Planning for Food Plots for Your Deer

deer gathered around a feeder

Many of you that are serious about the wildlife part of your operation are looking for ways to improve the quality of your deer.  Quality is generally defined as larger body size and increased antler scores, attributes that are most influenced by the nutritional intake of the deer. One way to influence the nutritional intake of deer is to develop food plots, where you grow plants that are high in nutritional quality and are palatable to wildlife.  For those ranchers that think this is beginning to sound a lot like “farming”, well that’s what it is.

Food plots for wildlife, whether you are hunting, photographing, or you just want to improve the diet of your animals, can provide a substantial increase in both forage volume and quality, especially if you manage them to coincide with the periods of lower native forage quality.

Looking at a normal (whatever normal is anymore) type of forage year for deer, the highest quality of forage occurs in the spring and early summer.  Winter moisture and/or spring rains bring on fresh new growth of grasses, forbs, and browse.  This new growth is low in fiber, and therefore has a high digestibility, or energy value, and very high protein levels.  Deer should do extremely well through this period.

However, when the summer gets hot, the nutritional quality of the deer’s forage falls off, just like it does for our domestic wildlife.  This decline in forage quality is taking place as the later stages of antler growth are underway and the does are beginning to fawn and produce milk.  Both of these conditions add to the need for more nutrients from the forage at a time when it’s not there.  A food plot available at this time can be very valuable for continuing antler growth, and heavier fawns.

If late-summer – early-fall rains come, then there is generally an increase in nutrient availability due to germination of cool season forbs and grasses, as well as new growth in warm season grasses, and new growth on browse plants.  During a period like this, the native forage should give a boost to the nutritional intake of the deer.

However, it’s not long until frost, with the loss of leaves from the deciduous browse plants, the warm season grasses go dormant, and growth of the cool season forbs and grasses slows down with the declining temperatures.  During the winter is another critical time that food plots can be of great help to your deer by providing some high quality forages when the native forage is at it’s lowest levels.

So, it’s easy to see where food plots, making forages available at the critical, nutrient deficient, times of the year, can make a big difference in the size and productivity of your deer.  However, successfully raising a crop of forage is not as easy as many think it is.

It is fairly easy if it rains, regularly.  However, in the semi-arid areas that we live in, where rains sometime are few and far between, having a successful food plot is much more difficult.  To be successful with food plots in dry country, you have to approach it like a dry land cotton farmer.

I watched cotton farmers around home for many years, and while I would never want to be called a farmer (they’re different from stockmen), I do admire those that are good at it.  I see that the way the better farmers go about raising a crop is much different than those that raise much less of a crop.

First and foremost, they know to conserve moisture.  Conserving moisture is a three-pronged approach for them.  First, they maintain a fallow ground whenever they are not growing a crop.  By fallow ground, I mean, they want nothing growing on that ground that will take up critical moisture from the soil.  Anything that tries to grow there that is not what they want is a weed, and is plowed under.

I know this goes against what some wildlife managers think about weed control in their fields.  However, if moisture is the limiting factor in having a successful food plot, then you want all of the moisture possible in the ground when your crop is growing.  The other plants that grow in the off season, even winter, cool season plants, are taking moisture out of the soil.

This is especially true of your winter food plots.  If you just let the weeds grow in it all summer, they take a tremendous amount of moisture out each day because of the heat and low humidities in the air.  I know that most weeds are good seed producers for quail, dove, and other birds even if the deer don’t eat them, but if you want a weed patch for the quail, then disk up a piece of ground and leave it for them.  For your deer plots, you want that moisture to go to plants the deer will eat, and that provide a high density of nutrients for them.

The second prong of moisture saving for dry land farmers is to not disturb the ground any more than you have to.  I know that sounds like a contradiction from keeping the ground fallow, but actually they go hand in hand.  When you must, plow up the unwanted plants when their numbers warrant it.  However, don’t go plow the field every week just to make it look good.  Every time you pull a plow through the field, you expose more soil and more moisture evaporates, especially in the upper layers of the soil that are necessary for germination.  So use that plow wisely.

The dry land cotton farmers also keep the ground in a condition to allow moisture penetration as the third prong of moisture conservation.  Every time you run a tractor over the field, you compact the soil a bit.  As light as deer, or livestock, are, they also compact the soil.  This compaction reduces the rate at which moisture can infiltrate into the soil, and percolate to the deeper layers of the soil strata.  So, occasionally, they run a chisel type plow that cuts grooves deep into the soil.  This allows a much greater water penetration the next few times it rains.

If any of you are skeptical about the effects that chiseling has on moisture penetration, just go look at some farmers fields the next time it rains.  Identify some that have chiseled and some that haven’t.  Then look at how much water run-off they had from the rain.  The chiseled fields will retain much more rainfall than those that weren’t.  This is the moisture that will make your food plot a success.

Many of you may not have, nor want to own, the equipment to farm your food plots to this level.  Then hire it done.  Many times your food plot will need tilling at a time that the farmers in your area are not too busy, and may be interested in making a few dollars.  When deciding on who to get to do your farming, check out his farm during the year and see just how good he is at raising crops.  The one with the better crops year-after-year – that’s your farmer.

The other principles of farming apply to food plots as well as they do to farming cotton, soybeans, tomatoes, or anything else.  Prepare a good seedbed without clods so the seed can make good contact with the moist soil, and plant your seed at the proper depth for each type of plant.  Planting too shallow makes the seed more available for the birds and mice to get to it.  Also, the soil moisture may dry up around the seed too quickly for germination.  The main problem with planting too deep is that the seedling may not be strong enough to make it to the sunlight and will die before it ever breaks through the soil surface.

Another, and probably as important as any other, trait of the better farmers is that they get their farming done when it needs to be done.  They don’t put it off a couple of weeks because they want to take a vacation, or play dominoes at the gin.  It is extremely important that, if you need to plow a field for weeds in the off season, you plow it when the weeds are young.  At this time, they are easier to plow and kill, and also haven’t used as much soil moisture.  If it’s time to plant, plant.  Waiting a few weeks may make the difference between having crop and not.

Waiting on a rain to provide moisture for the top layer of soil to improve germination is problem all farmers face.  However, the better ones go ahead and dry plant, if they have deeper moisture.  They know that in a more normal type of year than we have had lately, the rain will come eventually.  If you wait on a rain, then you have to let the ground dry, plow it once more, then plant, and you have lost days of the growing season, plus some of that surface moisture has gotten away from you.

Planting a food plot with a crop that is highly digestible, and high in nutrient composition can make a big difference in how much better antler growth finishes out and how well the does are able to produce milk for the fawns, as well as help your deer survive the winter in better condition.  Treat your food plot as seriously as the rest of your livestock and hunting operation and do it right.  It can be a big help in making your hunting operation much better than it otherwise would have been.

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