More and more hunters are using food plots to enhance their hunting property and their hunting hot spots. If one Googles: “What should I plant in my food plots?” or “When is the best time to plant seeds in food plots?” — you quickly discover that there are no magical answers because there are a ton of options and tons of variables!
Thus, it’s almost impossible to detail a timeline on when to plant because of all those variables. However, below where I list individual seed species, I’ve tried to ballpark when to plant, but when in doubt, check the seed labels for your region!
Variables include soils, weather in you region of the country, weather in regards to the amount of moisture/rainfall in your region, the type of seed, using seed blends, disease, weeds, feeding plots or hunting plots, size, location, etc. With all that being said, food plots have real advantages and can greatly improve your hunting lands. So don’t let all this “background noise” stop you from clearing some land, testing the soil, treating the soil as needed, then building your food plots!
You will want to stay away from the inexpensive seeds, as they usually are agricultural-grade, aimed for livestock consumption. Go with forage-grade blends, bred for use by deer. Blends work great for several reasons including that the different components will green up at different times. And with blends, you lessen the chance for plot failure. However, when using them, do not mix different blends together. They are already “blended” so stay with one blend per plot. Blends give deer variety and deer like that. Of course, you can also get variety by planting several food plots on your property. And even if you use blends, you may want some individual plots that feature certain species.
When Should You Plant?
Is the spring or fall the best season to plant plots? Actually, many seeds are best planted in the fall, but you’ll probably want to do both seasons. Either way, rain is critical. Watch the weather and prepare and plant when you have the best chance for a gentle rain in the days following planting. If you’ve got old fields to plant, then you need to start early using herbicides to eliminate weeds, fescue, etc.
Another big question is when is the best month to plant? Timing depends on where you are, but most fall plots are planted in August or September. Consider when you usually get the first frost where you live, and plant a month prior. That’s just a rule of thumb.
What Should You Plant?
What do I plant? Clover is probably the one, most favored, food plot seed (if you had to pick just one). It’s fairly easy to establish and a perennial clover plot can last several years and it is easily maintained by cutting it back during the summer. There are several annual clovers, but the perennial clovers are ones that are used a lot. Depending on where you are, plant clovers from March to May (when a lot of clover is planted), and mid-August to mid-September. I have several friends who always add some chicory to their fall clover plots because it extends the life of the plot. Once the cold weather dampens the clover, the chicory will still be there doing its work.
If I had to select one seed for deer, my favorite would be soybeans. Corn gets a lot of play, but soybeans would be my first choice, and here is why. Beans give deer lots of protein, and it feeds them a long time during the year. As you know, farmers plant it in the spring and harvest it in the fall. Food plot fanatics also plant most soybeans in the spring, but let the deer do the harvesting. During the summer deer hammer the leaves. Once the pods grow and brown up, deer will also readily consume them long into the winter.
Brassicas are another great cool season plot mix. These include turnips, kale and rape, and you need to plant them in early August for most of the northern part of the country. Brassicas begin to work like magic after the first hard fall frost. This “sweetens” up these plants and deer love them. Turnips are a little different as deer will consume the above ground plants as they grow. Later, even when there is snow on the ground, deer will scrape up the tuber giving them great winter forage.
What about cereal grains? Some feel that oats are a great fall food plot crop. They grow quickly, and deer readily consume forage oats. They also resist frost. Winter wheat is also cold tolerant and many plotters use this seed. One author I read likes to mix winter wheat with brassicas for fall plots. The deer eat the wheat after it germinates, and then hit the brassicas after that first frost.
I’ve only touched the surface here. For example, I didn’t mention alfalfa, a great source of protein. Though mostly a summer food, alfalfa plots are used most of the year and once it’s growing, you can get years of use with little maintenance. Corn, although not that high in protein, is also a good attractor, especially late in the hunting season.
For the best information on what and when to plant food plots, go to Bill Winke’s website, Midwest Whitetail, and Don Higgins website, Higgins Outdoors. Winke is in Iowa and Higgins in Illinois, and if there are any better deer experts and food plot experts in that whole region, I’ve yet to meet them.
For a super summary of everything you need to know about food plots, the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) has what you need. It’s filled with great information on everything you need to consider from building plots, to planting methods, selecting proper seed mixtures, etc. At the very end is a super summary of food plot species profiles that tells you about each preferred seed, and when to plant depending on where you live.
Good luck with your food plots!
Dr. Dave Samuel studied deer for 30 years as a wildlife management professor at West Virginia University. In addition he has been a bowhunter for more than 40 years, with deer being his main prey. He’s also an outdoor writer and has been with “Bowhunter” magazine for more than 30 years.
Sportsman’s Guide is your go-to source for bargain-priced scouting! Shop our great selection trail cameras, feeders and food plots.