A few years back Dr. James Kroll and I came up with what we thought was an obviously bogus, spoof advertisement for a new food plot seed and a way to use them with some food plot resources. "Superzotz," our ad proclaimed. "Guaranteed to grow anywhere, anytime." Then we worked in a bunch of buzzwords you might have seen in other advertisements like "proven," "attracts like no other," "grows and holds bigger bucks," "university tested," "ultimate," "new" and "high-protein."
With our sarcasm meter set on high, we sent the ad to a number of people expecting some humorous replies. Surprisingly to us, we got quite a few serious inquiries on where this new seed could be found!
I guess it is just human nature to want the "newest" of everything. If it's newer, then it must be better, right? In reality, I guess it should not have surprised me as much as it did. In classes at Stephen F. Austin State University every year, we tell our students the best combinations of plants to use and why. Then, at the end of the lecture, we tell them no matter what they just heard, most of them are going to go out and reinvent the wheel by trying to find something better than what they were taught a few moments ago. Every one of them believes they alone are going to find the Holy Grail of wildlife food plots.
Now don't get me wrong: I certainly have nothing against experimentation. After all, we certainly do enough of it ourselves. Still, it seems with the continually growing popularity of nutritional improvement in deer management programs that a new miracle plant appears on the scene just about every year. Some of these might pan out to be winners, but most have failed to perform to our expectations when tested against proven varieties.
That's why even with our experimentation with new varieties and techniques we never bet the farm on a new "wonder plant" just because it is new. The mainstay of our food plot program remains limited to a handful of varieties that have proven to be steady producers in the long haul. Even when you consider the diversity of soils and climate throughout the range of whitetails in the United States, the number of tried and true varieties remains very small.
One of the first things to consider when deciding on what to plant is whether deer like it. Cereal grains should be a large part of just about every cool-season food plot. Of the most popular grains, oats are most preferred by deer hands down. Other popular cereal grains like wheat, rye and triticale will come in second on a preference scale.
While not a cereal grain, ryegrass is still planted too often in deer food plots. Ryegrass is very low on the preference scale and will not be eaten to any extent if the deer have other choices. Probably the biggest reason ryegrass continues to be used is it is very cheap and grows so easily in a wide range of conditions. However, if your criterion includes deer preference, ryegrass falls well short of making the list.
As I stated above, oats should be the No. 1 cereal grain in your deer food plots. However, most oats are not very tolerant of cold weather. Therefore, for many years, people recommended planting one or more of the other cereal grains along with oats to make sure something stayed green and growing if cold conditions persisted to the point of freezing out the oats. There is one cold hardy oat variety (Buck Forage Oats) available now that has set records for being able to withstand freezing temperatures. The ability of this oat to withstand cold can reduce or even eliminate the need for other cereal grains in the food plot mix in most conditions.
There are some conditions where the other cereal grains may still be of great benefit. If your planting sites are extremely dry, then varieties like Elbon rye and triticale may grow best. If your planting sites are extremely wet, then winter wheat may be a better choice. Winter wheat will typically give you about 25 percent less forage than oats given good conditions. However, as they say, wheat can stand to have its feet wet a little better than oats. Keep in mind, I am talking about moist soil only. If your food plots go under water and stay there more than a couple of days, you're planting in the wrong places and these plants will not survive.
We also recommend you plant a mixture of seed varieties in your food plots because different plants will grow and mature at different times. This way you can maximize the availability of highly nutritious new growth in your plots at all times. If there is a magic bean in deer food plots, its name would have to be legumes. Legumes are plants like peas, soybeans, alfalfas, peanuts and clovers. When you're planting oats you should also include some type of clover. A number of seed companies, including the likes of Pennington, Whitetail Institute of North America and Antler King provide balanced fall food plot blends containing cereal grains and legumes.
The two broad categories of clovers are known as white clover and red clover, basically depending upon the color of the flowers. White clovers in general do best in heavier clay type soils that stay a little wetter. Red clovers are usually better in upland soils. Red clovers typically do not produce as much forage as white clovers, but often will persist longer into the growing season making your food plots last that much longer. To avoid having to make a single choice, try them both and see which provides the best growth for you in your area and then stick with it.
While most pea type plants grow only during the warm season, there are a couple of cool season types that can be beneficial. Austrian winter peas have been successful in the South, and we have used Arvika peas in northern regions. Both of these varieties will produce highly palatable and high-protein forage, but they remain more of a bonus plant for me. Clovers are the mainstay legume for cool-season plots.
