Fall is a great time to begin scouting and planning for the upcoming hunting season. Many hunters plant food plots in order to improve their chances of success when hunting whitetail deer. By providing deer with high quality cool season food plots, you can improve those chances, and benefit other wildlife as well.
Plot Size And Shape
Winter food plots of ½ to 3 acres are typical. It is best to plant at least 1 plot to 100 acres of forestland. Ideally, set aside from 1 to 5 percent of your deer range or hunting club for food plots. Any less, and your plantings may not have the maximum effect and may fall victim to overgrazing. Planting more than 5 percent of your acreage can be cost prohibitive. Truthfully, it is better to have multiple, ideally distributed small plots, than a few large ones. Smaller plots also reduce the distance hunters must shoot, resulting in better shot placement and fewer misses. An oblong or crescent-shaped plot yields maximum edge where the plot and the forest meet, than does a round or square plot, but are harder to negotiate with tractors and equipment. Square or rectangular plots afford ease of machinery work and you can allow for a soft edge of native vegetation between the plot and the field or woods edge. Allow room from the edge of the woods to minimize the shading effect from adjacent timber, and be no more than 50 yards from cover. Thus, larger plots should be no more than 100 yards wide, and as long as necessary.
Locate plots in areas where deer feel comfortable and travel regularly. It is often better if you can locate them in areas that are fully or partially open. This reduces the initial establishment cost, lessens the amount of clearing to be done and future timber revenue lost by putting the land in wildlife food plantings. Old logging decks, old woods roads, beetle damaged areas, idle crop fields, fire breaks, or right-of-ways make great locations for winter food plots. When available, use sites that are level or nearly level, as “everything in agriculture just works better on flat ground”. Wet bottomland and dry ridge tops are not ideal, and should be avoided when other areas are available. Stay away from boundary lines, and don’t plant areas that are visible from a public road. If you must plant adjacent to a road, planting a thick screen of pines or other evergreen trees or shrubs between the road and the plot will help improve utilization and make poaching more difficult.
What To Plant
Food preferences vary greatly from one locale to another and with the season of the year. Deer are influenced by the availability and variety of natural and planted foods they encounter during their daily routines. As availability and quality of food sources change, the deer will adjust their feeding habits. They will select foods that provide particular nutrients that they need at certain times of the year. This means that a variety of forages are better than a single crop. After all, you don’t go to a salad bar and just eat lettuce, do you? Utilization of cool season plots during fall and winter are chiefly influenced by the acorn crop of that year. In years with no or very little acorns, deer will rely to a greater extent on cool season food plots to get through the winter. By having both a cool season annual (small grain) and a perennial (clover) you can insure that you have a forage plot that will benefit your deer population.
Small grains and clovers are typically planted as cool-season foods for deer. These plants stay green in the winter, and they are nutritious and attractive to deer. There are many varieties of small grain and clover to choose from, such as wheat, rye, oats, and Ladino, red and crimson clovers. Barley is not recommended as a small grain in food plots as deer rarely eat it. In these cool season mixtures, the small grains produce quickly, while others provide maximum forage production later in the growing season. Forage mixtures help to spread production out over a longer period of time.
Some Small Grain And Clover Combinations
2 bu. wheat
1 bu. oats
5 lbs. crimson clover
7 lbs. red clover
1 bu. wheat
1 bu. rye grain
1 bu. oats
5 lbs. crimson clover
7 lbs. red clover
Clover Mix 3
2 bu. rye grain
5 lbs. ladino clover
Clover Mix 4
15 lbs. red clover
10 lbs. crimson clover
The amounts in these mixtures are for planting a 1-acre food plot.
- Mixes 1 and 2 are adapted to a wide variety of soils and conditions and must be replanted annually.
- Mix 3 will do best on soils that have good moisture-retaining capabilities but are not wet. Once the ladino clover in Mix 3 becomes established, it can persist for several years.
- Mix 4 will produce on sites that become too dry for ladino clovers. Clover Mix 4 probably will produce for 1 or 2 years and then have to be replanted.
- Austrian winter peas can be added to the above mixtures @ 20lb per acre
Cool Season Hunting Plots or “Shooter Plots”
Shooter plots are primarily for those interested in attracting deer to an area to hunt, and consist of only a small grain.
