By David Hart
There’s no question that the white-tailed deer is the most popular game animal in the country. According to the most recent survey of hunters conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 10.7 million Americans took to the deer woods in 2006.
Deer, however, aren’t the only game in town. Nearly 5 million hunters pursued small game, and another 2.3 million hunted migratory game birds like ducks, doves and geese. In other words, lots of deer hunters aren’t just deer hunters. They chase small game, waterfowl and anything else that happens to be in season. And they plant food plots.
A growing number of hunters are realizing that food plots aren’t just for deer. In fact, many plants benefit a variety of game and non-game wildlife. If done properly, a food plot not only offers you a great place to hang a deer stand, it can give you a place to hunt doves, quail, turkeys and other game. Virtually every game species eats some sort of common food-plot plant, and many animals eat a wide variety.
Best of the Best?
So what should you plant if you want to hunt more than deer? One of the best all-purpose food plot plants is winter wheat. In fact, Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries regional wildlife biologist Cale Godfrey said wheat is possibly the best food plot plant for a variety of game and non-game animals.
Every deer hunter with an interest in food plots knows that deer devour wheat throughout the winter. Turkeys also will eat the tender young leaves in the winter and early spring before the plant comes out of its winter dormant stage. As it matures in the later months of spring, deer tend to leave it alone, but turkeys and songbirds will visit the growing wheat to pick up any available insects. As it matures and dries, it offers a new source of food.
“If you look at an unharvested wheat field in the summer, it’s absolutely loaded with wildlife. Songbirds, quail and a variety of small mammals eat the seed throughout the summer. Deer will eat the entire seed head, even after is has ripened, because it is very high in protein,” said Godfrey. “I really like to see a wheat field with some weeds growing up in it, because those weeds are often heavy annual seed producers, which is also great for wildlife.”
Doves, the most popular game bird in the country, also flock to wheat fields in September after the plant has died. The seeds have fully matured by then, providing a great food source. However, in order to create an ideal dove-hunting field, the wheat should be manipulated in a way to knock as much seed to the ground as possible and to create plenty of bare, open ground. Doves tend to avoid thick, grassy or weed-choked ground. The best way to do that is to mow the wheat as close to the soil as you can a few weeks before the season. However, instead of cutting it all at once, mow a few strips at a time starting in early August. That way, the birds will have time to find the field and they will have a steady supply of food right up to opening day, ensuring a great shoot. In most regions, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy a dove hunt or two before you have to put another wheat crop back into the ground.
Another great multi-species plant is corn, especially in the pheasant or quail states like Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. It can be expensive to plant and grow, but corn produces a high amount of forage. Not only will deer devour the corn right off the stalks, game birds and non-game animals will eat the grain after it falls to the ground. Squirrels love it, rabbits will eat it and turkeys hit a cornfield hard as natural food sources dwindle.
Clover is another excellent multi-species plant. Rabbits and turkeys devour it, and a number of ground-nesting songbirds will nest in a lush stand of clover. Adult turkeys actually eat the clover itself, but turkey poults and quail chicks depend more on the insects that thrive in food plots. That’s why it’s essential to avoid using insecticides in any fields aimed at benefiting wildlife. Remember, a food plot can be the foundation of an entire food chain, from the plants to the insects and on up to the top predators. A single application of an insecticide can defeat the entire purpose of a multi-species food plot.
Blends: Twice as Nice
Instead of planting a single seed, consider a blend. In many cases, deer will eat all the plants you give them, but other species will eat at least one. Godfrey said a mix of wheat, crimson clover and Austrian winter peas will provide food for deer, turkeys, rabbits, quail and a variety of songbirds throughout the winter and into the spring. Even mixing clovers can give the critters more choices.
A number of warm-season annuals are also great in combinations of two or three different plants. Sorghum, partridge peas, buckwheat, sunflowers and a variety of millets are top choices for deer, doves, quail and turkeys; and planting them together provides a variety of food that keeps game and non-game on your property. In many cases, the plants will mature at different times, and that gives the wildlife a lasting food source.
If you have plenty of land, Godfrey suggests breaking larger plots into smaller sections with different plants, which gives deer and other wildlife a steady supply of food throughout the year. If one plant fails due to harsh growing conditions, another will likely thrive.
“I would do a third in warm-season annuals like sorghum or millet or sunflowers, a third in cool-season annuals like wheat and crimson clover, and a third in cool-season perennials like ladino clover,” he said.
The Big Picture
For some species, what you plant is somewhat less important than what you do with it after it has been planted, especially with grains like wheat. Birds love those types of food plot plants, and quail and pheasants devour any spilled grain they find. But those birds need more than food; they need cover, and the more cover they have, the more birds you’ll find in your food plots. Godfrey recommends leaving edges of grain fields standing. He also said that leaving wide strips within the field throughout the winter can be highly beneficial to game birds and songbirds that struggle through harsh winter weather. How wide and how many strips you leave depend on how much land you have available.
“I would leave at least a strip 30 to 50 feet wide along field edges. Those edges are extremely important to wildlife, not just in the winter, but in the spring and summer, as well. Ground-nesting birds utilize that edge cover, and so do many small mammals like rabbits, mice and groundhogs,” he said. “They would rather have standing wheat than mowed wheat for the security the standing cover provides.”
He also recommended mowing fields of any plant no earlier than July 1 in most regions. By holding off until early summer, you give ground-nesting birds time to complete their parenting duties. Although most birds typically nest in thick cover adjacent to food plots, some species actually nest right in the fields. A tractor tire or a mower can be devastating to a brood of songbirds.
In some cases, it’s best not to mow at all. Many warm-season annuals will hold their grain into the fall and winter, providing a vital source of food during lean times. That’s why Godfrey recommends leaving those crops standing throughout hunting season. Not only will birds feed in the fields, they will often stay in the fields throughout the day, providing good hunting opportunities.
Also consider planting shrubs along the edges of food plots. Lespedeza, indigo bush, red osier dogwood and a variety of other short trees and bushes provide seeds and berries, and they give small game and even deer a place to hide adjacent to your food plot.
By considering more than just deer when you plant food plots, you not only provide a far-reaching benefit to a variety of game and non-game wildlife, you give yourself something to do after you fill your freezer with venison.
This article was published in the September, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.