I’d just driven 900 miles to get to my whitetail hunting camp in Iowa, including 300 miles through Nebraska and western Iowa, where the soybeans were lush and the corn fields jungle-thick and more than 6 feet tall. The following day I looked in frustration at my 2-acre food plot, where my laboriously planted corn was knee high with only a handful of runt ears in the entire plot.
I’d created a monster. The deer had destroyed the food plot I depended on for Iowa’s December firearms season, and even more so for the late primitive weapons season that ran to January 10. Oh well, just another setback in the wonderful world of food plot management. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d found myself with a food plot crisis on my hands, and unfortunately it likely wouldn’t be the last.
The previous year I’d gotten a phone call from Shirley Lamb, and I could tell by the tone of her voice that all was not well in Iowa. Larry and Shirley Lamb live up the road a half-mile from my Iowa hunting camp, and they’re a vital part of my hunting operation. Shirley, my camp cook, and Larry, a retired farmer, both help me plant and maintain the food plots on my hunting leases.
“The neighbor’s cattle have demolished the corn food plots on Bob’s place,” was not exactly the news I expected or wanted to hear. It was mid August, and their earlier reports had indicated the 5 acres of corn comprising the key food plots on my best buck-producing lease were doing exceptionally well. Obviously the neighbor’s cows thought so too because they’d pushed their way through the border fence and spent a couple weeks totally destroying my food plots.
Dang! Food plot disasters were becoming an annual occurrence. The previous year, Iowa had one of the driest years on record, and by the first of August my corn food plots had burned brown and were obviously not going to produce any deer-attracting corn for the late firearms season.
Learning The Hard Way
Food plots are truly a love/hate proposition, and the deer hunter who thinks all you have to do is scratch up a chunk of ground, throw some seed out and wait for the deer to come is in for a rude awakening. Chances of success in such a haphazard endeavor are about on par with surviving a naked swim among feeding great white sharks—not good.
I’ve been actively utilizing food plots in my Iowa whitetail hunting operation on some 3,000-plus acres of leased land for the past 15 years. I’ve also worked as a food plot consultant for a number of aspiring outfitters in Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota during this same period. During the past 15 years I’ve tried about every species of food plot plant available and made about every mistake with food plots you can make, and maybe even created some new ones. During this sometimes painful and frustrating process, I’ve learned a lot about the seemingly insurmountable task of getting the best out of food plots every season, regardless of all the elements working against you. If nothing else, I’ve learned to be adaptable and ready for the worst.
There are two types of food plots: those planted to provide the deer with additional nutrition throughout the year, especially during periods of stress on the deer, and food plots planted primarily to draw deer in to make them a bit more accessible to hunters. The Breadbasket States of the Midwest provide nutritious and sustaining yields of soybeans, alfalfa and corn, so the deer usually don’t have to worry about starving or survival.
This plethora of food requires a whole different perspective on food plot production than states farther to the south, and creates a unique set of variables. I’ve had years when my food plots have produced bumper crops, then during the critical part of the season, the weather turns hot and the deer stay nocturnal when they should be feeding actively during daylight hours. Other years, when food plot production is low because of weather or drought, the fall is brutally cold and the deer deplete the limited food plots before the December firearms season begins.
And then there are the damnable turkeys. I never thought I’d ever be in an area where I would be cussing because there were too many turkeys, but after the past couple years of trying to produce corn food plots on one of my leases where the turkeys simply decimated the corn, I couldn’t wait for spring to even the score with a few of the feathered corn chompers. Their eating copious quantities of corn was compounded by the fact that their constant activity and incessant racket during deer season kept the skittish trophy bucks out of the food plots until the turkeys went to roost and legal shooting time had expired.
As one hunter succinctly told me, “Don’t ever put me on that food plot again; I’m about half deaf because of all the turkey racket, and there simply isn’t room for any deer in the field.” He wasn’t kidding; last fall I counted more than 400 turkeys in the food plot at one time, and the previous year one of my clients counted 389 turkeys in the 21/2- acre plot during a single day. Note: Iowa allows nonresidents only one wild turkey for $196. Unbelievable.
