When most people think of planting food plots, they envision planting them during the months of May or June, and then watching their crops grow throughout the spring and summer months. Many don't view the dog days of summer as a time to be planting food plots. Most deer hunters plant the usual varieties of plants to give their local deer the extra nutrients to encourage healthy body weights and antler growth. Unfortunately, most of the hunters really aren't providing their local deer the well rounded, yearly feed that they should be providing.
The predominant plantings are made up of the different varieties of clovers, and while they do provide added nutrition to their diet and their ability to bulk up for the coming harsh weather, you won't see deer utilizing it nearly as much as some other plant varieties that can give them the added nutrition they need when they need it most. Deer have a knack for switching from food source to food source depending on weather, temperature, location, palatability and their overall desperation for food.
We have been planting food plots on our properties for nearly 20 years, starting out with the obvious clover choices in the beginning and then evolving into more elaborate food selections to provide deer with a quality year round diet. Perhaps the most common planting combination is the clover and corn combo. The clover provides warm season food source and a hunting plot, while the corn provides a late fall and winter food source and still a huntable food source as well.
A view of one of our fields that has a variety of plots for various times
of year. The far right and left consists of clover plots while the center
three plots from left to right consist of corn, Winter Green (with a patch
of turnips in the center) and Power Plant on the right which consists of
soybean, lab/lab, pea, sunflower and sorghum. All of which is surrounded
by uncut hay and grass fields which provide additional cover.
Unfortunately, in the dead of winter, most clovers aren't utilized and corn offers very little in terms of protein. While deer don't utilize proteins as well in winter due to their body's metabolism changes, anything over the normal browse protein levels is an added bonus. Corn is also an important staple for deer and other wildlife as it is chock full of carbohydrates, which provide much needed energy for keeping warm during the cold weather but it doesn't help as much with keeping up body weight like other food sources would.
Some of you may be asking well what food sources should I plant then? For the time period when deer need food the most, especially in areas having stressed habitat, plant varieties that yield the most tonnage per acre and yet offers the most digestible proteins, fats and carbohydrates are essential products to look for. Over the years we have tried various legumes and different types of grains to leave stand, and many had less than optimum results and others were rather impressive.
Our beginnings into such winter food plots beyond corn were the planting of turnips. While these can be planted in the spring and allowed to grow throughout the warm growing season, it is best to wait until late summer to plant them as early season planting of turnips often lead to the turnip becoming soft and mushy by the time the deer come to utilize them. The green tops of the turnips will start to be eaten after the first few frosts occur as the sugars in the plant top withdraws down into the stem, upon which they become more favored to the deer. The actual beet itself will be eaten after the frosts occur as well, but are utilized the most during the latter winter months of January and February.
Turnips like these provide much needed nutrients during the winter.
Turnips can be even larger than this mostly eaten one if properly
planted according to seeding rates.
Deer will paw through deep snows to get to turnips, beets, beans and
other brassicas. An abundance of small turnips indicate poor soil nutrients or over-seeding.
We have seen deer dig through as much as two feet of snow to get to the turnips buried below. We tried several different varieties but we had the best success with the Purple Top turnip variety. We then began our own seed mixes as this is often cheaper than buying premixed commercial brands by mixing the turnips with brassica, kale and rape. Two years ago I decided to try a new product from the Whitetail Institute called Winter Greens. These broad leafed plants provide approximately 25% -30% proteins depending on the quality of the soil and the fertilizers used. Under optimum conditions they will become very full, lush and usually grow approximately to a height of two foot.
Just like other seed products, the ideal ph level for the soils are between 6.5 -7.0 but Winter Greens can grow in as low as a 6.0 ph level. The planting of Winter Greens also acts as a cleaner and will help remove diseases in the soil and return the soil to a more plant friendly environment for other plantings in later years. Another great aspect of this product as a summer planting is that it is very drought tolerant since the plants that are in this mixture have deep root systems which help absorb more soil moisture. This mix of seeds can sustain itself on as little as the nighttime dew moisture that usually takes place during that time of the year.
While I wouldn't suggest planting these plants as a replacement to other more common warm season species, but you should definitely add them to the local diet. On my property I opt to maintain a variety of plots for year round food sources, as well as various other small plots for testing purposes.
This type of food plot will draw deer from considerable distances away, bring them out earlier in the evening and hold deer in the area as long as there is any morsel left on the ground. These plots are great for hunting deer in the late season, even after substantial hunting pressure earlier in the year. Deer coming to these plots become very patternable in their search for food. The great thing about these plants is that they aren't like normal forage brassicas, as the Whitetail Institute has produced a hybrid variety which contains a vegetable gene in it which makes it much sweeter than the forage varieties, because the starches turn to sugars as the temperatures get colder.
