Food plots are planted primarily for two reasons: 1) to provide a nutritional supplement to deer during times of nutritional stress or when native browse is low in quality or availability, and 2) to attract or concentrate deer for viewing or hunting purposes. This concept is similar to using protein pellets for a nutritional supplement and corn as an attractant. A food plot by itself is not a cure-all or magic fix for any problem in deer management, just as feeding protein or corn is not a silver bullet for what ails your deer herd. These are all just tools to be used in conjunction with others–parts to the whole of a well-rounded plan.
The idea of a nutritional food plot is to provide additional feed during times when the deer need it, not when conditions are right for growing lots of native forage. One of the prime times that deer need that supplement is during the winter and early spring. This is the time when much of the native browse has defoliated for the winter, soils are too cold to grow forbs from winter rains, the native forage that is available is nutritionally low, bucks are in poor shape from the rut and does are facing higher nutritional demands for developing fetuses. This time of year is a perfect storm of conditions conducive to thinning your deer herd for you. If you’ve done your job as a deer manager correctly, you have already reduced your density to where it should be and culled the proper bucks. Now is not the time to let Mother Nature pull even more deer from your herd and kill off those bucks that you decided to let walk. A properly planted food plot can help provide that supplement, as long as it is part of a bigger management plan.
Nutritional food plots can be either fall-planted or spring-planted. Just about anything you plant in the fall can be considered a nutritional supplement, though some are more beneficial than others. Cereal grains such as wheat, oats, rye and triticale will grow through the spring and so are available during the critical times they are needed. Even though they are not especially high in nutritive values and decline in palatability through late winter and spring they still provide some additional nutritive forage when most needed. Turnips and winter peas are more nutritious, but typically have a smaller window of use during the season. Alfalfa, clovers and medics are very beneficial during the critical periods where they can be grown. These species are planted in the fall and grow through the spring and remain very palatable and nutritious into the spring. Since they are legumes, they are high in protein and are an excellent source of supplemental nutrition for deer. While the main area of adaptation is north and east of the Hill Country and South Texas, there are some of these legumes that can be planted with success in these areas. The key is choosing the right one for your soil type and planting it on a site that has better soils. Although weather conditions in these areas may prevent some of these legumes from coming back every year as they would in wetter climates, they still can be a valuable nutritional supplement with at least average rainfall.
Spring-planted nutritional plots are generally intended to provide a supplement to bucks growing antlers and does carrying and delivering fawns. This is usually in the form of legumes, especially peas and beans. Iron & Clay cowpeas, lablab, blackeye cowpeas and other cowpea and vining bean varieties are used extensively for this purpose. They are easy to grow, very high in protein, have good regrowth and are very palatable. Other non-legume plants can be planted in the spring with these, though they do not have the same high level of nutritional quality. Grain sorghum, or milo, is one of these. Deer will browse the young plant but will then leave it alone until it makes a seed head and then eat the grain, which is a good source of carbohydrates. As milo is drought-hardy and can last into the summer, this grain is sometimes all that is left in a food plot and so becomes important as a supplement. Combinations of legumes and sorghums in spring nutritional plots work very well together.
Food plots planted for attraction of deer are typically only fall-planted, in order to use them for counting/surveying, observation and hunting purposes. Any plot planted in the spring could be considered as an attractant, especially for observation of fawn numbers, body condition and antler growth, but are generally not planted specifically for that reason.
Cereal grains, such as oats, wheat, rye and triticale, are used most often and in the biggest percentage of fall food plots. Even though they are not very nutritious, these grains are relatively cheap, easy to grow, regrow well and are very palatable to deer late into the winter. Since most of the time spent in the deer blind is from fall into the winter, these grains are very useful for attracting deer during this period. There are many other things that can be planted in conjunction with these small grains, though their windows of use by deer may be smaller or not at the same time that the grains are preferred. Purple-top turnips are often used as they also grow well and seem to be palatable after the first frost of the year.
Food plots, when done correctly, are very valuable in any deer management program. Not all food plots are created equally and they are used for various reasons. Make sure you are planting the right crop at the right time and for the right reasons in order to maximize your money and energy. Food plots do work.
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