It's easy to think of reasons for growing food plots. They will improve the health of the local deer herd. They'll increase your hunting success in the fall. And finally, it's simply a fun project for the off-season.
The first steps are to choose a good spot, clear the ground of debris, kill the weeds, and then till the soil. After that, do a soil test and apply lime and fertilizer as needed. Now you're ready for the most crucial decision of all -- what to plant.
Making the right decision can mean the difference between a thriving plot and one that grows poorly, is choked with weeds and fails to attract wildlife.
There is, however, no single magic food plot to plant. The best plantings will vary by season and from location to location.
After three decades of experimenting and growing plots in the Shenandoah Valley, I've settled on a number of plants that do well here in our local soils. Certainly there are other brands and seed types that will work, but these have produced the best results for me.
For an early season food plot, one that will produce for years, meaning a perennial, nothing can top white clover. Not only is it simple to grow, it's rich in protein, and deer relish the taste.
White clovers come in several varieties. The best are the Ladino types because of their large leaves. I've had superb results with the Whitetail Institute of North America's Imperial Whitetail Clover, a mixture of proprietary clovers created specifically to attract deer and provide the maximum amount of protein possible.
Being a blend means this clover has seeds that mature at different times and appeal to different taste preferences of deer. On my land, deer always walk past generic clovers to eat Imperial Whitetail Clover. This seed is best planted from late March into April and again in late August and early September.
During late spring, from May through early June, it's time to put in warm weather plantings.
Good choices include cowpeas, Lablab, sorghum or a mixture of these and other plants called Power Plant. These will come up in a few weeks and produce good green forage until frosts occur.
Another excellent plant to put in during late spring is a forage soybean. These are grown to produce green leaves for deer or cattle to eat rather than the seeds for oils, soybean meal and other products.
Two varieties in particular stand out. Those are Big Fellow and Large Lad, both produced by Eagle Seed, of Arkansas. These grow extremely tall -- up to six feet -- and yield enormous amounts of leaf forage for deer that's high in protein. One study showed forage production of over eight tons per acre.
What is particularly appealing about these forage beans is that they come back strongly even after browsing. As deer eat the leaves, new ones emerge to take their place.
The two beans were developed by the Doyles, an Arkansas husband and wife team who both have doctoral degrees in the study of soybeans. They developed the strains to produce enormous tonnage of forage for either cattle or deer that is high in protein. A recent LSU study showed the foliage of the beans had higher protein levels than alfalfa.
The leaves are large, up to eight inches long. And best of all, this plant matures later in the year than most soybeans. This means it provides nutritious green leaves for deer 6-8 weeks longer than regular soybeans.
Because it grows thick, deer actually bed in the beans as well as eat the leaves. You're not only providing food for the animals, but cover as well. Because of these benefits, Large Lad has been chosen as the official soybean of the Mississippi Fisheries and Wildlife Department.
I've had trouble in the past with deer eating my plantings of these soybeans and destroying them before they could grow. But there is a way to prevent this and I plan to try it this year.
It's a deer repellent system called Plot Saver, made by Messina Wildlife. This system uses a web type ribbon run around the plot and then treated with their proprietary repellent which keeps deer away. Leave the ribbon up until the plot grows big enough to withstand deer grazing pressure, then take it down and save for reuse the following spring.
Finally, if you have poor quality areas to plant, consider a mixture of small burnett, brassicas, and perennial and annual clovers. Good examples include the Whitetail Institute's Secret Spot, Extreme and No Plow blends. I have several small plots of these mixtures on my property that the deer relish.
Starting around mid to late August, it will be time to put in wheat, oats and more Imperial Whitetail Clover to tide deer through the winter months, along with some kale, rape and turnips or mixtures such as Winter Greens and Tall Tine Tubers.
Good luck, and remember not to hunt the plots to hard or deer will become wary and use them only at night.
For more information contact whitetailinstitute.com; eagleseed.com; messinawildlife.com.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.