Food for white-tailed deer is best addressed by large-scale manipulation of the plant communities where deer are managed. The key to producing food for whitetails is creating diverse native plant communities. In most situations, the need for food plots to supplement whitetail food, regardless of all of the media attention, should only be addressed after the manager is satisfied that the native plant communities are managed to the fullest extent possible and deer densities are maintained at levels that the habitat can support. Only then do food plots occasionally have a place in deer nutrition management, depending on the manager’s goals.
However, there are instances where food plots can be useful aside from addressing deer nutritional needs. Based on the many phone calls we receive at this time of the year pertaining to planting food plots, I would venture to say that most of them fall into the category of attracting deer for hunting or other sources of enjoyment. For these, as well as nutritional purposes, several factors need to be evaluated to ensure the success of a food plot.
Soil type and slope are two very basic fundamentals that warrant serious consideration. The soil should have the capacity to grow what is planted. Shallow soils, rocky soils or soils that remain wet are not good candidates for most food plots. The site should not have slopes greater than five percent. Sites with slopes greater than five percent should never be tilled due to the erosion tillage will likely cause. A free county soil survey book, available at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in your county, will provide these details about the soil on the site you are considering for a food plot.
What to plant is usually the topic in question for most phone calls biologists receive regarding food plots. What is planted depends on the intended season of use. The vast majority of food plots are planted in September for fall and winter use. For these plots, it’s hard to beat one of or any combination of oat, wheat, rye, Austrian winter pea or turnip. For summer and early fall food plots, one of or any combination of iron and clay, catjang or red ripper cowpeas are hard to beat. There are other plant varieties that work for either season, many of which are sold under various trade names, but those listed here are usually readily available and reasonably priced.
For most food plots, appropriate fertilizer should be applied. Soil samples are the only way to determine the proper fertilizer needed. Fertilizing a food plot not only increases forage production, it increases the nutritional value of the forage as well, making it more attractive to deer. Always take soil samples and have your plot analyzed before investing valuable time and money.
The size of the food plot is also important and often overlooked. In areas with high deer densities, small food plots may be rapidly consumed by deer, therefore not allowing the food plot to meet its intended use. Gather as much local information as you can on deer density, availanle whitetail food, and best plant species for food plot planting.