By Jason Herbert
The word “spring” brings many pleasant thoughts to every red-blooded American's mind. The months of March-June usually seem to be occupied with a combination of shed hunting, fishing, morel mushroom hunting, cutting wood, planting a garden, baseball, and of course turkey season. Spring is also the perfect time to start planting fall food plots. As busy as we all are- if successful fall hunting food plots are a goal, it is important to get an early jump on them in the spring.
The first step to food plots is to have a plan. I like to print an aerial photograph of my hunting properties with the intention of marking all over them. My fall hunting encounters, post season scouting, and spring shed hunting usually indicate where the deer are bedding, their travel routes and preferred food sources. I usually plant two types of food plots- large plots in high traffic areas for feeding and holding deer, and smaller “killing” plots near bedding areas. Depending on location and pressure, the larger plots are usually frequented by deer after shooting hours whereas the smaller plots located near bedding areas may experience more deer activity during daylight. With greater risk comes greater reward, and hunting near these small plots and the neighboring bedding areas needs to be done delicately and only when the time is right. I usually wait until my trail cameras indicate mature bucks on their feet during daylight, or when I start to see a lot of new scrapes showing up.
Once I have picked a few desirable food plot locations, I start to consider potential stand sites along with entrance and exit routes. I do not recommend hunting directly over a food plot, but rather downwind of it, or along a travel route between the food plot and a bedding area. Too many people become overzealous when hunting their food plots and wind up spooking every deer in the county. This is one of the reasons scent control is so important- the residual effects of uncontrolled human scent near a food plot, or anywhere for that matter, can be pretty destructive to one's season. I also feel that the chances of killing a mature buck are greater by exploiting his habits of traveling downwind of known doe hangouts. Food plots are fun to sit on if the goal is to see plenty of deer, or to simply shoot a doe. But, if the goal is to harvest a mature buck- I'd recommend staying away from the plots and instead figuring out how the local bucks travel around them.
After locations have been chosen, and my map is all laid out, the next step is to make the difficult decision of exactly what to plant. This in itself is an entire topic worthy of many pages of print. Here's my plan in a nutshell. I start by asking myself a series of questions. 1) What time of year will I be hunting here? 2) What natural food sources will the deer have available to them at this time of year? 3) What can I plant that will not be readily available anywhere else? The last question is crucial. Deer crave variety so I try to plant my plots with that in mind. If I'm hunting an agricultural area in the middle of December, I'll probably try to plant something that will be green like turnips and other brassicas. These brassicas are great for late season because after a few hard frosts the starches in their makeup turn into sugars that the deer crave. As much as I like the brassicas, I don't just plant them alone. They're just a sweet treat- the deer will need more to really stick around during the cold late season.
In an agricultural area the deer will have plenty of leftover beans and corn to clean up, but the alfalfa will long be dormant and brown, and anything green should be rather attractive to them. I also like clover in this situation. The protein content of clover is relatively high and it stays green throughout the winter. It is always nice to plant corn and beans and NOT harvest them. If possible, I plant my own in food plots. I recommend fencing off food plot stands of corn and beans due to the fact that the deer will usually eat them up well before the season starts if they've got the chance. Also, I'm happy to pay the local farmer to leave a few strips of the precious crops standing near my treestands as well.
In a hardwood area, planting anything will be helpful. It's rather difficult to plant food plots in the big woods, but if possible, throwing handfuls of clover seed down here and there is better than nothing. If possible, try to clear out some of the older trees and the canopy layer to allow sunlight to reach the ground. The sunlight will encourage new growth on the forest floor for the deer to gobble up. Also, the sunlight will help give any food plot seed thrown in the forest floor a fighting chance at survival.
Back to the food plot offerings. This may seem a bit redundant, but it's worth mentioning again. I don't just plant spring food plots, I do another round of them right around August 1st. In a late summer food plot I would start to think about what the fall will look like. In my area hay, beans, and field corn will be harvested by farmers in the fall. To offer variety, in my summer plots I plant things like beans, corn, turnips, oats, wheat, and snow peas. Some may be wondering why I plant beans and such in the summer when they will not mature by the time frost comes. I do it because the deer love the tender young growth and I know that no farmer around me will be planting them in the summer. If a deer is craving young beans, my food plots will be the only place around to offer them.
Ideally my spring corn and beans plots would have survived, offering the deer a consistent food source through the fall and winter. If beans and corn did not survive, there is still a chance to plant a late fall/winter food source. Deer love turnips for good reason. Their greens grow huge and leafy. Like I mentioned earlier, after a few frosts, everything on the turnip sweetens up and the deer quickly become addicted to the leaves. Once those are gone, the deer will paw and dig at the turnips themselves. Turnips can be easily sewn in a bare seed bed. I mix them with canola, oats, snow peas, or whatever else I can find.
When it's time to begin the physical work, I throw on my ScentBlocker Recon Lifestyle work gear and get to it. I love the Lifestyle gear because it's lightweight, moisture wicking, and burr resistant. To me- the Recon is perfect “hunting work gear”. I also learned the hard way a long time ago to not be cheap when it comes to planting food plots. Just to be safe, I invest in a lot of concentrated RoundUp. I first start preparing a plot by trimming out any trees and brush and spraying the entire area with RoundUp. After two weeks I'll come back to see if the weeds need another dose of the killer. If so- I'll spray again. If not, I'll start to till them all under. I've done it all from using a garden hoe to paying a farmer to turn my ground. The important thing is to make sure that the grass and weed roots and shredded and the ground is turned over. When planting anything, seed to soil contact is very important. I usually till, broadcast my seeds, and try to lightly till again. If possible, I do all of this hours before a good rain.
If someone is on a time or financial budget, there are a few cheap, quick ways to make “food plots” without breaking the bank or causing stress at home. One thing I like to do- with farmer/landowner permission- is to broadcast turnip or forage radish seed in an existing corn or bean field right around August 1st as well. By planting these tiny seeds in between standing crop rows, they will not have any weeds to compete with, be allowed to thrive as the crops dry, and possibly even get watered with the local irrigation system. Then, as the corn or beans are harvested, the plot will be left to continue to grow well into the fall. This can be back breaking work but be sure to get low to the ground so any seed cast will come in contact with the soil, and not get lost in the foliage.
Another cheap and easy trick is to broadcast fertilizer in the place of a food plot. I don't mean on the food plot, I mean on the weeds and shrubs and local growth surrounding a treestand. The deer and other animals will notice the higher nutrient levels in the plants and weeds and really dig in. Be sure to check local game laws, but from what I’ve read- spreading fertilizer is pretty much legal everywhere across the country.
There's so much more to be discussed about food plots but this information is a great place to start. Be flexible and don't get discouraged if the plots don't look like the ones in magazines. Try many different varieties and offerings to see what the local deer prefer. Many food plots require regular maintenance. Clover for instance needs to be mowed a few times each summer. I like to plant RoundUp ready beans and corn when I can find them, but I also know they I'll have to spray a few times each summer as well. Most importantly, have fun and learn from your mistakes! Because… if you're anything like me, there will be plenty of opportunities to learn:)
Image credit Brett Rousselle of Whitetail Addicts