by Beau Tallent
Warm-season food plots hold deer on your property during the off-season, and they provide valuable nutrition to your wildlife.
You don’t need a food plot to kill a deer. Hunters have been getting along just fine before anyone thought of planting a patch of clover. Make no mistake, though: Food plots not only attract and hold deer, they can increase your success dramatically. Food plots concentrate whitetails in a small area, and they allow you to practice better herd management. They also attract and benefit other wildlife species like turkeys, rabbits, quail and songbirds.Cool-season food plots are most commonly planted on hunting clubs and properties. These seeds are put in the ground in the late summer or early fall. They provide green fields during the hunting season that greatly improve hunter success. Warm-season food plots are less common, but they may be even more important for a balanced management program to improve the quality of the deer on a tract of land. These plots, planted from April to June depending on the region of the country, provide valuable nutrition as does are having fawns and as bucks are growing antlers.
There’s more to planting a successful food plot or two than turning some dirt and throwing down some seed, though. The best plots are the result of thoughtful site selection, careful design and thorough preparation.
Choose Your SpotAside from water, food plots need one key ingredient more than anything else: sunlight. Without it, they will fail to live up to their potential. That’s why it’s critical to choose your plot locations with that in mind. Most plot plants need at least four hours of direct sunlight per day. That can eliminate some locations like deep woods or narrow trails unless you knock down some of those trees.
If you have plenty of locations with suitable sunlight, don’t just plant them randomly. Instead, says forestry and wildlife consultant Aaron Bumgarner, think like a deer before you build them. For instance, he likes to plant plots adjacent to bedding areas.
“You want deer to feel as comfortable as possible. If they don’t have to travel across a big field or through open woods, they are more likely to use your plot during legal shooting hours,” he says. “I like putting plots in the middle of planted pines, which is often prime bedding cover, because the deer feel safe as they walk to the plot.”
Another good location is smack in the middle of your property, particularly if you have suitable bedding cover throughout your land. Providing adequate food deep within your boundaries ensures that at least some deer will stay on your property and whitetails on the neighboring farms will travel through your land to get to the food.
Of course, multiple plots are better than a single plot. Build several if you have the option. Place them at opposite ends of your property or build them on the corners or scatter them at strategic locations in relation to bedding cover. That not only gives you options to hunt different wind directions, multiple plots allow you to spread out hunting pressure.
Before you start carving out the plots, consider their purpose. Will they primarily be used for bow hunting or gun hunting or both? Large plots are fine for gun hunting, but even they should be shaped with hunting in mind. Can you make a shot from one end to the other?
A popular and effective rifle-hunting plot is called the hub-and-spoke or wagon-wheel plot. As its name implies, the center, or hub, is the ideal location to place a blind or shooting tower. The spokes consist of three or more long, narrow plot strips radiating from the hub.
“It’s not a bad idea to put different plants in each spoke,” says Bumgarner. “That gives the deer different choices throughout the season.”
Large plots may not be a good idea if you are only going to hunt it with a bow. You need to reach all the way across is. That’s where smaller, or irregularly shaped plots do best. Bumgarner likes bean-shaped plots and long, narrow plots because deer will pass closer to your stand as they feed. Just make sure to keep them to 30 or 40 yards at the narrowest point, which is where you should place your tree stand.
Bumgarner’s perfect plot is 100 to 125 yards long and 40 yards wide planted close to thick bedding or escape cover. Again, the key is security. If it’s an option, he will leave a few trees in the plot to add to the security.
Keep in mind that single, small plot may not last long if you have lots of deer. Generally, more acreage is better, although there is a point of diminishing returns. Opinions vary, but most experts agree that 3 to 10 percent of your land should be in food plots with plots ranging in size from a quarter up to two or three acres. Again, your deer density, your land’s available locations and your bank account will determine how many plots and how many acres you can plant.
Once you’ve mapped out the locations, shapes and sizes of your plots, it’s time to build them. First, use a non-selective herbicide like Roundup to kill off the existing vegetation. Once it’s dead, mow it close to the ground and disk the soil. Wait for new weed growth to appear and spray it again. Turn the dirt, wait a few more weeks and hit it with another dose of herbicide. Repeated disking and spraying will cut down on future weed growth, although you’ll never totally eliminate unwanted plants.
If you start now, though, you can build a food plot that not only draws deer like a magnet, you can create a plot that you can be proud of, even if you never shoot a deer over it.
Spring Food Plot Seed Choices
While cool-season plots are often as basic as a cereal grain or two, like winter wheat or oats, it’s a different palette of potential seeds for plots planted in the spring.
It’s always recommended to blend several different seed plants in the same plot. This provides measured results, as different plants mature at different times and some last longer.Common seeds to consider blending for spring plantings include iron clay cowpeas, soybeans, Alyce clover and joint vetch. Other options include lespedeza, browntop millet, sunflowers and buckwheat. A simple mix of cowpeas with buckwheat or Alyce clover with joint vetch will serve you well.
Pre-packaged spring mixtures work well in most situations. Pennington’s Rackmaster blend is an example of a popular mixture. Rackmaster contains soybeans, iron clay cowpeas, buckwheat, sunflowers and sorghum. This blend is high in protein, and it’s palatable. It won’t take deer long to begin using a food plot that contains these plants, and since deer maintain predictable patterns during the summer, they are likely to utilize the plot all summer long.
Test Your Soil
No farmer worth his John Deere plants a crop without first conducting a soil test.
Whitetail Institute vice-president Steve Scott says a soil test will not only help your plots reach their full potential, they can save you money in the long run.
“You may not need as much lime or fertilizer as you thought. A soil test will tell you that,” Steve says.
On the other hand, you may need to amend your soil significantly, which will then lead to strong, vibrant and productive food plots.
Test kits are available through your local extension office or through seed companies like Whitetail Institute.
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