Last January I was talking about quality deer management (QDM) with a friend in Minnesota. We were discussing one particular manufacturer of food plot seeds and mineral supplements. Both of us agreed its products were excellent—except for one, my friend noted.
"Brad," he said, "I've had tremendously good luck with its seeds, but not with one of its mineral supplements.
I actually had to mix cracked corn with it to get the deer to eat it. The strange thing is, another friend of mine who lives only 3 miles away has had the opposite result. He puts the same mineral in an old dead stump, and the deer hammer it. I can't figure it out."
As our discussion continued, I noted that the soil types in an area can change dramatically, even in a short distance. Obviously, the soil where my friend lives contains plenty of minerals like those found in the supplement he was using. His friend, meanwhile, lives on soil deprived of these minerals, which obviously were ones the whitetails in his area needed. It made perfect sense why the deer zeroed in on the supplement-filled stump.
It's talks like this that make managing deer so interesting, because there's always something fascinating and new to learn about these animals. In addition, the deer's habitat also draws our attention. In some regions deer grow to giant proportions in only 3 years, while in other parts of North America, they carry spindly racks at the same age. We can't help but wonder why.
Naturally we want to duplicate the conditions found in regions growing bruiser bucks, so we search out ways to do so, and therefore get involved in QDM. We read everything we can on the subject and quiz people about what products work best for them. Like most hunters, we're looking for the magic formula—the magic seed—that will grow the buck of our dreams. And that's where we sometimes get into trouble.
It's In The Soil
Most hunters who've been involved in planting food plots for any length of time have tried a product recommended by a friend who's had great success with it. I know I have. Sometimes these recommendations work out well; other times they're dismal failures. These failures usually revolve around the soil, and not the seed. That's why it's critically important to plant the right seed for your soil, not your neighbor's.
For example, one deer manager might have outstanding results with white clover. Seeing his lush food plots, a hunter 2 miles down the road plants the same seed and has marginal results. The reason this occurs is the first hunter planted his clover in moist soil, while the second planted his in dry, well-drained soil where alfalfa would've been a better choice.
My home county in Indiana contains 72 different soil types. Illinois has more than 600 soil types, and Ohio checks in with approximately 400. Obviously it's important to know which soil type you have so you can plant the seed best suited for that soil. While it might seem impossible to determine your exact soil type, this isn't the case.
Each county in the United States has a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. These offices normally are located in the county seat. If an NRCS employee knows where your land is located, they can check their soil survey map and determine exactly what type of soil you have. They'll also tell you what plants will grow well in your soil. These soil survey maps, incidentally, are overlaid on an aerial map, so it's easy to transfer this information to your own aerial or topographical map since section numbers are the same.
To give you an idea of the type of soil information the NRCS has, one soil type in my area is classified as BmC2, a Bloomfield-Alvin complex with 6-15 percent slope. This is an excessively well-drained sandy soil that's poorly suited for growing corn, soybeans and small grain. It will, however, effectively grow melons, as well as grasses and legumes for hay and pasture. Suitable grasses include fescue, orchard grass and timothy. Legumes include alfalfa and red clover. Overall, this soil is rated "poor" or "very poor" in eight out of 10 categories when it comes to growing any type of plant or tree. You won't see 200 bushels of corn per acre from this soil.
Interestingly, this poor soil region drops off into a river-bottom that's less than a half-mile away. There, the ground is comprised of rich, moist soil. So moist in fact, that drainage lines are placed in the fields to drain the water from the ground. This drained river-bottom soil will grow fantastic crops—including 200-bushel-per-acre corn.
This gives you an idea of how fast soil types can change in a short distance. It also indicates how important it is to pick the right seed for your soil in order to grow the most nutritious foods for your whitetails.
Picking A Seed
"We've researched soils for 20 years," noted Steve Scott of The Whitetail Institute of North America ((800) 688-3030). "We're acutely aware one seed won't work perfectly for every soil type, and that's why we have several high-quality products available. For example, if you have moist clay soil, Imperial Whitetail Clover can't be beat. It's a shorter rooted plant that produces tremendous nutrition for deer, including the protein needed to grow antlers. It's been a top-seller for 17 years.
