If your local grocery store went out of business, would you start foraging around your backyard looking for whatever edible items you could find? Of course not, you’d simply drive to the next closest grocery store that carried the items you wanted.
It’s similar to what a white-tailed buck is faced with when a landowner plants a food plot with a cool-season crop during late summer, but doesn’t plant anything during spring. A hard winter will kill most of the lush cool-season plants in the food plot, and the deer that have been depending on that food source are faced with going into spring and summer with sometimes less available food, or moving to a property where a landowner has planted nutritious warm-season food plots.
To quote well-known deer biologist Larry Weishuhn, “During spring and early summer, nature produces considerable forage and seeds for wildlife. Unfortunately, these quickly disappear because of hot weather, drought and heavy feeding.”
Give ’Em What They Need
Holding whitetails, specifically mature bucks, on your land year-round requires a combination of habitat requirements. First is security. There must be areas where the deer feel safe; bedding areas and escape routes are a must. Then comes water. Deer require surface water to be available all year. Next is diversity. Whitetails prefer a diverse property, so there’s a need for fields, dense brush, open woods and corridors offering cover. And last, but by far not least, comes food. Deer require a variety of food, including young twigs, buds and leaves of certain trees and shrubs. They also like certain grasses, sedges, legumes, forbs, fruits and nuts. Their consumption of these food plants varies seasonally, based on when they’re available. It’s here that food plots play a role in helping create the ideal year-round habitat.
As long as there’s an ample supply of good food in the food plots and all other factors are met, the deer—both bucks and does—are likely to stay in the area. Take away a choice food supply, however, and they might start to wander in search of a new food source.
As a wildlife manager, I’ve always found it easy to get hunting clubs and landowners to plant fall food plots (also called harvest plots or hunting plots) because these fields attract bucks within shooting range of treestands and ground blinds during the hunting season. But spring and summer food plots are not grown specifically for hunting, and as a result, many landowners believe they aren’t as valuable as fall plots. These landowners are wrong.
We all know that deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife species need all the help they can get in the way of food during winter. A food shortage at this time can be life-threatening. However, we don’t think of spring and summer as being a time of need because the woods and fields are green, and wildlife appears to be healthy. In high-quality habitat during years of ample rainfall and mild summer temperatures, this might be so, but what about those years with limited rain and above average temperatures?
The warm and hot months of summer are a stress period for deer, especially those animals found in low-quality habitat. Bucks are growing antlers, and if food is insufficient, they won’t develop antlers up to their age and genetic potential. Does are pregnant, having fawns and producing milk. Fawns are growing and being weaned. The deer population is at its highest numbers, and there’s a sudden need for high-quality food—lots of it.
During the past several years, much of the United States has been suffering from higher than average summer temperatures and less than average rainfall, which has resulted in drought or near-drought conditions. Because of these conditions, much of the food available to deer has been lower in moisture content than usual and often lower in quality. Deer in these areas have been under stress, and in the warmer parts of the country, the hot summer months is the period of highest stress for deer.
The hot months can also be trying for wild turkeys and quail. They are breeding, nesting and hatching young. The adults and young depend upon openings for tender greens and insects, and warm-season food plots serve this purpose.
It Pays To Plan
High-quality cool-season and warm-season food plots require planning to offer deer and other wildlife on your property a dependable, highly nutritious food source from January through December. By now, most food plot growers know that in order to get top crop production on any food plot, a soil test must be taken and the resulting recommendations for lime and fertilizer followed. It’s necessary for the warm-season crops to be listed on the soil test information sheet, as well as the cool-season crops. Far too many hunters list only the plants they’re going to plant during late summer and omit the spring plants.
I recommend seeking the advice from an agricultural expert with experience in your local area before planning the crops to plant in your food plots for both warm and cool seasons. Each crop has certain requirements. Some do well on dry, well-drained sites, while others do well in moist, bottomland soil. Some are hardy during low temperatures, while others do well during drought conditions. Some do well in the warm South, while others do best in the cooler North. Where there are high deer populations, you’ll want to select crops that can tolerate heavy grazing and keep coming back with new growth.
Today, many landowners put all of their food plots in green browse perennial plants. You plant this crop one time and, with management, it provides a green food plot on an almost year-round basis for 5 years or more. Crops that fit this category include Durana clover, Ladino clover, Alsike clover, red clover and alfalfa.
These crops sound like a “magic bean” for food plots, but they aren’t quite that. The advantages are obvious: Plant the seed once every 5 years and you have great food for wildlife. However, these plots need some maintenance to be at their best. Like annual crops, they require annual fertilization. They must be mowed to keep weed competition down during the warm months. They don’t do well in all sites and regions, and, depending upon weather conditions, they can go through periods where there’s little plant growth. That said, companies such as Pennington Seed and Whitetail Institute continue working to perfect some of these perennials, and they look very promising as long-term food plot crops for some regions of the country. Like annual crops, perennials must be selected with care, considering the soil and other conditions of your property.
Ask The Experts
One of the best sources of free advice for selecting both cool- and warm-season annuals and perennials is the local Cooperative Extension Service county agent. Almost every county in the United States has one. Ask at any farm supply store and they can tell you how to find the agent. Spend an hour with this person and you can plan your year-round food plot crops and get advice on soil testing, planting recommendations and planting dates. Follow the agent’s recommendations and your food plots will reflect it. This might be the best free advice you’ll ever get.
On large properties with numerous food plots, the dates for planting annual crops can be crucial, especially during the late-summer plantings. All summer the deer and other wildlife on your property have counted on the food being in the plots, then suddenly you come in and plow up the remaining food and plant a cool-season crop. This shock period can be reduced by planning your food plots so it takes place gradually over a period of weeks. Ideally, when the last food plots are being plowed and planted, the first ones you worked are already showing new green growth. The same idea applies to spring plantings—you never want all your food plots non-productive at the same time.
Having worked with food plots for more than 40 years, I’ve learned that each plot has its own personality, and you can learn how to get the most out of it by keeping annual records. Such facts as how much lime and fertilizer is applied and the date applied need to be recorded, as well as when it was plowed, when it was planted, which crop was used, the seeding rate, etc. I also keep track of how many deer hunters saw on each plot and the dates of those sightings. Rain dates and amounts are also important. Reviewing records such as this, especially over a period of years, enables you to see what works best on a specific plot and what changes might be necessary to make it more productive.
Remember this: You increase your chances of holding mature bucks on your property year-round when you have numerous food plots planted with highly nutritious warm- and cool-season crops. These food plots alone aren’t going to guarantee that your property will attract and hold mature bucks, but when these plots are part of a totally managed habitat, you put the odds solidly in your favor.