Another good winter food plot to plant would be forage oats. While they can be planted in the spring, studies have shown that if they are planted in early August the actual tonnage per acre is higher than those planted in the spring. It is also possible to get two yields of grain from one planting if harvested while it is still in the boot stage. If the crop receives the proper amount of nutrients, it is approximately 60 days to the first cutting upon which the second growth will be left standing to be grazed naturally.
If you have the proper equipment you can harvest the oats and either bag them and save them for a winter feeding source for a variety of game and non game species, or sell them to offset the cost of your food plot planting program. Another alternative is to use a brush hog and cut them down, leaving the oat heads to lay and allow the birds and animals to find them naturally. It really comes down to what equipment you have available and how much time and work you want to put into it.
When planting the brassica, kale, turnip, or rape varieties not much soil tillage is necessary. Deep plowing isn't necessary as only ¼" of soil coverage is necessary. I would recommend spraying the area for invasive weeds 3-4 weeks prior to tilling. Once the area has turned brown and enough time has been allowed for the herbicide to have diluted enough not to harm your chosen plant varieties, tillage can begin.
The fast germination and lushness of a brassica mix can be exciting.
This photo was taken only two weeks after planting.
Once you have a smooth and firm seedbed, you can then spread your seeds. Covering the seeds will depend on the makeup of the soil, such as the amount of clay that's in it and how much moisture is in the soil. If the soil is extremely dry and powdery, the need to disk in your seeds isn't necessary as a moderate rain will embed the seeds just fine. Soils that are coarser require a light disking and a roller to insure good seed to soil contact.
Using a roller is important to help with seed to soil contact. This will
insure a faster initial growth period as the seeds can utilize soil nutrients
more quickly that if loosely covered.
Here you can see the apparent difference between an area that was rolled
and the area that wasn't. Keep in mind in some instances you don't
want to roll. It will depend on the looseness of the soil.
Other winter plot seeds such as beans, peas, sorghum, corn and oats require a deeper planting. With these types of seeds it is best that you thoroughly till the area and insure you get approximately 2" of soil coverage over the seed. Another way to plant these varieties is with a no-till drill. This method is a less invasive way to do it and will help reduce erosion issues, as well as not turn over new weed seeds that were buried too deep before to grow. Even with the no-till method, be sure to apply the proper amount of lime prior to planting.
There are also other things to consider when preparing a plan for your food plots for the year. Ideally when planning your food plot plan for the year you want to have 25% of your total food plot acreage to be planted in foods dedicated to winter food sources. Also, choose areas to plant those winter food sources that are closest to thermal cover that deer and other wildlife will be using for bedding or yarding areas. This will insure that they don't have to travel as far to feed which means they will expend less of their much needed energy to obtain it.
Deer will skirt along the edges of diverse habitat which makes it important
not to make perfectly straight lines of crops. Don't be afraid to sway the
edges back and forth to help provide diversity and cover.
Also, just like with any other plot it is important to keep it a considerable distance away from roads. This will help reduce road mortality and from molestation on the animals from curious onlookers from the roads. Keeping as much human pressure from those plots once the hunting season is over will enhance their ability to utilize the plots at all times of day and reduce their energy output, by not having to run for cover every time someone comes into the area.
Many hunters only think about food plots in the spring and the crops they plant are often those that are most beneficial during the summer months and the early archery seasons. However, to truly manage a property for deer you must make quality foods available for deer year round. While bucks aren't growing antlers in the winter months, it is about their health going into and coming out of the winter, as it is important to how well they develop their antlers in the coming year. It is also true for fawns, as the nutrients that the mother has throughout the winter will have a direct relationship on how healthy a newborn fawn is in the spring. That early life health structure will then trickle on down the line as the deer gets older, and will have much better body and antler development throughout its life.
So when you are planning next year's food plots, be sure to leave some acreage and funding for those very important winter food sources. For it is one of the most crucial but overlooked aspects of food plot planting. It will not only greatly enhance the health of the deer and other wildlife, but also improve your hunting in the area as well.
You know you have a quality food source when trails like this exist leading to and from the food plots.
The sheds we found in February 2009. All within 300 yards of the Winter Green food plot.
C.D. Denmon, from Sweet Valley, Pennsylvania, is an award winning outdoor writer and wildlife photographer and currently writes for several publications throughout the country. He has been hunting for 24 years and has hunted throughout the United States, Canada and Africa and has been successful at taking many trophy class animals in the process.