"For food plots on well-drained side hills, possibly with thin soil, we designed Alfa-Rack and Alfa-Rack Plus. Alfa-Rack contains Imperial Whitetail Clover and a specially blended alfalfa. Alfa-Rack Plus also includes chicory, which thrives on even drier soils. Realizing these products didn't fully cover all soil types, we recently introduced
Imperial Whitetail Extreme. It's a product that quality deer managers are having fantastic success with on dry soils where it's hard to get the pH level up to proper numbers.
"All of these are perennial plants," Scott said. "They should last for 5 years or more if properly maintained. They can be planted either during the spring or fall."
Bobby Cole, seed products expert for BioLogic ((866) 677-9625), says the challenge BioLogic faces when developing seeds is to find products that will work in a diversity of soils.
"There are a tremendous number of different soil types," he said. "A sandy soil, for example, is large grained and doesn't hold nutrients well. Certainly if the wrong product is planted in sandy soil, there will be limited production. A QDM advocate needs to pick the right product for his particular type of soil and be sure he takes a soil test frequently so he can properly lime and fertilize his plot.
"Because of soil diversity," he said, "we often put several different seeds in one product. This way if one seed isn't perfect for the soil, others will be. You're ensured of a good stand. Our Clover Plus, for example, includes red and white clover, plus chicory. It's a perennial that can be planted during spring or fall."
Cole says BioLogic's Premium Perennial blend contains a combination of annual and perennial seeds. Several perennial products feed deer throughout the summer and early fall, then the large-leafed annual brassicas kick in during the fall and serve as a deer attractant during hunting seasons.
"We even have a fall planting blend called Green Patch Plus," Cole said. "It contains 50 percent clovers, 21 percent brassicas and 29 percent wheat and oats. The brassicas, wheat and oats are annuals and have to be planted every year, but I can assure you this mix will provide a great place to hunt over during the fall. Because Green Patch Plus contains a variety of seeds, it'll work in several different soil types."
More Seed Choices
As noted, The Whitetail Institute of North America and BioLogic are two companies producing high-quality seed products. Keep in mind, however, there are other fine companies that have developed seeds specifically for certain problem soils. Tecomate Seed Company ((888) 629-4263), for instance, has Lablab, an annual legume that thrives in hot, drought-like conditions. It's commonly used throughout Texas and the Southeast where dry, hot conditions are common. During the first few weeks of growth, however, it can be over-browsed by deer, so it's important to keep the plot size large and deer numbers down. Lablab is planted during the spring and provides exceptional nutritional value through early fall.
Another annual plant attractive to deer is Buck Forage Oats ((800) 299-6287). This is a winter hardy oat that was specially blended to withstand the rigors of Northern winters. When planted during the fall, it serves as an outstanding deer attractant. Oats have the benefit of being adaptable to a variety of soils, but they grow best in well-drained soils. Oats also tolerate acidic soils. As with other seeds, it's important to remember all oats aren't created equal. If you live in a cold climate, the winter-hardy oat is the one to use.
Of course there are many other types of products to plant in food plots, and certainly there are some out there compatible with your soil. Every company selling seeds for deer food plots has information available on which types of soil their products grow best on. They also list the nutritional production of their plants. By adhering to the following instructions and spending some research time, you'll be able to make a wise seed choice.
Do It Right
The first step in planting a food plot is to determine its location. Take advantage of any terrain features on your land that might funnel deer past you. Also consider the best wind directions for the setup. Determine the size of the plot and give it a name. Using an aerial or topographical map, or both, draw in the exact location of your plot(s). Once this is done, go to your NRCS office and show them your plot location. As previously noted, they'll have detailed information describing what type of soil you have, and what plants grow best on it.
Now it's time to open your wallet and decide whether you want to plant perennial products, the most cost efficient or have a mix of annuals and perennials. This is also when you need to decide whether you want to plant deer attractant products for fall hunting. In cold regions, these fall attractant plots pull in whitetails during the November through January hunting seasons. After this decision is made it's time to research seeds and pick the ones most compatible to your soil.
The next step is to take a soil sample of your plot(s). The results from this test will allow you to apply the proper amount of lime and fertilizer to your soil. Read all soil preparation and seeding instructions carefully and follow them exactly and you should have a nutritious food plot. Regardless of how good your food plot is, however, you can always make it better by learning more about how to enrich your soil. New seeds will also come along, so in the future you can expect new and better products for specific soil types. The best is yet to come!