Author: Ruth Burke
According to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, deer take the cake as the most popularly hunted game animal in the United States. This isn’t much of a surprise to anyone involved in the hunting community, nor is it a shocker here at Deer Creek Seed. We get daily customer service inquiries from folks who are planting food plots for deer and they’re looking for some in-depth advice.
As equal-opportunity hunters, we hesitate to write a blog article that is devoted to hunting (or catering to) one game species. However, given the subject’s popularity (and given the primary feedback we get from our customers), we would be remiss in our duties as Master Seedsmen if we didn’t give our customers some great tips to improve their deer food plots with the goal of attracting and maintaining high quality deer herds.
Continue reading for six food plot tips that are sure to help you grow great food plots and, in turn, attract great deer!
1. Perform a Soil Test!
This one is so important, we’re placing it as the number one tip! Often overlooked but so incredibly important, soil problems are frequently the limiting factor for a lot of food plots.
Think about it: where are you normally planting your food plots? Chances are high that you’re planting food plots on land that borders forests or streams or maybe some hilly, rocky areas that are great for wildlife and poor for agricultural production. Perhaps you’re planting food plots in areas that were once used for commercial agriculture or perhaps you’re planting food plots in soil that was previously in a conservation easement.
The point here is that every food plot is different – and soils can differ widely – even within a single field! You can’t tell how “healthy” or “unhealthy” your soil is just by looking at it. This is why we recommend that you get a soil test. A soil test basically gives you a baseline from which you can make educated decisions about the types of nutrients you need to apply based on the types of crops you’re growing.
While a soil test will quickly and efficiently tell you if your soils are nutrient deficient, it will also tell you about your soil’s pH level (which is a measure of acidity or basicity). Depending on the pH, several important nutrients will get “tied up” in the soil and won’t be available to plants. At the end of the day, performing a soil test ensures that you “know your soil”. It’s the best way to ensure the success of your seed and the time you spend planting it.
Deer Creek Seed offers a simple food plot soil test which provides recommended ranges of fertilization and pH correction based on the types of food plot crops you intend to grow. The test is straightforward and comes with instructions for soil sampling and directions on sending the sample to the laboratory. You can also check with your local county Extension office or university soil laboratory if you’re interested in detailed soil tests within your home state.
We recommend that you perform a soil test every 3 to 5 years on your food plots so that you can track your soil’s characteristics and performance over time.
2. Practice Your GAPS (Good Agricultural Practices)
In the agricultural world, GAP stands for “good agricultural practice.” If you’re going to put the effort into planting a food plot, why not ensure the success of your planting by using time-proven agronomic principles which will strengthen that effort?
The first step is “knowing your soil” and we covered that in our first tip. The second step is “knowing your seed” and knowing how to properly plant it. We pride ourselves on our high-quality seed and if you’re purchasing from us, you can rest assured knowing you’ve bought top-of-the-line seed. But even if you don’t purchase from us, make sure you buy seed from a reputable dealer! Don’t waste your time and money on cheap seed that may just create weed headaches for you down the road.
And speaking of weeds, prepare a good seed bed by eliminating weeds ahead of time and tilling the soil for a smooth and flat planting surface. We recommend applying a broad-spectrum herbicide followed by tilling the plot a few days later. If you know you have weed issues in the plot, wait a week or two after tilling and apply herbicide to the second wave of weed seedlings that pop up. If your plot is rocky and rough, consider cultipacking after tilling. Once you’re done, plant your food plot seed into a smooth, weed-free bed.
Another tip here is to make sure that you don’t plant your seed too deeply. Large seeded crops (like cereal grains, peas, buckwheat, or sugar beets) should be planted at 1/2 to 1 inch deep. Small seeded crops (clovers, alfalfas, and all brassicas) should be planted at 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. Plant at an appropriate depth and cultipack, drag, or roll afterwards for good seed-to-soil contact.
If you plan to broadcast small-seeded crops, make sure you roll the soil afterwards to ensure a firm contact between seed and soil. We definitely don’t recommend broadcasting large-seeded crops. If you don’t have a roller, drag, or cultipacker, you can drive over the plot with your 4-wheeler or similar vehicle to press the seed in.
Take advantage of Mother Nature’s plans by planting before a rain shower. If your plots are sloped in any way, perhaps wait until a drizzly day arrives (rather than a storm) so that you’re not losing seed to erosion run off. Another tactic to try with sloped plots is to put down a little straw after planting to prevent erosive loss of seed in the event of a coming storm.
And since we’re talking about Mother Nature, try to remember that most food plot crops (aka cultivated crops) need full sunlight. That’s around 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight a day. If you have deer food plots in the woods, you may need to open them up a bit by taking down some trees and letting in some light. Or, consider planting a shade-tolerant food plot mix like our Logger’s Trail blend.
Another valuable GAP to consider is crop rotation. Rotate your annual crop families every year so you don’t encourage pest and disease issues. This is especially true for brassicas and small grains. We strongly recommend alternating your annual food plot crops with 2- or 3-year perennial crops for increased disturbance of pest, disease and weed cycles.
