Establishing Success with your Food Plot

Establishing a food plot on your property can provide a great opportunity for hunters to observe and harvest white-tail deer.  It also can provide high quality nutritional food for deer during nutrition stress periods. The nutrition needs of deer vary throughout the year. In the spring and summer bucks growing antlers and does who are pregnant and lactating need more protein in their diets. Carbohydrates are more essential during the fall and winter where deer have a higher energy demand.   

Determining the size and placement of your food plot is the first step. The size and shape of the food plot really depends on the area’s topography.  The availability of land, budget, and time can be driving factors to the construction of your food plot.  A well-managed food plot ranging in ½ acre to 5 acres can be successful.  If you have a high volume of deer in your area a 3 to 5-acre food plot can provide adequate supplemental nutrition to the deer and maximize hunting opportunity on your property.

Next you will need to decide on the combination of forages or plant mixtures you will use. You can look at a few factors when deciding what to plant: soil fertility, sunlight availability, soil drainage, equipment available, and the deer density in the area.  It’s recommended to have the soil tested before planting. The soil’s pH is vital to the growth of the plants. You can obtain a soil testing kit from your local agricultural co-op or from your local Missouri University Extension office. Testing the soil prior to planting will show the fertility and if the pH needs to be modified with the use of fertilizer. The test will also provide the suggested rates of fertilizer.

Planting a mixture of forages and grasses can provide a range of nutrients and lengthen the food availability for deer. You can also boost the success of your food plot by using a blend of annuals and perennials. Annual plants are fast-growing, often have high-yielding forage and must be planted every year. Perennials take longer to establish, have a longer survival rate, and often last up to 3 years or longer with proper maintenance. Using a mixture of annuals and perennials provides the benefits of consistent food availability. The annuals provide large quantities quickly while the perennials will provide consistent growth over the years.

A legume species such as a clover is a preferred food for deer and provide excellent nutrition. Crimson clover is an excellent companion plant and is commonly used with wheat, oats, or both.  This mixture provides a nutritious source of protein and carbohydrates during the winter months and the grains will protect the legume from drought and over grazing.

There is a variety of legumes available to use in your food plot mixtures. Suggested planting dates for clovers is August to September; they will germinate quickly. Austrian Winter Peas is another plant in the legume family and is highly resistant to the harsh cold temperatures of winter. They are highly nutritious and digestible to deer. You can plant these in the spring to grow as a summer annual or in a fall food plot for winter.

Another consideration when planning your fall/winter food plot is planting a crop in the brassicas genus such as radishes, kale, rape, and turnips. Brassicas are a popular choice for deer due to one thing: glucose. The first hard frost on a mature plant creates a chemical reaction and increases the glucose, making it sweeter.  Deer are more attracted to these plants during late October in northern regions.

You don’t necessarily need heavy equipment to plant your food plot, depending upon the size.  If your food plot location allows you to use a drill you can program and manage the proper seeding depth, so that the seed isn’t covered with too much soil. Using a broadcast method by hand or mechanically is another option when planting your food plot. The proper preparation of the soil will help the successful growth no mater your planting methods. No previous tillage is required if you use a no-till drill and is preferred when planting plants with larger seeds.  You should follow proper seeding rates depending on the plants your are planting and your method of seeding.

Exclusion cages are great tools for monitoring food plot pressure.  The exclusion cage prevents the deer and other wildlife from eating the plants in the small areal of the plot. The plants outside the cage can be compared to those inside the cage to determine the browsing pressure and success.  They are easy to construct, and the dimensions can vary, generally they need to be 4 feet high and 2 to 3 feet in diameter. All you need for an exclusion cage is some mesh welded wire and a T-posts. 

            If you want your food plot to succeed and remain productive it should be maintained and managed. Proper maintenance of your food plot might include controlling weeds and ensuring proper soil fertility.  No matter your objective a well-managed food plot can help improve the health of deer and prevent over browsing.

            It’s important to remember even as sportsman that you should strive to conserve the habitat as it was originally found.  Happy plotting!

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