Whether you hunt for food, for the challenge, or a little of both, a field of clover, oats, or chicory grown specifically for deer can help you put more venison in the freezer. Food plots attract deer to a specific location, and they help keep them on your acreage. They can tip the odds in your favor, especially helpful if you only have a small piece of property or if hunting pressure is heavy around your land.
Be warned, though: Planting food plots can be just as addictive as hunting them. They can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time, and there’s no guarantee your hunting success will improve. You still have to hunt.
So are they worth it? The answer becomes obvious when you watch deer filter out of the surrounding woods and browse on a plot you built. Just seeing a lush field of clover where nothing but weeds grew before is rewarding enough for some. Going from a field of grass and weeds to a plot filled with whitetails requires a number of critical steps.
First, choose the right location. Nothing matters more than adequate sunlight. No matter what you plant, it will need at least four hours of direct sun. This is a primary reason food plots built in deep woods fail. The overhead canopy blocks too much light.
A good rule of thumb is to place plots on the north or east side of a field, or in a location that gets full, direct sun throughout much of the day. Some plants like clover will get by with a little less sun, but the more it gets, the better it will grow.
If you have the option, choose a location that has the best soil. A good indication of soil quality is the plants that are already growing. If they are healthy, vibrant, and lush, you’ve likely got a good spot. Of course, you can grow just about any plant in any type of soil, if it is properly amended, so don’t fret if your best location isn’t filled with a jungle of native plants.
Consider how you’ll hunt when you select a site. Is there a suitable tree for a stand close enough for a shot? Where do you expect the deer to come from? Plots near known bedding areas can provide the best hunting opportunities, so that deer won’t have to travel far to access food.
If you have the space, consider planting several plots so you can rotate your hunting pressure or change locations based on the wind and other conditions. Hunt a spot too much, and the deer will stop using it during daylight hours.
Prep your plots
Once you’ve found the ideal location, clear the existing plants by any number of means. Mow the area as close to the ground as possible or allow livestock to thoroughly graze the site to reduce existing vegetation. Pigs could work well for this application. Then, if you choose to do so, apply a non-selective organic or non-organic herbicide of your choice, and lightly disk the plot site to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. You don’t need to disk too heavily or deep.
How big should a plot be? That depends on a number of factors. A general rule is that a plot should be at least a quarter-acre. If you have a high deer population, you’ll want a larger plot so it will last longer into the season.
How you hunt will also dictate the size of your plot. Bow hunters should consider smaller plots so they can shoot across them. Some deer hunters build kidney-shaped plots to funnel deer into a narrow location for an easier shot.
Choosing the right location is important, but choosing the right plants for that spot is equally important. The good news is that there are a dozen or more common and widely available food plot seeds. All of them will attract whitetails. Some plants do better in some places than others, though. Clover, for example, has relatively shallow roots and thrives in heavy soil that holds moisture. River bottoms and other low-ground areas are great places for a clover plot.
Loose, sandy, or otherwise well-drained soils require plants with deep roots that reach moisture well below the surface. Alfalfa and various members of the Brassica family (rape and turnips) tend to do better than clover and will grow well in drier soil.
What you plant also depends on when you hunt. Clover peaks in September and October and again in March, April, and May (depending on location), and turns dormant in the winter and summer. Oats are most attractive in the early fall, as well, and wheat and alfalfa can draw whitetails all season. Members of the Brassica family typically won’t get eaten until after a freeze or hard frost. The cold alters the starches in the plants, making them more attractive to deer and a great choice for late-season hunting. Whatever you choose, it’s a good idea to use plants designed specifically for food plots. Deer will eat cover crop-type plants like oats and annual clover and rye, but those engineered for animal forage, deer in particular, tend to be more palatable.
Blends are better
All annuals and perennials will attract deer at some time, but they don’t always offer a viable food source throughout the hunting season. Some go dormant after a cold snap and others won’t attract deer until later in the season. That’s why a blend of plants can work best. A mix of clover and wheat or oats, for example, gives deer more choices in a single spot. Even better, clover adds nitrogen to the soil and cereal grains use that nitrogen, creating a self-fertilizing cycle that can save you money. Throw in some brassica seed and you’ve got a great place to hunt from September well into winter.
You can make your own blends or buy products like Whitetail Institute’s Pure Attraction, which includes seeds that provide an early season food choice and some that deer prefer later in the season. Try different blends in different plots and see which ones grow best and which ones attract the most deer.
Getting soil right
No matter what you choose, make sure the soil is amended properly for the specific plants you want to grow. A food plot is no different than the home garden. Without adequate nutrients and a proper pH level, the plants will produce marginal results and in the most extreme cases, deer will rarely eat them. They know when a plant is high in nutrition and when it’s not.
Do-it-yourself soil test kits are available at many garden and big-box home stores, but they can be unreliable. Instead, get a professional test kit from your local agricultural extension office or buy one from an online source. Soil tests that are conducted at a laboratory with specialized equipment are far more accurate and typically include fertilizer and lime recommendations for the exact plants you specify. Follow them.
Test your soil well in advance of planting, though. It can take several months for the lime to fully alter the soil’s pH, a critical ingredient in any successful food plot.
Control the weeds
Soil that’s good for food plot plants will also be good for a variety of weeds. They are an inevitable part of any food plot. Stay after them. Grasses and broadleaf weeds use nutrients, water, space, and sunlight that would otherwise go to the good plants.
The two main weapons for keeping control of weed intruders are by occasional mowing or by herbicide application. Do your research and determine the best method for your situation and personal priorities. Beware; it’s a rabbit hole of information, albeit a fun one to go down.
The good news is that annual plot plants that are planted in the fall need little maintenance. You’ll get some weeds, grasses mostly, but other weeds that sprout in September and October will either die from a hard frost or go dormant for the winter.
Planting and maintaining a food plot may seem like a lot of work, but when you pull a package of deer steak or burger from your freezer, you’ll remember why you went through all that trouble. Even if you don’t hunt, taking regular horseback rides to the back 40 looking for deer is a fulfilling way to spend an evening or morning in the country. Giving your deer herd a source of high-quality food gives you a great place to find deer. If everything goes right and you choose to do so, it also gives you a source of high-quality food.
Annuals or Perennials?
Perennials like white clover, chicory, and alfalfa seem like great choices because they don’t require an entirely new planting process each year. Depending on the soil, rainfall, and average temperature, a field of white clover can last three or more years.
Perennials come with a unique set of issues, though. First, they require routine maintenance. Weeds are a constant issue and can overwhelm perennial food plots if left unchecked. Perennial plants can also take a year or so to fully mature. That means a ladino clover plot planted this fall likely may not provide a hunting opportunity until next fall.
Annual plants, which include wheat, oats, annual clovers, and various members of the Brassica family germinate quickly, grow fast, and provide a near-immediate hunting opportunity.
David Hart lives near Farmville, Virginia, with his wife, Navona. He is the father of two boys, Kyle and Matt. When he isn’t working to improve the wildlife habitat on his land, he can be found hunting or fishing in his home state of Virginia.