It didn’t take long for Steve Morris, a retired firefighter from Virginia, to believe in the power of food plots and the nuances of deciding whether he should plant annuals or perennials for deer. His first plot was little more than a scraggly patch of oats on the edge of a hay field, but he killed two small bucks over it in just the first three days of bow season.
“I just used a backpack sprayer and some Roundup to kill off the existing grass, and I scratched up the surface with a garden tiller and then threw down some seed,” he recalls. “It came up after the first rain and the deer started hammering it.”
That was a decade ago. Since that first season, he bought a 50-acre parcel of land, an old tractor, a disk and a few other implements. Morris now plants as many as a half-dozen food plots each season. Some plots have failed while others thrived, but each provided him with a little more knowledge about the food plotting process, including what, where and why to plant it.
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“I may not have planted every possible food-plot plant, but I’ve planted a bunch,” says Morris. “I hate to admit it, but I’ve gotten to the point that I enjoy planting food plots as much as I like hunting over them.”
He’s also reached a point where he understands the subtle and obvious differences between annual plants and perennials.
What’s the difference?
As their name implies, annual plants grow for a single season. They sprout, grow, produce a seed head and then die. Perennials, on the other hand, can last up to three years — and even longer in some situations.
“The great thing about some annuals is that they are very easy to grow and the seed is fairly inexpensive, making them a good choice for those who don’t have a lot of experience or who may not have a variety of equipment,” says Kip Adams, director of education and outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association. “You don’t have to be quite as precise with some annuals like wheat and oats.”
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Forage Oats: Both provide fast results and both are relatively inexpensive. A 45-pound bag of Whitetail Institute forage oats, for example, covers a half-acre. It’s a good-sized plot that can serve as a perfect, early-season hunting spot for less than $50. The seeds are larger than many others as well, making them more forgiving if they get buried deeper than the recommended planting depth.
Brassicas or Turnips: Smaller annual seeds like brassicas or turnips, however, need to be planted with more care in order to sprout and grow. They are somewhat more expensive, but they draw whitetails as well as any plant, particularly later in the season when other food sources have dwindled. Deer normally won’t touch them until they’ve been subjected to a hard frost or a freeze, which changes the nutritional composition of the plant.
“Annuals tend to produce more tonnage than perennials. Brassicas in particular are very prolific and can provide a huge amount of forage that can withstand heavy browsing pressure. So do turnips. Both are a very good choice for late-season plots,” Adams said.
Fall-planted annuals like brassicas and turnips are primarily geared toward hunting. They do provide nutrients deer need, but unlike spring-planted annuals like sunflowers, lablab and beans, they aren’t meant to boost antler grdowth or help does raise healthier fawns.
Perennials can serve both purposes. White clover, for instance, is one of the first plants to come out of dormancy in the early spring, providing a vital food source when there is little else available. It can last well into the summer before heat and drought forces it back into a dormant stage.
Clover: Clover will bounce back with cooler fall temperatures and a dose of rain, offering a great place to hang an early-season bow stand. In some regions, it will stay green and vibrant after the first frost. However, it typically goes dormant again in the winter.
Alfalfa: Alfalfa, another perennial, doesn’t (at least in some regions). It can last several years and it stays green right through winter. Deer eat it virtually all year.
“Alfalfa is somewhat difficult to grow and it doesn’t do quite as well in Southern climates, although there are varieties designed for the South. It also requires a lot of maintenance,” says Adams.
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Which plants are best?
There really is no wrong plant to establish in your food plots. However, it’s critical to understand the growing seasons, palatability and nutritional factors of each.
Spring protein, fall carbohydrates
Spring-planted annuals like beans, peas, sunflowers and sorghum tend to provide protein, which helps bucks produce better antlers. Protein is also a vital nutrient for nursing does.
Most spring annuals end up dying before hunting season, so they don’t provide a place to hunt, except, perhaps in the earliest part of the season. One exception is corn. Although it provides little benefit throughout the growing season, corn is loaded with carbohydrates and draws deer throughout the late season after it dries. Beans also provide food even after they die.
“I’m a big fan of soybeans. Deer will eat them all summer and they can last into the early bow season. The dried bean pods will also provide some food later in the season,” says Adams.
The trouble with beans, though, is that whitetails will start devouring them as soon as they sprout. Too much pressure on a bean field can decimate it before it has a chance to reach maturity.
“I would only plant beans if you can plant an acre or more, or if you have a relatively low deer density,” notes Adams.
Measuring sweat equity and plain-old equity
The only drawback to annuals is they must be planted every year. That takes time, gas and fertilizer. You’ll have some weeds, but many of those weeds in cool-season plots like clover and alfalfa will die after the first frost.
And, as for perennials, don’t assume they’re maintenance-free. They might last two, three or even four years, but there’s more to a successful plot of clover or alfalfa than planting it and forgetting about it. Weeds are a constant threat.
“You really need to stay on top of the weeds with mowing and spraying,” says Adams. “Mowing stimulates new growth and can help reduce annual weed competition. You should do that two or three times a year. Herbicides are also necessary to control perennial grasses, which can really take over a food plot if you don’t stay on top of them.”
It’s also a good idea to conduct a soil test once a year. Perennial plants need a regular dose of fertilizer to thrive. A soil test might also indicate an improper pH level, which could require the addition of lime.
Perennial and annual mix
Morris uses perennials and annuals, which give him — and the deer — more options throughout the year. Adams also plants both. In fact, he’ll mix annuals into his perennial plots, especially if the perennial plants are new.
“Adding a cereal grain like oats or wheat can reduce browsing pressure on the new perennial plants. If they get hit hard before they have a chance to become established, they might not survive the winter,” says Adams. “Wheat or oats will give the deer another option and they’ll keep them around, even if your perennials seeds haven’t matured enough to provide much attraction.”
Related: Benefit of Food Plot Blends
Some of the best perennial options are blends, which contain at least two different plants. Although many commercially available blends incorporate all annuals or all perennials, there’s nothing wrong with adding a light dressing of oats or wheat in any type of plot. It can’t hurt. In fact, clover “fixes” nitrogen in the soil, which is highly beneficial to grasses like wheat and oats. Both annuals will thrive in a clover or alfalfa plot. Don’t over-seed too heavily, though. Too many oat or wheat plants can out-compete your perennials.
“I’ll put down oats or wheat in another plot, and I always have one that I use as an experimental plot,” Morris says. “I like to see what works, what’s easy or difficult to grow and what the deer seem to prefer. Really, it’s a toss-up between perennials and annuals. Deer eat them all and they all have benefits. That’s why I do both.”
Featured image: Mark Olis