The most asked question people have regarding food plots is, "What should I plant?" Most folks don’t give enough information to answer it properly without a few follow-ups, but an easy way to view it is – "Should I plant for nutrition and antler growth, or strive to attract and hold?"
That question really needs to be answered based upon the management goals of the property owner. Do you want to enhance the health of your whitetail herd and grow big antlers? Or do you want to simply attract deer during the hunting season? Because how you go about implementing a plan and the plants you choose to plant would vary depending on the goal.
What you should select to plant may also depend upon your existing conditions, the location of your property and how much available acreage you have to plant. For instance, have you been experiencing a drought? Geographically, what you plant in Minnesota will often be different from the food plot menu in Texas. In addition to those details, small acreage situations cannot support a multitude of goals. With small acreage, you have to be more specific.
Maybe you see several mature bucks during the summer months, but they all seem to disappear when the season rolls around. If that’s the case, my main goal would be for attraction during the hunting season. Maybe last season, you harvested a 120-inch 5x5 and had it aged only to find out it was a 4-year-old. Some of that could be due to genetics, but, in this case, my main goal would be geared towards antler growth and nutrition.
Property location and how much acreage you’re devoting to food plots must also be considered. In agricultural areas where there is a lot of cash-crop farming of things like corn, soybeans or alfalfa, it may be wise to concentrate on attraction if farming is already supplying a good portion of their diet. Likewise, if you only have a couple acres or less to devote to planting, let’s face it - most managers want to use it for attraction during the hunting season.
What you plant in each plot should vary for each end goal. More than likely, the size, location and design of your plots would also be different for attraction as opposed to nutrition. Typically, the larger plots further away from the bedding areas are designated as "feeding plots," where the smaller plots closer to the bedding areas are used for "hunting plots." It’s simply commonsense at work here – your chances for a shot during legal hunting hours are better at a smaller plot closer to their bedding area. Since your chances of killing a deer further away from the bedding area are less, that acreage is usually designated for feeding as many mouths as possible.
You also have to consider what part of the country you are in. For instance, for a nutrition plot in the North, it’s hard to beat a perennial clover plot. But in the South, some areas have a tough time getting perennials to come back because of the dry, hot summertime conditions; so they have to rely on annuals like lablab or deep-rooted perennials like alfalfa or chicory.
It is possible to do both: supply nutrition to help with overall health and antler growth, and have attraction in other areas to help with your harvest goals, viewing opportunities and holding them in the area. In fact, with every property I oversee, I will try to "do it all." Granted, I have enough acreage to play with so I’m not "handcuffed" by limited acreage, but I feel a versatile, all-around approach will show the biggest pay-out.
If your goal is attraction, you want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for your herd for the entire time frame that you wish to draw them. Actually, I would suggest you provide good choices that will start attracting before you want to hunt the location so the animals are conditioned to showing up to the areas.
If your goal is nutrition, in that case, you want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for them ALL YEAR LONG. Here again, available acreage must be considered. Do you have enough ground to provide food year-round with your density? If you don’t, it doesn’t mean you can’t strive towards antler growth and nutrition, it just means you have to make the best out of what you have and plant wisely.
For antler growth, so many managers feel it is the most important to have the best food source available for the early stages of antler genesis during spring and summer. Although this is an important time for a buck to really show you what he is capable of producing, good nutrition must be made available all year long. For instance, if during the fall or winter their diet is lacking, when ample nutritious forage does become available during the spring and summer months, they end up playing "catch-up" rather than reaping the rewards.
Most whitetail biologists agree that for a buck to really show their maximum set of antlers they will need a consistent food source of at least 16 percent protein. In fact, I would argue that here in the North, if you want to see a noticeable difference in antler growth, late fall and wintertime is the most important time to concentrate on.
Certain plants such as brassicas, clover, various beans and peas do a good job at both attraction and nutrition. Timing and placement would dictate how the cultivars will be used.
Good examples of the types of plants typically found in a nutrition plot are red and white clovers, chicory, alfalfa, lablab, soybeans and cowpeas.
Good cool-season choices are brassicas like rape, radishes, kale and turnips, which give both good energy and protein. Corn, sorghum and milo are not good protein sources, but they will provide needed carbohydrates (energy) and fat. Whitetails are good at breaking down proteins and turning them into energy, so many of the same warm-season choices will remain beneficial most of the year.
Many of the same plants will work well for attraction. Timing is everything when it comes to attraction. Certain annual plants like cereal grains and annual legumes are the most palatable during certain stages of growth. So you want to time the planting to reach its peak of attraction when you want to hunt over it. Good early season choices are perennials such as clovers, alfalfa and chicory switching slowly over to midseason attraction basics such as oats, wheat, triticale, rye and certain brassicas. Throughout the season, you’ll see a switch over to later season magnets such as brassicas, corn and any remaining dried soybeans.
Regardless of your goal, variety is a definite key. During the year, the climate is changing, plants are changing and a whitetail’s needs are changing. You want to make sure you have a food to supply them what they need regardless of the conditions or time of year. You can put equal emphasis on both attraction and nutrition. A good management program probably will stress the importance of both good nutrition to help grow big, healthy whitetails and attraction to help with animal sightings and your harvest goals.
Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations for Mossy Oak BioLogic, Editor-in-Chief of Gamekeepers, Farming for Wildlife magazine and a habitat consultant.