Enhancing Your Food Plots

Sponsored by: Heartland Wildlife Institute

By: Bob Humphrey

Oscar Wilde once said, “Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned.” That’s because no matter how hard you try, you can always make it better. Much the same can be said of food plots. No matter how much time and effort you put into them, there’s still room for improvement. There’s always something you could do to improve a poor plot, make a marginal plot good and make a good plot better. What follows are a few techniques you might consider for improving your plots.

Blends:

If you’re planting agricultural crops like corn, soybeans or alfalfa, you’ll probably plant a monoculture, which is fine, particularly if you have other plots on the property. Still, there are advantages to planting a blend, particularly when working with few or smaller plots.

Different plant species grow and reach peak palatability and nutrition at different rates. By planting a variety of species in your plot, you increase the time over which it will be most effective. You should also consider seasonal shifts in diet preference. Early in the fall deer may still be seeking high-protein species like clover. Later, they’ll seek more carbs and fiber.

A blend like Heartland Wildlife Institute’s Buck Buster Extreme addresses this nicely. Its winter oats, winter rye and forage soybeans will provide both early season protein as well as late-season carbs and fiber. Deer will feed on the greens of hybrid brassicas, forage rape and turnips in the early to mid season, and return in the late season to feed on the bulbs.

Heartland Buck Buster Extreme

Planting blends is also a hedge – if you’ll pardon the pun – against environmental extremes. Heartland’s Rack Maker Plus contains both clover and chicory. 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.

Heartland Rack Maker Plus

Cafeteria Plots:

You can expand the window of effectiveness even further by planting cafeteria plots and you have several options for how to do this. One is to plant alternating strips with different blends. While one blend is still growing, or past its peak, another may be just hitting its peak in nutrition and palatability. This ensures there will always be something there to attract deer.

Another option is to plant your early-season blends around the perimeter, so they’ll be most effective during bow season, and your late-season blend in the middle for the gun season.

Or, you could look more closely at things like relative moisture and sunlight. If you’ve been planting for several years, you may have noticed how some parts of your plot grow better than others. It could be due to sunlight, or soil moisture, or some combination of the two. If you’re really an astute observer, you may be able to tell which blends grow better where. Then you can adapt your planting accordingly, planting more shade tolerant species along the perimeter, if adjacent to wooded areas. Plant moisture-loving blends on the low end, where there’s liable to be more moisture and more drought-tolerant blends on higher ground.

Provide Mast:

Even perennial food plots are a relatively short-term attractant, providing food for two or three years after initial construction. Planting soft and hard mast species may require slightly more up-front cost and effort, but once established, will continue to provide food indefinitely with little or no additional maintenance.

Soft mast like brambles (raspberries and blackberries) is often a natural invasive in disturbed areas. Remove the overstory with a firewood, selective or clearcut and they’ll move in and take over on their own, providing an abundant and attractive source of soft mast for several years.

Apples and persimmons may take several years before they produce fruit, but once they do, they’ll continue to do so as long as they have sufficient sunlight and moisture. Deer won’t bother much with persimmons until they ripen and drop. Once they do, there’s no more powerful deer attractant I’ve ever seen. Apples may drop slowly until the first frosts kill and weaken the stems. Then the bounty begins and deer will be quick to take advantage of it.

Deer will feel more comfortable entering food plots and will linger on the edges longer if you leave a transition zone of cover along the edge.

Hard mast like oaks take longer to mature but once established will provide a highly nutritious and potentially abundant source of fall food for deer. Some oaks, like the sawtooth, will produce at a younger age. An even better source is chestnuts. In three to five years, hybrids like the Dunstan Chestnut, from Chestnut Hill Nursery (www.realtreenursery.com) will produce nuts that are nutritionally superior to acorns.

Leave an Edge:

You may have heard people say that deer prefer edge habitat, but it’s not the type of  “edge” that exists around most food plots. Edge, in this case refers to the ecotone or transition zone between field and forest, and the wider that edge, the more attractive it is to many game species.

If you plant it, they will come.

The edge along most food plots is abrupt. If you’ve hunted plots like this you’ve probably noticed deer tend to pause at the forest edge, then trot quickly into the open food plot, stopping some distance from the edge. That may be okay if you’re a gun hunter, but not so good if you’re a bowhunter. You’ll actually make your food plot more attractive if you leave a wide transition zone of fallow field or shrub cover around the perimeter. Deer will linger longer, be more comfortable entering your plots and may even bed there.

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