Four Season Food Plot Plan
Most hunters know the value of planting food plots to attract and hold deer in their hunting areas. But, just to reinforce the fact, a recent study conducted by a whitetail research facility proved that the average deer spends most of its life within a quarter-mile of its preferred food source. In other words, a deer’s life revolves around its food.
One way to dramatically improve your hunting is to improve the food sources in your hunting area. In this article I’m going to deal solely with large-scale improvements using typical farming methods. You can also improve the food by improving native forage and introducing preferred browse species.
While any effort to improve the local food sources is better than nothing, most beginning deer managers err by providing only one type of food. It’s a very basic mistake: they assume one source will benefit the deer all year long. But, in reality, a deer’s needs change throughout the year, not to mention the fact that some foods simply aren’t accessible when the deer need them.
As an example of the various elements involved in planning an effective food plot program, let’s follow clover through the annual life cycle of a deer’s nutritional requirements. During the summer clover is at its peak production and is utilized most heavily by the deer. It grows vigorously and comes back quickly after being clipped, 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 clover: alfalfa at the bud stage, puna chicory and BioLogic from Mossy Oak (the last two were developed in New Zealand). The only place ladino doesn’t do well is in dry areas.
I’ve just made a pretty strong case for ladino clover as a summer food source (and deer flock to it on the farm I manage). Now lets see how it does during the rest of the year. Into the early part of the hunting season 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.
Later in the season and into the winter the clover starts to lose its appeal. Since it isn’t actively growing, the protein level starts dropping fast. It flattens out on the ground and starts to turn a little brown. Deer will continue to use it, even digging through snow to reach it, but only when other sources aren’t available.
At this time of the year they need high carbohydrate foods that produce energy and heat. Though protein will be converted to energy in the deer, the decreased protein levels in the clover make it a poor energy source during the winter. Clover is primarily a summer food.
Other Summertime Food Plot Crops
Generally, legumes serve as the best summer food sources 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. Soybeans are not tough to establish making them a good choice.
I’ve planted alfalfa as a commercial crop and a few times in my food plots. Deer like it just as well as white (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 really managing your alfalfa, it won’t perform as well as clover.
Clovers 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 (especially good 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 also works, but you can also plant in September to take advantage of a wet season that typically occurs from October through November.
Best Fall and Winer Food Plots
Without question, when it gets cold, corn is the crop that deer seek. 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. 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.
Corn has one serious downside for hunters in areas with high deer densities: deer will eat the plant itself during the summer long before it produces a single ear. 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 junk food for deer. Generally, this is just before pollination when the ears begin producing silk. Although some food plot farmers have had good luck keeping deer out of the corn until winter by using specialized electric fences, I’ve all but given up on corn in areas with a high deer density.
Deer won’t touch sorghum until the seeds reach the dough or milk stage. This usually happens in September in most places. At this time they’ll converge on sorghum. 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, as well. It is also more drought tolerant than corn.
In areas with high deer densities I like a combination of grain sorghum and forage sorghum planted in separate rows. The tall forage sorghum will break down, dropping the heads to deer height by late fall. Sorghum also is expensive to establish because it requires large doses of nitrogen only slightly less than what is recommended for corn.
Winter wheat and rye will take considerable grazing pressure from high deer densities. These plants offer a reasonable amount of both carbohydrate and protein and 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 gaining 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 suffice it to say that during the late fall and winter deer will eat it right to the ground. 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.
The Ultimate Food Plot Rotation
If I had only one plot here’s what I’d do with it. Assuming a high deer density that would assure maximum utilization, I’d plant it to soybeans in the spring and then come back in mid-September and use a no-till drill to interseed a mixture of winter wheat and rape. Though damaged, most of the bean plants would still produce pods and the winter wheat would benefit from the nitrogen they had 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 plant a small clover plot for summer utilization – even a half-acre will produce a lot of forage – and then plant the rest of the field to corn.
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 and vice versa. Your goal should be to design a food plot program that addresses both time frames equally well, providing nutritious and attractive foods to help your herd reach its potential while drawing and holding deer in your area.
Site Selection and Preparation
When establishing a food plot first choose a portion of your hunting area that has good soil. You can find this information by studying a soil map obtained from the local soil conservation office. Try to choose a site that is not visible from any roads.
With the site selected, it’s time to do a soil test to determine the amount of lime (to neutralize pH) and fertilizer required to establish the chosen crop. Your local co-op elevator will be able to offer technical advice along with a suggested lab that will analyze the sample for you. Follow the recommendations that come back from the soil test. Again, the local co-op should be able to help you with lime and fertilizer.
You generally have two choices when preparing the seed bed: no-till and complete till. No-till requires a chemical application to burn-down the existing foliage before you can plant. This is generally done with RoundUp at a cost of about $20 per acre applied. A no-till planter is required to put the seed in the ground. These are generally expensive, so the best route is to pay a local farmer to put the seed in for you.
Complete-till generally requires that you first get a good weed kill (typically through a no-till burn-down the year before). You can then disc or plow the ground and plant into it easily with a conventional (and much less expensive) planter. With some seeds (such as soybeans, rape, clover and wheat - to name a few) you can simply work the seed into the top half-inch of soil using a harrow or culti-packer.