Food Plot Construction: Forage Selection

So you have made management goals for your hunting property and chosen the perfect location for a new food plot, now it is time to select what type of forage to plant.  This is where the process gets a little more complicated.  No worries though. We are going to go through all the options step by step to help you have the most successful food plot possible
 First, take a look at your soil test results (you did do a soil test right?).  The information contained in the soil test results is invaluable.  Look at the soil PH.  On a new plot, you will not have had enough time for lime to build up in the soil, so if the PH is lower than ideal for the forage you want to plant, you will want to plant a variety that will perform well in the conditions you have currently, and then use lime to raise the PH to the level you want in order to plant a different forage in subsequent years.  PH is by no means the only factor to consider though.  For example, one of my soil testes this year said that my PH was 6.9, which is near perfect for clover. However, clover would not be a good variety for this area, because the soil is very sandy and does not hold moisture very well.  Clover needs a much heavier soil to thrive.  A soil test will tell you what type of soil you have via the organic matter levels.  The higher the organic matter level, the heavier the soil.  Generally anything below 4-5% is a well drained soil.  A 7 or 8 is a high level.  An easy way to get a good idea without a soil test is the color of the soil.  The more black the soil appears, the more organic material it has in it, and generally the heavier the soil is. 

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The right forage selection can definately mean the difference between a successful food plot and one that fails to produce the results you’re after. 

A perfect PH is 7.0, and if you are lucky enough to have something close to that, then you can plant pretty much whatever you want provided you pay attention to soil type.  When I have a soil of 6.5 or higher that is heavy (high organic matter) I plant clovers.  With the same PH in a moderately well drained (loamy)soil I often add in alfalfa with the clover.  This is because alfalfa has an enormous root system.  The taproots go very deep and the feeler roots spread out and cover a lot of area.  Alfalfa has the ability to store quite a bit of water in its root system, allowing it to survive in less than perfect soil conditions.  This helps the clover as well.  The clover roots will actually attach to the alfalfa’s root system when the weather is dry and draw water from the alfalfa.  If I have a good PH (6.5+) but the soil is very well drained (sandy), then I favor either brassicas like turnips, beets, forage rape, or radishes or a legume such as soybeans or peas. 
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Proper fertilizing is crucial to a new food plot.

Any lower than a 6.0 and I start leaning towards annuals until I can raise the PH to where I want it.  There are some great annual clovers, chicories, hairy vetch, and some brassicas that can do well in lower PH soils.  The key is to follow the fertilizer recommendations on the soil test.  Most will provide the perfect fertilizer ratio for your plot based on soil and what crop you intend to plant.  Fertilizer is expensive, but doing it right will pay off in the long run. A local co-op should be able to custom mix fertilizer right off of your soil test. Each forage variety also has strengths and weaknesses.  I much prefer blends as opposed to one single variety in a plot, for several reasons.  First, it gives the deer more options, and thus more reasons to visit my plot. Second, if one forage doesn’t do very well, then there are other varieties to help the plot remain attractive instead of losing the whole plot.  Lets take a moment to identify the most widely used food plot forages.

Legumes
Clover is probably the most popular food plot forage, and for good reason.  Clover is naturally sweeter than grasses, making it very attractive to deer.  The large leaves also provide a higher tonnage of plant matter per plant than most natural browse.  Clovers are also high in protein, with some varieties reaching up to 44%, which is beneficial to the entire deer herd.   Many clovers are also perennials, meaning they do not have to be replanted every year.  Clover does require maintenance though; mowing to prevent it from getting to tall and fertilizing each spring and fall.  Clovers are attractive year round, but peak usage will be summer and early fall.  Closely related to clovers are alfalfas.  They have many large leaves that deer love, especially during hot weather when many other plants lose their moisture.  It can provide up to 30% crude protein. It must also be mowed and fertilized like clover, but will come back for many years.  Other legumes popular in food plots are soybeans and peas.  I’m a big fan of standing soybeans for a late season plot.  They will get hit hard during late summer when the leaves are green, and then left alone until it gets cold and the bean pods dry down.  The deer crave the carbs provided by the beans in col weather.  When snow is on the ground, it is also easier for deer to pick the beans off the pods than dig through the snow looking for food.  With most legumes, I prefer forage varieties rather than AG varieties.  Agricultural clovers and alfalfas have thicker stems, fewer leaves, and grow taller, while forage varieties have bigger leaves and less stem, and don’t grow as tall, which is more desirable to deer.  Legumes are an important part of a food plot plan.

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Heartland Wildlife has a wide variety of both annual and perennial forage blends to meet all of your food plot needs.

Brassicas

Brassicas get my vote for the most bang for your buck on a food plot.  They are inexpensive, easy to plant, provide tons of forage, and deer love them.   Brassica is a genus of plants in the mustard family. The members of the genus are collectively known as cruciferous vegetables. Crops from this genus are sometimes called cole crops, which is derived from the Latin caulis, meaning stem or cabbage. Plants such as Turnips, beets, carrots, and radishes fall into this category.  Brassicas shine as a rut/late season plot.  Brassicas will grow profusely throughout their 60 day grow cycle, and the deer wil not bother them much as the tops are quite bitter when young.  But when a hard frost hits things change very rapidly.  The plants release their sugars and become very sweet.  Almost overnight the deer will begin visiting the plot.  This is great if you live in an area that get freezing temperatures in November. They will continue eating the tops until none are left.  Then when the weather really turns cold, they will dig up the bulbs and eat those.  Over the past few years I have had a lot of success using brassica plots.

Lettuce-type Forages
This nutritionally packed leafy green powerhouse is part of the Asteraceae family, one of the largest and most diverse families in the plant world.  The Asteraceae clan includes chicory, vetch, asters, daisies, sunflowers, and a bunch of other popular flowers and less-popular weeds.  All members of the Lettuce family prefer well-drained soil with a decent amount of moisture. They provide high levels of  vitamin C and folates, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.  They are highly attractive during hot weather.  For this reason they make excellent choices for early season plots.

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The author shot this 160 inch Indiana buck as it followed a doe into a brassica food plot.

Grains
Grains provide a lot of important nutrition for deer, especially during winter months.  They are a rich source of , minerals, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, oils, and protein. Corn is a favorite of whitetails when it is bitter cold because of its fat content.  However  a standing corn plot can be productive at any time of year.  Deer will often bed in standing corn, and feed on it from the time it is barely out of the ground all the way through winter until all the ears are gone.  A few rows of corn surrounding a plot will also create a security screen that will help deer feel more comfortable using the plot during daylight.  Corn loves nitrogen, so be sure to give it plenty before planting.  Other grain plots include Milo, wheat, oats, and rye.  Milo grows very tall and will provide both food and cover for deer.  The Milo heads produce a sweet smelling grain used for making Sorghum Molasses.  Wheat, rye, and oats are preferred by deer in their younger stages when they are tender and green.  I utilize winter wheat to provide food to my deer herd in late winter and early spring when not much else is green. 

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By carefully observing your deer herd’s nutritional needs you can increase your chances for
success this fall.

Careful consideration of all the options will allow the hunter/land manager to make the best decision possible regarding forage selection for a new food plot.  Ultimately it depends on the hunter’s goals, and how much time and effort they can put forth.  Each circumstance is different, but each circumstance can also be successful.  The right forage in the right spot, hunted at the right time, could help you bag the buck of a lifetime!

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