You don’t have to spend a fortune to draw and hold deer.
Life tends to get in the way of food plots. Kids, work, vacations and other obligations fill up our evenings and weekends. Before you know it, you’ve missed the window of opportunity for planting a food plot.
If that’s not enough, you’ve whittled down your bank account so much that there’s not much left for a land management budget.
Don’t fret. You still have time, even when the days are growing shorter and there’s a chill in the late-summer air. Even better, there are a handful of great options that won’t make you choose between food for your family and food for your deer.
Perennials like clover and alfalfa seem like an obvious choice. They are easy to plant and they can last up to five years after a single planting, providing what might seem like a once-and-done effort.
Be warned, though. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Whitetail Institute vice president Steve Scott.
“There’s a lot more involved in planting a perennial food plot than throwing down some seed and forgetting about it,” he said.
Perennials might be relatively easy to plant, but they require regular maintenance, and they should to be sprayed with a selective herbicide regularly to keep difficult weeds in check.
Perennial food plot plants should also be given a regular dose of fertilizer. Have you checked the price of fertilizer lately? It’s not cheap.
Annuals, however, take far less maintenance. They still need to be fertilized when they’re planted, but weeds are typically not a big problem in annual plots.
Fall-planted annuals like oats, turnips, brassicas and wheat tend to grow after most weeds have gone dormant for the season.
There’s no need to treat an annual food plot with a herbicide. Acre-for-acre, the seeds generally cost less, too, and annual plants tend to be more tolerant of marginal soil.
So what should you plant? It’s tough to beat a cereal grain like oats or wheat. Both are highly attractive to whitetails, and both germinate quickly and grow in a variety of soils. Even better, they produce a large amount of forage for a relatively small price. A 45-pound bag of Whitetail Institute’s Forage Oats Plus, for example, costs about $60 and covers a half-acre. A 50-pound bag of wheat is considerably less expensive than that (expect to pay about $20) and covers about the same area.
Annual clovers like crimson clover, red clover and arrowleaf clover are great choices, too. Crimson clover is inexpensive, about $2 per pound, and it only takes about 20 pounds to cover an acre. It germinates quickly and easily, and it often reseeds itself, providing another round of forage the following season. All annual clovers produce a large amount of forage into the early winter in most regions, but they will go dormant in extreme cold. That means deer might not touch them toward the end of the season in northern regions.
Although both wheat and oats draw deer throughout the fall and winter, oats also tend to be less attractive as the season progresses. However, whitetails will eat them throughout the colder months if other foods are not available. It’s tough be beat wheat.
Even better, wheat and oats are about the fastest germinating plot plant available. Cover them with a thin layer of damp soil and you can expect to see sprouts within a week or so. They will even sprout after a few days of rain when top-sown on loose soil, although germination rates tend to be lower. Deer will eat them almost as soon as the plants poke out of the ground, and both plants withstand heavy browsing pressure.
Wheat and oats can be planted from early September well into October throughout much of whitetail country, although the colder the soil, the longer it will take for the seeds to germinate. They will continue to grow until they reach 4 or 5 inches, or extreme cold stops the growing process.
Many other fall-planted annuals have a much shorter window. If you don’t get brassicas or peas in the ground early enough, for example, you’ll be looking at a field of short, stubby plants that deer either won’t eat or will devour well before the season ends. Annual clovers have a short planting window, too, but they are somewhat more cold-tolerant than most other annual plot plants.
For all the good that comes with annual clovers, wheat and oats, however, single-plant plots aren’t necessarily your best choice. They certainly attract plenty of deer, but a variety of factors can result in poor performance or a general lack of attraction. Whitetails can be finicky eaters, shunning one plant over another for reasons only they understand.
BLENDS ARE BETTER
That’s why a fall-planted annual blend can be your best overall choice. A plot with multiple plant varieties offers a wealth of benefits. Many blends include plants that grow at different rates and are attractive to whitetails at different periods of deer season. Oats or wheat draw deer early, while brassicas and turnips are more palatable after they’ve been touched by a frost or freeze. A blend gives you a place to hunt from the start of bow season to the end of gun season.
Blends are relatively inexpensive, too. Acre-for-acre, a blend like Biologic’s Full Draw or Whitetail Institute’s No Plow is a better deal than many single-plant options. It costs about $50 per acre and includes plants that draw deer from early bow season through the end of gun season.
Be careful, though. Some blends contain a large percentage of filler seed like rye grass. Deer will eat it, and it germinates quickly and easily, but it’s not a preferred food choice. Make sure you read the label to determine what seeds are in the mix and what percentage of each is in the bag. You generally get what you pay for, but an inexpensive product might cost less for a good reason.
You can make your own blends simply by adding some wheat or oats to a plot of annual clover. The clover “fixes” nitrogen in the soil, and grasses like wheat and oats thrive in nitrogen-heavy ground. If you get your plots in soon enough, there’s nothing wrong with throwing down some brassica seeds to add to the variety. The more options you give the deer, the more likely they are to visit your plots throughout the season.
Home-made blends can be less expensive than pre-mixed products, particularly if you buy seeds like crimson clover or wheat in bulk.
DON’T CUT CORNERS
There’s a difference between cheap and inexpensive, and there’s a difference between cutting corners and shaving a few bucks from your total expenses. First, says Scott, get a soil test. Sure, you’ll pay $20 or so up front, but a soil test from a professional laboratory will actually save you money. It will tell you exactly what type of nutrients and how much of each your plants need or don’t need.
“It can mean the difference between the best food plot you could imagine and a total failure,” says Scott. “A lot of guys just buy an even fertilizer like 20-20-20, when they might not need that much nitrogen or potassium. Adding too much or too little of a particular nutrient can do more harm than good.”
Once you know exactly what fertilizer your plots need, consider buying in bulk from your local farm supply store. They will dump the exact ratio into the bed of your truck. All you have to do is spread it.
Fertilizer prices have gone up in recent years, so if you must cut a big-ticket expense, cut the amount of fertilizer you use, but don’t cut out lime. A properly amended pH level can mean the difference between a healthy food plot and a marginal one. Plants need the right pH level to take up the nutrients in the soil. Spreading fertilizer but not the recommended rate of lime can be a waste of money.
There are other ways to trim your expenses. First, prep the site only as much as (and only when) necessary. Sure, time spent on a tractor is good therapy, but it takes gas to run a tractor. Instead of discing a month or more in advance, why not disc the day you plant? Of course, you might need to disc during the summer to kill annual weeds, but the less you drive your tractor or ATV, the more you’ll save.
Planting seeds properly can also save money. Instead of top-sowing and praying for rain, cover larger seed like wheat and oats with a thin layer of dirt to ensure a higher germination rate. One quick pass with a disc or a drag harrow will do wonders for wheat, oats and annual clovers. It will also prevent birds from gobbling up seed before it sprouts. There’s nothing wrong with feeding the birds, but when time and money are limited, do everything you can to feed nothing but deer.
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This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.