Food plots: more or less?

Planning on adding food plots to your whitetail property? These tips can help you make a savvier food-plot plan.
Food plots: more or less?

Less is more. Or is more less? If this all sounds confusing, how about tossing food plots into this less-is-more mix? Is it better to have more food plots or less?

The American approach to everything is that more is better. It’s the American dream to have more money, a bigger house and more toys. Hence, more food plots would be a benefit to your final goal of arrowing a mature whitetail on future hunts. But wait – that whole more is better thing didn’t work out so well for Tony Montana. Maybe more food plots aren’t the answer?

If you begin to do the math on a particular property, more food plots may disperse bucks across a broader playing field. That fact could actually hurt your upcoming hunt success. On the other hand, less food could cause deer to travel for nutritional benefit. They may wander across property borders and end up going for a ride in your neighbor’s Ford F-150.

Before you begin disking more ground to achieve a more-is-better approach, you need to review your bowhunting goals. Are you creating food plots to boost the overall health of your herd? A major objective of this goal would be to increase antler size if you’re an avid bowhunter. The second reason to add food plots is simply to attract deer into a hunting plot. This is oftentimes the case if you only have access to a small property or have a unique situation on a larger property where you want whitetails to hold. A prime example is along a property boundary where you want whitetails to stay on your side of the fence, or have a goal of attract neighboring whitetails.

The Helin Approach

Art Helin is a 34-year bowhunting veteran who operates a habitat-consultation service based in southwest Wisconsin. Helin’s management experience spans more than two decades, and for the past five years he’s been offering his services to help others create whitetail nirvana. After Helin tweaked his own Wisconsin property and increased the density of mature bucks, his neighbors and friends took notice. Today, Helin consults across the Midwest with success in his native Wisconsin, as well as in Illinois, South Dakota and Kansas. He’s experienced everything from boggy jungles to arid grasslands in regards to management challenges.

“Everybody wants food plots these days,” notes Helin. “It’s the destination spot of whitetails. However, you need to realize that simply adding more food to the equation isn’t the right response. Whitetails have all sorts of natural food, plus too many hunters make the mistake of thinking like a farmer. They want beans and corn like they see in the Midwest. Out West they look to milo and sorghum. Unfortunately, they are missing important nutrition windows by not providing a broader base of food.”

Helin doesn’t argue that corn and other grains have their place, but when corn dries out, deer use it more for cover than feed. When the rut is over you’ll see a return to corn as deer utilize the carbohydrates to stoke inner fires, but offering alternatives throughout the year helps hunters with an aggressive food-plot agenda succeed.

“If you do want it all – a bigger-is-better approach – then get out of the farming mentality,” stresses Helin. “You need to think about the time of year when nothing is available or other crops haven’t matured. Clover and chicory plots cover nutritional gaps during the critical spring period when deer are recovering, fawning and growing antlers. Other crops aren’t even sprouting yet. Brassicas and turnips planted between strips of row crops offer feed with tonnage for post-rut bucks when other crops may already be decimated. There’s more to food plots than just hunting season.”

land management plan

Creating food plots and working on other habitat management goals can be fun and rewarding, but what's the line between less and more?

The American Dream

You only have to take an evening drive in popular whitetail zones like southeast Iowa, western Illinoi or northern Missouri to see the food-plot craze is creeping across the landscape. For whitetails and other wildlife, the trend boosts overall health, so an American Dream approach isn’t all bad.

“I don’t know if you can ever plant too much food,” states Helin. “Whitetails, especially in high densities, can keep food plots mowed down. Having too much can be extremely beneficial to whitetails, particularly in northern regions. If these northern deer don’t add back some weight, even normal winter conditions can lead to die-off.”

During the course of the rut a whitetail buck can burn 20 to 25 percent of its body mass. In percentages that may not sound like much, but consider a beefy human weighing in at 200 pounds. After a month of rutting activity that same guy might hit the scales at 150 pounds. Marie Osmond and Nutrisystem have nothing on the calorie-burning activity of procreation.

Another bonus to going overboard with food is the fact you can attract whitetails from neighboring properties. Make sure your overall management practices provide the other basics a whitetail requires: refuge and water. Together, the trio can guarantee more deer per acre for you.

Although everyone would love to own or manage 1,000 acres or more of whitetail habitat, Helin believes most properties range from 20 to 65 aces, with 40 being the norm. Like most habitat consultants, he says there’s no magic number as to what percentage needs to be in food. That’s dependent on the region of the country, terrain, timber makeup and climatic factors. Nevertheless, Helin does aim for some minimums to ensure enough nutrition for a year of feed.

