Improve Your Hunting With Native Food Plots This Spring
Are you struggling to attract wild game to your property? Do you dislike the idea of baiting (or aren’t seeing the results you want)? If so, growing food plots might be the answer.
Food plots are sections of land specifically planted as food sources for local wildlife. While food plots are a common practice in wildlife management of all kinds, they’re most commonly associated with sport hunting.
What Makes Food Plots Different from Baiting?
The easiest way to define a food plot is to compare it to other types of wildlife feeding: recreational and supplemental feeding.
Recreational feeding involves putting out small amounts of food to attract wildlife, usually for viewing. Bird feeders are a popular example of this. However, many people put out food that attracts deer and other animals, too.
Recreational feeding isn’t meant to replace or supplement the animals’ natural diet. The sole purpose is to draw animals to a specific location.
Supplemental feeding is the next level of wildlife feeding. The goal of supplemental feeding is typically to optimize the nutrition of a group of wild animals. It usually involves high-energy food that wouldn’t be readily available in nature, like corn, potatoes, or nuts.[amazon box=”B00IIULX9G” template= “horizontal”]
Supplemental feeding can result in healthier animals that grow bigger and stronger. It can also lead to higher populations and the spread of disease. Most hunters group baiting in with this type of feeding.
So, where do food plots fit into all of this?
Think of growing a food plot as improving the local wildlife’s existing food sources, not supplementing or replacing them. It’s a subtle but important, distinction to make.
Food plots differ from other types of wildlife feeding because they are (more or less) permanent. While recreational and supplemental feeding is a short-term solution, food plots are long-term.
You also avoid many of the biggest recreational and supplemental feeding issues by opting for a food plot.
The food source is much more spread out. And while food plots offer nutrient-dense plants ideal for sustaining deer and other grazing animals, these plants aren’t so high-value as to completely deter wildlife from other food sources.[amazon box=”B001GDJBT6″ template= “horizontal”]
Are there drawbacks to food plots?
Poorly managed food plots still have the potential to spread disease among wildlife populations. But the risk is far less than that of supplemental feeding.
It’s important to remember that growing a food plot is a big commitment. Over time, the local wildlife will grow to depend on this food source. If a food plot is maintained for several years and then is suddenly left to die off, there could be real repercussions for the deer or other animals who previously relied on it.
The biggest concern for growing food plots actually has to do with the native plant life, not the animals who will be feeding on it.
There are plenty of agricultural plants that can be grown in food plots and attract tons of wildlife. However, these plants can leech valuable nutrients from the soil and compete with wild plant life for space, impacting the ecosystem.
Filling your food plot with native plants is the easiest way to prevent this.
How to Plant the Best Native Food Plots
Native food plots mesh seamlessly with the surrounding ecosystem and provide balanced nutrition to the local wildlife. Unfortunately, many landowners opt for more traditional crops before learning about the benefits of using these native plant species in their own food plots.
If growing a native food plot sounds like a great idea, here’s how to set yourself up for success.
Prep the land
Just like any garden, you’ll want to start your food plot with a clean slate. If you have access to a manual tiller, you can make quick work of almost any piece of land. However, many hunters prefer a no-till method to save time.
Whether you till the land or not, this is the perfect time to clear out any invasive weeds in your food plot area. This can be done by hand or using an appropriate herbicide sprayer. The best strategy will likely depend on the offending species.
One of the supporting ideas behind growing native food plots is that the local soil is already suited to these plant species. In other words, you can get away with less prep and upkeep than a non-native food plot would require.
Still, prepping the soil and surrounding area for your new food plot will ensure you start on the right foot.
Plan for the entire year
Instead of planting different plots for each season, include a wide variety of plants in your food plot. These species should include spring, summer, and fall plants. Winter foliage is harder to grow, but your native wildlife will appreciate it greatly.
Ensuring your food plots are well-stocked year-round is a great way to keep wildlife populations on your property. It can also lead to more desirable game come hunting season since the animals have had access to a prolific food source all year.
Some hunters do prefer food plots that flourish during specific parts of the year. For example, tapering the local food supply in summer can help cull weaker animals before the hunting season begins.
Plant the right species for your target
Native food plots can attract turkey, pheasants, and much more. But most hunters plant food plots to draw in whitetail deer. Here are some ideas about what to plant for deer food plots.
The most popular clover seeds come from Europe. But that doesn’t change the fact that clover is a great nutritional resource for deer and other wildlife.
