Deer Hunters: How to Grow a Food Plot

food-plotsSo you want to grow a food plot? It’s not as easy as it sounds…

“If you build it, they will come” held true in the movie Field of Dreams. The same can be said for developing food plots for deer. Food plots are an amazing strategy for attracting and growing deer.

Crops help develop a strong and healthier deer population on your land.  Plus, it is a great alternative to baiting. Planting food for deer is one of the most rewarding yet frustrating land management strategies hunters can undertake. Evidence of a positive relationship between crops and deer is evident where the two overlap. So, what is stopping you? Well, planning and forethought before you spread the first seed is must or you’ll be throwing your money and time away.

Food Plot 101

Food plots have become a cornerstone for many deer outfitters and landowner. The two main reasons are: providing nourishment and attracting deer. Another huge reason is that hunters see an abundance of healthy deer with larger racks. Depending on your local laws, baiting might be banned practice but growing food plots are legal. This strategy might be your only legal way to attract deer.

To make food plot work for you, you’ll need a bit of planning to obtain your goals. Actually, the first thing is to have goals. Are you interested in strengthening deer numbers or attract them during hunting season — or both?

Food plots are crops grown especially for deer. Certain plants benefit deer through the entire year while other plants target the needs of deer during the fall when most natural or agricultural food is limited. Remember, more whitetails means greater hunting opportunities.

Several key factors will assist in creating strong food plots that can lure in or nourish the buck of a lifetime.  Here are several elements that cannot be overlooked.

Soil

Hunting grounds are often on marginal land. Farmers have utilized the best areas so hunters get what’s left over. If your favourite deer haunts are deep in the bush, you’ll have to be even more calculated when looking for good spots. Identifying what soil and growing conditions you have will determine viability of any plot. Don’t expect perfection. Timber lowlands typically have heavy, wet soil with limited sunlight where ridges are sandy and dry with plenty of direct sunlight. Taking a soil sample will save a lot of money, sweat and tears. Not only will a soil test from an agency explain what ph and fertilizers are needed, but will help determine what seeds are viable. There is never one magic bullet. The same holds true when it come to soil types. As hunters, we have to work with what we have and make the best of it.

Seeds

Amount of sunlight, maturity days, soil types, ph, yield and price dictate plant selection. Divided into two categories, annuals and perennials, seeds vary greatly in price and productivity. Your needs will be much different from Edmonton to Winnipeg to Thunder Bay. Annuals are great for producing a lush crop. Generally, their purpose is to provide food for the deer during a specific time period. Providing food for deer when every farm field is void and natural grasses are shriveled can yield amazing results.

Early bow hunters have different needs than late-season rifle hunters. Growing the correct annual plants will make a big difference while you wait on stand.

Perennials are multi-year plants that should develop stronger over time. Hard work and the correct location can yield lush crops year after year.  Perennials offer year-round food but can become dormant before the first gun season rolls around, especially if late November or December are your peak hunting months.

Perennials have their advantage of contributing to the well-being of deer all season. Also, once the plot is established maintenance is minimal. A cut or two during the summer will allow the plants to flourish and be weed free.

Annuals offer hunters great flexibility to target plant maturity with the hunting seasons. Brassicas such as: turnips, radish, rutabagas are ideal for cold-weather hunting. These crops keep late-season deer on your land and well looked after.

Shawn Hannah, Evolved Habitat’s Canadian sales representative, also choses brassicas.

“The beauty of brassicas are that the leaves grown tall enough not to be covered by snow and the bulb or root become tastier after a few strong frosts,” he says.

Kath Troubridge, owner of Excalibur Crossbows, has utilized food plots for years. One great tip she offers is: plant what the deer are already acclimatized to eating. If your county is rich in corn, rye, soybean production, then a natural choice should be one of those. Troubridge has been disappointed trying to accustom deer to a food plot that offered something new.

