Developing productive food plots for deer Establishing A Plot Or Two, The Results Could Be Amazing

The Construction of smaller food plots on lands that are suitable for the rapid growth of farm crops, vegetables and specialty plants, serving as an attractant to deer, seems to be “buzz words” throughout the deer hunting community. Seminars and food plot demonstrations are common during late summer; often hosted by vendors selling plant, specialty seeds.

Recently there has been a strong push for allowing the construction of food plots on DNR managed state lands. Properly constructed and managed food plots can be very beneficial for attracting deer to a hunter’s land or close to his or her deer stands.

Food plot construction is not an automatic success and often becomes an exercise in futility! They require land, money, ambition, effort, equipment and a fair amount of knowledge about soils, fertilizer, crops and general farming practices. If you have a history of farming experience, you have an edge on most of us. Having been raised on a farm has certainly been a help for me in understanding what foods deer prefer at different times of the year.

The amount of, and the size of equipment needed to prepare food plots, is directly proportional to the size and number of food plots constructed and farmed. Personally I own a 1968 Ford 3000 tractor with a commercial loader. One of the most useful tools I own is a 5 foot, 3-point rototiller. The tiller is inexpensive, very maneuverable, tills hard to reach areas and does a great job in preparing the soil for crops. I seldom use my plow, drag or disk anymore.

I also use a 1974 John Deere, Model 112, 12 horse garden tractor for pulling my herbicide sprayer, fertilizer applicator, roller, etc. It has an electric type integral hitch for attaching either a spring tooth or stiff shank cultivator, as well as a one row Brinley corn planter. Other seeds, such as, oats, soybeans, rape, turnips and the various legumes are planted with a bag and hand crank type spreader device. Oats, soybean seeds and fertilizer are worked into the soil with the lawn tractor and cultivator. Legumes and other tiny seeds should be scatted on top of the soil and should never be covered with more than a quarter of an inch of soil or they won’t have enough energy to emerge. On well dried soil, a roller is used to contact the seed with the earth.

A hunter contemplating the development of some effective food plots should face the facts that they are very time consuming as well as being a costly project. Unless you are a farmer with access to some small isolated areas, too small for general farming, you will probably be faced with clearing trees, brush, weeds, stumps, rocks, etc., from your selected plot areas. If you decide to place your food plot inside a wooded area near deer trails or your favorite tree stands, you will no doubt, encounter more work and expenses than normal in order to develop an open, unshaded, debris free, seed bed area.

Many, non-farmed, open meadows, such as, conservation projects, ditch banks and government “set aside” programs are quickly being over taken by Autumn Olive. This aggressive invasive shrub spreads like wildfire and should be eradicated whenever the silvery leafed plant appears!

Most plants that are preferred by deer require a substantial amount of sunlight along with adequate moisture in order to develop robust farm crops. A food plot within a woodlot will be devoid of moisture in areas next to the bordering tree lines, as long, lateral roots can extract moisture for as much as 20 feet into the contiguous, food plot areas, causing several feet of bare area in close proximity to the tree lines. I have found that Brassica type plants are stunted dramatically, when even partially shaded, or when growing near trees or shrubs.

Another factor to consider in selecting what to plant in your food plots, is the time during the growing season you want the plant to mature, or at what stage of growth it will be most utilized by both deer and other wildlife. For example soybeans are the most desirable when they are young and tender plants as well as after harvest during the late hunting seasons. Brassica (rape, turnip, etc.) seem to be more appealing after some frosts or during the winter seasons. New growth legumes are desired throughout the growing season. Consider fall planting for some species (rape, turnips and oats).

Consideration should be given to the density of the spring wildlife populations when deciding what species of crops you should plant. For instance, some plants, such as, soybeans and peas (two of deer’s favorites) are very vulnerable to wildlife damage, even as soon as they emerge through the soil. These seeds split open and a fast growing appendage emerges called a radical. This appendage forms the plant’s root and pushes a bent, fast growing stem out of the soil. It is called a hypocotyledonary arch. This arch keeps growing, therefore pulling the seed out of the ground, where it straightens vertically, forming a meristem (growing point). When this bent appendage straightens out, it becomes the plant’s central stem or stalk. These new stems are tender and very attractive to all forms of wildlife.

As the bean or pea is pulled from the soil and the stalk becomes upright, the seed splits in half and they take up a near horizontal position opposite of each other. Vertical growth takes place at the base of the bean halves. Drawing nourishment from the seeds (cotyledons), a pair of leaves opposite of each other develops just above the cotyledons. The bean and pea plants are most vulnerable at this stage of growth. They are very tender and supply a lot of nutrients to wildlife, especially for deer that are nursing fawns during the emerging soybean season.

Last spring I planted a fairly large food plot to soybeans and as they came through the ground, deer, woodchuck and cottontail rabbits all lined up to get their share of these delicacies. Not one plant survived. Unlike corn, whose seeds remains underground and can re-grow a couple of times, beans are all done growing when above ground seeds are eaten by wildlife. It is for this reason that farmers become “irate” when they view large numbers of deer swarming into their newly emerging soybeans and corn fields each spring! Crop yields and profits can be diminished substantially by this kind of deer, crop damage. I had a similar experience with a smaller, late season plot of peas last fall, as none survived for a deer season attraction!

