By far, the most asked question I get from both the BioLogic and the Farming for Wildlife websites is, "what should I plant?" Many people have a round about way of asking it and rarely am I given enough information on the first inquiry to answer the question properly. I need to know the management goals of the property owner and other pertinent information. Do you want to enhance the health of your whitetail herd and grow big antlers? Or, maybe you want to simply attract deer during the hunting season. However, how you go about implementing a plan and the products you choose to plant would vary depending on the goal.
Everyone wants to grow a Boone & Crocket buck and harvest one every season. I’m not saying that can’t be done, but your first mistake is not setting realistic goals. Maybe you see numerous big bucks during the summer months but they all seem to disappear when hunting season rolls around. If that’s the case, then my main goal would be for attraction during the hunting season.
Maybe last season you harvested a 120-inch 5x5 and brought the jawbone to the DNR to get it aged and you found out it was 4½-years-old. Some of it could be due to genetics, but if that were the case, then my main goal would be geared towards antler growth and nutrition.
What you plant to achieve each separate goal would vary. More than likely the size, location and design of the plots would also be different for attraction as opposed to nutrition.
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 or viewing opportunities. In fact, I believe a well-rounded program will devote acreage to both attraction and nutrition. Regardless of the goal, because of their needs changing so often during the season, variety is very important.
In my "hunting plots," my goal is to draw them in so I can kill them or to use it as a magnet so that I can intercept them on the way to the plot. In these plots, I try and have an attractive, palatable food choice for them all through the season. I will probably divide a specific hunting plot up into sections, how many depends upon how large the plot is. The idea is to select a variety that will keep the deer coming to the spot from the opening of bow season to long into the winter or until the food runs out.
One thing to note is you must have adequate acreage to do this variety tactic justice. For instance, if you only have a small area to plant, let’s say half an acre or less, you are probably better off planting just one blend. Otherwise, when a certain cultivar becomes palatable there’s not going to be enough of any one plant to keep them coming back - they’ll wipe you out too soon. In smaller plots timing is important. You want to time your hunting to coincide with when the plants chosen will be the most attractive. Or, choose plants that will be the most attractive when you want to hunt the site.
If your goal is attraction you want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for your herd for the entire time frame you want to draw them. Actually, I would suggest you provide good choices that will start attracting before you want to hunt the location so you get the animals used to coming 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. For antler growth, so many managers feel it is most important to have the best food source available for the early stages of antler genesis. 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, then when ample nutritious forage is available during the spring and summer months, they’re playing catch up rather then reaping the reward. For a buck to really show you the maximum set of antlers they are capable of growing they will need a consistent diet of at least 16 percent protein.
Certain plants do a good job at both attraction and nutrition. Brassicas, clover, various beans and peas all do a good job at both attraction and nutrition. Timing and placement would dictate how the cultivars will be used. Even though I might be talking about specific plants, I would not suggest planting single plant plots. There are exceptions, like lablab, corn or sorghum, but blends of multiple varieties or species of plants will always outperform "mono-plots."
Good examples of the types of plants you would find in a typical nutrition plot here in the South are red and white clovers, chicory, alfalfa, lablab, soybeans and cowpeas would make good warm-season choices. Good cool-season choices are brassicas like rape, 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 as well. Timing is everything when it comes to attraction. Certain annual plants like cereal grains and annual clovers are the most palatable in certain stages of growth. So you want to time the planting to reach its peak of attraction when you want to hunt. Good early season choices are clovers, alfalfa, chicory, soybeans, oats, wheat, triticale, rye and winter peas. Throughout the season you’ll see a switch over to later season draws like brassicas, corn, sorghum and the dried soybeans that are left.
We get many questions on whether or not brassicas are a good choice here in the South. They are, BUT you need to understand a few details. Deer react differently to brassicas in different areas. Usually they won’t eat them heavily until after you get cold, freezing temperatures which help the starches convert to sugar. In the South, obviously this happens later in the year - in many cases after the hunting season.
They also react differently to this plant in various types of habitat. In a "big woods" scenario, where there is no agriculture around, they might eat it as fast as it comes out of the ground. If you are in an area with no cash-crop farming or in areas of big timber, they will likely eat the brassicas well. In fact, in many areas they won’t let the brassicas make it to the cold temperatures; they eat them as fast as they can grow.
In an agricultural area, typically they will leave this plant alone until the freeze. As a whitetail manager this is good because it allows me to gain tonnage. With bigger plants I can feed more deer for a longer time.
If you live in the South, I suggest trying brassicas before you dedicate vast acreage to the plant. And understand the deer probably won’t eat them until cold temperatures turn the plants palatable. Brassicas are a great late-season attraction and probably the best wintertime food source available to your herd.
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. 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, Territory Manager & Habitat Consultant for BioLogic.