“I shoot for approximately five to 10 percent of a total property to be in some type of food program,” says Helin. “I try to have kill plots and destination plots mixed throughout a property whether it is small or big. You need a minimum of five to 10 percent in food to achieve overall herd health. What I do see is that with larger properties, hunters begin adding more food above the 10 percent mark. When you bump it to 20 or 25 percent, you may begin to see some hunting issues if you’re not careful. If you have 900 acres, 10 percent equals 90 acres of food, and that could be difficult to hunt if it’s bunched up or not properly planned out.”

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Too much of a good thing ended poorly for Tony Montana. Don’t let your inner Mr. Green Jeans do the same to you. Again, you rarely can add too much food to a property equation, but you can improve a property to the point where it diminishes hunting success. How is that possible? Helin explains.

“If you plant too much food and create one big field, you end up feeding the deer, but you’ve also created a monster of a field that is extremely hard to bowhunt. It’s an impossible field to shoot across or pinpoint where deer will offer you a shot as wind varies. It’s better to create smaller plots that narrow down where a deer will pass but still have lots of tonnage. I call these destination plots. When I want to shoot a deer I create kill plots. I design these to be 40 yards wide at most and maybe 60 yards long. Deer can walk the edge, but they are rarely out of bow range.”

Another dilemma that occurs when you go food plot bonkers is that you’ve created more destinations for whitetails. It’s like looking for your curfew-flouting teenager. In a small town you only have a handful of locations to peruse. In a major city you might as well post your kid’s picture on a milk carton and go back to bed.

Helin calms that fear by advising bowhunters to remember there are more archery opportunities than just the rut to kill a mature buck. Whitetail bucks will undoubtedly start running and checking every doe hotspot they remember once breeding begins. Those hotspots will include every food plot in a nighttime’s worth of travel. But during the early season and again in the late season, bucks can be very patternable on a specific food source.

“What I see, especially in the early season, is that whitetail bucks set up a pattern on a specific food source, and that becomes their territory. They may be accompanied by other bachelor bucks, but they are easy to pattern, and that’s reason enough to add extra plots to a property so the mature bucks can spread out and stake a claim, and you can gain confidence in their daily pattern,” advises Helin.

Less Is Best

Are you reflecting on how much you have in savings to begin this American dream? Yes, food plots are expensive. Yes, they do provide a boost to whitetail health and overall health to most wildlife in the area. Nevertheless, there are some positives to going with a less-is-best approach.

You can’t ignore the obvious. It will definitely be cheaper. Economics aside, a primary reason to skip the Future Farmers of America approach is the fact you simply don’t have access to that much land.

As Helin remarked, the majority of his projects focus on properties that are approximately 40 acres in size. You simply can’t squeeze additional plots into some properties. There may not be enough terrain that is tillable or the percentage of timber is too great for farming. It’s challenging to get seeds to sprout when the forest canopy doesn’t allow sunshine to hit the ground. 

Another factor may be that your small property is surrounded by other small properties that also have a goal of providing nutrition and refuge. That’s not all bad, especially if you create a whitetail cooperative with neighborhood management goals. Everyone works together to grow mature bucks, and you’ll all reap the trophy benefits.

Your property may also be an island surrounded by unlimited food, leaving you scratching your head on how to compete against an ongoing parade of John Deere activity. Helin doesn’t recommend taking up golf just yet. In fact, sometimes a small plot with the right ingredients can be highly successful when corporate farming encircles your property. 

“This is when you need to mix it up,” instructs Helin. “If surrounded by huge destination plots or major farming, look at creating staging areas. You can do that with small plots of clover or brassicas. Give them something different than corn or soybeans, and something that puts out tonnage. Once leaves fall off the soybeans and silk is off the corn, the green is the tonnage attractor. Deer travel enough. They will come across it and give you opportunity.”

A great example is a friend of Helin’s who manages 14 acres of land surrounded by hundreds of acres of active farming routinely planted in corn. There’s no competing, but you can outwit the deer, and Helin helped by creating a detour bucks would want to visit.

To provide cover and a screen from a nearby road, Helin and his landowner buddy plant eight to 10 rows of corn parallel to the large cornfield. Inside they have a half-acre plot that is split. Clover lines the timber edge, and brassicas make up the middle of the plot. Deer visit the green diversion all season, but during the rut it really heats up. Deer routinely exit the standing corn to investigate the small plot. They walk the edge and then return to the large standing cornfield. When the right buck detours from the corn, it’s game over.


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