Deer hunter checking out his small food plot before the hunt

What to Plant in Small Food Plots

Legendary Whitetails 5.3.2016

Every year more and more deer hunters seek to become deer and land managers, and with that, more acreage is planted in food plots.  As you look around, it’s no secret that the food plot business is booming.  You’ve got new seed companies popping up, new planting equipment on the market, new seed blends, yada yada yada.  Much of that seems like a good thing, however, with so many options it can be extremely confusing to the new food plotter.

I remember when I first started to consider planting a food plot. I read articles, searched online, and just when I thought I had picked out the right food plot seed, BAM! another variety or species would pop-up and I was back at square one.  I would delay my search and have to relearn everything that I had just read the week prior about each type of food plot variety.  Now, with nearly ten years of experience with food plotting and habitat consulting, seed choices, and site prep & maintenance have become second nature.  The biggest thing I’ve learned is to keep it simple – in other words, you don’t need an elaborate plan featuring 5 different varieties of food plots to be successful.

This article will provide you with a simple plan and approach as to what you should be planting in your small food plots and when you should be planting them.

What Should I Plant in my Food Plot?

Let’s start off by talking about what you’re probably here for, and that’s figuring out what kind of seed you should plant your small food plots in.  Now, let’s define a “small food plot”.  A small food plot is what I generally refer to as anything under 1 acre in size and usually even smaller than ½ acre.  Right off the bat, the size will dictate what you should or shouldn’t plant.  Any plot under an acre, I generally advise not planting soybeans or corn, unless they are in the near vicinity of larger ag fields planted in the same thing.  The reason for this is they will likely be over-browsed and unproductive by the time hunting season rolls around.  There’s simply too many deer mouths for the plot to handle. In these small food plots, you want something that can produce a ton of forage and hold up to significant browse pressure from deer, while still being attractive.

My go-to options for small food plots under an acre are clover and some type of fall blend that usually consists of winter wheat, radishes, and brassicas.  These are the two food plot varieties I’d recommend just about anywhere in the U.S.  If the area has more shade, plant the clover.  If the location gets around ½ day of full sunlight, plant the brassica/radish/winter wheat mix.  Also, if the soil tends to be moist and saturated throughout the year, you’ll want to plant a clover mix as it can tolerate the wetter conditions.  Without going any deeper, do a soil test and follow the recommendations.

HOW TO CONDUCT A SOIL TEST FOR YOUR FOOD PLOTS

Clover Food Plots

A lush clover food plotClover food plots are excellent for attracting deer and turkey, and can hold up to significant browse pressure.

Clover blends will be the workhorse plants during early spring and during the fall (depending on available soil moisture).  During most years, clover will be providing quality forage well before the spring planting season.  Clover grows rapidly during this time period and provides a high quality food source critical for does carrying fawns and antler growth for bucks.   Most clover food plot varieties are perennial, so once a healthy clover plot is established, it will likely remain viable for several growing seasons with the proper care and maintenance (3-10 years).

Clover typically requires at least one complete growing season to establish a hardy crop.  Plant the food plots with clover during the early spring (if weeds/grasses were controlled before winter) to capitalize on spring showers and allow clover to establish a root system before hotter and (likely) drier periods.

Another option is to use the frost seeding technique during the late winter or early spring.  The timing will likely vary from year to year based on local weather conditions.  As a general rule of thumb, try to frost seed at a time when four to five frosts are still anticipated.

When searching for the right clover variety, be sure to get one specifically bred for deer consumption. Clover varieties intended for cattle are designed to be fed dry which is why they are very stemmy.  Deer don’t digest stems well.  Therefore, a blend that produces succulent leafy material better suits a deer’s nutritional needs.

Fall Blend

Brassica food plot planted for deer hunting in WisconsinEagle Seed Broadside mix has turnips, radishes, winter wheat, and soybeans – a deadly combination to hunt over.

Fall blends refer to the species of food plot plants that are planted during late-summer or early-fall.  The most common fall variety food plot crops are turnips, radishes, winter wheat, oats, rye, and chicory to name a few.  These are the types of plants that mainly make up the “quick-and-easy-throw-it-down-and-watch-it-grow” seed blends many companies tout.  Reason being, the majority of these plants have a small, hardy seed and they grow fast.  The small seed allows for less site prep to obtain optimal seed-to-soil contact for germination.

Without dilly-dallying around, I plant Eagle Seeds Broadside Mix, but there’s plenty of other great mixes out there.  Broadside contains a variety of nutritional forages consisting of soybeans, radishes, turnips, and winter wheat.  Your eyes may have perked when you saw soybeans are in the mix, but the reason is simple: the green soybean leaves provide early attraction which is perfect for bow season. I’ve planted several blends of turnips and radishes and had great results, but I found that having the added attraction of soybeans and winter wheat really helped deer familiarize themselves with feeding on the radishes and turnips.  As many of you may know, sometimes it takes a few years for the deer to start recognizing a foreign plant as food and this is common when planting brassicas.

The blend is primarily composed of cool season annuals, of which deer typically find the green forage attractive during the early to mid-hunting season.  They will seek out the carb-loaded bulbs during the late-season in the colder regions.  All in all, this late-summer blend does an excellent job at providing high quality forage for much of the hunting season.

These late-summer varieties can be broadcasted or drilled.  If the seed is to be broadcast, it is essential to do so just before a rain event to ensure a high germination rate.  Ideally, the fall blend should be planted 45-60 days before the first average frost date.  One added benefit to planting fall blends is that it gives you most of the summer to work on clearing and readying the plot for planting.

Hopefully this helped you narrow down your search for the perfect small food plot forage.  Be sure to read the next article in this small food plot series, as it focuses on site preparation and maintenance of small food plots.

If you want to know how to prepare your food plots for planting check out this article: HOW TO PREP FOOD PLOTS FOR PLANTING

If you want to know what tools you’ll need for food plotting check out this article: FOOD PLOTTING TOOLS FOR EVERY BUDGET


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