Picking the Best Food Plot for Deer in Fall and Winter
What comes to mind when you think of the best food plots for deer in the winter and fall?
If you’re like most hunters you view food plots as a place to sit in a shooting house, ground blind or elevated stand with the hope of seeing and harvesting a trophy deer. Many hunters are unaware of the amount of planning that goes into preparing the soil or choosing the appropriate seed and fertilizer. Each of these must be properly addressed and will determine whether the hunter will spend time watching deer or meditating in solitude.
Science and technology have made advances in every area of our modern life. These innovations are apparent in the hunting industry when one looks at the vast array of new bows, firearms and even air powered rifles offered to hunters each year. Today’s hunter has more choices in their hunting clothes and gear than any previous generation. These choices extend to the availability and variety of the seed and fertilizer they can use to attract and keep deer on their property. The hunter’s that educate themselves as to the best available food plot options for their particular location can ensure that the deer will gravitate to their deer plots in the fall and utilize it through the winter. Whether one is the manager of a large hunting operation or simply a hunter with one small field to plant, they each have the same goal of drawing deer to a particular place by planting and fertilizing some seeds to create the best food plots for deer in the fall and winter.
The availability and choices of what crops to plant for deer are so numerous as to be overwhelming. One can now find bags of seed in a wide variety of stores, but just because a bag of seed has a picture of a large antlered buck on the front doesn’t mean that seed will perform well where you intend to plant it. The more factual information hunter’s have that can be applied to their specific location, the better chance that their time and effort will result in some great memories and good stories as they and their friends hunt.
Planning Food Plots
Research indicates that 1/2 acre is the average size of a whitetail food plot. Most experts suggest a 1/4 acre minimum size although some hunters clear small remote areas, known as “micro plots”. If your food plots are going to be in competition with fields on nearby properties, then it’s a good idea to find out what’s being planted in your neighbor’s fields. It’s also helpful to know when they are planting.
Deer are similar to humans when it comes to food. We don’t mind experimenting, but we know what we like. Deer eat a variety of browse and plants based on nutritional needs and taste. They need a certain amount of calories each day and their feeding increases as the temperature drops. If a restaurant only has one or two items on the menu, they better taste really good or most folks will go where there is a better variety. Deer are the same way, they have preferences for where those calories come from.
Types of Forage
The main categories of plants that most whitetail hunters plant are cereal grains, brassicas and legumes. Within each of these seed groups are varieties that have been developed for specific soil types, ph tolerance and latitude. Whether it’s along the Alabama Gulf Coast or into the Canadian interior there are plenty of good choices when planting food plots for deer.
Brassica – is from modern Latin and can be literally translated as cabbage. This category of plants includes many leafy plants such as turnips, radishes, kale, chicory and canola, along with some newer additions. Brassicas do well in moist, well drained areas and tolerate a broader pH range. They require plenty of fertilizer to continue their growth into late winter. They are cold tolerant and draw deer better after the cold changes their starch content to sugars, which makes them more palatable. Food plots planted in these crops have been known to produce up to 10 tons of forage to an acre with crude protein ranging from 20% to 38%.
Cereal Grains – This category is the one most of us hunters are familiar with. It includes wheat, oats, rye (not rye grass), alfalfa and triticale. Different varieties of cereal grains tolerate wet soil better (rye and wheat) and some do better in drier soils (oats and triticale). Varieties have been developed for different soil types and soil qualities. If your dirt is higher quality, choose wheat or oats. Rye does better in acidic, shaded, less fertile, or sandy soils. Triticale can perform well in either situation, but does better in higher quality soils. Cereal grains provide great early fall options, stand up well to heavy browsing, and have a 10-25% range in crude protein.
Legumes – Lablab, soybeans, cowpeas, Austrian winter peas, clovers and alfalfa are all legumes and they produce their own nitrogen. This means that they require a different fertilizer mix than cereal or brassicas. There are many new varieties that can be grown as far south as the Alabama coast and into Florida. They can be planted separately or in combination with other crops and do well in a variety of soils. They are great for early plots and some do well through cold weather. Deer feed heavily on these and they can be over browsed if deer density is high. They range in crude protein from 20-30%.
Choosing the Right Seeds
One good source for the best choices of seed for your next food plot is Daniel Bumgarner of Wildlife Management Solutions (WMS) located in Eutaw, Alabama.
“Our experienced staff has over 30 years of experience advising and providing hunters with seeds, equipment and expert advice. Soil test analysis, planting, food plot layout, plot maintenance, and wildlife opening design are just a few of the services that you can receive when buying products through WMS. We can provide a custom mix of seeds to meet anyone’s goals on their hunting property,” Bumgarner said.
Bumgarner addressed the challenges of establishing a good deer plot.
“Along with seed choice, planting time is another critical aspect of good quality food plots. Hunters shouldn’t plant just by the calendar, but rather by the weather,” Bumgarner noted. “Soil moisture is important in germination and growth of young plants. Hunters should watch the weather forecast and plan their planting ahead of a rain.”
