Maintaining and Utilizing Cool Season Food Plots for White-tailed Deer

By Bill Gray, Supervising Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Managing Food Plots Effectively
All too often, deer hunters/managers and landowners plant their annual food plots for deer in the fall and then give them no more attention until next planting season. Additionally, food plots are often “over-hunted” or otherwise improperly utilized to the point that by season’s end, their usefulness in attracting deer for harvest or observation is limited at best. With proper management, cool season food plots planted for deer can be as productive at season’s end as they are at season’s beginning.

Once planted and growing, there is little opportunity to correct any soil deficiencies that may pose problems. Liming and fertilization should have been done according to a soil test prior to planting. If this hasn’t been done, next season’s planting activities should include this very important step. Assuming that soil pH has been addressed and fertilizer has been applied at the recommended rates, additional fertilizer is nearly always required to ensure productive food plots. Nitrogen is used up very quickly by growing plants and some is even lost atmospherically. A plot planted in mid October will have expended most of its nitrogen by mid December. Signs of nitrogen loss include plants that begin to look pale and reduced deer use of these plants. Small grains such as wheat, oats, and rye as well as many species of the brassica family (turnips, rape, kale) are most sensitive to nitrogen depletion.

Good plot management will include a follow up application of nitrogen around 60 days post planting. Applying nitrogen in the form of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) at 100 pounds per acre will restore depleted nitrogen and produce rapid, noticeable improvement to many common cool season forage plants. Other macro-nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium may also need to be replenished. A brownish or purplish color in forage plants often indicates a phosphorous deficiency. Potassium is often quickly leached from the soil and must be replenished annually if not more frequently. Again, soil testing is critical because in many cases, an improper (too low) soil pH prevents plants from being able to utilize essential elements. Continuing to add fertilizer to a food plot with a poor pH is a waste of time and money. In most cases, the plants simply can’t use elements supplied in the fertilizer because they are unavailable under low pH conditions.

When clovers and other legumes comprise a significant portion of the crop, potassium in the form of muriate of potash (0-0-60) should be applied according to soil test recommendations. In the absence of a soil test, apply potash at a rate of 100 pounds per acre during March. Potassium is important for proper plant metabolism and overall production. Longer-lived species such as arrowleaf clover, red clover and white clover will benefit from the addition of potassium. 

With proper management, which includes soil testing, addressing pH, and application of additional fertilizer at appropriate intervals, food plots will continue to produce quality forage through the hunting season and beyond. This management strategy will in turn, ensure improved attraction for deer and improved opportunities to observe and harvest deer in and around these plots. 

Using Food Plots Effectively
The same planning and thought directed toward establishing and managing food plots should be directed toward best utilizing food plots as a hunting/harvest aid. Food plots can provide an excellent place for hunters to observe or harvest deer. However, all too often, hunters make the mistake of “over-hunting” food plots in their attempts to harvest deer. Deer quickly respond to hunting pressure and human activity. Hunting the same plot several days per week is a sure way to discourage daylight use of these plots. Ideally, food plots should be hunted sparingly with travel to and from these plots kept as inconspicuous as possible. While food plots do make good areas to harvest deer, especially does, hunters must learn to adapt their hunting methods to enhance success. Hunting a food plot day after day when a bumper acorn crop is hitting the ground is an exercise in futility. Ironically, for all the benefits they can provide, food plots have contributed to a lack of hunting savvy among many of today’s deer hunters. Hunters must learn to hunt where the deer are rather than where they want the deer to be.

Setting up on a food plot can be as simple as constructing a small ground blind from pine limbs or as involved as erecting a large, weatherproof shooting house. In either case, it is important to consider wind direction when attempting to hunt a food plot. Smaller blinds can be moved to adjust to wind conditions but larger hunting platforms such as tripods or shooting houses are more or less permanent. As a rule of thumb, ideal hunting conditions occur on a prevailing wind from the northwest. In fact, in the absence of approaching warm fronts, a northwest wind is generally the prevailing wind during much of hunting season in Alabama. Permanent hunting platforms should be placed with this in mind. If wind conditions are not suited for hunting a plot on a particular day, hunt somewhere else! A deer’s sense of smell is phenomenal – in most cases, hunting a plot with the wrong wind usually results in not seeing a deer at all.

Hunting near food plots can be as productive as hunting directly on them. This is especially true when it comes to harvesting bucks during the rut. Often, mature bucks will approach a food plot but not actually come out onto it. Their strategy is to circle the food plot and attempt to wind a receptive doe before actually proceeding onto the plot. Hunters that set up in these staging areas adjacent to food plots are often rewarded with the opportunity to harvest a nice buck. Does also may be harvested along travel routes to plots – this allows harvest opportunity without providing excessive disturbance and human activity directly on a food plot. Again, repeatedly focusing hunting activity directly on food plots can often deprive hunters of better harvest opportunities just a short distance away.

First and foremost, food plots are a crop that must be managed (just as any other crop) for best results. Secondly, they are a tool designed for a specific purpose. To get the most benefit from food plots, deer hunters/managers must practice good management and learn to effectively use them for their intended purpose.