When you hear a group of hunters discussing food plots, there’s a good chance the discussion will center around white-tailed deer. And that’s not surprising when you consider 80 percent of all hunters pursue whitetails, and food plots can not only increase the deer hunter’s odds of success, but can also result in bigger, healthier deer. But food plots aren’t just for whitetails —turkeys and turkey hunters both can benefit.
Wild turkeys rely on a variety of food sources to get them through the year. In fact, renowned turkey biologist and author of Wild Turkey Hunting and Management, Lovett E. Williams Jr., wrote, “Turkeys are among the most resourceful feeders, consuming hundreds of different kinds of insects, other small animals and plant parts, including almost everything that is edible and some things that are not.”
So, in most of their range, food is rarely a limiting factor for turkeys. Combine that with the fact that no amount of food will produce a “Boone & Crockett” turkey, it’s understandable why planting food plots hasn’t been a major focus for many turkey hunters. What food plots can do, however, is provide a valuable food source for the birds at critical times of the year. They can also provide good brood-rearing habitat and bugging areas, as well as excellent places for gobblers to strut.
Best Food Plot Mixes for Turkeys
There are a variety of food plot species that will work well for turkeys and, in many cases, these can serve as excellent deer food plots as well. Some species will provide food and attract turkeys during the spring turkey season, but many are more suited to providing a valuable summer and fall food source to help the birds get through winter in good physical condition for the spring breeding season.
Let’s look at some of the more common options for turkey food plots, as well as how to get the greatest benefit from each.
One of the most commonly discussed food plot species specific to wild turkeys is chufa, particularly for those of us living in the south. Chufa is perennial sedge native to Africa and Southern Europe. Unlike the other food plot species discussed in this article, it’s not the above-ground portion of the plant that attracts turkeys. It’s actually the nut-like tubers that grow on the roots of the plant that the birds can’t resist.
Chufa should be planted in late spring to early summer at a rate of 30 to 40 lbs./acre. The sedge performs best in sandy soils but can be grown in any area where corn will grow. Chufa is susceptible to weeds, so good plot preparation is critical. Be prepared to follow up with herbicide weed control, if necessary.
One thing to keep in mind with chufa is that it can take the turkeys a while to discover the tubers, especially when planted in a new area. Once it has matured, you may need to scratch up some of the tubers or even lightly disk the field to help the turkeys find them.
Cereal grains such as wheat, rye and oats are an excellent option for a wild turkey food plot. They are relatively easy to grow, inexpensive, and can provide food for turkeys throughout the year. Their lush green growth is attractive to turkeys in the fall, winter, and spring, and once the plants seed out in the late spring and summer, they provide a valuable seed source that can last well into the winter.
Cereal grains should be planted in the late summer or fall at a rate of 90 to 150 lbs./acre (broadcast) or 60 to 90 lbs./acre (drilled). If broadcasting, be sure to follow with a light disking or a cultipacker for best results. Since cereal grains are quick to germinate and grow, they are less subject to weed issues than many other food plot species.
A cereal grain food plot can be enhanced even further when combined with clover. Not only will you get the full year’s benefit of the cereal grain, but you will get the added benefit of additional years of forage if properly maintained. Keep in mind that cereal rye is the most winter-hardy of the three, however, it is not a good choice If mixing with clovers (more on that later). Wheat and oats both do well mixed with clover, but oats do not overwinter well in the colder climates of the north.
Clover can undoubtedly be one of the best choices for a turkey food plot. Not only does it provide a great source of food but, as a legume, it also attracts lots of insects for young poults and adult turkeys alike. Its low growth also provides an excellent location for gobblers to strut and young poults to forage.
As mentioned above, if clover is your turkey plot of choice, I would initially plant it in a mix with wheat or oats. The cereal grain will supply quick growth and act as a weed suppressant while the clover gets established. An excellent mix for both turkey and deer would be 50 pounds of wheat, 5 pounds of Ladino or Durana clover, and 5 pounds of red clover per acre.
Make sure you inoculate your clover seed with the correct strain of Rhizobium bacteria prior to planting, unless you purchased pre-inoculated seed. It is also imperative that clover seed not be planted over 1/4-inch deep, as it will result in poor germination. The best way to get this correct seeding depth is to lightly drag or cultipack the seed after broadcasting. If you are planting in a mix with cereal grains, broadcast the cereal grain first, lightly disk or cultipack and then plant your clover seed last.
Grain sorghum (milo) is a warm-season annual similar to corn that was introduced to the U.S. from Africa. It is well know for it’s drought tolerance and the large seed head it produces, which is preferred by turkeys, as well as deer, dove and many other wildlife species. The Wild Game Feed (WGF) variety is a great choice for turkeys, as it only grows to around 3-feet tall, leaving the seed heads more accessible for turkeys.
Milo should be planted from April to June, depending on where you live, at a rate of 5 to 6 lbs./acre drilled or 8 to 10 lbs./acre broadcast.
Millet is another warm-season annual grass that produces a seed head favored by turkeys. There are numerous varieties available, including browntop, dove proso, pearl, and japanese millet. Each variety varies in its overall height as well as how long it takes to mature. Some millets mature in as few as 50 to 60 days, while others take up to 120 days. By varying what and when you plant, you can provide turkeys with a valuable food source throughout the summer and fall months.
Millet can be planted from April to August, depending on your location, at a rate of 12 to 30 lbs./acre. Again, this will depend on which variety you plant and whether you broadcast or drill the seed. Like clover, millet has a small seed, so make sure you do not plant it too deep.
Food Plot Considerations
When choosing a food plot mix for turkeys, be sure to take the property’s deer density into consideration. Some species hold up much better than others to heavy browsing pressure. If deer are a problem where you turkey hunt, and you are planting small plots, it may be necessary to stick with chufa or a wheat/clover or oats/clover mix. Keep in mind with the latter, that the wheat or oats may never produce a viable seed head if it is continuously browsed to the ground by deer. However, the wheat/oats will take some of that browsing pressure off of the clover, giving the clover a chance to become established. If hogs are a problem in your area, then chufa may prove to be a poor option. Although hogs can wreak havoc on any food plot, they love rooting up the tender tubers of chufa plants.
Turkey food plots, just like any other wildlife planting, should always begin with a soil test. Once you receive the test results, follow up with a lime and fertilizer application based on the test recommendations. It is also critically important to begin the planting process with a smooth, well-prepared seedbed or, if no-till planting, a field that has been properly sprayed with herbicide to kill the existing vegetation. Most food plot failures can be avoided on the front end of the process with a little planning and preparation.
While planting food plots for turkeys may not be as popular as planting them for deer, it should not be overlooked as a means to better turkey habitat and hunting. Then, when you finally get to pull the trigger on that wise, old longbeard strutting along the edge of your plot, you will finally understand the full rewards of working the land for more than just deer.