Another overlooked option for making your fields more attractive to deer is modifying the flavor profile of your forage as you fertilize your plants with a foliar formula liquid fertilizer. This type of fertilizer has been in use for many years in agriculture and sports. Many golf courses around the world depend on it to provide accelerated growth to those lush fairways and greens. Likewise, many professional football and baseball groundskeepers use the same strategy.
I talked to Chris Grantham of Alabama Liquid Fertilizer (ALF), located in Elba Alabama, about their Clark’s Plot Nutrients formulas and the use of their products in the best food plots for deer.
According to Grantham, most traditional pelletized fertilizer requires a soil pH of 6.5 to 7 in order for plants to absorb its nutrients.
“This pH level is usually achieved by applying lime up to three months prior to planting. Even with the proper soil pH only about 60-65% of the nutrients in pelletized fertilizer is available to plants over a period of time,” Grantham noted. “We offer a concentrated solution that has an absorption rate of 80-90% within two hours of being applied directly to the plant’s leaves and stems.”
“In addition to the standard plant nutrients, it contains 1% calcium that aids in antler growth and eggshell density for turkeys,” he added.
Grantham explained that what this means for the hunter is that they can time the application of this formula to draw more deer to a particular field or a certain part of a field within a short time frame.
“Our testing has verified that deer will stay and feed longer on those fertilized plants due to their increased palatability.”
Grantham went on to say that the soil pH is not as much of a barrier to nutrient absorption with the liquid since it is absorbed directly through the stems and leaves of a plant and not its roots.
“It takes about five minutes to fertilize a 1/2 acre field with our product, and this can be a good way to enhance a portion of larger fields or a small plot a week or so before a planned hunt,” Grantham said.
Benny Stultz manages a bowhunting only property in Union Springs. I spoke with him about his transition from traditional fertilizer to Clark’s Plot Nutrients and he felt that the change has been positive.
“Our transition to Clark’s Plot Nutrients has proven very beneficial for our numerous fields. Chris, at ALF, provided a special mix for a field we planted in alfalfa, and so far we and the deer couldn’t be happier with the results,” Stultz said.
Bow hunting for deer in Alabama has grown in popularity as more hunters look to get an early start with their whitetail season. Many clubs now cater to bow hunters, but having established fields that draw deer in mid-October can be challenging. These early season plots require careful planning because they are plowed and planted in the spring or summer but that hard work in the warmer months will definitely lead to the best food plots for deer in the fall.
“We have created numerous combinations that do well in a variety of soils as a warm weather crop with continued growth into bow season,” Bamgarner said. “We offer a custom mix called WMS Lablab-N-Corn that does well through the summer. We also have a custom blend called WMS Deer Magnet.”
Bamgarner said that Trical triticale is the backbone of this mix and that Trical 342 triticale is known for its rapid emergence and establishment.
“In Auburn University forage trials, Trical triticale consistently produces more tonnage from fall through winter than other wheat, oat, and triticale varieties. This is crucial for areas that have high deer densities. Abundant leafy forage during hunting season will equal more deer on your food plots. Trical triticale has sucrose levels that surpass wheat, oats, and other triticale varieties and is the sweetest forage cereal grain you can plant! It also contains winter peas and annual clovers that emerge quickly to provide early forage. Biennial clovers establish in early fall and provide excellent foraging opportunities from fall through mid-summer,” Bamgarner said.
Various seed blends do well in colder weather and provide nourishment to deer and other wildlife into spring. Researchers have covered the globe to find plants that will thrive in most any scenario. It boils down to identifying your soil type and matching the plants to your climate.
“Clovers mixed with cereal grains and brassicas will produce good forage throughout the winter and early spring,” Baugarner said. “We believe we have developed the best blend on the market with WMS Alabama Blend. We believe it’s the ultimate answer for southern soils and will create the best food plot for deer in the winter. We have developed an eight part mix that is comprised of selected wheat, oats, forage triticale, forage winter peas, daikon radishes, and annual clovers. WMS Alabama Blend will provide attractive forage fast and will keep deer coming all season long.”
Logan Campbell manages property in Walker and Bullock counties and he agrees with Baugarner.
“I started using WMS seed blends about three years ago to make the best food plots for deer in the fall and winter. Daniel and Dale came to our property and discussed different seed options to get the most out of our fields. I’ve seen deer walk through other forage we had planted to feed in a field planted in WMS Alabama Blend. There is such a variety of seeds that just keep growing right into spring. It’s easy to grow and competitive in price,” Campbell said.
Choosing the best seeds for your next deer plot can be daunting, but a little research can help ease your anxiety. Now is a great time to test your soil and prepare those fields for the upcoming deer season. If you’re still unsure as to the best seed or fertilizer options for your hunting property, contact Daniel Bumgarner of “Wildlife Management Solutions” and Chris Grantham at “Alabama Liquid Fertilizer”
Wildlife Management Solutions
Alabama Liquid Fertilizer