Food plots work
Perched in my stand that November afternoon, I watched in awe the large doe and her triplets as they feed greedily on the clover patch food plots I overlooked. The aspect that so enamored me was not the size of this robust doe, the health of her fawns or even the way they were devouring the clover, after all I knew it would be a deer magnet in this heavily wooded area. What had got me this day was that she had bore and raised triplets. Does giving birth to three fawns is not all that uncommon. Each year I observe this sight numerous times from stands scattered across the upper Midwest. However, this was the northern most region of Wisconsin’s big woods country. Anyone that has spent much time chasing whitetails in this rugged setting realizes that triplets are a rare sight here indeed.
It is a simple fact that nutrition plays a huge role in the reproductive success of whitetails. Granted, I was hunting the Antler King Ranch, the location where all the Antler King seed blends, minerals and feed products are developed and tested. This location is undoubtedly the most nutritiously rich area in all of Northern Wisconsin for white-tailed deer, but this was still Northern Wisconsin. In all my years of hunting this region, and I have hunted more here than everywhere else combined, I had never seen triplets before.
Benefits of Food Plots
I have been a proponent for putting in food plots for many years. Having worked as a habitat improvement consultant, I have seen the vital role they play in improving the health of the resident deer herd and in dramatically increasing the hunting success rates on a property. When constructed properly, a series of introduced food sources can have a tremendously positive effect.
Increasing the nutritional plane for a property can result in many positive effects on the local deer herd:
Increased antler development
Improved reproductive success
Better overall health
Lower mortality rate
Increased carry capacity of the habitat
Not only do deer benefit from food plots, but we as hunters can as well. To begin with, a carefully planed food plot can draw deer like a magnet. Having not been able to conduct preseason scouting the area I hung my stand overlooking the clover patch at the Antler King Ranch. Simply put, I knew I would see a decent number of deer and I was not disappointed. Time flew that afternoon as deer movement, feeding and frolicking were a constant source of entertainment.
Although in that particular setting farm crops were nonexistent that does not have to be the case for a food plots to create a concentration effect for the whitetails. Quite to the contrary, food plots can have a dramatic effect in the most agriculturally rich regions around.
For this to occur to its maximum ability several factors can tip the scale:
Create a food source that is more nutritious than others in the area
Choose a food plots planting that is relatively unique to the area
Place the food plots in a way to provide the deer an illusion of safety while they are feeding
Locate it so it takes advantage of existing sources of food and water
When these conditions are met, these plots will draw a disproportionately high number of deer in any setting.
The Drawing Power of Nutrition in food plots
A whitetail’s life is far from a bed of roses. Not only do they have to elude predators, namely man, they must compete within their social hierarchy, endure all that nature can throw at them and survive in often less that ideal habitat. One of the adaptations that enable them to do this is their ability to seek out the most nutritionally rich food sources.
This first became evident to me in my earliest days of bowhunting. Even back then I realized the premium that deer placed on feeling safe. Because of that, I had hung my stand the very back corner of an alfalfa field. The field did a sharp dogleg before dead ending into the woods. The result of this was a 5-acre hideout that could not be seen from the busy road that formed the northern boundary.
As I climbed into my stand the first afternoon I was pumped. Even back then, I could smell a winner when it was under my nose and this surely was one. As the afternoon transformed into evening I climbed down, convinced that the deer just weren’t moving that day. I was deep into my own thoughts as I rounded the corner of the field en route to my uncle’s farmhouse. Catching a glimpse of movement breaking through the darkness, I looked up to see the field exploding with flags.
While relaying this mystery to my uncle, I expressed my disbelief at this event. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” I told him. “Why would the deer be feeding out by the road when they could hide in the back undisturbed?” As it turned out, earlier in the spring he had contracted to have liquid fertilizer spread on the field. Apparently a mechanical problem had caused them to stop before they had made it to the back and, since they had finished all but less than 10 acres, he told them not to bother coming back to finish.
Not believing that really could have anything to do with it, I climbed up into that stand 2 more times and experienced the same results as I had on my first sitting. On my forth trip I hung a stand in the front portion and harvested a small buck that very night. Since that day, I never questioned a deer’s ability to hone in on the most nutritious food sources again. In fact, that little piece of knowledge has resulted in a considerable number of filled tags over the years.
Knowing that deer seek out the most nutritious food sources and relish the feeling of safety both should be used to our advantage when planning a food plot location. It only stands to reason that we should locate a food source in an area where the deer will feel most safe if we expect to realize daylight settings. Also, if we are going to introduce a new crop, why not choose one that is highly attractive to deer and is most beneficial from a health standpoint. After all, increased health directly relates to larger antlers, bodies and increased reproductive success. However, there are several other factors I take into consideration as well: soil types, huntability and relationship to existing sources of food and water.
Soils for food plots
The first factor to consider regarding soils is moisture content. Some food plots crops, such as clover, require a relatively moist to thrive. Others, like alfalfa send a deep taproot into the earth and actually prefer a well-drained soil. Neither grows in swamps or deserts. It pays to do a little homework and pair your crop of choice with the proper soils.
