Did the headline of this story have you thinking, “Dude, are you kidding? It’s just June, way too early to be contemplating fall wildlife food plots.”
Quite the contrary now is the perfect time to start planning what you want to do this fall, especially if the results you got last year on your wildlife plots were not exactly what you had hoped to see.
To be honest, if you really were doing what is best for wildlife on your hunting properties, you would have already planted a spring food plot. A lot of factors play into getting prime wildlife food plots to produce lush, green edible plants for deer and other wildlife. Sometimes you can partner with Mother Nature, but other times she will beat you up.
We’re also learning more and more new information each season on what works well and what seems to produce less than desirable results. Offering this information now along with some new ideas in June will give all deer hunters plenty of time to get their food plot plans in order.
Why food plots?
Without trying to be sarcastic, ask yourself how many times a day do you get hungry?
Traditional customs say we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, or as some say in the south, dinner and supper. I won’t even bring up how many times most of us snack in between meals all day long.
Trust me, white-tailed deer — the game species we mostly target by planting wildlife food plots— would like to be able to eat quality food resources nearly all day long, too. They eat often, ruminate some, lie down, get up, eat, ruminate, and go back and forth all day and night. That is the normal and usual routine in nature. It’s not so wildly different from the human species, just without TV and WiFi.
What they have to eat is of vital importance to their yearlong development. Bucks need good food, high-energy minerals and protein through the critical times of April through August for antler growth. They need these quality foods to put on weight and to remain healthy throughout the season. This carries them well into the stressful phases of the chase and the rut incidentally coinciding with the fall hunting seasons, which is also stressful on deer.
Antlerless deer need it even more for the process of conception, growth and development in the womb, and then for lactation to nurse their fawns from the drop day through the yearling age.
Does drop their young fawns usually around mid-July so they need high quality food resources from May on through October to support healthy fawn development for a reasonable measure of success for survival.
Some habitats have the necessary natural foods to support deer all year long, but many areas in Mississippi do not supply ample high-quality nutrition to maximize whitetail development and health. These are the primary justifications to provide supplemental wildlife food plots in both the spring and the fall.
“One of the highest stress periods of the year on the white-tailed deer is during the summer months including late June through the end of August,” said Lann Wilf, MDWFP Deer Program Leader, who often participates in the seminars at deer management short courses. “For a variety of reasons in varying parts of the state summer forage is on the decline and it lacks the nutritional quality to sustain deer at their peak of development.
“Natural food resources may be over browsed by mid-summer, a serious lack of rainfall contributes to near drought conditions further reducing available natural wildlife food supplies. This is a hard time for deer both the does and the bucks.”
So, in addition to tweaking plans for traditional food plots this fall, take under consideration some plans for spring plots next year as well.
Location, location, location
If you were starting fresh with a new hunting area devoid of existing food plots or if you wanted to add some to your current hunting grounds, where would you put them? In either scenario, you need to fully assess your property looking for the most ideal places to create new plots.
“The best food plots need some degree of security or isolation as opposed to a huge open field such as an agricultural farming cropland situation,” said Shane Perry, who manages hunting land in Holmes County. “Plots should be bordered by habitat where deer can hide, bed down, or travel in relative security.”
Look for forested areas with open to semi-open habitat edges where plots could be developed and planted.
Are there CRP grasslands on the place?
What about timber cutover areas?
Abandoned timber harvest loading ramp areas can make good starting spots for wildlife food plots. Check out running creeks, small ponds or drainages where food plot space could be disked alongside without causing erosion or soil runoff issues.
If you have planted pine plantation-type timber, perhaps some plots could be developed down between wide rows of the trees. Properly created, prepared and maintained, a good food plot in pine or other timber can be a magnet if there is sufficient canopy light to foster decent seed plant growth. Several smaller plot areas would be better options than just one or two bigger plots. Having limited human access points and good drainage are also important.
Sizes and shapes
When it comes to food plot size and shape, it is definitely time to think outside the box. By “box” I mean conventionally shaped square or rectangular plots. Those are old school and not particularly all that productive in drawing deer out of the woods or other hideouts.
Wilf said size is important, too.
“Food plot sizes need to ideally be in the range of two to seven acres,” the biologist said. “Plots this size will maximize the edge effect and avoid huge open areas in the center of a plot which deer will rarely utilize anyway.”
A key concept mentioned by Wilf is the idea of “edge effect,” which dictates tweaking the plot design to create more edges.
While hunting food plots, you have no doubt seen the value of edges, and how deer relate to them. Deer stay close to the edge and its nearby security cover, so they can quickly run to it in the event of any kind of disturbance or threat.
Seldom will you see deer feeding out in the middle of a huge field during daylight hours. They may feed in these spots at night, but during legal hunting hours, they are going to hug the edges.
Start thinking of food plots with unusual shapes, both when planning new ones and reshaping existing plots. Use your imagination tempered with functionality to create such shapes as:
* A kidney swimming pool.
* An hourglass with a narrow center space.
* A wagon wheel hub and spoke design with the shooting house in the center hub, and planting fields in strips with corn keeping 10- to 20-feet open lanes.
Deer love corn for food (despite its poor protein content, it does provide carbohydrate energy), but they mostly like the security of hiding in rows of corn.
If you are breaking ground for completely new plots, then make them all kinds of odd shapes, anything but straight, square corners, and sides. Intersperse them with different types of habitats. Again, think edges where deer will feel secure.
One suggestion that caught me off guard at the white-tailed deer management course was to quit bush-hogging wildlife food plots. That is something we have been doing for 20 years or more. Disking is so much better for plots in order to incorporate plant material back into the soil so decomposition can contribute nutritional elements back into the dirt. If you have a weed problem, then the recommendation for that is to use herbicide applications (see accompanying story).
A really good seedbed is the best start to insure a quality food plot. This means ample disking to break up the soil completely. Seeds won’t germinate well in dirt clods. The soil has to be well tilled, nearly silted to a fine condition, to give seeds a good start.
What to plant?
According to Wilf, falling for packaging is a big mistake.
“If a bag of wildlife plot seed has a photo of a big buck on it, don’t buy it,” he said.
Instead, Wilf points to the “Staff of 4 P’s” — price, production, palatability, and protein. That is a good guideline in picking wildlife food plot seeds.
Another shocker I got from attending the wildlife seminar was not to plant rye grass. Sure it greens up fast, but next spring it matures into a tough, stalk-like plant that chokes out beneficial native grasses. Deer don’t eat the stalks. Skip the rye and go with wheat and/or oats instead.
Recommended cool-season plantings should also include Crimson and Arrowleaf clovers. Forages worthy of consideration include greens like turnips, mustard, rape and other mixed brassicas. Try some cowpeas, partridge peas, soybeans, or Austrian winter peas. For warm season plots use cowpeas, soybeans, corn, Alyce clover and joint vetch.
Food plot planters will find a confusing array of commercial seed mixes at the Co-Op and other seed outlets. Just be sure to read the labels. You may be paying premium prices for basic seeds you could buy in generic bags. Don’t be fooled by the marketing ploys selling different kinds of exotic wildlife seed mixes, and save money for common sense plantings.
Deer hunters understand that providing supplemental wildlife food plots enhances the deer population on their properties, which elevates deer-hunting recreation, observations and experiences.
Follow the practices given here to make your plots even more productive.