One final plant that should be included along with your cereal grains and clovers is forage chicory. Chicory is a perennial (meaning it can live more than one year) that can develop a deep taproot. This deep taproot makes it very drought tolerant. We have also had it survive over winter in Michigan as long as there was enough snow cover to insulate the topsoil from bitter freezes.
So there are the winners that should produce effectively for you year in and year out.
The second thing to consider is whether your desired plot type will grow in your area when you need it. That means your food plot strategy is going to be a little different depending upon where you are in the country. If you live in the South, what you plant and when you plant it might differ substantially from what you'd find in the North.
In the South, the combination of plants I mentioned is planted so that they grow during winter. Typical planting dates should be late September. Far too
many people insist upon planting Labor Day weekend, as this coincides with the opening of dove season. That gives them an additional reason to be at the deer lease and, perhaps most of all, that's just the way they have always done it. Unfortunately, all too often these early planted plots fall victim to heat and drought or an onslaught of grasshoppers or army worms. Watching your tender young plants shrivel in the sun or be consumed by a bunch of hungry insects can be an expensive lesson to learn.
In the South, all of these plants will grow throughout hunting season, but periods of highest growth will vary by species. For example, the cereal grains start fast and are the most preferred during hunting season, but they will be the first to mature and go out of production in the spring. Clovers are highly productive in late winter through spring and will provide the bulk of the forage after hunting season. Red clovers may persist even through most of the
summer if we get near average rainfall, although forage production won't be particularly high when temperatures start getting hot. Chicory can continue to grow throughout the summer. This combination of plants gives us both a cool-season and a warm-season crop while only having to plant one time a year.
However, to bolster the forage production in summer we often top seed cowpeas or soybeans into the plots after the cereal grains have ceased production. This can be accomplished by very light disking or using a low-till drill. Both methods make planting fast with very little soil disturbance to promote unwanted weed growth.
When you move to the northern part of the country, you have to flip the planting schedule. What would be considered a cool-season crop in the South is a warm-season crop in the North. The above combination of plants can be planted in the North in the summer so they mature in the fall. While winter temperatures will likely kill many if not all of the plants, the idea is to get as much growth as possible out of all of them before it get really cold.
The ideal situation would be to get a good cover of snow over the plots to insulate the plants from freezing. While the plants will not continue to grow, they will stay green for a long time under the snow. Deer will readily paw through the snow to get to the nutritious forage underneath. In worst-case scenarios, you can drag something over your plots to remove excess snow and make access to the plants easier.
Creating reliable food plots is not particularly hard and the plant combinations I discussed are a good strategy for the majority of places that don't have a lot of equipment or farming expertise. However, that does not mean you should not try new products. Just don't forego a proven strategy and plant your entire budget on an unproven food plot variety until you have a good idea of how it is going to perform.
It is best to pick small areas scattered throughout all of your food plots and plant your experimental plants in them to see how well they are going to fit into your program. The way we test new varieties is simply with a series of 10- by 20-foot plots adjacent to each other. Each plot has a different seed. Each plot has equal access by deer. That way, you let the deer help you decide which varieties they prefer if your plantings succeed.
A lot of people still resist doing this, but the best way to determine how well your plantings grow and how much the animals use them is to place a small grazing exclosure made out of net wire in the middle of each of your test plots. Again, these do not have to be complicated. We use a piece of net wire 4 feet tall and long enough that when you roll it into a cylinder it is about 3 feet in diameter. This circular cage is staked with one or more t-posts to keep the animals from pushing them over.
What grows inside the cage where there is no grazing is the potential production of that plant variety. The difference between growth inside the cage and outside where deer have been grazing is an estimate of how much the plants were used. If growth inside the cage is low that plant does not do well in your area and should be discarded from further consideration.
If growth inside the cage is high and growth outside the cage is high the deer do not like it and it should be discarded from further consideration. If the growth inside the cage is high and growth outside the cage is low, then you have a plant that grows well and the deer will readily eat. This may be a variety that you will want to work into your food plot strategy in the future.
Remember, your effort and expense in planting food plots is to provide the highest quality and most reliable nutrition to your animals so they can reach their growth potential. This is not the time or place to take chances. Plant a reliable combination of plants that you know is going to do well and provide for your animals. With that system in place, you can then try small experiments on your own to tweak your system to be the best that you can possibly produce on your ground.