Why Plant Variety Matters in Food Plot

Variety is the spice of wildlife. This variation of an old adage seems peculiar until one realizes how accurate it is. The essentials for wildlife habitats include food, water, and shelter, but the arrangement and diversity of plant species enhance and bring wildlife to the landscape. Experienced planters know how to utilize different species to maximize attraction and nutrition for land management activities like building food plots. It is also beneficial to understand the dietary restrictions and preferences of the surrounding wildlife.


Know the Wildlife

White-tailed deer are concentrate selectors with a more discriminating palate. Unlike bulk grazers like cows that feed on what is available, deer feed on specific plants that are more palatable and nutritious. Providing the right amount of plants will attract and retain more wildlife species year-round.


Land Essentials

The first steps involve the land essentials. “It all begins with soil” is another adage often applied to building wildlife food plots. Establishing stable soil fertility is crucial before choosing the seed type. Improper soil pH can reduce plant palatability and growth. A simple and inexpensive soil test will provide pH and the best recipe for applying mineral fertilizers like lime, potassium, and phosphorus, critical to plant growth and metabolism. Gathering soil samples throughout the year allows for accurate testing. Make adjustments if imbalances are found within the soil.


Land Preparation

Next comes land preparation. Depending on soil conditions, the ground must be turned by disking or tilling to ensure proper seed-to-soil contact. Planters can sow seed with a no-till spreader, but the final handling often differentiates between success and something short of that. Planting too deep will decrease production, so planters must be mindful when planting new seeds. Rolling the soil with a cultipacker ensures the best seed-to-soil contact for improved germination. Proper land preparation will determine how successful food plots will become.


Rotating Crop Selection

The nutritional needs of deer change throughout the year, so the food sources should fit the season. Early spring and summer are seasons of growth, and deer prefer plants that are high in protein and nutritional value. That is why the best warm-season food plots include legumes like alfalfa, clover, and soybeans, which also improve the soil by fixing nitrogen imbalances. 

As summer turns to early fall, nutritional needs shift from protein for growth to carbohydrates for building winter fat. Deer seek food sources high in energy and carbs, making brassicas and cereal grains like oats and sorghum ideal for cool-season food plots. As the season continues, deer will need nutrients as many food sources become scarce. Deer managers should consider utilizing nutrient-dense options in the winter months.


Combine Perennial and Annual Options

Most cool season plots contain fast-growing annual plants that reach peak nutrition when deer need it most. Planting perennial clovers ensures there will be some high-protein herbaceous vegetation as soon as the growing season begins. Even some annual plants like beets, turnips, and radishes produce tubers that will persist through winter and into early spring, providing a valuable energy boost when wildlife needs it most. Planting a combination of annual and perennial plants ensures a food source will always be available.


Blending Seeds

Seed blends and mixtures are often better options than monoculture seeds for food plots for maintaining wildlife. Different plant species have specific germination and plant growth rates. By reaching peak nutrition and palatability at different times, they widen the attraction window for any individual plot. When using a seed mixture, the natural balance of the soil is maintained. Furthermore, each plant species will respond differently to annual fluctuations like temperature and rainfall. For example, chicory is an excellent complement to clover as it has a deeper root to reach water during dry conditions, while clover will do better with ample soil moisture.


Food Plot Design

When establishing a food plot, the various seed selections should complement one another. Even plot location enhances the results. 

Land managers can enhance their ability to provide high-quality, year-round nutrition by incorporating different types of food plots. Designing feeding plots focuses on achieving agricultural efficiency. They are larger and geometrically shaped, either in a square, rectangle, or oval, making it easier to use large equipment. They are often planted in warm-season perennials or annuals but can also be cool-season perennials. 

Hunting plots tend to be smaller, sometimes in less accessible areas, and irregularly shaped. Designing them near matured forests or placing them in the ecotone increases the probability of deer using them during daylight hours and brings them closer to hunters. Land managers often plant this type of plot with cool-season annuals that reach peak nutrition and growth during the fall hunting seasons. 

Food plots and hunting plots work well independently but are even better when paired together. A hunting plot location between dense bedding cover and a larger feeding plot will act as a staging area where deer mingle and feed before moving out into a larger open area after dark. Tailor general guidelines to fit specific local conditions, adapting and modifying them as needed. Utilize optimal sites but focus on creating an integrated system rather than assembling random components.


Hard and Soft Mast Orchards

Hard and soft mast orchards are perfect for wildlife with selective palates, like whitetail deer. Working in unison with food plot plants, these trees close the nutritional gap in wildlife diets, attract more species, and provide protective covering from the elements. Proper land selection and having a diverse food plot will provide the essentials for wildlife: food source, water, and shelter.


Land Maintenance

Various plant types within a food plot require different maintenance strategies and levels of care. Perennial plots require less maintenance, whereas land managers must work and plan annual plots yearly. Some perennial plots may require more attention, removing weeds and unwanted pests by applying herbicides like glyphosate. When new growth is healthy, spraying herbicides is best done a few weeks after mowing. Then, wait a few weeks before tilling or disking and planting. 

Some land managers may cut perennial crops like clover to stimulate new growth. Still, conventional wisdom suggests mowing may be self-defeating if the objective is the best forage production with the least expenditure of time, money, and effort. Chestnut Hill Outdoors recommends periodic soil testing and following the proper steps for fertilizer application. 

Some food plots are seasonal, but those with the most consistent, year-round wildlife nutrition are the best. Providing constant high-quality food sources that meet year-round nutritional needs will keep animals on deer manager property. Variety ensures there will always be something for each animal’s needs and preferred palate. Enhance food plots with consistency and variety through Chestnut Hill Outdoors.

Alachua, FL

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