“Deer are funny and they get tuned into eating a certain type of food, they start searching it out. The best way to discover what deer like is asking the local farmers what crops are receiving the most damage from deer,” advises Troubridge.

Finding the perfect seeds isn’t as simple of reading the package. One overlooked resource is your neighbour. Local farmers know the intricacies of farming in your area. They’re a huge wealth of knowledge and their guidance will help avoid countless pitfalls.

My farmer buddy, Patrick, has frequently helped me. While inquiring how to purchase lime for my food plots, Patrick laughed and told me I didn’t need it. When I quizzed him, he explained that three generations have worked his family farm, and this made him an expert. Not only did his advice help me select better seeds but kept money in my pocket.

Many companies attract customers with multi-blend seed packs. The concept is great but in practice too many varieties compete against each other. Overall, this  creates poor results.

“I would avoid blends with too many varieties especially with clover blends,” advises Hannah. “If you spray to eradicate the weeds, you’ll end up killing some of the plants you’re trying to grow.”

Clover is King

“I always recommend clover for first-timers.,” states Hannah. “Clover is very forgiving. It grows with limited growing days, plus after you have had clover in for a few years, then you can get more adventurous with what you plant next. Clover puts a lot of nutrients, especially nitrogen, back into the soil allowing future plants better yields.”

Clover really has its advantages. Short growing periods, adapts well in cool, moist conditions plus it grows well under a huge range of soil ph but the true benefit is that clover can sustain heavy browsing. As soon as clover starts growing, it is palatable. It can withstand intense browsing without fear of killing it. Most annual plants will become stunted or destroyed if deer start munching on them too early.

Site Planning

Site location is core to success. The lay of the land will dictate the general area but this planning stage will affect how and where you hunt for years to come, so choose wisely. Keep the prevailing wind, natural cover, your approach, nosy neighbours and possibility of driving heavy equipment forefront. Planting right beside the county road might be the easiest, but do you really want everyone gawking at the buck of your dreams?

Depending on who you ask, the size of a good food plot varies. If deer numbers are high, anything less than an acre will be ravished. By autumn, not a blade will be left. That said, large plots are not a possibility of hunters without access to machinery. Even with an ATV, plots over a few acres are difficult to cultivate.

Think about number of plots verse square footage, especially for hunting plots. Hunting plots should be smaller and have ample cover surrounding them. Deer need to feel secure while they grab a quick lunch or patrol for does during daylight. Large, multi-acre fields seem great, but deer frequent them at night. Huge plots will sustain a strong deer population but limit hunting to only a few dim minutes at dusk or dawn.

Narrow winding plots are best.  By limiting its size, any buck that enters is within range. This is even more critical if you’re bow hunting. Again, soil conditions will be the most critical factor in establishing good plots but planning their shape while also focusing on scent-free entrance and exit routes really pays off.

As an avid crossbow hunter, Kath Troubridge makes sure her food plots allow the hunter to be scent-free. Tree stands or ground blinds need to always be positioned so scent drifts away from deer in the plot. Making a plan that considers the terrain, deer and your hunting style is so important yet an often missed step. So, think before you dig.

This problem haunted us on one particular farm. Our food plots lay at the end of a long rectangular hay field. Beyond it was a thick stand of cedars and mixed hardwoods. Come opening day of gun season this place became impossible to hunt. The prevailing northwest wind always pushed our scent right into the bush, spooking everything even before we hit the stands. As soon as the wind came from the south or east, the food plot would fill with deer. Out of five hunting seasons, a suitable wind rarely occurred. One dark, rainy day, a strong easterly wind allowed my dad to slip into his tree stand unannounced.  With minutes, a mature 5×7 whitetail trotted along just off the perimeter of the food plot. My dad only need one shot to claim his largest deer to date. If we had greater flexibility in planting that food plot it would have been a consistent producer.  Luckily, when we have the correct wind, the deer came like clockwork.

Food plots are not a craze. They help grow giant deer with huge racks. With a bit of money and some hard work, you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labour coming hunting season.

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