I live in central Illinois, where agricultural fields dominate the prairie-like landscape, and the local white-tailed deer can find a variety of highly nutritious food no matter where they wander. For that reason, my first projects to improve the deer hunting on my farm were aimed at providing high-quality cover to offer the deer attractive and secure bedding areas. Soon, I had all the available acreage of the farm covered with a variety of tree and native grass plantings.
As more deer started using my property, I began adding food plots in an effort to improve an already good thing. I knew I had to take an approach that would draw deer from a wide variety of available feeding options. What I've learned during the past several years can likely save you some time and wasted effort as you look for ways to improve your land.
Rule No. 1
The first rule for creating a successful food plot is to provide wildlife with a food source they cannot find anywhere else locally at the time you plan to be hunting. This might mean growing a plant species that isn't found anywhere other than in your food plot, or it could also mean planting more common crops such as corn or soybeans and having them available long after the other fields in your area have been harvested.
One of my favorite food plot species is soybeans. Even though there might be plenty of soybean fields when the hunting season opens, that soon changes. Late in the season, a plot of standing soybeans will provide a source of high-protein feed for wildlife that can't be found anywhere else. While much has been written about the advantages of standing corn and the carbohydrates it provides to deer in cold weather, I've seen deer walk right through standing corn to get to soybeans when the winter weather was brutal.
Besides the ease of growing soybeans, another reason I prefer them over corn is that modern crop harvesting equipment leaves very little waste in a soybean field, whereas a corn field will almost always have some waste grain left on the ground for game to feed on. Why would I expect a buck to feed in my small plot of standing corn when he has a harvested 80-acre corn field available?
In addition to the more common grain crops, I've experimented with many of the specialty food plot mixes so readily available today. Some have provided good results while others have left me wondering if even insects fed on them. I'm not going to promote any particular brand of seed, but I will say I've seen some great results with clover mixes.
Like a lot of hunters, I hunt the duration of the hunting season, which lasts for months. Very few crop species will attract wildlife as readily on opening day as they will during the late season. This dilemma can be addressed by planting multiple crop species. I like to have several varieties of crops growing in my plots to help hold deer on my property throughout the year.
Time For Trees
I've found an excellent way to get the most out of your food plot acreage and yet offer another crop that will extend the period when your plot is attracting deer and other game. In a nutshell, I plant fruit- or mast-bearing trees such as persimmon within some of my food plots. This approach is especially well-suited for crops such as clover, alfalfa and other plants grazed on by deer. By planting fruit- or mast-bearing trees in widely spaced rows, they interfere very little with the mowing and other maintenance these other crops require. Also, when the fruit or mast falls to the ground, it's lying within the green field and is easily found and retrieved by grazing deer.
One of the most common mistakes I made when I first started creating these tree-laced food plots was planting the trees too close together. I now recommend your trees be spaced at least 25-30 feet apart, with the same distance between the tree rows. This allows the trees plenty of room to grow and mature, and it also affords you plenty of room to work around them with equipment. It also ensures your food plot receives plenty of sunshine throughout the day, even if it's shaded at times. If space is really limited, you might even consider a single row of trees along the edge of a food plot. As you plan your tree planting, be mindful of the size your trees will be when they mature. Fewer trees properly spaced will have better results and provide more food than closely spaced and stressed trees.
Special consideration must be given to young trees, which are very susceptible to browsing and rubbing by the deer that are attracted to your food plot. I've found the taller “tube-type” tree shelters are perfect for these situations. These plastic shelters are placed over seedlings at the time of planting, and if staked in place properly, they'll provide several years of protection for the young trees.
For my initial tree planting of this type, I used these tree shelters, which were 5 feet tall, to cover the 12-inch persimmon seedlings I'd planted. Due to the greenhouse effect inside these shelters, my seedlings grew out the top of the shelters the very first summer. Believe it or not, some of these 12-inch seedlings were more than 15 feet tall and actually bearing fruit after only 5 years. The shelters are still on those trees today and serve as a deterrent to bucks looking for a place to rub their antlers. Another great advantage to these shelters is they allow you to spray herbicide on the weeds growing near your seedlings without getting it on the seedlings.
While a number of tree species are suitable for food plot plantings, my favorite is persimmon, which bears an orange-colored fruit about the size of a quarter. This fruit is craved by a variety of wildlife—especially deer—and is available throughout the fall.
While the majority of the fruit falls during November, some will fall earlier and some will hold on into the winter. This certainly adds to the long-lasting drawing power a small grove of persimmon trees can add to your food plot. My area has few other persimmon trees for deer and other wildlife to feed on, even though they grow well in my region. Thus they serve as a strong attractant for drawing in game.
Several years ago my interest in tree plantings and wildlife habitat projects led me to create a related full-time business. I've planted more than a million seedlings on various projects including Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program tracts. This experience has afforded me a wealth of knowledge on what it takes to have a successful tree planting project, and hopefully some of my past failures will save you some time and wasted effort.
Growing Great Trees
The seedlings you plant will go a long way toward determining the success of your project. Seedlings should originate from a seed source within 200 miles north or south of your planting site. Moving seedlings too far north is of particular concern because they aren't acclimated to the cold winters that can kill them. Use caution when purchasing your seedlings because many nurseries are simply brokers and get their seedlings from a variety of sources. Stick with a nursery that will tell you the seed source of their seedlings before they know where you live.
Once you've acquired high-quality seedlings, consider the planting site. Seedlings are like any other crop and don't compete well with other plants until they're well established. Plant them in open areas away from other trees where they'll receive plenty of sunlight and not have to compete for root space. Also, plant your seedlings as early in the spring as possible. This allows them to get settled in and for the roots to begin growing before dry conditions hit.
When planting the seedlings, dig a hole considerably larger than you think you'll need. After the seedling is planted, this area of loose soil will allow for good root growth. The growth you see above the ground will be a direct reflection of what's taking place below the ground. If the roots are growing and developing well, the growth above the ground will do the same. Spread out the roots as you back-fill the hole, and make sure you plant the seedlings at the proper depth. When the hole is two-thirds filled with dirt, pour water into the hole and allow it to soak in before filling the rest of the way with soil. When you have the hole filled, firmly press the soil around the seedling with your foot.
It's a good idea to get your tree shelters in place as soon as you plant your seedlings to prevent deer or rabbits from chewing them. Simply place the shelters over the seedlings and use a stout stake to hold them in place. I now use steel rebar cut to the proper length with minimal problems.
The most stressful time on your seedlings will be their first summer, when conditions turn dry. Use an herbicide such as Roundup to control weeds in a 3-foot diameter around the shelters. Weeds will compete with the seedlings for moisture, nutrients and root space, and negatively affect their growth and survival. It's a good idea to continue this practice for a few years, but the first year is extremely critical. The more effort you put toward your seedlings' survival in the beginning, the better your results will be. After a couple years you can pretty much forget about them, and soon you'll have a food-bearing crop for the wildlife on your land every year.
One final bit of advice: Don't fertilize your seedlings the year they're planted because they need to get their roots established first. Fertilizer will go to new top growth, and the seedlings first need to establish roots to be able to support any new top growth. Hold off on the fertilizer until the second season and then use a generic granular formulation such as 12-12-12 or 15-15-15. A good rule to follow is one handful of fertilizer for every inch of trunk diameter. Make sure to spread the fertilizer out well into the outer limits of the root zone.
If you're looking to add a new twist to your food plot routine or want to add to the drawing power of your current plots, consider planting several fruit- or mast-producing trees on the site. With a little effort on your part, the local wildlife will reap the benefits long into the future.