Wildlife Food Plots for deer


            I have noticed a growing interest in food plots for deer by both people who sell seed products and by landowners and hunters.  Let's try to sort out some of the reality and hype.  

            First of all, many people raised in rural areas have a mind set that if you want to harvest something, you need to plant something.   Wildlife doesn't work that way.    Wildlife professionals seldom talk about food plots.   You can do much more for wildlife with proper forest management than you can with the typical wildlife food plots.   Even if you have 5% of your property in food plots that leaves 95% outside of food plots.  Make sure you have things going right in that 95% before you even bother with food plots.  

            Second, if the purpose of your food plot is to help harvest a deer, there is no need to get real complicated.  Just plant about 100 lbs of oats to the acre on well limed and fertilized soil.    On the other hand, if you are really going to make a year around difference in the health of a deer herd, you need a lot of space with about 5% of it planted to food plots.  That is not to say a deer food plot can't be fun on a smaller scale.  But on a smaller scale there is no sense worrying about doing the best job humanly possible at the highest cost possible when you are not making that much difference anyway. 

            I buy food plot seed at the local farm stores.  You can pay a lot more buying seeds from other sources, but that doesn't mean they are better.  For example, some of the super duper mixtures advertised in magazines have both warm season and cool season plants.  If you plant the mixture in April and May, you waste the cool season seed.  If you plant in September, you waste the warm season seed.   Either way you waste money.  In addition, the mixtures have big seed and little seed mixed together.  Big seed prefers deeper planting than the little seed.  If you buy a mixture,  you may have to compromise on planting depth. If you buy the individual seed, you can plant the large seed first, disc them under an inch or so, then plant the small seed on top of the soil.  Another complications is the fact that some plants perform best on a dry clay site and other plants prefer wet creek bottoms.  A mixture may contain both.   Even mixtures that avoid these problems may not out perform seed from local farm stores.   For example, one well know clover mixture contains two varieties .  One variety doesn't do very well in our climate and the other can be bought at a farm supply store.   Why pay four times the price to get less value?              

            Here is a list of plants that will benefit deer.  For all sites try a clover mixture.  In particular use Ladino.  Regal Ladino does best on clay.   Oscelola Ladino does best on loamy soils.    Add red clover.   Some well known writers claim red clover is only for cows.  It is true that deer won't eat the stems, but red clover leaves will produce more forage than the leaves plus the stems on other clovers .  Deer like ladino clover better, but red clover is more productive during warmer parts of the year and bounces back from drought better than Ladino.   Red clover is biennial but readily reseeds for me.    For uplands sites add berseem clover.  In areas too tough for Ladino, you can plant crimson clover or arrowleaf clover every year.   For moist bottomlands add alsike clover.  

            A small grain makes a good nurse crop for the clover.  Wheat, rye, triticale or oats will all work.  For poorly drained sites where these won't grow, you might have to go with annual ryegrass.  Deer don't like ryegrass that well, but they prefer eating ryegrass over eating snowballs.     Deer have eat barley for me, but according to the researchers, deer prefer wheat, rye or oats.   Avoid fescue, orchard grass, bromegrass or bluegrass.  Switchgrass, bluestem, or Eastern gama grass are good species for birds and rabbits but deer won't eat them.  

            Austrian winter peas are worth trying.    I have heard good reports on them from some people here in Cabarrus County, although the deer around my house haven't eaten very many.  Use Austrian winter peas as a solid stand or mixed with annual small grain.  

            I have very limited experience with the brassica.   I have seen brassica food plots devastated by some deer herds while brassica plots in other areas were ignored.  The brasscia seed normally bought at the farm supply store for food plots is rape.   I will admit that may not be the final word on this complex plant family.  All the brassicas are cool season plants and are used as a mix for wet soil conditions.    

            I have no experience with chicory.  The plant I know as chicory is a blue flowering plant that has naturalized over much of the county. I have never seen that plant eaten by deer, so I wasn't real excited about planting chicory.   Recently I learned that the chicory sold in wildlife mixtures is closer to the vegetable type chicory which is also called endive.   I also learned it cost around 8 to 10 dollars a lb.  So I am still not interested.  However, I understand it is very tolerate of dry conditions and deer love it.

            I know at least one reader who is thinking “he has talked about 13 different plants and still hasn't mentioned my favorite. “  That would be corn.   Corn is a source of energy during fall and winter particularly when acorns are short.   Deer also consider it cover and feel safer moving around it.   There are a couple of drawbacks. First,  you need a fairly large plot or the only thing you feed is the raccoons.   Second, it is a little harder to grow than some of the other choices requiring more weed control and more fertility.   If you can overcome those drawbacks,  it makes an excellent choice.  

            Some researchers suggest adding grain sorghum to corn   I have seen plots where deer push the sorghum over and ate the tops.   Still, I haven't made up my mind on sorghum yet.   

            Deer love to eat field peas also known as southern peas or cowpeas    I originally planted them because they were high in crude protein.   Then I learned that deer can't utilize more than 15 to 17% protein.    I don't have as much experience with iron-clay cowpeas yet, but have found out they don't get hammered when young.   Deer like soybeans.  A deer population of any size will gnaw a small soybean plot to the ground.   Quail Haven reseeding soybeans will tolerate browsing better than regular soybeans and might be an option.   Lablab beans perform the same role as clay peas.  

            American jointvetch is another warm season forage mixture.  According to the literature, it grows in wet areas and deer like it.  I will have to reserve judgment until I meet this plant in person.  

            Here are some recommended mixes of these plants.   Seed quantities are for one acre.   

