Food plots are incredibly popular across the whitetail’s range, but their proper preparation, planting and maintenance can get confusing very quickly. Even a discussion of commonly-planted species can leave food plotters scratching their heads. I hope to clearly explain the main groups of food plot species and describe how they can be used in a food plot program.
Annuals are food plot species that complete their life cycle in a single year. They tend to germinate and grow very quickly, and they can provide several tons of forage per acre for numerous wildlife species.
Popular annuals for whitetails include corn, soybeans, peas, brassicas, wheat, oats, rye and some clovers such as crimson and arrowleaf. They provide high-quality forage, some provide cover, and depending on species, they can provide food for nearly every month of the year. For example, winter wheat and annual clovers planted in late summer and fall are some of the first species to green-up in the spring. This early food is crucial for does in the final stage of gestation, for bucks with developing antlers, and especially important for all deer following a hard winter. Soybeans and peas can feed deer all summer, corn and clover can feed them during fall, and then corn and brassicas can provide food all winter. High-quality, year-round forage is possible, and using a diversity of annuals can pay huge dividends to the deer herd and your hunting opportunities.
Perennials on the other hand are food plot species that can live for several years. They germinate and grow slower than annuals because they spend more time initially developing their root system. However, once established, they’ll provide forage for whitetails for a few to numerous years depending on the species. For example, red clover is listed as a biennial but often lasts for at least three years. White clover on the other hand is longer lived and can last for five to seven years or more with proper maintenance.
Popular perennials for whitetails include red clover, white clover, ladino clover, alfalfa, and chicory. Clovers are arguably the most commonly planted species for deer, and for good reason. Clovers are high in protein, highly digestible, highly preferred by deer, and there are varieties available that will grow in nearly every corner of the whitetail’s range. Perennials are highly attractive, can provide forage from spring to fall, and should be a component of nearly all food plot programs.
Some food plots will contain a mix of annual and perennial species. The most common reasons for this strategy are to use the faster growing annual species as a “nurse” crop for the slower establishing perennials, or to extend the length of time the plot is providing forage for whitetails. Two popular mixes include using a cereal grain such as oats, wheat or rye as a nurse crop in a clover or clover/chicory planting (the photo accompanying this article shows a mix of oats, clover and chicory). The cereal grain establishes quickly and provides forage for deer while the slower establishing clover and/or chicory develop their root systems. This is a great use of an annual to protect the perennials and also to minimize the amount of time the plot is unproductive for deer. Another example is to mix clover and brassicas. The brassicas protect the developing clover, but more importantly they can provide forage for months after the clover goes dormant in the fall.
Row crops are not different types of plants, rather they are species that are literally planted in rows, and the most popular row crops for deer are corn and soybeans (both annuals). These two species are planted in late spring after soil temperatures reach 55 degrees for corn and 62 degrees for soybeans, and they can provide tons of forage per acre for whitetails. Soybeans can feed deer all summer and into fall until the leaves and pods are fully consumed. Very, very few species are more preferred by whitetails than soybeans. Corn can provide food and cover during summer, fall and into winter until all the ears are consumed. Corn is high in energy, highly preferred by deer, and can be a great draw during deer season.
A food plot program should be designed to provide food for as close to year-round as possible. You accomplish this by planting some cool-season perennials such as clover and alfalfa, some cool-season annuals like oats and brassicas, and some warm-season annuals like corn and soybeans. None of these species can do it by themselves, but when used in combination with each other the results can be outstanding.
Organized educational field events are a great way to learn more about food plots. QDMA and its Branches of member-volunteers conducted more than 250 educational events in nearly 30 states and three Canadian provinces in 2011 alone! Get involved today and help teach others in your area about sound deer and habitat management. Join QDMA today!