August 01, 2012
With the record-setting heat and drought like conditions plaguing the U.S. this summer, planting fall food plots is going to be important. I talk to a lot of deer hunters across the nation and no matter the location, we're noticing the same patterns. Unless irrigated, most of the crop fields are really struggling. Yields are going to be lower, and insurance claims are already being filed in some areas to cover losses. Many of these "lost" fields will simply be tilled under or chopped at some point this fall, leaving little significant food left for deer. The mast sources of fruits and nuts aren't doing much better either. People are reporting acorns the size of peas already dropping. I've noticed miniature hickory nuts falling in my area.
The intent of spring food plots is to ensure deer have proper nutrition through the summer months leading into the fall hunting season. Most spring plots are planted with nourishment in mind. This year, many well-planned spring food plots look like a wasteland, and haven't seen deer traffic in months. Precious time and resources were wasted planting plots this spring that just never got enough rain to be sustainable, but all hope isn't lost.
Each year, dedicated hunters and land managers also plant fall food plots aimed at attracting deer during the hunting season. Nutritional value is always nice for the deer, but the main focus of a fall plot is to attract deer during the season. It's said that "variety is the spice of life" and deer crave choices when it comes to eating. There are several fall food sources that can still be planted in August for a productive fall hunting plot.
OATS AND WHEAT
I put oats and wheat in almost every fall food plot I create. Deer love their young, tender growth. Plus, they act as a distraction and nurse crop, for other more delicate food plot offerings. Both are hearty, healthy, grow quickly, and are cheap. Oats and wheat will grow almost anywhere. Several seed companies are now selling frost resistant breeds of oats that will grow well into the cold fall. Wheat doesn't have a problem surviving the cold weather. No matter the location, oats and wheat are a must for an attractive fall plot.
One of my most favorite fall offerings are turnips. Turnips are great for several reasons. First, their huge, leafy greens grow big and tall, creating a high yield. All the while, the turnip itself is growing in the soil. Usually the size of a softball, a turnip is a heavy, hearty tuber. Once a few fall frosts hit, the starches in the leaves and turnip turn to sugars, and the deer can't resist. From the point when the first frost hits, until the deer dig the frozen turnips themselves out of the late winter soil, the turnip plots will be a popular location. Another nice feature is that many shed antlers are lost each winter in turnip plots while bucks are digging for the sweet treats.
Although most people plant clover in the spring, it's also a safe, fall food plot choice. Clover is healthy and green, delivering a high amount of protein to the deer. This fall, any existing clover plot is sure to be a popular destination among the local deer herd. Clover isn't always easy to establish, and if planted in the fall, generally won't live up to it's potential until the following season. A perennial food source, clover will keep coming back year after year. In fact, healthy clover plots need to be mowed from time to time as well. Regardless of the challenges clover brings, it's worth a shot planting this fall.
I have developed a mutually beneficial relationship with a few local farmers. I come each spring and clean out any leftover seed that they don't need and were planning on throwing out. I then store it in a nice, dry location for later use. Soybeans are a perfect fall food plot offering. They probably won't reach maturity, but the deer love their young, green shoots and leaves. Plus, who else in the area is offering fresh soybean plants to the deer in October?
We just scratched the surface on what can be planted in the late summer for a fall food plot. There are many other types of crops that can be offered to keep the deer around. Brassicas, Snowpeas, Canola, and Rye are just a few examples of other popular choices. Depending on the location and soil, there will be other local favorites to experiment with. Offer a large variety and learn what the deer prefer. Set up a round wire fence in the middle of each plot that the deer cannot access to monitor browse rates. Some seemingly "unproductive" plots may in fact be the most popular. Appearing to not grow at all, they may be getting mowed down each night.
Late summer is a perfect time to prepare a finely manicured seedbed --- for weeds! Be sure to properly set up the potential food plot. I start by brush hogging or mowing down the areas a few weeks before I plant. After mowing, I then wait about a week or so for everything to "greenup" and leaf out again. Once the mowed plants have leaves again, come through and hit them with RoundUp. It may be necessary to spray twice, just to make sure all the weeds are dead. Then, once all the competition has been killed off, disk and till until the ground is a fine powder, perfect for planting. Depending on the type of soil and seed, it may be necessary to till the seed under a bit, drag it, or cultipack it down nice and firm.
Tony Hansen of Antler Geeks shared with me some interesting insight on fall plot location. "I only plant small, tucked away spots. Generally these small plots are located in or very near a transition area of thick cover. So they hold moisture a little bit better." By planting little, secluded plots here and there, Tony is encouraging the deer to get on their feet and travel. He is also allowing his plots to be successful by locating them in protected areas that will not get baked by the hot sun. Tony also mentioned, "I won't be planting those areas until mid-August --- maybe later if we don't get some rain. My purpose is to have a green, sweet food source in October. The bean fields will be yellowed up early and there aren't likely to be many beans on the plants anyway. The corn won't have many ears. So that's going to make those food plots critical."
HUNTING A FALL PLOT
I prefer to not hunt directly over my food plots, but rather use them as a tool to keep deer around. In my area of Michigan, most mature bucks are pretty weary and don't show up in a plot until well after legal shooting hours. I prefer to hunt the evenings between a producing food plot and a bedding area, where the buck might feel comfortable showing up when I can still shoot. Food plots are also a great high traffic location for a trail camera. In fact, careful monitoring of the plot is an important piece to successful hunting. When deer are actively feeding in a certain plot, get a plan together to kill something before they change their habits. Around the rut, food plots are a decent place to wait for a cruising buck. Bucks like does, and does like food, so logically a rutted up buck may show up in a food plot and offer a shot.
IT'S A GAMBLE
Chances are we will get more rain this summer, but nothing is certain. That being said, it's always better to try to establish a fall plot than to just sit around and complain about the lack of rain. One thing is certain, if these fall plots do become established and do well, they will be a popular food source for the local deer herd. At this point, anything is worth a shot. Get the plots prepared, and watch the weather forecast. Once a few solid days of rain are predicted, get them seeded and keep those fingers crossed.