Hunters know a great wildlife food plot when they see one. The problem is they don't always know exactly how to accomplish the goal of growing one.

Often hunters skimp around on scratching the ground a little with inadequate equipment then throw out a bag of ryegrass. A month later, they wonder why little came up.

Creating a successful, high-quality food plot is almost as much about the science of it as it is a strong measure of art. The science part is fairly cut and dried if you follow the proper prescribed procedures outlined in any number of recommended resources that are available from local agricultural universities, wildlife departments, county agriculture extension agents and on the Internet.

The information available for growing rich food plots is extensive, so there is no excuse for any landowner, deer manager or hunter.

The art part is something more like Farmer's Almanac lore than anything else. It involves watching the weather movements well ahead of planting food plots as well as trends for viable moisture coming after the planting - among many other things. It's a strange sense or feeling about when the time is right given all the environmental circumstances.

Some old farmers seem to have a knack at this. Maybe it's arthritis in the joints or something psychic, but honestly it's only learned with time. Wildlife management is, after all, an on-going process.


Why plant food plots?

"Do food plots stack up to natural habitat management?" asked David Morris of Tecomate Wildlife Systems rhetorically. "Assume that natural habitat averages 11 percent protein year-round and closer to only 7 percent in the South. Then assume an intensive year-round food plot program directed toward deer can yield a protein level of around 25 percent.

"Based on average deer consumption of 7 pounds of feed a day, it would take 25.6 acres of native browse to support one deer's nutritional needs, while it could only require about 6.4 acres of quality food plots. Food plots can carry four to five times more deer, while preserving the quality of natural habitat."

The No. 1 reason for developing food plots for deer is that such resources increase herd numbers. When more deer are present, increased hunter success rates seem to naturally follow. Correspondingly, when hunter success rates rise, hunter satisfaction also gains high marks.

Good food plots also improve the quality of the deer herd. Properly developed food areas provide essential food elements that deer require to maintain steady, healthy growth.


Plot considerations

There are at least three critical considerations to put into practice as plans are developed for food plots.

First, the size of the plot needs evaluation. While large farm fields of wheat or corn attract deer, smaller-sized plots actually serve the deer better. Plots that are secluded from main traffic and are interspersed throughout a given hunting property will have a greater impact. The recommended food-plot size is from one to three acres, in even- or odd-shaped configurations.

Second, food plots need to be well distributed around the entire tract of land to maximize effectiveness. Ideally, food plots should not be placed in wet areas, steep slopes, eroded shallow soils or areas where there could be excessive drainage issues.

Third, it's critical to the overall success of a food-plot strategy to match the type of forage developed in an area with the suitability of the site. This includes everything from soil type and quality to the selection of the plant forage varieties to be used on the plot.


Before planting

Creating quality food plots is not simply a matter of tilling up some soil and throwing out seed on the ground. Properly developed food plots require consideration of several factors.

The initial task is to have extensive soil tests taken on the property sites picked for the food plots. Help on this can be acquired from your local county Natural Resources Conservation Service or through Mississippi State University. Sometimes local co-ops have soil test kits available for putting soil samples in pouches to mail off to the test station.

Soil tests can tell you much on how to proceed. Test results will give direction as to soil pH, and if an application of lime could be necessary to get the acidic balance back on a level plane. It will also provide indications for the need of fertilizers and/or boron for the soil. In the Magnolia State, many landowners need to look into the boron issue in more depth.

When choosing seed, make certain all legumes are properly inoculated by directions of the seed packaging. This will make the seeds disease resistant and promote healthy and lush food plot vegetation. Without this precautionary treatment, the success of the forage growth will be mixed.

Before actual planting, the soil must be properly prepared. Again, a soil conservation agent, a state agronomy expert or even a nearby farmer can offer some hands-on advice for your planting site. Site preparation is essential to getting new seeds off to a good start. This may mean plowing deep to break up the hardpan before a thorough and complete disking.

It is considered best to plant new seeds in soil that is moist. Soil without adequate ground moisture will obviously delay seed germination, and may cause seed sprouting to be weak, erratic or even non-existent.


Making critical seed choices

Too many choices is sometimes a good thing. At least there are plenty of options. In fact, there are probably about a gazillion different choices of forage types for wildlife food plots. The only catch it that the choices need to be made with site-specific considerations in mind. Visit local farm co-operatives to ask about their regionalized homemade mixes.

If you remain confused or have questions, the best bet is to defer to the expert advice of a local soil specialist with the NRCS, state wildlife biologist or other deer hunters who have experience growing productive plots. Such experts have data available to suggest appropriate forage based on local soil types and other regional growing factors.

For example, picking winter wheat may make for a great-looking green plot, but it may not be the best overall choice for the deer that reside on your hunting property. Growing periods and typical weather patterns, among other factors, have an impact on what is best to plant for the nutritional benefit of deer.


Mississippi plots

Floyd Wood was a long-time biologist for what used to be the Mississippi Soil Conservation Service. That agency is now the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Wood spent a good part of his career researching various food-plot strategies and forage combinations.

"I have tried out many, many mixes in a lot of different soils under a variety of growing conditions," he said. "Overall, I've found one mix that seems to work the best generally all across the board."

Per acre, use two to three bushels of oats, one and a half to three bushels of rye or wheat, 15-20 pounds of ryegrass and 15-20 pounds of crimson, arrowleaf or subterranean clover.

As a pre-planting preparation strategy, Wood preached the application of lime three to four months in advance of planting time. Also he uses at least 450 pounds of Triple-13 fertilizer per acre. That may sound excessive and expensive in today's market, but adequate fertilizing is the key element not to skimp on.

For the actual planting process, Wood recommended planting the oats, rye or wheat on properly prepared sites, and to cover the seeds at least 1-2 inches with a light disking. Clover seeds seem to do better if covered, but can simply be overseeded after other seeds have been covered.


Going the extra mile

More needs to be accomplished than just planting decent wildlife food plots. There is a lot more to the game. In fact, there are a number of game-management practices that serve well to complement any plan to plant food plots.

Creating openings in forested areas will give deer greater and easier access to additional feeding areas. Opening forest canopies with select cutting will promote the growth of new native browse including grasses, shrubs and other fresh succulent forages that deer can thrive on.

Prescribed burning every three years will do a number of things for the deer habitat. It will clear back the unproductive undergrowth that is of little value to deer anyway. This too will promote new plant growth and regenerate old stale forests and fields. Planting open fields, fire lanes and roadsides with fescue, clover and other plantings will also provide even more wildlife food resources to supplement the food plots already developed on the property.

The seasonal use of mowing, disking or the appropriate application of weed herbicides can help to restore more native wildlife food resources to the habitat. Fertilizing select native browses like honeysuckle, wild berry bushes and the like will also put tons more high-quality food resources on the property. All these extra measures will add to any wildlife management plan for white-tailed deer.