Instead, use prairie clover native to your area. These species provide all of the same great benefits without potentially invasive qualities.[amazon box=”B006F6OYKU” template= “horizontal”]
You might be surprised to see that trees are a great addition to native food plots. Along with providing much-needed cover along the edge of your food plots, many native plant species are actually huge contributors to deer’s natural diets.
Elm and oak (for the acorns) are some of the best tree varieties to plant. Remember to avoid foreign cultivars, which might be invasive or not suit the local wildlife’s diet.
These species might be the last thing you want to plant on your property purposely. However, deer love poison ivy foliage.
It might be counterintuitive, but a successful native food plot doesn’t need to exclude non-native plants completely. In fact, mixing the two is often ideal.
The secret to adding non-native species to your food plot is to know what plants exhibit invasive tendencies. You want your plant species to thrive together, not compete for resources.[amazon box=”B07NBVDFZR” template= “horizontal”]
Food Plots and Hunting FAQs
Starting up your own food plot is hard work; there’s no doubt about that. But the more you know about the best growing strategies, the easier time you’ll have.
Here are some of the most common questions hunters have about creating a food plot of their very own.
Are annual or perennial food plots better?
Go with perennial plants if you want to establish a food plot that will last for years to come. Perennial plant species are those that will return year after year without the need for new seeds.
If you’re just starting, annual species offer more flexibility and room for beginner’s error. After one or two seasons, you might find that your chosen location isn’t ideal for a food plot. Or you might discover that one food source attracts wildlife much more than your other plantings.
Keep in mind that some annual plants will “come back” each year, especially if they’re native species. While the original plants will die off after a single season, they will leave behind seeds for the following year.
When to plant food plots for deer?
If this is your first year growing a food plot, consider planting your crops in late-summer. This will give your food plot enough time to establish before autumn when deer increase their food intake to prepare for winter.
Is growing a spring food plot worth it?
Spring food plots are absolutely worth it. While many hunters are tempted to focus only on the fall deer season, springtime is when herds recover from harsh winter conditions and prepare for the year’s fawns. Bucks also rely on spring food sources to support antler growth.
As for when to plant spring food plots, perennials are your best option.
You can plant spring perennials in fall or late-winter, but it could take up to three years for them to fully establish. Once your crops are mature, though, they’ll come back each year right when the deer population needs them most.
Where can you set up a food plot?
While soil quality and other environmental factors will determine whether your food plot is successful, you can technically plant food plots on any private property.
Most areas ban growing food plots on public property. It’s best to assume that adding a food plot to public land is illegal unless explicitly told otherwise.
Are food plots bait?
Legally, no. Food plots require more time and effort to install and cover a much larger area than most bait stations. They’re also permanent. You can’t remove a food plot during the hunting season like you can normal bait.
Most hunters view baiting and growing food plots as different means to the same end. If you’re against traditional baiting, then using a food plot might not be for you.
When is the best time to plant clover food plots?
Clover is a great source of energy for wildlife — deer in particular. It’s also extremely easy to maintain perennial clover in your food plots for years with little upkeep. But for the best and fastest results, you’ll want to know when to plant clover food plots.
One popular strategy is called winter or frost seeding. In late winter (mid-January to March in most areas), broadcast clover seed over your food plot. The soil should be loose, and pests should be at their lowest activity levels, giving your clover seeds the best chance at life.
Fires and selective burning, food plots, and edge control are all examples of what?
While you might not think food plots have anything in common with these other practices, they’re all examples of wildlife management.
In fact, selective burning can create a native food plot by burning invasive or overgrown plants in the area. The resulting clean slate gives native plant life the chance to grow and serve as a nutritious food source for the local wildlife populations.
Try Your Hand at Wildlife Management
Food plots certainly aren’t necessary for a successful hunt. But if you want to support the local ecosystem and improve your hunting experience, they’re a great alternative to more controversial strategies like baiting.
It’s okay to start small. While some hunters maintain acres upon acres of native food plots, this definitely isn’t the norm!
Start off with an area you find manageable. Keep in mind that at least one-quarter acre is recommended to prevent the spread of disease. You can always expand the area (or add more food plots) in the future.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to reach out to local resources for help. You can find tons of valuable information about regional laws, the best native species, and more from hunters and natural resource officials in your area.
This time next year, you could be looking out at a lush native food plot of your very own.
Have you ever hunted over a food plot? Do you prefer baiting or letting nature run its course? Let us know your experiences in the comments below!