The Ultimate Food Plot

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oats
Oats makes a good cover crop for new clover seedlings. The deer love the grain heads in late summer and early fall.

Planting food plots is a lot of fun and taking on the role of a steward is satisfying, but improving your hunting area is not cheap nor should the decision of what to plant be taken lightly.

Don't Waste Your Time and Money

Before you make your final planting decisions, consult with an area agronomist to make sure your selection will grow well in the climate and soils where you hunt. These professionals can also offer some advice on the varieties of clover to plant based on these same considerations. Be sure to inquire about the best time to plant, as this can be critical. Most major universities have agricultural extension offices that provide this basic information for free.

Food Plots For Deer

hunting food plots
Hunting small secluded food plots can lead to huge dividends, it seems that mature deer seek these areas out to avoid pressure as this hunter did. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Within the past 10 years, vast amounts of information have been published on "sure-fire" methods to improve the nutritional quality of available forage for whitetail deer.

Although this article could never attempt to explain everything involved with a deer's nutrition it should shed some light on the basics of improving deer forage from a hunter's point of view.

We should first realize that forage quality is site-specific and directly correlates to soil and climate. It is amazing to me why some retailers try to sell Southern plants in Northern climates. In addition to the total waste of time and money, many retailers conveniently forget to inform hunters that all seeds may not necessarily grow in all soil classifications. Thus, retailers have made big dollars from many uninformed hunters looking for a quick fix.

You should always remember two important aspects of deer nutrition: There is no such thing as a quick solution, and no single plant can provide quality forage everywhere or during all times of the year.

Before embarking on a supplemental feeding program, you should first assess the herd's carrying capacity. If there are too many deer living in a certain area, providing additional food plots will probably NOT increase your chances of harvesting a good buck. In many areas around the country there are more deer than the habitat can support. Therefore, shooting enough should be a mandatory requirement before any habitat management is considered. Once your herd is in balance with available foods, and only then, should you begin to look into a supplemental feeding program. 

The most important point to remember regarding food plots is that SUPPLEMENTAL FOODS ARE NOT A MEANS TO REPLACE FEEDING. They are designed to even out the nutritional deficiencies of an area throughout the year. Generally there are two major stress periods for deer: winter and late summer. Northern hunters would best be advised to address the winter stress period for their management plan, while Southern hunters may have to plant for both stress periods. Interestingly, recent research has placed the late-summer stress period as the most critical time for many Southern states.

Not many hunters view the late summer as a major stress on deer. All the luscious and easily digestible plants found in the spring are much less palatable during late summer. As a result, adult bucks and does may have to live on below-average forage. Any late-born fawns must rely on reduced quantity and quality of milk. Consequently, many hunters often plant late-summer food plots to help augment a deer's nutritional deficiencies throughout this stressful period.

Many areas of the country lack specific minerals and nutrients that can be provided by planting certain types of plants. Biologists also know that throughout the year bucks, does and fawns have very different nutritional needs and certain plant preferences. So, how do hunters improve a deer's nutritional health? The first method is the enhancement or fertilization of native plants. The second is the establishment of food plots.

Since most hunters don't have access to mechanized farm equipment, the non-planting method of management is probably the most universal. In other words, anyone can improve the nutritional value of an area by simply broadcasting, by hand, a pelletized fertilizer over native plants during the late fall / early winter time frame. Fertilization is usually done in the spring prior to green-up. An application of 10-10-10 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) can vastly improve the nutritive quality and utilization by whitetails. Another application of fertilizer approximately 1 to 2 months later can further enhance a plant's ability to convert nitrogen into protein. When fertilizing, usually one handful (or one pound) of fertilizer for each inch in diameter of tree/shrub seems to do a good job.

mature buck
Great shot of mature buck sneaking into a small secluded food plot which gets little human pressure. REMEMBER to take time in choosing these spots before investing in your food plots.

With the use of fertilizers, you can create "secret food plots" that can be established without anyone knowing the exact location, except you and the deer. When you fertilize specific plants that bare hard or soft mast in the fall, the end result is more, better-tasting and larger-sized fruit. Although I hate to use the word guarantee, fertilization of fruit-bearing trees or shrubs such may be the best deer hunting technique you have ever seen. Depending on the pH of your soil, liming may also help the plants in your area. In many areas liming and fertilizing go hand-in-hand with little associated costs or labor.

How do you determine the pH or amount of fertilizer you should use? Simply contact your local Soil Conservation Service (note, they changed their name to the Natural Resources Conservation Service) or check with your County's soil map. You will find these people to be a great source of information. In fact their information is priceless to any deer manager or hunter interested in improving a deer herd. I have often used their expertise in finding new hunting areas and acquiring aerial photographs.

If you decide to create a food plot, each area should be approximately 2 to 3 percent of the area you are hunting. Food plots should be laid out in a ratio of four plots per square mile, with none less than 1/4 acre in size. Variety is the key to any food plot. In other words, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity is your goal. A smorgasbord is always more appealing than a single species of plant.

Using trail cameras over foodplots is the best way help you decide where and when to hunt.

Since water conditions change from one year to the next (droughts versus flooding), combination planting virtually ensures something will grow. Interestingly enough, research has shown whenever annual rainfall drops below 30 inches, the benefit of food plots is likely to decrease.

What should you plant? Again, the answer depends on site-specific conditions. Overall, plants within the legume family are probably the best winter forage. Legumes, such as red and white clovers, are not only high in energy, but provide deer with the needed calcium for proper body development and antler production.

Cereal grains, such as winter-hardy oats, winter wheat and rye, are also excellent winter stress-period plants. Summer plantings include cowpeas, soybeans, vetches, hairy indigo, alyceclover and, of course, the deer's favorite, alfalfa.

As always, before you spend a lot of money and time venturing into a food plot endeavor, seek assistance and consultation with a wildlife biologist or your local soil scientist. A little strategic planning for food plots goes a long way in achieving more bang for your buck.

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