Food Plots for Fall and Winter Deer
Food plots are a common component of good deer management, but not all plots are the same. Simply throwing out some seed is not enough; however, with a little time and planning, you can create a food plot that will keep your local deer population healthy and abundant.
Common cool-season forage includes ryegrass, rye, oats, sweet clover, wheat, Austrian winter peas, arrow-leaf clover, brassicas, and subterranean clover. A minimum of two plant species is suggested in fall and winter food plots, but a combination of at least three or four is best. Landowners should never plant a single food source, especially in new food plots. By planting a variety of food sources, you ensure the best chance of sustainable foraging for deer during the winter and fall. To help with this, a number of seed companies offer a wide range of cool-season seed mixes that incorporate a number of plants into a single plot mix.
While commercial food plot mixes are available, you can also mix up your own after doing some research and visiting your local feed store. Even though seed and forage research will help your food plot, be sure and get a soil test and take appropriate measures to ensure your planting is done under optimal conditions.
Food plots are not a substitute for good habitat management practices, but they do supplement essential nutrients that are often lacking in native forage. They are also an important tool in facilitating your harvest and increasing non-hunting viewing opportunities.
Soil productivity is the first consideration in choosing an appropriate site for a productive food plot. Factors to consider in site selection are moisture and drainage, texture, adequate fertility, sufficient sunlight, shape, size, and accessibility. Plots should be irregularly shaped, at least one acre in size, and no closer together than a quarter mile. Studies suggest that at least 5% of your land should be given to planned food plots.
If your land does not offer enough ideal locations sites like utility right-of-ways and logging decks, you may find good alternatives in fire lanes, logging roads, and fallow fields. It is not a good idea to plant food plots beside public roadways due to the increased possibility of poaching and deer-vehicle collisions.
Proper fertilization is generally necessary to ensure optimal forage growth, but to achieve that you must also consider the soil’s pH value. The pH of soil is a measure of its acidity or alkalinity. This measure ranges from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Anything less than 7 pH is considered acidic, while values greater than 7 are alkaline. Normally soils will not be more acidic that 3.5 or more alkaline than 10. The aim should be to achieve a soil pH of 7.0. The reason is that a neutral soul allows for maximum productivity in legumes and to a lesser extent in grains like oats and wheat.
If the pH is too low, fertilizer cannot do its job. For example, if soil pH is near 4.5, as much as eighty percent of the fertilizer nutrient is unused. That means eighty cents of every dollar will simply be washed away.
Also, if soil pH is not correct, vital nutrients like manganese, iron, and zinc will either be unavailable or toxic to some plants, depending on the levels.
Planting of cool-weather plots must begin months earlier with soil sampling. Local extension services and county agents are invaluable resources for knowledge of local soil conditions and other information. Most can also offer low cost soil sampling kits you can use to analyze your soil.
A soil analysis will come with specific recommendations for fertilization liming. It is important to remember that various factors can affect soil’s pH from season to season, so be sure and test your soil annually. It isn’t unusual for a soil analysis to come with a recommendation of three tons of lime per acre for land that has never been limed. Also, some types of soils require more lime than others to achieve the same result. Clay soils, for example, require more lime than sandy soils. Proper soil moisture increases the ability of lime to affect the soil pH.
Different types of liming materials are readily available on the market. Powdered lime is by far the most economical, with typical costs per ton ranging from $30 to $50 per acre (including commercial spreading). The major drawback if this method is that it requires access by commercial spreader trucks to planting sites. If access is not problematic, this is the recommended method. The best effect of your lime will be realized if it is spread and disked into the soil three months prior to time to plant.
If you have a small plot or if access by spreader trucks is not possible, the answer is lime pellets. The cost of using pelletized lime should be around $250 per ton. One problem with using lime pellets is ensuring it is applied uniformly across the planting site. Hand held electric spreaders and ATV attachments help ensure uniformity.
Well-planned and economical fertilization for food lots include a specific amount of three basic elements: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These are normally designated in numerical form such as 13-13-13 and 6-8-8. Each number represents the total percentage of each of these key elements. Sometimes one of these nutrients can be zero, 0-46-46 for example.