Finally, go easy on the fertilizer! Keep in mind, you’re not growing crops to harvest and sell – this isn’t production agriculture. Applying too much fertilizer over time can cause pH changes that will negatively affect your food plot growth. This is why we strongly advise getting routine soil tests so that you know exactly what you need. Otherwise, you’re just feeding the weeds and potentially damaging your intended crops.
3. Avoid Road Exposure and Edging Property Boundaries
In terms of food plot placement, avoid planting your food plots near roads or property boundaries. This avoids tempting poachers and encouraging neighbors to hunt off your land.
If roads or boundaries are unavoidable, consider planting a screening product such as a tall grass. Our Silver Screen food plot mix is a blend of Egyptian wheat and forage soybeans. It will get tall and thick and provide succulent forage. A great perennial crop to consider is switchgrass. It’s a bit slow in the first two years, but by year three, you will have an enviable food plot screen and bedding area that will last for years.
4. Have Hunting Plots and Nutrition Plots and Keep Them Separated
If you have enough land, cultivate both hunting plots (otherwise known as attractant or kill plots) and nutrition plots (ancillary food plots). Keep these plots spatially separated. Nutrition plots should have the primary purpose of feeding the deer herd on your property and enticing them to stay long term. Hunting plots should be smaller and more secluded with the end goal of hunting over them in the fall or winter.
Don’t hunt over your nutrition food plots but do use them as a way to scout the herd dynamics on your land. Ideally situate them on the edges of woods where the plot can get sunlight but will allow for safety nearby for the feeding deer. Trees also provide a good spot for trail cameras, so you can track herd movement. Be adventurous and diverse with your nutrition plots – plant a mix that will provide you with a season’s worth of growth such as our All Season food plot mix or our Perennial Plus Clover blend. Our Spring Greens blend makes great spring food plots for deer that transition nicely into the fall with its succulent radish root crop and brassica components.
Your hunting plots, on the other hand, should be tucked back near bedding areas and secluded enough that mature bucks (who will be hovering near those bedding areas, waiting for bedded does to come out) will feel safe enough to feed in them during legal shooting hours. Utilize crops that will stay green and delicious late into the fall and early winter. Oftentimes this means planting some kind of brassica – like Daikon radishes or Purple Top turnips.
Deer Creek Seed also offers forage brassicas, which were developed to be both palatable and graze-tolerant. Sub-zero, Winfred, and Hunter are all great forage brassicas that will bounce back after a thorough grazing event. Finally, consider a deer food plot mix that blends brassicas with a few other species, such as legumes for an added protein component. Our Autumn Buffet, Beets & Sweets, and Succulent Succotash food plot mixes are sure to please!
What if you have a small acreage of land that can’t establish multiple types of food plots? We recommend using a season-long mix, such as the ones we mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Try to incorporate some screening grasses along the edges and keep the plot longer and narrower as opposed to big and open. If possible, situate it near the woods or an area where “escape” is possible if deer sense danger. And don’t over-scout it! The safer deer feel using your hunting plot, the more they will wind up using it. See tip number six for a follow-up to this idea.
5. Learn Your Local Agriculture…and Plant Something Different!
This one seems obvious, but a lot of folks don’t take this into consideration. Don’t plant what the local farmers are planting around you. After all, why would deer come to your land if they have vast swaths the of the same crop at their disposal everywhere else?
We’re not suggesting you go after some obscure crop – but if the local farmers are planting alfalfa hay pastures for their dairy cows, consider planting brassicas and clovers instead. If you’re surrounded by woods or wetlands, consider putting in protein rich legumes and early spring forages, like winter rye or an oat/pea combo.
6. Hunting Plot Accessibility Without Detection – Even When Scouting!
Out of all the tips we’ve shared here, this one probably takes the cake as the toughest recommendation to meet. If possible, take the prevailing wind, sun direction, and surrounding cover into consideration when selecting a location for planting. The best food plots for deer are the ones that they feel comfortable using!
Your hunting plots won’t do you any good if you can’t sneak into them without busting up deer on the way in or out. And unlike your nutrition plots, you should ideally stay away from your hunting plots once late summer rolls around. Stop by infrequently to check your trail camera and ideally stop by during a time of day that you know the deer will be out and about and not visiting your hunting plot.
Also practice scent control when you’re checking your hunting plots. If there’s a scrape nearby (which is awesome), don’t walk through it or touch any branches around it. Don’t leave your scent hanging around if you can avoid it! Deer have some of the most sensitive noses out there (about 1,000 times more sensitive than ours), so if you advertise your smell too much, they’ll stay away rather than risk encountering you.
The later in the season it gets, the more careful you should become with your hunting plots. When I scout late-season with my partner, we go so far as to wear camouflage and use scent-suppressing soaps – just as if we were actually hunting.
Don’t Stop Here – Keep Learning!
These tips are a great starting point for anyone seeking an in-depth approach to improving their food plots for deer herd health and quality. But don’t stop here! Go to YouTube and watch videos (there are literally hundreds – probably thousands – on the topic of food plots for deer.)
If videos aren’t for you, try Googling the subject! Again, there are probably dozens of organizations that are devoted to land improvement for the sake of deer habitat. If you come away from this blog article inspired to learn more, then we’ve done our job. Happy Hunting!