It's never too early to plan ahead for fall wildlife food plots. It may be hot as a firecracker outside with sweltering humidity to match, but the universal targeted Labor Day planting date is fast approaching.

Start lining up your deer-camp work crews as soon as possible. Have a meeting to decide the best plan this year, get your planting equipment ready or call your food plot contractor, then set a date. Deer season will be on top of us before we know it.

Food plot assessment

Now is the time to re-assess all of your food plots. Think back to last year or the last couple of seasons to determine what worked best, or what flopped. Did the pre-plant mowing, disking or chemical burn down do the job well enough to knock down the summer growth of weeds and vines? Was the soil worked up adequately enough to create a good seed bed?

How long has it been since the plots were given a good dose of lime? Did last year's chosen seed mix produce long-lasting forage, carrying the deer throughout the entire season, or did it poop out after a couple heavy frosts? Was enough fertilizer of the right kind used and spread evenly?

Were the plots the right size, too big, too small or too regular in shape? Should new plots be created and maybe a few older ones rotated out for a year or so to change up how the deer are patterning the hunters? Have deer observations collected by hunters shifted from one area to another, indicating a need to create plots in new places?

"Ask all these questions now ahead of spending the money for maybe the same-old results that you got last year," recommended Dwight Perry, plot manager for Spring Lake Farms in Holmes County. "We assess our plots every year. Some years we just back off all the acreage we plant. Right now we have 42 acres of available food-plot area on 600 acres of contiguous hunting land. Sometimes we plant it all.

"We have some low, wet ground that often floods out in the fall, as well as some high and dry spots that can get too dry if rain doesn't come. It's too time-consuming for us to custom plant every plot, but we do shift our seed mixes once in a while to try different things.

"Even then, despite all our planning and pre-season work, some years it turns out to be a crap shoot. It's too wet, too dry, summer weeds too tough to bust up or something. It's no wonder farmers lead stressful careers trying to beat nature at its own game."

Sometimes Mother Nature intervenes to mess up any well-executed plan. Maybe nothing can be done when no rain comes after planting, or it floods out. Most hunting clubs can afford only one fall planting because the reality is that replanting is too expensive. This makes pre-planning all the more important trying to best guess it the first time out. An annual food-plot evaluation helps determine in advance which factors can be controlled.

Twists and tricks

Farmers like to plant in straight line after line with endless rows all neatly stacked next to each other trying to maximize the planted acreage. That, of course, is smart when yield is what determines profit.

For deer hunters, however, such regimentation in food plots may not be the best plan of action. It may be time to try some new layout patterns or alternative plot configurations. Matching this with selecting some new forages may greatly increase deer activity.

"Deer prefer irregular-shaped food plots, especially ones that are surrounded by thick cover and diverse habitat edge," said Lann Wilf, a state wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Deer Program team. "Square or rectangular food plots do not offer the same level of security to cautious bucks that odd-shaped plots do.

"If possible, change or create new plots by increasing the border edges, building in woodland or grassy peninsulas or islands, or encircle a pond or drainage ditch, anything to break up a straight line."

A few years ago, we tried something different on the bigger plots at our deer camp. Over the summer, the plots had grown up over head high in big, woody-stemmed plants. So when we disked the fields, we cut swaths about 20-feet wide, and then left a swatch of the weeds about the same width alternating back and forth. This was done angling away from fixed shooting houses so hunters could see down the open swaths. Then we planted just the plowed ground.

Our hope was that by leaving the extra cover in place, deer would come out of a nearby creek bottom and woods, and shift between the weedy swaths and the green patches. It worked like a charm, though at times it foiled our hunting efforts. Deer would come out at dark and stand hidden in the high weeds until it was "dark 30," or too late to shoot.

It was noted that our deer observations on this test plot increased significantly, so I guess the theory worked.

Another trick is to plant the most succulent green forages out into the center of the plot. Use less-expensive seed cover like ryegrass across the majority of the plot, but in the middle, add extra plantings of a variety of seeds. A couple good bets are turnips, rape, Austrian peas or clover. Make sure the deluxe forages are well within sight and shooting ranges of strategically placed hunting stands.

Growing wildlife food plots for deer is not particularly difficult, but it does require planning ahead of the execution. It seems to make the effort more interesting and fun if some of the control factors are manipulated from season to season just to see if alternative concepts work better. Always keep track of what worked and what did not for next year's pre-planning.