Food is a driving force of our daily life, and for good reason. After all, we are animals and all animals have to eat. So how does this affect us in hunting the animals we hunt? It really boils down to the food. In wildlife management, food plots are an extremely broad topic. There are literally thousands of options you can go with and hundreds of seed companies to buy from. I will not solicit any seed company, but what will be discussed are the plant and tree types that make good plots.
Step 1: Choose the Right Location
The first step in creating a successful food plot is making sure you have the right location. Try to pick areas that are near bedding or roosting locations and near water sources. It is not always going to work out like that, but it would be beneficial to choose an area with those resources surrounding it. It is also a good idea to pick areas that already contain natural food sources.
For example, one of my better food plots is an acre plot in a valley that has bedding areas on two sides, with a stand of chestnut and white oak trees on the other side of it. And in between the food plot there is a stream. This creates an area with several food sources, water, shelter, and it is within 150 yards of bedding locations. I can attest to the productivity of this plot as one early November afternoon a 149-inch whitetail stepped into my shooting lane and a well-placed broadhead was on its way. Many people will say it wouldn’t have mattered where that plot was located, the buck was cruising for food, but I beg to differ. I was near this buck’s bedroom, and food, does and water were on its mind, all elements that were maintained in that one area.
On any given piece of property there will be numerous locations for food plots, as a manager and steward of the land, you must choose the better locations and use them to your advantage. One prime example is having a food plot without any travel corridors or screens of brush and trees leading to and from it. Deer and or turkeys will not feel as safe and deer will not tend to use it as much during shooting hours. I like to locate food plots along funnel routes or where a stream and its riparian buffer of trees can allow deer to funnel during daylight hours into these plots.
Step 2: Make it the Right Shape
After you have selected the location for your plot(s), the next most important step is the shape of the plot. If the plot is an intended hunting plot, I feel like you must make the shape so it forces the animals by you. The normal square food plots are by no means very good shapes; irregular is the key. By using irregular shapes, you can create the sense of security, and it also makes deer come into the plots at certain locations.
By using long, narrow plots you allow the deer plenty of forage opportunity, but allow for them to feel safe with the security of the woods no more than a few feet away. One of the better layouts is having a plot in the shape of a long, slender hourglass. This will allow you to set a bow stand on either side of the skinny part, making feeding deer pass within bow range, and it’s a know fact that during the rut, bucks will enter a field where they can see all of the field. This will allow for you to increase your chances at that buck of a lifetime.
Step 3: Improve the Design
Another trick I like to use on larger plots is to break them up with rows of corn, sorghum or fruit trees. A highly productive setup on fields of two acres or more is to strip plant. Take a typical two-acre field, have its sectioned into half acre plots and then using either tall grain plants or a hedge of fruit and nut trees to separate the plots. This is a proven tactic and will account for several big bucks and boss toms each year.
Having planted thousands of acres of food plots across the U.S., I know how important location and other variables are when planting. Wind direction, thermals, sun, travel ways, soil types (don’t forget to soil test), bedding areas and water sources will help you determine where and when to locate your plots.
Step 4: Choose the Right Seed(s)
The ingredients that you put into your plots are more of a preference issue. Whitetails need a lot of protein for their antlers and to increase body weight. It’s hard to beat the legume family when it comes to this. Alfalfa, clovers, vetches and soybeans are all great choices. Soybeans need to have some acreage and allowed to grow larger and alfalfa and clover need to be managed for weeds. Chicory has gained popularity in the recent years and there are many varieties to choose from. The brassica family is a good choice if you live in the colder climates where you get to hunt after frosts, as I know some parts of the South don’t get cold enough weather for sugar beets, turnips, kale, rape, and radishes to frost cure. This is important because frost allows for the sugar to come up into the leaves and makes them more palatable. Buckwheat is an often-overlooked food plot additive, but rest assured it is one of the best.
The grain family makes good plots too. Sorghum, corn, wheat, barley and rye are all great food plot plants, although deer won’t use them much until later when the grain ripens or when the rye, wheat and barley is young and green.
I use exclusion cages on every plot. All you have to do to construct these cages is to get a small roll of 4-foot tall wire (make sure the wire strands are close enough so deer cannot stick their head in) and create an enclosed area about 2 feet in diameter that will allow you to monitor the growth of the plot when undisturbed.
Step 5: Plant Trees
Trees that are good additions to and around food plots are apples, mulberries, pears, persimmons, all of the oaks species, plums and paw-paws. By creating a food plot with trees around the borders you can play the cards in your favor and attract deer and birds all year. By using multiple species that mature at different times during the year, deer will always utilize your plot.
You bought the place through RealtreeUC.com. It is also a good idea to mix up the plots on your farm. For example, if you have five food plots, don’t plant the exact same thing in each one, mix it up and plant several different types of plots, and use different trees in different areas. Diversity is the key. By keeping trail camera records and sighting records of what you’ve seen at what plot at what time will aid in your plots and what to plant.
Bonus: Remember Small Game
Quail, turkeys and other upland birds need three things to survive: cover, insects and seeds. So when you lay out a plot for them, take this into consideration. Some of the plants that work the best are the grains like sorghums, millets, corn, wheat, barley and rye. These provide the bird’s good vertical structure and plenty of feeding opportunities. Other plants that work good are, buckwheat, clovers, sunflowers and some of the small soybeans. These plants produce a lot of seed, have lots of insects and provide good cover.
Managing for multi-species is an arduous task, but can be made simple by selecting the right locations for food plots, utilizing good food plot plants and trees, and laying out beneficial plot designs. Providing good food sources will increase the chance that your next out-of-doors experience will be one that you will never forget.
Editor's note: This was originally published in 2009.