I’d split the field into three parts. One-third would be clover, one-third would be corn and one-third would be a mixture of soybeans and grain sorghum. This assures a good supply of both legumes for summer utilization and grains for fall and winter attraction.
There’s no such thing as one perfect crop for all your food plot needs. The deer change and the plants themselves change with the seasons making certain crops better during the summer than during the winter. Your goal should be to design a food plot program that addresses both time frames equally, providing nutritious and attractive foods to help your herd reach its potential while drawing and holding deer in your area.
Necessary Inputs and Equipment
Unless you’re planting dozens of acres of food plots every year, you will get by cheaper if you pay a local farmer to plant and maintain your food plots for you – at least at first. However, you will lose some control of the timing when you hire the work done. This may or may not be a problem. It’s also relaxing to putt around on a little tractor while planting and mowing, and it produces a certain sense of satisfaction to do the work yourself, both strong motivators for eventually buying your own small equipment. Here’s a minimum equipment list.