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OUTDOORS FEATURE: Making food plots make a difference

Properly maintained year round, food plots can be beneficial tools for deer management on a property, especially during the summer and other high-stress times of year.

Properly maintained year round, food plots can be beneficial tools for deer management on a property, especially during the summer and other high-stress times of year.

In today’s fast-paced world, many people are looking for a quick fix to their most vexing problems. Unfortunately, many advertised quick-fix products end up being less effective than they are purported to be and the people who buy them end up losing money and becoming even more frustrated.

Hunters are guilty of the same thing, especially when it comes to wildlife-managing and wildlife-attracting food plots.

ike most consumers, hunters can be quite easily “suckered” by new, flashy food plot products, each one advertised to make growing, attracting, and harvesting the wild game species of their choice simple child’s play. Many of these new products are “modern miracle” seeds or fertilizers for hunters to use in food plots for deer, by far the most popular wildlife food plots used today.

“Corporate advertisements give hunters the often-mistaken impression that planting one particular brand or variety of seed will allow them to grow and attract bigger bucks than they could have ever imagined,” said wildlife biologist Chris Cook. “Print ads and videos flood the outdoor media with slick, well-scripted advertising. Though food plots can often make a difference in the success of many deer management programs, the truth is food plots are not the ‘magic bean’ some people would have hunters believe. Simply plowing up a piece of property and planting a food plot with this or that brand of grain crop or clover does not automatically ensure more and better deer for a hopeful hunter. “

According to Cook, one area where food plots usually make the biggest difference is in facilitating deer harvest. Fall food plots provide hunters with additional opportunities to see and shoot deer.

Areas such as logging roads, fire lanes, or old log loading decks planted with fall crops help draw deer out into the open to feed or at least pause long enough during their travels for a hunter to identify them and possibly make a shot. For this purpose a food plot, regardless of expense or “proper” planting, is a definite boon.

“Even areas as small as a quarter of an acre planted with small grains or ryegrass can be turned into productive hunting spots,” he explained. “This is especially true in areas with limited visibility, such as young pine plantations or middle-aged clearcuts, areas where openings are needed to increase a hunter’s chances of actually seeing more animals. In this regard, food plots work a lot like waterfowl decoys and affect the hunting experience directly.”

Larger long-term-management food plots planted during the summer or fall can help deer through times of increased stress.

Food supplies are generally at their lowest during late summer and late winter and food plots maintained during these high-stress periods tend to attract and keep deer on or near a particular property. To consistently make food plots do the job they are intended to do, it is usually important to properly maintain them throughout the year.

This includes, of course, planting them with the right deer forage.

“A food plot that includes such plantings as alyce clover, joint vetch, or cowpeas can do a lot to help deer through the traditional stress of late summer until natural fall foods become more readily available,” Cook said. “By the same token, food plots planted with small grains and crimson clover can help get deer through the equally stressful period just before spring green-up. These plots by themselves may not provide food year round and may not supply enough food to produce an increase in average weights and antler development on a property, but they can certainly help deer enter the more bountiful times of year in better condition.”

The biggest potential impact food plots can have on a deer management program is a significant increase in the nutritional plane of the deer using the property.

A significantly improved nutritional plane leads to increased antler size, body weights, and fawn production. To reach these objectives, a significant portion of the property needs to be planted in high-protein, highly palatable crops.

The percentage needed to produce a significant change will depend on the quality of the remainder of the habitat on the property.

“Poorer quality habitats will need a much larger percentage of food plots than areas with better quality habitat if an improvement in deer condition is desired,” Cook explained. “The crops planted need to be productive and nutritious throughout most of the year, especially during times when antler and fawn development are taking place.”

Cook points out that a good food-plot strategy typically requires planting a combination of nutritious crops that mature at different time of the year. Planting only ryegrass in the fall, a common practice among deer hunters, will not accomplish that.

“Food plots can be wonderful tools for deer managers and hunters,” Cook concluded. “Realizing their limitations and using them as the situation dictates can make a big difference in the success or failure of most deer management programs. Most of all, remember that no one food-plot crop planted at only one time during the year will do much by itself to grow huge bucks on any given property. Treat food plots as management tools, not miraculous ‘quick fixes,’ to achieve the results you desire.”