Deer hunting season has begun in Northwest Florida. As hunters venture into the woods and sit for hours on end they have plenty – sometimes too much – time to contemplate what they could have done, or should do to make their hunting experiences better. These plans for improvement may involve all kinds of things, and if they involve improving under-performing food plots, allow me to offer a few points for contemplation.
Are your plots the optimum size?
Small plots, less than one acre, don’t stand much of a chance. If you plant something deer like, and there is a substantial deer population in the area, the young plants will be “mowed” down before they have time to establish. At best, you’ll create a low growing green carpet. This might make you feel better as a hunter, but it’s doing very little in the way of providing nutrition to the deer herd. Deer will get the maximum benefit from multiple plots (2-3 acres in size) that total around 10% of the area you are managing. This scenario is ideal for the deer, but it might not be ideal, or even feasible for the hunter.
Are your plots properly fertilized?
This is a very common issue with under-performing food plots. That bag of 10-10-10 really doesn’t do much. Hunters who have no farming experience are often amazed and disheartened at how much fertilizer it takes to produce a crop – food plots are simply forage crops. Consult your county’s agriculture agent for assistance with soil testing and fertilizer recommendations for the specific crops you are producing. UF/IFAS fertilizer recommendations for forage crops reference additional applications after a grazing rotation or haying; how does this translate for food plot management? A cool season food plot planted in mid-October will be productive for about six months. During that six months you should apply Nitrogen at least three times, Potassium twice, but all the required Phosphorus can be applied at planting. This steady supply of nutrients keeps the food plot going throughout the entire growing season. Using slow release, or enhanced efficiency fertilizers can simplify this process somewhat, since the number of applications is reduced. For more information please see the following UF/IFAS publication: Soil Fertility Management for Wildlife Food Plots
Did you plant the right crop at the right time?
There are lots of choices when it comes to selecting what to plant in your food plots. Remember to plant varieties that are suited to your particular environment, not the ones that have the prettiest packaging, or the most TV commercials. Planting time can also be an issue. When cool season crops are planted too late they are unable to establish strong roots and top growth. Without sufficient growth, the crops are unable to withstand grazing pressure through the middle of winter, when short days and cold temperatures can slow growth rates significantly. Even if they are planted at the correct time, most “winter” forages produce the majority of their biomass in the early spring, once day length begins to increase.
Hopefully considering these points will help you improve your food plots. Remember, producing high quality food plots can be a challenging endeavor. The process makes more sense and is less frustrating, however, if you view food plots as long term habitat improvement designed to provide additional nutrition to the deer herd, not simply an attractant during hunting season. For more information on any of the topics addressed contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Agriculture or Natural Resources Agent or see the following UF/IFAS publications on this topic: Wildlife Forages.