1.Cool season mixture for uplands: 4 lbs Ladino, 5 lbs red clover, 4 lbs berseem clover and 25 lbs oats..    1 lb chicory and 1lbs rape optional. Overseed with 4 lbs Ladino annually.

2.Cool season mixture for tough upland site where the previous mix doesn't last: 10 lbs  crimson clover, 5 lbs arrowleaf clover, 20 lbs Austrian Winter Peas, 25lbs oats.   Replant annually unless you can get the clover to reseed.  

3.Cool season mixture for wet area:  4 lbs Ladino, 5 lbs alsike, 2 lbs rape, and 25 lb oats.   Overseed with Ladino and alsike clover annually. 

4.Warm season forage,: 60 lbs of cowpeas.    Replant annually

5.Warm season forage mix if number 4 doesn't suit you:   20 lbs iron-clay cowpeas, 10 lbs re seeding soybeans, 6 lbs lablab, 5 lbs perodovik sunflowers. (The sunflowers are strictly for support.  Deer don't care to eat them. )    Replant annually.  

6.Grain mixture;  8 lbs corn, 3 lbs grain sorghum 20 lbs iron clay peas. Replant annually. 

7.Shooters plot; 100 lbs of oats 

Here is how to manage those plots.

            Liming and fertilizing are very important.   The North Carolina Department of Agriculture now has a code for wildlife food plots on their soil test form.   This is a result of research by one of their technicians based in Lee County.  They feel they have good research to back up their recommendations.  

            If you are going with the by guess by gosh method on a food plot in Cabarrus County, it will probably benefit from some lime and phosphorus.  Two tons of lime per acre initially is a good rule of thumb.   That translates to roughly 90 lbs per 1000 square feet.   The initial liming counteracts the last 10,000 years of rainfall plus the acidity of the parent material.   You will not have to lime this heavily every year.    Phosphorus will probably be low although there  is no way to be sure with out a soil test.  2 to 3 lbs of actual phosphorus per 1000 square feet shouldn't hurt.  

              I really don't think you should have a need to use an insecticide in a wildlife plot.   Alfalfa weevil on alfalfa might be an exception which is one reason I didn't list alfalfa as a plant I would choose.  

            Some wildlife managers use mowing as their major management tool.     Some areas in native vegetation should be mowed every other year.  Don't mow during the nesting season.  Nesting season is generally considered to be March 15 to September 15.    In the planted areas, it is helpful to mow before the weeds flower.   Ladino clover will tolerate mowing better than a lot of weeds and persist better if the plot is mowed regularly.   On the other clovers, it is better to raise the bushhog to the top of the clover.   When clovers like crimson, and arrowleaf turn brown, bushhog them down.  That provides seeds for the next year.   Control the weeds during the summer and then disc in early September.  You  can replant oats right before you disc.  

            I have used a few herbicides for weed control in wildlife food plots but I am still on a fairly steep learning curve.   Here are a few to consider.  

            Gyphosate (several brand names including Roundup)  gives a total kill of everything green.  It will control perennial grasses such as fescue or Johnson grass before planting.  It can also be used to kill summer weeds when you are trying to get clover to self seed.   Spray after the clover turns brown and before the summer weeds flower.  Spray again if necessary right before you disc in early September..    Gyphosate will also control woody vegetation that is getting started.   There are a few other chemicals such as Triclopyr (several brand names including Garlon) that would do a better job with woody vegetation, but they are more expensive.   

            Sethoydim (Poast)  will selectively kill grassy weeds such as crabgrass, Johnson grass and bermuda grass.    It can be applied over the top of warm-season forage crops including cowpeas, lablab and soybeans.   The surfactant you add to poast will burn crops if you use it on a hot and humid day.  Hot and humid means when the temperature plus the humidity totals more than 150.    

            For pre-emergent control of weeds, you have three choices:   Trifluralin (Treflan), Pendimethalin (Prowl and other brand names), and  imazethapyr (Pursuit).  All these can be used with clovers and cowpeas.    Check labels for specifics.   Pursuit is expensive but you only need 2 ounces to the acre.   

            I won't get into pesticides for corn.  The best ones are restricted use pesticides, which means anyone who can legally buy them already knows how to grow corn.

            My first attempt to grow a food plot has always been without herbicides.  I have had enough successes that I would suggest trying it once without pesticides.   If you run into a failure, use a pesticide the following year

            When talking about food plots, I can't put enough emphasis on the value of proper forest management on the 95% of your land that is not in food plots.   Get advice from the local forest ranger.   On my property, I have clearcut most of my pines, thinned the rest and have done timber stand improvement on the hardwoods.   I have fertilized the oaks, the persimmons and some of the blackberries.    Controlled burns also benefit deer.   A burn will improve the taste of the forage that returns after a fire.    It will also bump up the protein level of foliage that comes back after a fire.   Controlled burns are fairly costly for small tracts, and not an option in much of Cabarrus County due to highways and the number of houses around.  I can burn on my land outside of Cabarrus County, but I am afraid to set a large enough fire to make much of a difference.   If I had a bigger tract, I would contract with the forest service and let them do the burning. 

            In conclusion, remember there are no magic beans for wildlife plots.   There is not a plant that will provide supplemental food for deer all year long.   There are no short cuts and there are no trophy's in a bag.   Still wildlife will respond to the steps you take to improve the habitat and improve the food.   

                                                                                                                              Article was written by David Goforth Agriculture Extension agent North Carolina Cooperative Extension Cabarrus County Center.  Visit my homepage http://cabarrus.ces.ncsu.edu/ or http://cabarrus.ces.ncsu.edu/index.php?page=lawngarden or my blog http://gardeninggurugoforth.blogspot.com/

Contact me at David_Goforth@ncsu.edu.  Reviewed 2007.