The Ultimate Food Plot

What to Plant
A deer’s nutritional requirements change throughout the year. For example, carbohydrates and fats from grains such as clover, winter wheat, sorghum, etc. are desirable fall/winter foods. These should comprise about 1/3 of your food plot acres. High protein forage such as soybeans, peas, alfalfa, clover, etc. are good spring/summer foods because they provide needed nutrition for does during lactation and bucks during antler growth. These plots should comprise the other 2/3 of your food plot acres.

Sources for seed: The ideal way to acquire corn and sorghum seed for your food plots is through conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever, Quail Unlimited, local Quality Deer Management Association chapters, etc. Seed companies must dispose of low germination seed (generally anything that falls below 90% is not accepted for commercial sale) and by giving it away to conservation groups they can do something positive in the process.

The day to maturity of the seed planted doesn’t have nearly as much affect on production as the amount of fertilizer applied. Ideally, you get 110 day corn and sorghum if you plant on or before mid-May and 90 day seed if you plant in mid-June. However, in the final analysis, the best variety is the one you get for free!

Soybeans: There is little you can plant that draws bucks like soybeans. Beans provide protein, but the plants must also taste good. By all means, you should consider some beans in your management plan. You have two basic choices in soybeans, Roundup Ready and non-Roundup Ready. The Roundup varieties have been altered genetically so that a week or two before the beans start to canopy you can spray them with Roundup and not have a single weed.

The cheapest way to plant beans is to use non-registered non-Roundup bin beans. Talk to a few local farmers to find one that’s cleaning bin beans for planting. You can buy these (you plant about 1 ½ bushels per acre) for a lot less than commercially available registered seed. By the way, it’s illegal to plant non-registered Roundup Ready beans (even for food plots) so shy away from these. Here’s a rough breakdown of costs (including chemicals) for growing soybeans:

  • no-till non-Roundup Ready bin beans: $45 per acre
  • full-till non-Roundup Ready bin beans: $30 per acre
  • no-till Roundup Ready beans: $60 - $65 per acre
  • full-till Roundup Ready beans: $45 - $50 per acre

Alfalfa: It’s been my experience that alfalfa is tougher to establish than clover. It is more sensitive to pH, requires a well-drained site and is susceptible to various diseases and insects. Alfalfa is also more expensive to establish; you have to figure on $80 to $100 per acre. On the upside, you can expect a good alfalfa seeding to last for five years, or more, and if managed correctly it can produce an income while still feeding your deer. Good alfalfa hay can bring anywhere from $25 to $40 per large round bale in most markets (more in some areas) and your half of a sharecrop arrangement should bring about $75 per acre per year. In the long run you can make a little profit on alfalfa.

If you don’t plan to market your alfalfa don’t even plant it. You are better off planting clover instead. The right variety will test about equal in crude protein and be a lot cheaper and easier to establish. Clover won’t yield nearly as many tons per acre, but it will be enough for deer.

Clover: Test data suggests that at 24 percent, ladino clover has the highest crude protein content in the clover family. It is also very digestible – meaning deer can use most of what’s there to produce energy. Ladino does best in fairly heavy soils – clay based with limited drainage. Common red clover ranges right around 15% crude protein and is well suited to sites that drain easily and have relatively thin soils. If you must plant in poorly drained sites, alsike clover will also do well and is comparable to red clover in nutritional value.

With fertilizer and lime, establishing a plot of ladino costs about $55 per acre and it will last about three years before it starts to die off. Red clover and alsike clover can be established for about $45 per acre.

It’s a good idea to mow clover plots at least twice per summer to keep the plants lush and growing. It is ideal if you can get a local farmer to come in and bale it (even if you have to give him the bales) just to keep the residue from smothering the growing plants.

Herbicides and Pesticides
Your best chemical for burn-down in no-till applications is Roundup Ultra. It will kill any plant that has not been genetically altered to resist it. It takes roughly 1 ½ quarts of Roundup per acre for most applications, two quarts if the vegetation is thick and tall. Roundup costs about $40 per gallon when purchased in volume. You’ll need a chemical applicator’s license to buy any commercial herbicide so you might be best served to have a local farmer do the purchasing and application for you.

Residual broadleaf and grass killers are also available depending upon what you are planting. But residual herbicides should be selected carefully because some will impact what you can plant in the same field the following year. For example, atrazine and extrazine control broadleaf plants in corn and sorghum but will not permit a good establishment of clover or alfalfa on the same ground for roughly 18 months. Rely heavily on your local farmer’s cooperative when determining the best herbicides to apply for every crop.

Properly fertilized plants have a much higher crude protein content, relative nutritional value and palatability than unfertilized plants. In some cases, fertilizer is an absolute necessity (as with corn and sorghum).

Most commercial fertilizers are broken down into three ingredients, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium – N, P and K in farmer’s jargon. Generally you order fertilizer from your local coop by referring to numbers that specify blends. For example 13-13-13 is a common lawn blend of 13 units (a term that specifies the amount of active ingredient) each of N, P and K respectively. Most serious farming (and food plot) applications require that you customize the blend to the crop at hand.

Corn and sorghum: Nitrogen is the real food that makes corn and sorghum pop up. These plants also require P and K but they are somewhat secondary to nitrogen. I started out applying 50-30-30 to my food plots but have since gone to 60-20-20. The best way to determine your fertilizer needs is to have a soil test done each year. Again, your local farmer’s service coop can tell you how to gather the sample or recommend someone who’ll do it for you. The soil test will tell you exactly how much of each ingredient your fertilizer should contain given the crop you plan to plant.

