After growing precipitously throughout the last decade, "planting food plots for whitetails" continues to become more and more popular. Many people question "what to plant" – not only wondering which type of plants, but also which brand. This can be an expensive venture if you don’t take the time to become educated and do things right. Let me save you some time and money.
Most low-end, low-cost food plot seeds also deliver lower performance. Most people only look at the price tag on the shelf at the store and they think no further. They don’t consider that with a premium seed you are probably getting a better germination rate, superior attraction, improved yield, enhanced palatability and, in the case of perennials, a longer life. It just amazes me people think they’re saving money by purchasing cheap seed. If you look at the cost of the seed, the fuel in your ATV or tractor costs more, the herbicide you use costs more and the fertilizer or lime costs much more.
You actually do not save money by purchasing cheap seed. There are reasons why it is cheap! Probably the biggest reason is because it doesn’t have one or more of the desirable characteristics for the end result it’s being sold for. So you plant cheap clover in plot A and clover costing a bit more, but is the right stuff for the job, in plot B and you think you’ve saved money in plot A. The problem being, most people only think up until that point. They don’t realize you’ve just lost money in plot A because the clover in plot B is going to produce tons more forage, is more attractive to your herd, is more nutritious and is better for them. The seed in plot B has probably also been treated with coating to help it perform better from germination throughout the growing process. It will also last longer (obviously we’re talking about perennials). I’m sorry, but it just seems so clearly black-and-white to me that I find it absurd when someone thinks they’re saving money in this way. You are better off planting less acreage and doing it right than doing twice the acreage with cheap seed.
Most agricultural-grade seeds like rye, alfalfa or most of our U.S. grown clovers are genetically bred primarily for consumption by livestock or for baling. That’s why our clovers will grow tall, because a bovine has a short neck so it reaches up to the cow’s mouth. Because it grows taller it’s also easier to bale. But putting all of its energy into producing a big stalk is the last thing I want my clover to do. I want it to put its energy into leaf production. When comparing large-leaved variety to large-leaved variety, small-leaved to small-leaved, etc., you will typically find the New Zealand clovers will produce a better yield and more leaf matter when compared to U.S. clovers. That’s what I want for my whitetails.
I would suggest you choose a blend consisting of forage-grade cultivars bred specifically for consumption by deer. The best plants to choose for this job are ones developed after many years of research looking for the best performance characteristics, and therefore can execute much better than generic seeds costing less and are actually meant for something else. It really doesn’t matter how inexpensive the seeds are if the plot doesn’t grow well, doesn’t attract the deer or isn’t palatable to them.
It is generally best to plant a blend of several types of seeds. Plots consisting of just one type of seed (mono plots) are at much higher risk for failure. They typically do not perform as well in a wide variety of soil types, are more susceptible to heat and drought, and are usually more prone to have disease and pest problems. If a mono plot experiences just one of these problems, it affects the entire plot because there’s only one type of plant in the field. You’re essentially "putting all your eggs in one basket." There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but, when it comes to perennials, brassicas or beets or cereal grains, I will always use a "blend." Even using corn and annual legumes like soybeans, lablab or iron & clay peas, I will usually use a blend of different varieties with different characteristics.
Food plots consisting of several types of seeds have a much lower risk of plot failure. Each type of plant in the blend has a different tolerance level for soil types, heat-resistance, drought-resistance, and disease and pest problems, not to mention poor farming practices. Multiple seed-type plots manage these risks better, resulting in a better performing food plot.
A little-known fact is, in New Zealand, they are about 20 years ahead of us when it comes to deer nutrition. The reason for this is "the almighty dollar."
Two of the top exports in New Zealand are antler and venison! They are so far ahead of us you can actually go to college in New Zealand and get a specific degree in "deer forage production." They have huge deer ranches where they raise red deer, elk and whitetails, and these deer ranchers want forages putting on BIG body weights and grow BIG "bone" as fast as possible.
When I started planting food plots over 30 years ago, most of the plants I used were meant for livestock or human consumption. Sure a whitetail will eat some of them, but it’s not the ultimate whitetail food. Whitetails have different enzymes and bacteria in their stomach and they break things down differently than bovines or humans. When you feed a whitetail, you’re not actually feeding their gut – you’re feeding the bacteria in their gut.
It depends on your management goals as to what would be the best things to plant. Do you want to attract deer, grow bigger antlers and healthier deer, hold them on your property year around, help recoup from rut-related stress or maybe help them through harsh winters? Specifically "when" you want the attraction or nutrition would also make a difference. Think about your management goals and plant crops to help you to attain those goals.
No matter what you plant, I suggest to never "putting all of your eggs in one basket." I want different plants maturing at different rates that will leave something palatable for them throughout the year. Planting both annuals and perennials is important. If you’re just planting annuals, by the time they become palatable to whitetails you’re missing out on the two most important antler-growing and fawn-nurturing months of the year.
Planting food plots is definitely one part of the hunt I truly enjoy. I call it "part of the hunt" because ultimately I use the plots to grow bigger, healthier deer and to attract and hold them during the hunting season. If you choose what to plant carefully, you can actually grow your own big bucks and make hunting them much easier.
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.