Nutrition is important all year for whitetails as they experience two stress periods annually. Winter stress is obvious during periods of snow and cold when little food is available, but deer also experience stress during summer as they require vast amounts of nutrition for body maintenance and growth, antler growth and lactation.
If the deer herd is in balance with the habitat’s carrying capacity, native vegetation can provide adequate nutrition to feed deer during the year. However, even under balanced conditions, deer experience an energy deficit during winter as native browse averages a mere four to eight percent protein. Since many regions have deer herds above the habitat’s carrying capacity, it is easy to see how native vegetation can use some help.
Food plots are the perfect partner. Food plots are agricultural-type crops planted for wildlife and are intended to supplement the nutrition provided by native vegetation. They assist by providing additional food that often has higher nutritional value. Food plots reduce browsing pressure on native vegetation and allow for increased forest regeneration. More importantly, food plots can have a huge impact during winter when native foods are scarce.
Food plots can be divided into nutritional and hunting plots. Nutritional plots provide additional nutrition to the deer herd while hunting plots provide a place to harvest deer. Nutritional plots are typically larger (1 to 5 acres) than hunting plots (1/4 to 1 acre) and contain cool-season annuals (brassicas) and perennials (clovers) as well as warm-season annuals (corn and beans). Hunting plots may contain cool-season annuals or perennials or warm-season annuals planted for forage.
A good food plot program provides high-quality year-round nutrition for deer. Research indicates one percent of a property planted in food plots can have a measurable impact on the deer herd’s weights, antler parameters and reproductive success. I suggest planting three to five percent of an area. These percentages provide additional forage and guard against poor site or weather conditions. Plant 60 to 70 percent of the food plot acreage in cool-season perennials, 20 percent in cool-season annuals, and 10 to 20 percent in warm-season annuals.
Perennials are plant species that live for more than one year and include white and red clover, alfalfa and chicory. Clovers are the No. 1 cool-season perennial and chicory and trefoil are valuable because of their drought tolerance. Perennials are more economical and productive than annuals in the long term and require periodic mowing, fertilization and weed control.
Annuals are easier to establish and produce more biomass than perennials during the first few months but they need to be replanted every season. Brassicas are cool-season annuals that include turnips, rape and canola. Brassicas provide abundant (up to 10 tons of forage per acre) highly digestible food containing up to 38 percent protein. Corn, peas, Lablab, millet and soybeans are the more popular warm-season annuals. Corn is especially valuable because it is used for both food and cover.
Plot location is variable and often limited to existing habitat and landscape features. Food plots can be planted in agricultural and abandoned fields, along logging or forest roads, in log landings and nearly anywhere else sunlight reaches open ground.
In wooded areas, small plots can be created with a chainsaw and backpack sprayer while larger plots may require a bulldozer or similar equipment. Ideally, food plots should be distributed evenly throughout the property, and long irregularly shaped plots are preferred over round or square plots because they maximize the amount of edge. Edge is the transitional zone between habitat types. It often contains early successional plant species and is an important component of deer habitat. Large fields can be divided into smaller units with areas closest to cover are used for cool-season plots.
Food plots are good for deer, hunters and other wildlife. Prior to planting always conduct a soil test and lime accordingly. Nutritional plots help ensure deer get adequate nutrition and hunting plots facilitate doe harvests to balance deer herds with existing habitat conditions. Food plots are also great places to find shed antlers in the spring.
Editor's note: This was originally published in 2009.
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