Fertilizer is expensive and when you start to bump up the nitrogen for corn and sorghum it really cuts into the pocketbook. You’re looking at about $25 to $40 per acre for the minimum nitrogen blend. To keep this in perspective, commercial corn growers will use as much as 150 units of nitrogen compared to the 60 units I’m using.

Legumes: You can get by without fertilizing your legumes, but the nutritional value will go down, especially if you mow the plot as often as you should. Hit your legume plots with a maintenance dose of fertilizer once per year. P and K are generally the only ingredients your legumes require since the plants produce their own nitrogen. Contact your farmer’s coop for recommended levels based on local soil types. It will cost around $25 per acre to have your legumes fertilized.

Native forage: Several of my friends have had excellent success by fertilizing selected areas of timber and cover in their hunting areas with 13-13-13. They used elbow grease and chest-mounted cyclone spreaders or electric spreaders on their ATV’s to scatter tons of fertilizer. With a little help, native browse really explodes. You can do it for about $20 to $25 per acre.

Scott’s Food Plot Fertilizer: This bagged fertilizer is equivalent to a mix of 28-10-10. The unique thing about Scott’s fertilizer is that a portion of it has a time-release coating that permits the nitrogen to be slowly released into the soil over a period of months. Scott’s fertilizer comes in 50-pound bags that will cover ¼ acre. For more information call (800) 811-2545

My hunting strategies have changed since I started planting food plots for deer. The does build their lives around their food sources and the bucks build their lives around the does (if only during the rut). As a result, I find myself hunting isolated high quality food sources where once I would have focused on travel funnels to the exclusion of all else. Not only have the food plots provided me with a concentrated hunting area, but they have actually attracted and produced more quality animals.

Commercially Available Food Plot Seed
With the growing popularity of private deer management, there are now several companies offering special food plot blends. I’ve tried a few and some have done very well. You can spend a lot of money on specialized whitetail deer seed so weigh this option vs. simply designing your own blend from seed you buy at the local cooperative. If you’re only doing a few acres, price isn’t nearly as important. It’s common, however, to spend $100 per acre, or more, to establish these super foods. Here are a few of the better ones on the shelves of the whitetail deer supermarket.

Whitetail Institute Imperial Whitetail Clover: Ray Scott’s Whitetail Institute was one of the first companies offering specialized seed for deer managers. It is primarily a special grade of ladino clover (called Advantage Ladino) that has been inoculated to promote nitrogen fixing bacteria so you’ll get the best possible germination. It will reportedly last up to five years without replanting. Contact Whitetail Institute at: (800) 688-3030.

Antler King Trophy Clover Blend: I’ve had good luck planting Trophy Clover Blend. In fact, last summer it was the best drawing card on the entire farm. It even out-drew my soybeans. It is composed of a blend of clovers and rape seed to draw deer to the plot throughout the spring, summer and fall. Trophy Clover Blend will last three or four years, and because it is a blend, grows well in most conditions.

I also planted three acres of Antler King’s Fall/Winter/Spring Blend last September. It didn’t take the deer long to find it and they were grazing it hard by hunting season. This blend is comprised of a green forage similar to winter wheat or winter rye combined with rape. According to Todd Stittleburg, owner of Antler King, the plant produces crude protein levels of 20% during its entire growing cycle. Contact Antler King at: (715) 284-9547.

High Racks Whitetail Suck-A-Tash: Suck-A-Tash is a blend of several clovers including ladino that will produce a high protein food source for deer throughout the entire year. Rape seed is added to produce a strong late season deer attractor. In fact, Mike Hajek, owner of High Racks, feels that rape is the best late season attractor that you can plant. Because it is a blend, Suck-A-Tash will do well in a wide variety of soil conditions. Contact High Racks at (218) 894-2442

Mossy Oak Biologic: This blend has been receiving a lot of attention lately. Deer farmers in New Zealand formulated a high protein forage program for maximum antler and body growth. BioLogic is available in three different blends, two annuals (one fall and one summer) and one perennial. Reportedly, when properly managed Biologic will produce crude protein levels as high as 38 percent with an average that’s above 30%. Contact Biologic at: (888) Mossy-Oak.

Equipment Requirements
You can get by with as little as a four-wheeler and a few small implements, or you can step up to a 140 hp tractor, a 20-foot disk, six-row planter, 15-foot no-till drill, 15-foot bat-wing mower and 60-foot sprayer. You can spend as much as want.

Going small: If all you will be planting are a few small plots there is no sense in buying farm equipment. You can probably hire your neighbor to do most of the real work for you at little cost. Or you can try to get by with next to nothing.

Going bigger: I go to auctions every spring looking for a few odd and ends. Here’s a realistic equipment list and what you can expect to pay at auctions:

  • Small tractor (60 to 80 hp): $4,000 and up
  • 12-foot light-duty disk: $400 - $750
  • Four-row no-till corn/bean/sorghum planter: $1,000 to $2,500
  • 6 to 8-foot bush hog mower: $1,000
  • 12-foot drill: $500 - $1,000 (no-till drills cost much more)
  • PTO driven 45’, 250 gallon sprayer: $400

For about $10,000 you can be a deer farmer. If your neighbors are also managing their farms for wildlife you can trade equipment back and forth and get by cheaper. You can also eliminate some of the more costly equipment by hiring neighbors to do certain jobs for you. But be forewarned: they won’t get to your stuff until after their's is all completed. At times this will leave you in a pinch.