Are supplemental wildlife food plots essential to deer hunting in Mississippi? Evidence certainly indicates so.

The vast majority of landowners, wildlife managers, deer lease holders and hunters have, quite literally, bought into the whole concept and premise of planting wildlife food plots. 

Millions are spent every year growing high quality supplemental food plantings for wildlife, especially our white-tailed deer. It is an industry with so much development in new products each year, from seeds, mixes, planting enhancements (growth stimulants) to the equipment used to put it all together.

Food plots are a big part of why deer hunting is a huge economic engine in Mississippi. 

This much is obvious: There is great value and plenty of payoffs to planting wildlife food plots. The rewards are increased with ample and proper planning for food plot site selections, correctly preparing plots and soils for maximum output, appropriate applications of soil building chemicals like fertilizers and lime, and choosing the best seeds to plant and cultivate. 

It is as big a part of the whole scheme of deer hunting as are hunting stand placement, scent control, hunting tactics and strategies and pre-season shooting practice using a bow with carbon arrows or a favorite deer rifle, primitive or otherwise. 

Virtually every speck of private land in this state used for deer hunting is going to have a food plot planted somewhere. The real trick though is getting a prime plot growing that will not only serve to supplement the nutritional values that deer need all year long, but also serve to attract deer for the observational fun of wildlife watching or harvesting deer to diversify the family diet, or to produce trophy class bucks for the honor of bragging rights.

Science is certainly a big part of food plot implementation, but there is also a measure of art. Land managers use creativity to get the most of their plantings.

Let’s look at the process.


Develop a plan

According to Scott Jones, products manager for Wildwood Genetics, a wildlife food plot products company in Yazoo City (wildwoodgenetics.com), there is always a proper way to do everything and planting a wildlife food plot should not be any different.

“We preach all the time about the proper elements of preparation that should go into the creation of every wildlife food plot,” said Jones. “Why put in all the labor and expense of planting supplemental game food plots and only half do the job half right?

“There are many things to consider when planning wildlife food plots. Too often, key steps in the process are neglected or just skipped altogether. Obviously this can produce disappointing results.”

Jones said everybody can have healthy food plots that grow well, are attractive to wildlife and are pleasing to view, if they develop and follow a good plan. 

“The basic preparation agenda for quality food plots begins with planning early,” he said. “Whether you plant spring and/or fall wildlife food plots, sit down with a notebook and create a wildlife food plot journal. This way you can track your process and successes from one season to the other. Be sure to note critical dates in the journal as to when you did exactly what. This will pay off in big dividends year after year.”


Site selection

Step 1 is deciding where and how big your food plots should be. It is recommended that at least three to five percent of the total acreage should be dedicated to food plots.

The locations should offer a measure of security to wildlife. This means putting plots next to, among many things, escape cover, bedding grounds, travel corridors, timber lands, cutovers and funnels. Avoid putting many food plots in close proximity to each other.

Think small: Generally smaller is better, as are irregular shaped plots. Unless you are growing corn and soybeans for commercial harvest, forget huge fields. Think size, shape, accessibility, sunlight, moisture, drainage, and arrangement with other habitat elements. 


Test the soil 

“After doing your plot site selections, the first thing we advise is to test the soil,” Jones said. “Soil testing is extremely important for knowing what your soil needs in terms of enhancements to make the dirt more productive for growing plants. Having the right soil nutrients in place will improve plant growth and the taste of vegetation.” 

Anyone wishing to have their soils tested can contact the wildlife department at Mississippi State University at (662) 325-3133 and they will direct you to the proper people for assistance. The regional offices of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the old state soil conservation service, and also offer soil-testing guidance. A quick online search will yield contact information in Mississippi. 

“Once you know the conditions of your soils then you can begin to make decisions about what enhancement elements are needed to bring the soil to peak levels of potential performance,” Jones said. “While you are waiting on soil test results, the process of plot preparation can begin if soil conditions permit.”

Next comes a logical sequence of procedures leading to creating successful and highly viable wildlife food plots. Keep in mind there can always be some flexibility built into this process, but these are the generally accepted step-by-step procedures. 


Preparing the seedbed

As important as picking a good plot site and good seeds is the critical aspect of preparing a good seedbed. 

“Every year we disked and disked our plots, and always seemed to end up with football sized clods, and then the seed did not land on well tilled soil,” said Gary Adams of Spring Lake Farms in Holmes County. “The results were sketchy at best. Now, we pay our plot farmer guy to double and triple disk the plots we have, but for economy sake we had to cut back on the number of plots. We figured quality was better than quantity. We were right.” 

If you don’t use herbicides to burn down your plot weeds every spring or fall, then plan to disk heavily until the soil is completely broken up, ideally into a fine silt. Let the plots sit for a few weeks until the weeds and grasses die, and then hit it again. A final follow up with a harrow or dirt drag will finish off the plot prep readying it for planting.


Seed selection and planting 

Talk to your local extension agent or a wildlife biologist about ideal seed plantings for your region and soil type. They will be able to make several viable recommendations. 

Many hunters will use a standard mix of rye grass, wheat, and oats.

Other varieties to consider would be clovers, cowpeas, soybeans, jointvetch, and Alyce clover, a legume.

Many commercial packaged seed mixes are available, too, but make sure they are suitable for your soil. Then, follow package planting directions to the letter.


Chemistry class

Food plot plants must be fertilized to reach their full growth potential. Use as liberal an application as the budget can afford, following the recommendations from your soil test results. 

Often a generic fertilizer combination such as 13-13-13 — a.k.a. Triple 13 — will work fine. This mix will supply the three basic elements of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Two hundred pounds per acre is not too much. 

Adams said that if your plots look anemic, have your soil retested to see if starting a lime program would be beneficial before future plantings.

“Our food plots were starting to look dull and lifeless the past three or four seasons,” said Adams. “After a soil test we found the soil pH was way off and a thorough liming was needed. After liming in 2012, we have already seen a huge difference.”

Following these procedures season after season and closely monitoring the results will eventually lead to visibly pleasing, high quality wildlife food. Put up a plant growth cage of light wire to gauge deer foraging. 

Since plantings are an annual option, keeping notes in a journal is important. Those records will show what worked in which plots and what did not.