By Kent Kammermeyer
Certified Wildlife Biologist/Consultant
Both deer and wild turkeys will definitely benefit from high quality agronomic food plots on a minimum of 5 to 10 percent of your property in a heavily forested area wherever this is feasible. This means 2-4 plots averaging 2 acres each per square mile (640 acres). However, this large number may be unrealistic for many land managers because of the high cost of installation and maintenance of high quality food plots.
But let it be known that even 1 percent of an area in high quality plots improves turkey brood rearing habitat and deer diets while enhancing reproduction, growth and antler development. Recent research overwhelmingly supports food plots as valuable food sources for deer as well as tools for increased or more selective harvest.
Studies indicate that intensively managed agricultural openings produce higher harvest and better deer condition. In Arkansas, 2 percent of a 600-acre enclosure planted in high quality food plots doubled the size of the deer herd and stopped drastic fluctuations in critical food supply caused by hard mast failure. A recent Georgia study concluded that hunting clubs with a minimum of 11/2 percent in high quality food plots (10 acres per square mile) produced significantly more quality bucks in their harvest than clubs with less than 1/2 percent (3 acres per square mile). Deer often adjust movement patterns, core areas, and home ranges to access food plots and high quality openings. Thus the ability to hold or anchor deer on your property may be greatly enhanced by installation of high quality food plots.
In northern Wisconsin, biologists suggest that 1 percent of the forest be converted into openings. This could be an easily achievable goal for deer managers to develop 6.4 acres of agricultural food plots per square mile (1 percent). Even half of this acreage (0.5 percent) has produced positive results in antler development and harvest.
With grass-clover mixtures producing 5,000-12,000 pounds forage dry weight per acre per year and deer, turkeys and other wildlife utilizing up to 5,000 pounds per acre per year dry weight, it doesn't take many high quality acres to impact a deer herd where native forages in the cool season stress period are low in quantity or quality. Speaking of other users of high quality food plots, one study in Georgia documented use of clover plots by 54 species of birds and 14 species of mammals during a two-month period in spring.
Size and Location of Plots
In moderate to high deer populations, grazing pressure can be intense on new plantings. For this reason, most managers recommend plots of 2 to 5 acres in size. Minimum size to prevent overgrazing should be at least one acre, although successful plots have been established on less than 1/4 acre.
Whenever possible, plots should be located on the most fertile soil available because of the costs involved in improving the soil with lime and fertilizer. Many managers use power lines, log landings and skid roads for food plots. Such sites are convenient and temporarily cost effective.
However, there is a trade-off in that some of these already existing openings require less initial bulldozer work but may cost more in the long run due to shade, poor soil, soil compaction, rocks, weed competition or excessive slope. These disadvantages (except for shade and slope) can usually be overcome by good farming practices (especially soil preparation) and liberal application of lime and fertilizer according to what a soil test may reveal. If plots are limed and fertilized up to soil test and maintained or replanted over a period of several years, however, carefully chosen fertile sites such as sandy loam or bottom land will be more successful and cost effective in the long run.
Fit your food plot sizes to the size, shape and terrain of your property. Deer and turkeys within a 1 to 1 1/2 mile radius will usually find the plots readily unless there is some kind of partial barrier such as a highway, river or large open expanse. Use this rule of thumb to scatter your plots so that they are accessible to all the deer and turkeys on your property.