Smaller feed stores will not carry every combination of fertilizer mixtures, but larger dealers will custom mix almost any combination you request. Should a custom mixture not be possible, you can adjust pre-mixed combinations to fit most of your basic needs. For example, 5-10-10 supplies the same equivalent mixture as 10-20-20; but where you would apply one ton of 5-10-10 per acre, you would only need to apply 1/2 ton of 10-20-20.
Legumes fix their own nitrogen and therefore do not require nitrogen in the fertilizer mixture. Should you not be able to do a soil test, feed stores local to the area can often provide a fertilizer mix that will come close to your needs.
Food plots are most appealing, and consequently most nutritious, when they are actively growing. However, as plants mature their fiber content increases and protein level decreases. This is why it is necessary to stagger planting dates in the same food plot. By doing so, highly digestible and nutritious food will be available for deer throughout the season. Combination planting also reduces the potential for crop failure due to disease, insects, and adverse weather conditions.
Planting cool-season food plots with a mixture of clovers and cereal grains provides deer with quality forage during times of nutritional stress. A cool-season combination that does well in the south is a mixture of crimson clover, arrow-leaf clover, oats, and wheat. More northern climates require ryegrass, Austrian winter peas, and brassicas. Oats and wheat will germinate and grow quickly to insure quality forage is available during the hunting season. Although the clover seed will germinate, growth will be slow until late winter, when crimson clover will begin rapid growth that continues until blooming in late March to mid-April. At that point the arrow-leaf clover will begin to actively grow. Arrow-leaf (depending on the variety) will mature from mid-June until the first of July. Therefore, this mixture can supply quality forage on the same food plot from October through June.
The following seeding rates are recommended:
- Oats- 25-30 lbs. per acre
- Wheat- 25-30 lbs. per acre
- Crimson clover- 10-12 lbs. per acre
- Arrow-leaf clover- 4-5 lbs. per acre
Seedbed preparation should begin with thorough disking of the selected site in late summer to early fall. The plot should then be harrowed to achieve a uniform planting surface. The seed mixture should then be thoroughly blended (after legume inoculation) and evenly broadcast over the prepared surface. After seed distribution, cover the broadcast seed by lightly harrowing. It is important to note that this mixture should not be planted any deeper than 1/2 inch for proper growth of the clover component. A culti-packer can be used at this point to help preserve existing soil moisture and to insure seed-soil contact.
It is vital to provide proper legume inoculation to increase forage production and lower fertilizer costs as a result of fixing nitrogen in the soil. Legume seeds are inoculated by applying live bacteria to the seed with a sticking agent. Sticking agents serve a dual purpose by fixing the inoculants to the seed and by feeding the bacteria until the seed germinates. Commercial sticking agents are available, but a 10% sugar solution or soft drinks work well. Seed should be lightly moistened with the sticking agent prior to applying the inoculant. Apply and mix the inoculant well to insure all seeds are completely covered. Allow seeds to air dry to ensure even distribution from a seeder. Inoculated seed should always be planted within 24 hours to retain viable bacteria.
Several precautions should be taken when inoculating and planting forage legumes. Rhizobium bacteria are very susceptible to heat and should be stored in a refrigerator until ready to plant. Inoculated seed should only be planted when soil contains sufficient moisture. While the seed might survive if planted on dry soil, most of the bacteria will die before the seed germinates, resulting in poor forage production. Some varieties of clover can be purchased pre-inoculated. Pre-inoculated seeds generally have a lime coating that not only protects the bacteria, but also adheres it to the seed. However, the bacteria will not remain alive for extended periods of time. Fresh seed should be purchased and stored in a cool location until planted.
Food Plot Evaluation
A simple and inexpensive method of determining the effectiveness of your food plot is through the use of exclosures. With these structures, you can easily see how much grazing is being done on your plots by comparing them to an untouched area. Exclosures are easily constructed out of suitable fencing material, such as 1×4 or 2×4 wire. Light gauge wire (such as chicken wire) is generally not sturdy enough to withstand adverse weather conditions and contact from foraging deer. The exclosures should be about three feet in diameter and four feet in height. Place one exclosure for every acre of food plot.
Winter months mean limited food supplies for white-tailed deer, and they will migrate to wherever food is readily available. While it takes a little extra effort to manage the land on which you hunt, it is well worth it come hunting season.