- 120 lbs. wheat or oats /acre makes a great shooter plot
Oats are preferred by deer as a food source, and seem irresistible at times. Extremely cold temperatures can damage oats, so depending on your location within Burke County; wheat may be a better option for Jonas Ridge, than oats, however there are varieties of oats that are more winter hardy. As well, selecting a forage variety of oats will improve forage yields.
Many companies offer seed mixtures for cool season food plots. It always pays to compare ingredients, and prices of individual varieties. By comparing and familiarizing yourself with the costs, you may find the commercial mixes are better, or more costly. It may be more cost effective to mix your own. Many of the commercial mixes have undergone extensive testing and may have special varieties that warrant the extra cost, but many of the mixes can contain species and varieties that are not complementary, so read the label and do your homework.
Time To Plant
Typically, late August to mid September is the best time to plant cool-season deer plots. Labor Day weekend is a great time to plant cool season forage plots, however, we can continue to plant small grains and clovers up to Thanksgiving, and still achieve an acceptable stand. Clovers, other than crimson clover, can also be frost seeded in late January through February, early March. Crimson clover is a winter annual and should be fall seeded.
Break soil and disc harrow your food plots several weeks before planting. This will allows rains to help settle the soil prior to planting time. This also the best time to initiate weed control. There are a number of herbicides available to help you in this venture, consult the current North Carolina Ag Chemicals Manual or your Extension office for recommendations. The seedbed should be fine, but firm. It is always best to take a soil sample and adjust soil fertility before you start. You can get soil test forms and boxes at the Burke County Extension office, and the test is free in North Carolina, you simply pay the postage. Late summer is an ideal time to send in a soil test, as the NC Soil Testing Lab is less busy and you can sometimes get results back is as little as a week.
Apply lime by soil test recommendations to adjust soil acidity. Lime will correct the pH of soil that is too acid, which Burke County soils typically are. In an acid soil, much of that expensive fertilizer you bought will be tied up in the soil and will not be available to the forages you are trying to grow. Clover, being a legume, needs a near neutral pH to thrive, and will not grow well if the pH problem is not corrected.
One thing to remember when planting, you will have a mixture of forages when they germinate and grow, but since you have small grains which are larger seeds, and clover, which are small seeds, you must sow them separately to achieve success. If you mix them in the spreader the small seed will settle out and go quickly, leaving you with large areas of only small grains growing. Also, each needs to be treated differently once sown.
Small Grains. Broadcast small grain seeds as evenly as possible over the seedbed. Lightly disk to cover seeds about 1 inch deep.
Clovers. Clover is a legume, meaning it can take nitrogen from the air if the proper bacteria are present in the soil. Many soils do not have the bacteria; so always add the bacteria (rhizobium) to the clover seed before it is planted. This process is called “inoculating” the clover seed. Clover inoculant can usually be purchased where you buy your seed. Follow the directions on the inoculum bag. Most manufacturers market seeds that are pre-inoculated, with the inoculum bacteria in a coating applied to the seed. This assures that each seed is properly inoculated and generally helps make planting easier. Pre-inoculated seeds weigh more than “raw” seeds, so plant at a higher rate than you do raw seeds. With pre-inoculated seeds, make sure that the inoculation date is within 6 months of planting, or you may have to re-inoculate. The inoculation date is listed on the tag. Inoculated clover seeds should be broadcast over the seedbed after the small grains have been covered with the light disking. In small areas, a hand-operated broadcast seeder works well. Clover seeds should be planted at a shallow depth (1/4 inch is best). After sowing the clover seed, use a cultipacker to cover the seed and firm the seedbed or drag with a piece of chain-link-fence to cover the seeds properly. Packing the seedbed helps insure good seed to soil contact, conserves moisture, increases germination and seedling survival.
Food plots can be used to compliment naturally available food sources and to supplement them in years of drought or low mast production. Used as a part of an overall management plan, they can, if properly planned, located, and managed, enable us to provide a high quality source of nutrition for white-tailed deer and other wildlife. For maximum nutrition, it imperative that we provide these food sources year round, by having both warm season and cool season plots. But this fall, remember that establishing cool season food plots can provide deer and other wildlife with a source of readily available nutrients, during a time of nutritional stress: late winter, and also increase the chances of your hunting success this November.