Crops And Crisis
My food plot strategy has changed over the years and I now plant most of my food plots to Roundup Ready corn in the spring, and because Roundup Ready sugar beets were allowed back on the market for food plots last year, I’ll be planting a portion of my food plots to them each spring as the deer really go crazy over them and the turkeys can’t decimate them. However, if sugar beets aren’t Roundup Ready, they’re simply too labor-intensive to make them a worthwhile venture. Sugar beets need a long growing season and should be planted in the early spring and aren’t much good for fall planting.
For several years I depended on Tyfon, a cross between Chinese cabbage and forage turnips for some of my food plots, but this annual had to be planted in the fall as it was very susceptible to the voracious little aphids if planted earlier, and it’s somewhat susceptible to dry conditions. I’ve since found a better combination from Sun Rich Farms/ Frigid Forage ((800) 395-0147)) in its Big-N-Beasty Brassicas.
Several years ago I hunted deer with the sales manager of Frigid Forage in Ohio, and got a close look at some of the company’s food plot mixes in the field. Needless to say I was impressed, and the very next year when my corn fields were crisped by the drought, Larry, Shirley and I disked up the corn plots and replanted them the first part of August with several Frigid Forage food plot mixes. Fortunately, we received several inches of rain immediately after planting and all the plots got a jumpstart for the fall growing season.
All of the Frigid Forage seed combinations, which are produced in the Northern states and Canada, worked well. However, the Big-N-Beasty Brassicas mixture of sugar beets, carrots, forage turnips and several varieties of rape, was phenomenal, and on several occasions my clients and I counted 50-100 deer in the food plots during the December firearms season. And best of all, we harvested some real trophies due to our crisis food plot plantings.
This spring I’ll plant half my food plots to Roundup Ready corn and sugar beets, and disk and prepare the rest of the plots for early August fertilizing and planting of Big-N-Beasty Brassicas. This brassica mix produces lots of pungent, palatable, early fall greenery to pull the deer into the plots for the archery season, and tons of sweet, digestible bulbs whose sugar content skyrockets after the first frost. The bulbs or roots are exceptionally cold-hardy and continue to grow into October and November. Hard to beat in my book.
When I’m planting the planned food plots in August, I’ll also disk and replant with brassicas any portions of the corn fields that have been hammered into oblivion by the voracious deer I’ve pulled into my sanctuary-like leases.
Another important aspect of food plot success is keeping track of what the neighbors are growing. Planting the only corn field in an expanse of soybeans is asking for trouble, and vice versa. I stay away from soybeans on most of my leases simply because the turkeys suck them up like a vacuum after the rest of the adjacent crops are harvested, leaving little late-season attraction for deer.
Last season, after my corn plot was destroyed by neighboring cattle, Shirley and Larry didn’t get the field planted to brassicas until almost September 1 because of constant rains. Even with this very late planting, the food plots produced a bountiful supply of fist-sized turnips that drew deer like magnets, and the longer the season transgressed the more deer the plot pulled in. My clients took two trophy bucks off the lease and left some real “Booners” for this year. I sat in a blind on the plot during the January muzzleloader season and counted more than 100 deer in the 1/4-mile-long plot; five of the bucks would score more than 140 points. I’d told myself I wasn’t pulling the trigger on a buck unless he scored at least 165, and none of the behemoth bucks would quite make this score. I can’t wait for this year!
Food plots can be a hunter’s worst nightmare or best investment, and that’s when you do everything right. Add adverse weather, an overpopulation of rapacious marauding deer, neighboring livestock and weed or insect infestation, and you have the makings of a food plot crisis that can ruin your efforts and chances of success in short order. However, with some of the superb annual, quick-growing and desirable food plot seed mixes now available, all is not lost if you’re mentally ready to perform some serious spur-of-the-moment food plot disaster management.