Personally I would avoid spending a lot of time, money and energy on developing food plots in areas where deer tend to concentrate in large numbers during the spring breakups or when early planting seasons of farm crops occurs. Food plots are at risk in wooded areas where farm crops are scarce or non-existent, especially on, or bordering large blocks of State Land. If these plantings are small areas, they should be reserved for late season plots when deer will have other food choices that compete for their attention. This gives the plot plants a fighting chance for survival. Often trial and error is the only means of learning what plants will survive and produce deer food in any given area.

Weeds, especially grasses will present the toughest challenge for successfully growing a food plot; especially for the perennial survival of legume plants. However, Roundup Ready plants are a real asset for weed control even though some species of weeds are developing a resistance to this herbicide. Corn, soybeans and alfalfa are now registered as “Roundup Ready.” Eliminating weed competition will increase your crop’s growth and yields, substantially. As for me, I avoid any seed mixtures that contain a portion of perennial grasses.

Selecting the proper brands of seeds that will grow crops that are attractive to deer can be a real challenge. The last few years has seen a real surge in deer food, seed vendors in Michigan. Every elevator, farm feed store business, seed company and hunting supply store have racks filled with deer food plot seeds.

Choosing whose seeds to purchase is a matter of choice. Personally, I planted a lot of various seeds from several high profile vendors, as well as much cheaper, farm seeds from the local elevators and feed stores; much like the farmers grow. I sowed a lot of smaller sections of a food plot with different brands and varieties of the same plant species. I looked for productive growth, longevity of legumes and both palatability and preference by the deer herd.

My experience with the deer foods has led me to conclude that there is little difference, if any between the agricultural seeds and the highly touted, expensive specialty seeds, as far as being a deer attractant. However, I have been told that in agriculture seed test plots, more deer damage occurred to some varieties over others. One of the most preferred legume plot I plant is a mixture of seeds called “Wildlife Lure” prepared and sold by Sweenies Feeds in Mt. Pleasant, MI. It continues to provide a mixture of desired clovers, even after a period of three years. Historically deer have raided farmer’s corn, soybeans, oats, sugar beets, legumes and gardens for years, long before the so called, high energy seeds were on the markets.

Ladino type clovers (White flower), if kept in a new growth state, are desired by deer over all others. So regardless of what you plant, it must be mowed at least twice yearly to keep the new growth tender. The short white clovers that have encroached into my lawn are a magnet for cottontail and young deer every year. The frequent mowings keep the new, rapid growth, tender.

To keep plants growing rapidly and palatable, fertilization is a must, especially for corn. 200 pounds of triple 19 farm fertilizer seems to produce excellent yields of corn for me. Legumes, such as soybeans, alfalfa and clovers are able to manufacture their own nitrogen, but need at least a yearly application of a 6-24-24 fertilizer for root and seed development. If you apply a high nitrogen based plant food to legumes, they tend to become lazy, failing to make their own.

All trees, shrubs and plants try to keep their above ground growth, in balance with their corresponding root systems; especially in perennial plants. In other words the established root system will always try to rapidly replace any limbs, foliage or herbaceous material that has been removed by either man or wildlife.

This was very apparent to me when I pruned my large orchard every spring. The more limbs we removed, the more, new, fast growing shoots developed. At the end of the growing season, the canopy of the trees were the same as the previous season, regardless of the degree we had pruned them. Many hunters spend a lot of money planting apple trees for a deer attractant, only to face loss and disappointment down the road. Dwarf Apple trees have a tough time surviving in a wild unattended state and most fall victim to insects, disease, deer, rodents, cold temperatures and drought. Without pesticide and fencing protection, the trees are unlikely to survive. They would be lucky to produce a crop every five years! Last year was an unusual season as large crops of apples were produced, even in the wild. Wet springs spawn numerous fruit diseases, however few apples.

Deer prefer different foods at different times of the year. They start out the year by devouring the new growth as high as they can reach on my apple trees, then leave and return in September for the ripe fruit. After the new leaves are stripped, the deer move to the legume plots, followed by new soybeans and corn. After bean stalks become woody and the corn reaches waist high, deer abandon them until after their seeds ripen. As plants begin to grow, the stems begin to stiffen through the development of lignin that together with cellulose, forms the woody cell walls and cementing material between them. Lignin strengthens the stems and stalks of plants, therefore preventing lodging. The plant material becomes tough, hard to digest and is generally, no longer palatable. Therefore it is necessary to keep plants cut, trimmed or pruned, to promote new, tender growth. Second and third cutting legumes are always desirable and fall planted turnips and rape are more sought after during the late deer seasons; following some freezes.

The best thing I have found yet is a recent planting of farm oats, sown in late August, then seeded with clover and alfalfa. Within a month, the oats were a foot high and were serving as a cover crop for the legumes that were now, 6 inches in height. The legumes formed a thick, robust blanket of tender desert, that along with the oats are filling the plot with several deer on a daily basis! These fall planted legumes are off to a great start and promise to furnish another year of frequent, deer visits!

In conclusion, I would reiterate that food plots require time, money and work, both for their establishment and maintenance. Many hunters are reluctant to put forth any effort, or monetary output to improve their chances for a more successful deer season, however they do not hesitate to purchase an expensive firearm, muzzleloader or some pricey archery equipment. For the hunters that have the means available, try establishing a plot or two, the results could be amazing as the deer may find them inviting!

I wish everyone a happy hunting season in 2012!