Plotwise: Tips for Maximizing Your Whitetail Food Plot
June 30, 2014
There are two main frustrations in the world of whitetail food plots, both often due to undiagnosed human error. One is poor plot growth; the other is poor hunting results.
On the surface, there's a clear link between these. If a crop doesn't grow well, of course it can't be expected to attract deer. But often it's more complex. Some plots look good but never produce good hunting results. What separates the best from the rest? As you look ahead to planting time, here are some points to ponder.
Many novice food plotters unknowingly all but dare plants to grow. And then they're quick to blame the seed company for failure when something else entirely was the culprit.
I'll assume you have or soon will be conducting a soil test (simple, cheap and easy) and are going to amend the soil according to the recommendations made for that sample. The amendments almost certainly will include fertilizer (its balance depending on the crop you're planting), and often, agricultural lime to raise the pH level. If you don't take these steps, don't blame anyone else for a weak crop.
The single most vulnerable time for nearly any plant is when it's just starting out. Once forages have become established, a lot of them can handle heat, cold, drought, floods, insects and deer browsing well enough. But many factors can keep a plant from getting a decent start.
Germination — the act of sprouting — is a perilous process. Forage plants tend to produce huge numbers of seeds because, in nature, few survive to turn into reproducing plants themselves. And problems for most forages start long before a deer comes along.
Depending on plant species and variety, some combination of temperature, light and moisture will trigger a seed to germinate. Then conditions must stay favorable long enough for the plant to develop a sufficient root system and begin putting on healthy growth above ground level.
If you've planted a seed mix, rarely will all of the plants in it establish equally well. They won't even germinate at precisely the same time. The diversity of plants in a mix naturally increases the chances of getting some plants to grow, but it also means conditions probably won't be equally good for all of them.
While the right mix of forages offers some insurance against total crop failure, whether or not the plot will grow starts at planting time. Unless you have a planter designed specifically to handle various sizes of seeds in one pass, diverse mixes can be tricky. Regardless of how you achieve it, you need to plant the larger seeds at the right depth, then come back over the top and broadcast the small seeds.
Clover, chicory, alfalfa and the like produce tiny seeds that must be planted shallow. So shallow that in some cases it's almost a stretch to say you "planted" them at all. And that can bring its own concerns.
I once asked Steve Scott of Wildlife Institute of North America to name the No. 1 problem people run into growing clover. It took this industry veteran but a moment to reply. "They plant it too deep," he told me.
Cowpeas and other large-seeded cotyledons are huge in comparison; they not only can germinate well if planted deeper, they do far better if planted deeper. The same goes for cereal grains, such as oats, wheat, rye and triticale. If you aren't going to plant them at the right depth, don't complain about having been sold "bad" seed when your crop fizzles.
If your plot is small and deer numbers are high, often it's a challenge to get enough plants up and going within a short period. One way to minimize this problem is to try to plant when deer are focused on another prime food source in the area, such as a nearby soybean or alfalfa field. An even more reliable way is to set up a portable electric fence. With these moveable, solar-powered systems you can keep virtually all deer off the plot until you're ready for them to start hitting it.
Nearly all forages grow better in tilled soil than untilled. Not that it's impossible to get a decent stand by just throwing seed onto the ground, but it takes the right plant and the right conditions. If you want to try a "no till" plot, first look for someone in your area who's done it successfully, and ask a ton of questions.
That's actually solid advice for any food plotter. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. We already know what whitetails eat, and we know what tends to grow best. Most cultivated deer forages have long histories as livestock forages, and millions of dollars have been put into researching them. The folks who best know how to grow these crops in your area might not even be hunters — they could be dairy or sheep farmers. Don't hesitate to ask anyone what to do or not to do to grow better forage.
Where Are the Bucks?
Hopefully, with smart planning and decent weather you'll get your next food plot growing without a hitch. But as you might have found, a good-looking plot isn't all it takes to have a great hunting spot. Other variables frequently come into play.
Believe it or not, the first question to ask often is, "Do deer really like this plant?" Ideally you'll know they do before planting, but it's easy to get lured into taking chances on new crops. That's not to say you never should experiment with new plants, but keep proven ones at the core of your planting program every year.
Some plots look great simply because nothing is eating them. And I mean nothing. I've seen plots in deer-heavy areas go untouched because the crop just wasn't attractive — at least, not to those deer at that time. And they're the final judges.
But let's assume you know whitetails are using your plot. You see fresh tracks and droppings, and exclusion cages indicate deer are feeding there. (There's way more growth inside the cages than outside them.) Trouble is, you don't see bucks when hunting the plot. What's up?
An obvious way to see if you and the bucks are just on different daytime schedules is with cameras. In particular, I've found time-lapse cameras helpful for confirming the extent and timing of daytime plot use. If you find there isn't much use in daylight, try to figure out why.
In many cases, plot location is at least a partial culprit. The bucks bed too far from the plot to get there before dark. They consistently reach it after the end of shooting light and are gone again before dawn. This could be due to the draw of some other food source, such as fresh acorns in the woods, but it also could mean your plot is so far from good cover that the bucks feel exposed.
I'm reluctant to tramp around in nearby staging areas just to check for sign during open season, but a bit of cautious intrusion might be necessary. If there are fresh rubs on trails and scrapes under some branches overhanging plot edges, it might be time to set up a 24/7 trail camera. Again, I'd be cautious about going far at all into the cover. Even if the bucks are bedding far from the plot, there's a good chance at least some does and fawns are staying close to the food supply. You don't want to spook them, either.
Sometimes hunters just lack self-control. After putting time, effort and money into developing a plot, who doesn't want to maximize the return on that investment? So there's at least one stand on each plot . . . and it gets hunted long and hard.
Individuals with limited plots can overhunt them without even realizing it. So can hunting clubs. Even if a club controls a lot of acres, there are a bunch of members, and one will be sitting over the "best" plot every time there's a hunter on the place. By the time members start to wonder if they're overhunting the plot, local deer have long since confirmed it.
Having spent the past decade as part of the North American Whitetail TV team, I know where some of the interest in plot hunting comes from. Viewers see TV hunters sitting on plots and shooting nice bucks. Sometimes it looks so easy. Why shouldn't everyone else do it that way?
Fact is, we're in a different situation from most of you. For one thing, you must be more sensitive to the dangers of overhunting a plot. Unlike us, you'll likely hunt the same land all season, and perhaps for years to come. You can't necessarily afford to be that aggressive.
Our hunter and cameraman have just a few days to get footage and take a buck. In this scenario, hunting plots can pay off. We require some footage of a deer before it's shot, and that's harder to get in the woods. (It's especially hard before leaf fall.) And our HD cameras need a ton of light. Even in an open area we can't start taping when legal shooting light begins, and we must quit before it ends.
You can choose from a wider range of dates and conditions before hunting a given stand. You don't need video before you shoot, so you need not worry about pre-roll or camera light. You can just wait for the right time, ease back onto that rub or scrape line and whack that buck before he ever even gets to the planting.
The more limited your land and setups, the more cautious you must be. Period. Especially in early season, when warm weather and a lack of rut activity make deer somewhat nocturnal even without pressure. Don't add to the difficulty by pounding what later would have been a killer spot.
Sometimes a plot fails because nature throws us a curveball nobody could hit. But more often, bad choices limit the return on our investment. As we move toward another planting and hunting season, resolve not to let controllable factors beat you out of a productive fall.
For Your Information
Several universities and public agencies have published online materials on food plot development and maintenance. A quick search should turn up one for your region.