Food Plot Strategy: Know Before You Grow

Understanding & Improving Deer Nutrition by Bob Humphrey is sponsored by Heartland Wildlife Institute.

What is the overall goal of your food plots? You should have one, and here’s why….

By Bob Humphrey

If you were going someplace you’d never been before, you wouldn’t just jump in your car and start driving around. You’d probably get directions first, and you might even bring a map or a GPS unit. And if you were going hunting, you wouldn’t just pick some random patch of woods and start wandering around in it, at least not with any reasonable expectation of success. You’d want to develop a plan first. The same logic applies to food plots.

Before you plant, you should have some idea what to plant and why. Are you trying to provide year-round nutrition to increase the carrying capacity of your land and the quantity and quality of deer on it? Or are you merely trying to attract deer during the hunting season? You should have some idea before you ever break ground.

The perfect place for your blind, a productive food plot.

There are two general categories of food plots. The objective of feeding plots is to better meet the deer’s year-round nutritional needs, particularly during periods of higher nutritional stress. They’re also sometimes referred to as warm-season plots as they’re typically designed to meet the high protein demands of spring, summer and early fall. However, winter is the period of greatest stress, and should be a strong consideration as well.

Feeding plots are typically located and designed for agricultural efficiency. As a result, they’re usually larger and square or rectangular. Because they are larger, require more labor and are primarily intended for year-round nutrition with emphasis on protein, they are often planted with high-protein perennials like clover and other legumes.

Heartland Wildlife Institute’s Rack Maker is one example of a largely perennial high-protein blend designed for feeding plots. Their Rack Maker Plus (Chicory) highlights why using a blend is good strategy. In wetter years the clover will thrive while the chicory does all right. Because of its deeper root, the chicory will thrive in drier years when clover my not do as well.

Hunting plots are intended primarily to attract deer during the (cool) hunting season, and make it easier to hunt them. As a result they are usually smaller, so deer are more inclined to enter them during daylight. “Huntability” is emphasized over agricultural efficiency so they may be more irregularly shaped and may be located in less accessible areas. In many cases you may be able to do all or most of your work with an ATV instead of heavier equipment.

They’re also planted with different nutritional objectives.

This time of year the whitetails’ nutritional requirements shift toward the carbohydrates they need to lay on fat for the winter. Providing them is best accomplished by planting quick-growing annuals, particularly plants that grow rapidly, reaching maximum nutrition and palatability in a very short time, and during hunting season.

Brassicas meet these criteria nicely, which is why they are so popular among annual fall hunting plot blends. Heartland’s Buck Buster Brassicas has a blend of hybrid brassicas, forage rape and turnips. Buck Buster Extreme meanwhile, also contains winter oats, winter rye and forage soybeans

While your primary objective is nutrition, there are other factors to consider when developing your food plot strategy, such as location. For feeding plots you should try to take advantage of things like slope, aspect and drainage for maximum plant production. You still want locate plots away from public roads to minimize disturbance and reduce attracting unwanted attention.

With hunting plots, prevailing wind direction and access are much more important. You want to be able to access your plots with the least amount of disturbance. Try to take advantage of on-site roads or trails; or build them if necessary. You can also locate hunting plots to take advantage of feeding plots and sanctuaries.

Deer will lay up in sanctuaries during the day, then move slowly toward feeding areas in the afternoon. They may not move out into big feeding plots until after dark, but if you can put a smaller hunting plot between bedding and large feeding plots, they may enter earlier in the day. This is especially true for older bucks.

Remember too that hunting plots are built for hunting, not agricultural efficiency. You can position them and shape them to take advantage of natural features like topography and existing cover. Steep slopes, drainage courses and narrow openings all funnel deer. An “L” or hour-glass shaped plot might be more effective than a simple rectangle. A lot depends on local conditions, but always keep in mind it’s easier to make a deer go where they already want to go.

Bob Humphrey is a certified wildlife biologist whose company, Quality Wildlife, works with private landowners to improve wildlife habitat.

for the best in Food Plot Science go to: Heartland Wildlife Institute