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How to Grow Better Food Plots

October 11, 2023 - Paul Anderson, AFM

White-tailed deer are one of the most iconic wildlife species across the country and, by far, the most hunted big game species. Managing populations and herd health is an important aspect of maximizing hunting opportunities. One effective way to support your local deer population is by planting food plots. Once established, food plots provide supplemental nutrition for deer, especially during critical times like winter and early spring when natural forage is scarce. Soil fertility, plant selection, and weed control are just a few of the key components that contribute to the overall success of deer food plots.

Soil fertility is the foundation of any successful food plot. Regular soil testing will provide important information on the pH and nutrient content. The first step is to collect soil samples from various points throughout the food plot and have them tested by a reputable lab. The information to be looking for is pH, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Most food plots will thrive with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH range of 6.0 – 7.0. Lime application may be necessary to adjust the pH to a more optimal range. Commonly available fertilizers can be used to address N, P, and K deficiencies, based on the recommendations provided in the soil test report.

Choosing the right plants for a deer food plot is a complex decision that depends on the time of year, soil conditions, and the deer population’s nutritional needs. A common approach is to plant a variety of species for a well-rounded food plot that provides nutrition throughout the year. Legumes are a great option for spring and summer. This would include species like clover, alfalfa, soybeans, and cowpeas. Legumes grow well in a wide range of soil types and are known for being highly palatable to deer with a wealth of nutrients. Cereal grains like rye, oats, or wheat are high in carbohydrates and provide energy going into the rut. Brassicas such as radishes or turnips should be a staple in any food plot mixture for late-season forage. They contain high levels of starch, which turns into sugar in cold temperatures.  Besides all of the nutritional benefits they provide, brassicas are an incredible late-season attractant.

Regardless of how good the fertility is and how well thought out the seed mixture is, it can all be for nothing without appropriate weed control. In most cases, this means starting with a complete burn down herbicide like Roundup at least two weeks before planting. Post-emergent weed control is where it gets tricky, especially if a blend of species is being grown together. Assuming that the crop is not a Roundup Ready variety, there are still a few options available. Clethodim is a grass-specific herbicide that is safe for most species except cereal grains. 2,4-D is effective for broadleaf weeds in crops like rye, wheat, oats, or corn. If there are any concerns whatsoever about which herbicides are compatible with which crops, the safest option is to consult an agronomist and always follow recommended rates and application directions on the herbicide label.

Creating and maintaining food plots can be an incredibly rewarding experience. With proper management and a little work, landowners can create a valuable tool for deer management while enhancing their hunting opportunities. Having the right plan in place and executing it in a timely manner is key to ensuring food plot success. If you have any questions or would like to talk to a Peoples Company Land Manager about food plots on your farm, please feel free to contact us at 855.800.5263 or by email at LandManagement@PeoplesCompany.com.

Published in: Land Management