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Think Before Planting Food Plots

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Much has been written about planting food plots for white-tailed deer. "How-to" articles and advertisements pertaining to food plots appear in just about every major periodical and hunting show showcasing white-tailed deer. So much, in fact, that the average person would think that planting food plots is an integral part of managing white-tailed deer.

The astute wildlife manager, however, realizes that food is only one component of wildlife habitat management, whether for white-tailed deer or any other species of wildlife. Obviously, food is a very critical component for wildlife, but no more so than water, cover, space and the arrangement of these components. An abundance of one is virtually useless when the others are limiting or lacking.

Food for white-tailed deer is best addressed by large-scale manipulation of the plant communities where deer are managed. The key to producing food for white-tails is creating diverse native plant communities. In most situations, the need for food plots to supplement deer nutrition, regardless of all of the media attention, should only be addressed after the manager is satisfied that the native plant communities are managed to the fullest extent possible and deer densities are maintained at levels that the habitat can support. Only then do food plots occasionally have a place in deer nutrition management, depending on the manager's goals.

However, there are instances where food plots can be useful aside from addressing deer nutritional needs. Based on the many phone calls we receive at this time of the year pertaining to planting food plots, I would venture to say that most of them fall into the category of attracting deer for hunting or other sources of enjoyment. For these, as well as nutritional purposes, several factors need to be evaluated to ensure the success of a food plot.

Soil type and slope are two very basic fundamentals that warrant serious consideration. The soil should have the capacity to grow what is planted. Shallow soils, rocky soils or soils that remain wet are not good candidates for most food plots. The site should not have slopes greater than five percent. Sites with slopes greater than five percent should never be tilled due to the erosion tillage will likely cause. A free county soil survey book, available at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in your county, will provide these details about the soil on the site you are considering for a food plot.

What to plant is usually the topic in question for most phone calls we receive regarding food plots. What is planted depends on the intended season of use. The vast majority of food plots are planted in September for fall and winter use. For these plots, it's hard to beat one of or any combination of oat, wheat, rye, Austrian winter pea or turnip. For summer and early fall food plots, one of or any combination of iron and clay, catjang or red ripper cowpeas are hard to beat. There are other plant varieties that work for either season, many of which are sold under various trade names, but those listed here are usually readily available and reasonably priced.

For most food plots, appropriate fertilizer should be applied. Soil samples are the only way to determine the proper fertilizer needed. Fertilizing a food plot not only increases forage production, it increases the nutritional value of the forage as well, making it more attractive to deer.

The size of the food plot is also important and often overlooked. In areas with high deer densities, small food plots may be rapidly consumed by deer, therefore not allowing the food plot to meet its intended use.

Russell Stevens served as the strategic consultant manager and a wildlife and range consultant at Noble Research Institute. He received a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from the Southeastern Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in animal science (range and wildlife option) from Angelo State University.