Simply put, no matter how high in protein a food source is, it will never amount to more than the soils will allow. All else being equal, soils rich in nutrients produce a larger volume of forage per acre and this forge is healthier for the wildlife than nutrient deficient soils are capable of producing. Luckily, the proper amount fertilizers can go a long way in improving nutrient depleted soils.
Even more important for most crops is soil pH. Acidic soil can be very detrimental to crops such as clover and soybeans, even more so for alfalfa. Once again we can take steps to remedy this. An adequate amount of lime will sweeten the sourest of soils. How do we know how much lime is needed or what amount of fertilizer to apply? A simple soils test will give the specific amounts of lime and fertilizers required to create the ideal soil composition for our crop of choice. All that is needed is a sandwich bag filled with dirt collected from various spots within the area we intend to plant. Almost any local feed mill can send this away to be analyzed for a very reasonable price. Following these directions often means the difference between a thriving crop and a complete failure.
The Huntability Factor of food plots
When introducing food plots it is important to remember that we may be changing the deer’s movement patterns throughout the area. If we are going to do this, does it not make sense to do so in a manner that is most beneficial to us as hunters? By carefully planing the locations of our food plots it is often possible to take advantage of other previously existing features and prevalent conditions.
The activities we have been discussing so far are much like remodeling a home. In essence we are choosing where to locate the deer’s kitchen. When doing so it only makes sense to do it in a manner that results in the greatest increase in our hunting success as possible. The first step in achieving this is knowing our land. Once we can pinpoint bedding areas, funnels, existing food sources, travel routes and water sources, then we can take advantage of them and understand how this new food source will impact deer movement.
As much as practical, we want to position our food plots so our stand placement can take advantage of fall’s prevailing wind directions for this area. Locating them in relationship to bedding areas in a manner that we may hunt the trails under the most common wind directions is an obvious advantage.
Another consideration is getting in and out undetected. One of the biggest mistakes many hunters make is tipping their hand while the traveling to and from their stands. In most heavily hunted regions, tipping your hand several times swiftly results in a stale stand site and nocturnal deer. One of the beauties of introducing a food plot is that it can be located in a manner so that the hunter can slip in and out undetected. This goes a long way in keeping the area fresh and deer sightings high.
The ultimate setup is when we can not only address those issues, but incorporate them with a funnel. Locating a food plot so that a funnel is positioned between it and the bedding area creates a hot spot. When a plot can be laid out so it can take advantage of a funnel, the right wind direction and undetectable routes to and from the stand, super productive stand sites are often the result.
Creating a Smorgasbord
One of our goals is to get the resident deer to spend as much time as possible feeding on this beneficial food source and to concentrate the majority of their feeding in a specific area. The more they focus their feeding in this location the healthier they are and more predicable they become. A means of increasing a location’s desirability is to take advantage of natural attractants, such as existing food and water sources.
As stated earlier, deer covet that feeling of safety. A mature buck may not be willing to step foot in that wide open, 80 acre bean field during legal shooting hours. Most of his activities there will be under the protective cover of darkness. However, if we create a two acre opening in the woods, locate it along his trail that leads to the bean field and seed it with clover he will be much more likely to feed there during daylight hours. As an added bonus, locations such as these typically become social hubs and hotbeds of rutting activity.
Another advantage of this approach is that it creates a bit of a smorgasbord effect in the area. He now has two food sources located along this travel route adding to his desire to go there. We can take that a step further by seeding each half of our food plot with a different crop. Because of their high yield of deer forge per acre, drawing power throughout the year, high protein content and tolerance for more sour soils, clover, soybeans and rye are my three favorite crops to combine in this manner. Finally, by introducing a mineral deposit along the edge of our plot we have added a layer of icing to the cake.
I believe deer are much like humans in the regard that they desire variety in their meals. I personally love barbecued venison back straps, but would not want to eat them every day for a week, much less a month. When combined with the whitetail’s need for a diverse diet to meet their nutritional requirements offering a smorgasbord effect is an all around winner.
In our example I spoke of taking advantage of a large bean field. This same approach can be used to take advantage of any existing food source and also water sources. One of my favorites is to find an oak grove located by drinking hole. Positioning a food plot there takes advantage of both. When you begin to think creatively, you will see all sorts of placement options for your food plot. The real trick lies in finding the one that will provide the greatest draw and can be setup in a way that is easily hunted.
Food plots possess the ability to dramatically improve both the quality of a habitat and the health of the resident deer. These factors alone are desirable to the hunter. When taking it a step further and carefully planning our activities it is possible to concentrate feeding into specific areas, dictate travel routes to deer and create super stand locations that can remain fresh throughout the entire season. To do this it is not enough to just grab some seeds and throw in a food plot. Some careful planning up front will pay dividends time and time again for the savvy hunter.
Steve Bartylla is president of Northwoods Whitetail Adventures, the producers of the Building a Better Bowhunter video series. Currently they are in the midst of producing an in-depth series on habitat improvement. For information regarding their videos you may contact them by writing to:
Northwoods Whitetail Adventures
N1411 Wells Rd
Stanley, WI 54768
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