It is still summer. Deer season may be months away, but it’s time to start thinking about food plots. In fact, hunters who live in the northern reaches of whitetail country need to start turning dirt and preparing the seed bed right now. Southern hunters have a little more time, but it’s never too early to kill the existing vegetation with a dose of herbicide in anticipation of the planting season. Whitetail Institute vice-president Steve Scott says what you choose to plant and where you live will determine when you should plant your food plots.
“Some plants, like clover, should go in on the early side of the recommended planting dates so they have time to establish a good root system before winter,” he notes, “Others, like oats, should go in a little later so they don’t over mature and become less attractive to deer.”
He adds that plants like brassicas, which include turnips, rape and kale, need time to mature so they can produce a high yield. Wait too long and they won’t grow more than a few inches, which ultimately means less food to last through the season. Plant too early, especially in the South, and the plants might “bolt” and produce a seed head and become unpalatable to deer.
So how do you know? The best way to determine the prime planting season for a specific plant is to check the product’s label. Every manufacturer includes a list or map of planting zones and the recommended dates. Follow them, insists Scott.
“I do know some guys who take that risk and plant early, but it doesn’t always pay off,” he says. “If you get a hot, dry spell after the seeds germinate, they’ll dry up and die and you’ll have to start over. If you plant too late, the plants won’t have time to establish a strong root system.”
Top Fall Plants
Experts agree there is no better single food plot plant than white clover. Whitetails devour it as long as it’s green, and it makes a perfect hunting spot during the early bow season in the North and a great all-season plot in southern regions where it can stay green all winter. It grows well in a variety of soils and climates, and a well-maintained plot can last for three, four, even five years. Turkeys and rabbits love it, too. The only problem with clover, particularly in the North, is that it can go dormant during prolonged cold snaps. Deer won’t touch it then, so a patch of clover that looked great during bow season isn’t a viable hunting option later in the season. That’s why it’s vital to give your whitetails at least one more option.
“The various brassicas are excellent late-season choices,” says Scott. “They’ll stay green all winter and in most cases, deer won’t touch them until after the plants have been subjected to a hard frost. The cold changes the structure of the plant and produces a high sugar content in the leaves, which deer convert to energy.”
Wheat is another all-around great choice. It’s inexpensive, it has a high germination rate and it remains attractive to deer throughout the winter. Wheat also grows in a variety of climates, including the more arid regions of the western range of whitetail country. Scott says deer prefer forage oats over wheat, but oats won’t survive cold weather. How long it lasts depends on the region, of course, but forage oats have been engineered to last longer than the generic oats available at farm supply stores.
“You need to make sure you are buying a seed designed specifically for deer,” warns Scott. “Forage oats are more palatable to whitetails than generic oats, and the alfalfa farmers plant for cattle is much more coarse and woody than the varieties sold by food plot manufacturers.”
Not sure what to plant? A variety of seed manufacturers sell blends, a mix of plants that grow well together and provide a variety of food choices that last through hunting season.
Some, like Whitetail Institute’s Pure Attraction, include forage oats, which draw deer in the early season, and brassicas, which keep whitetails on your property later in the season, and winter peas. BioLogic’s Perfect Plot includes red and white clover, brassicas, peas, alfalfa and chicory. If one of those plants doesn’t take to your soil or climate, it’s a safe bet the others will.