Northern Food Plot Planting Strategies
May 11, 2011
The stand had been hot all season long. I'd created the half-acre opening early that summer, approximately 100 yards back in the cover from the large field. After I had thoroughly worked up the ground, the local feed mill dumped the exact amount of lime and fertilizer my soils test had called for. A light disc was followed by a once-over with a culti-packer.
As critical as those steps were, my next was even more so. The seed I'd selected for the plot was Antler King's Trophy Clover Mix. A quick broadcasting of the seeds at approximately 1.5 times the recommended amount and one more culti-packing, and all that was left was praying for rain and waiting the month and a half for the season to start. The rains came and the plot thrived.
Fast-forwarding to mid-October, I'd already passed numerous bucks and had a dangerously close encounter with the largest buck in the area on that food plot. Each sit, I was literally covered up in deer. However, it was the doe that I now watched slowly approaching the food plot that would be responsible for filling my tag.
Flicking her tail side to side, fanning herself, it was obvious that she was close to entering estrous. Apparently, that was equally obvious to the wide 10-pointer that was closing on her fast. Five minutes later, I settled the pin and let the Rage-tipped Easton fly from my bow. One of only two bucks I considered shooters in the area were mine, and I'd nearly gotten the other one a few days before. When done properly, food plots truly can deliver amazing results!
MATCHING SEED TYPE TO THE AREA
As I briefly touched on above, there are many things that go into creating a thriving food plot. Simply put, selecting the appropriate seed type is at the top of the list.
Back in college, I had a two-year internship with a large seed company. Despite the million-dollar title, my position as a "Sunflower Breeder's Research Technician" was mostly that of a glorified migrant worker. However, I did actually get the opportunity to create two separate lines of sunflower seeds that were eventually packaged for sale.
Despite botany and genetics classes preaching the same thing, it was really that internship that drilled into my head that every strain of seed on the market is different. All sunflower seeds are not created equal. They are each bred for specific traits.
This could be seen clearly in the two strains I produced. One, a shorter strain with a very thick stalk and smaller head, was designed to grow in the flat lands of the Dakotas, where high winds would decimate a thin-stalked, taller sunflower with a larger head. The other, designed to be planted in the more rolling country of Wisconsin, was taller and had a larger head, to maximize seed production.
Though I'm sure many were bored to tears by that recount of my college years, it served the important point of illustrating that all seed lines of the same plant type are not the same. Heck, they're often not close to the same. Believe me when I tell you that this applies every bit as much to food plot seed blends as it does to sunflowers.
A great example of this is Buck Forage Oats. Most varieties of oats that are planted north of the Mason-Dixon line will die off after the first decent frost. Buck Forage Oats is specifically packaged with frost-tolerate oats. Therefore, they are more frost-tolerant that other options.
Still, they have their limits. Because of this, they will do better in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and even southern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin than in points farther north. In the more northern regions, odds are significantly higher that a killing frost will cripple the planting before December hits, and often as early as October.
On the other hand, Antler King's Fall/Winter/Spring mix consists of winter peas and winter rye. When a killing frost hits, the winter rye simply goes dormant until the temps rise above freezing and then resumes growing. A planting such as this is ideally suited for the coldest regions of a whitetail's range.
Antler King's Honey Hole and Frigid Forage's Big-N-Beastly brassicas take a different approach. In both cases, the seed blends contain varieties of rape and turnips. Frigid Forage's blend also contains sugar beets and carrots.
In both cases, the deer feed heavily on the greenery while it's growing. In the case of rape, a hard frost causes the sugars to come up from the roots and into the leafy growth. This increases their desirability to deer.
Next, the turnips, beats and carrots become most desirable after hard frosts kill the plants altogether. Because of the massive tonnage per acre that each blend's leaves and roots provide, they offer the northern hunters more than a season-long food source. When planted in adequate amounts and with a variety of other food sources, deer can be found feeding in these food plots all the way up until spring melt.
Corn and soybean plantings can serve the same general purpose. However, neither produces near the same tonnage per acre as the two blends described above. Because of that, if the land manager wants to have a planting that's huntable for the entire season, I strongly recommend planting a minimum of three acres of either. Anything less and the risk of over-browsing to the point of crop failure is too hi
gh. Even if these plantings reach maturity, deer can wipe out a smaller planting in a matter of weeks.
To further stack the cards in favor of a season-long food source, I recommend double planting. There are two methods that will work. The first is to plant the field as one normally would and then repeat the planting. On the second pass, line the planter up so that it drills the new seeds between the rows.
The other method is to plant in a crisscross pattern. This is a little trickier. To get max yield, you again must line the planter up so that the new seeds are drilled between the existing rows. Because of that, I recommend planting the staggered rows by utilizing the first method.
In both cases, the yield will not be 200 percent of what a single planting would be. However, these methods commonly achieve a 170-180 percent yield over what a single planting will produce. That alone transforms that three-acre food plot into the equivalent of one 5.1-5.4 acres in size. That makes a huge difference in keeping either of these plots productive for the entire season and beyond.
ALFALFA AND CLOVERS
Of course, no discussion of seed types would be complete without the mention of alfalfa and clover. Both are highly desirable plantings for deer, due to the grazing pressure they can withstand, as well as their drawing power.
In the case of alfalfa, one needs a comparatively high pH for it to thrive. Because of that, most areas need significantly more lime per acre than any other planting mentioned thus far in order for it to do well. Lime may be comparatively cheap per ton, but needing 7-9 tons per acre can create serious issues on remote food plots. However, when a tender stalked, grazing alfalfa plot is thriving in the right location; it can be a dynamite early-season producer.
Clover is easier to grow in that the germination rates are typically higher and it can handle a lower pH. There are plenty of different varieties offered by almost every food plot seed company in existence. It is perhaps the most common planting.
That said, as with the other plantings, be certain that the blend you purchase is specifically designed to flourish in your area. Buying a "southern" blend for a northern planting is bound to end in failure. Because their test facilities are in northern Wisconsin, I've found that Antler King's Trophy Clover mix works extremely well in these upper Midwest and northern regions. I've personally had tremendous success with it in my home state of Wisconsin, as well as in Minnesota, Missouri and Illinois.
With the Frigid Forage's test facilities being located in northern Minnesota, I suspect the same can be said of their Pure Trophy Clover Blend. I personally don't have the same amount of experience with that product.
Of course, anyone who looks at advertisements has also seen Whitetail Institute's Imperial Whitetail Clover. Though a southern company, they do package their seed blends for the specific region of the country you will be planting. Also having a lot of experience with this product, I can honestly say that I believe it is the most desirable clover blend for deer I've ever planted, with Antler King's being a close second. The downsides are that it's more expensive and not as drought resistant or winter hardy as Antler King's blend when planted in the northern and upper Midwestern locations I frequent. However, if planted in an area that receives ample rainfall and in soils that maintain steady moisture content, it will flourish.
Of course there's more to a thriving, effective food plot than just the seed type planted. Placing them in areas where deer feel safe is a critical component. Soil tests must always be conducted for the planting you are considering. Applying the proper amount of lime and fertilizer does wonders for the soil and allows the planting to thrive. However, it does little good if the area is either under water or receives no water for most of the growing season.
Just as is the case in matching the strain to the appropriate latitude, one must also match the variety to the soils conditions. Brassicas, winter rye and alfalfa can do comparatively better in sandier soils than clovers.
As with anything, don't be afraid to do some research. Find the plantings that work best in your areas. Then, follow the exact seed bed preparations and planting instructions. If you put it in a good location and the rains favor you, you are well on your way to having a dynamite spot to hunt.