Fall Food Plots Could Be Your Bow Hunting Secret Weapon
This time of the summer, we all might still be focusing on fishing, barbecuing in the backyard, or any other number of warm weather hobbies. But this is actually the best time to get busy if you’d like to have a better hunting season once fall comes. Fall food plots are one way to really increase your chances at attracting and holding a mature buck on your property or lease. But first we need to talk about what goes into a fall food plots and how it’s different from a spring-planted plot.
The Difference Between Spring and Fall Food Plots
Spring-planted food plots are planted to provide nutrition to deer during the warm, summer months. Pregnant or lactating does need ample calories in the spring to keep their fawns alive. Weaning fawns will start to switch to a natural forage diet within a few weeks of birth (typically in June). Also, bucks seek out high-protein forage during the spring and summer months when they are putting on body weight and growing their antlers. For these reasons, having a good spring-planted plot is very important on your property. It will help set the deer herd on your property up with the best start they can get, and can help them reach their full genetic potential. Spring-planted food plots should only be attempted on areas with prior weed control, so that the food plot species don’t get shaded out by competing weed species.
Fall food plots, on the other hand, are planted for the sole purpose of pulling deer in during the fall months. While they do provide essential nutrition as deer prepare for the long and cold winter months, fall deer food plots need to be attractive more than anything else. If you have neighboring hunters who aren’t quite as selective in their deer hunting as you are, it’s critical to attract and hold as many deer on your property during daylight hours as you can. That way, you can help determine which deer make it another year and which get put in the freezer. Fall food plots planted in mid-summer are advantageous for new areas, since you can take time over the summer to spray or disc the area to kill competing weed species.
Should You Plant a Perennial or Annual Fall Food Plot?
Another consideration you’ll need to take into account is whether you should focus on perennial (multi-year plants) or annual (single year plants) food plot species. They each offer very different benefits, so you’ll need to consider the best approach for your hunting and land management goals. The best food for deer should be very digestible so they reap the most caloric bang for their buck, and should be very attractive. Each species varies a bit in terms of nutritional content and thus attraction power.
Perennial plants will survive for several years, and therefore require only one planting, plus some annual maintenance activities (e.g., mowing, weed control, fertilizing, etc.). They offer food for deer from spring green-up through fall, which makes them a valuable piece of any hunting property. However, some species may not be the most attractive in the fall when you want to hold deer on your land. Clover, for example, is easy to plant in the fall and will be a very attractive spring and summer forage for bucks, does, and fawns alike, due to its palatability and high protein content. But towards the end of summer, clover typically develops more mature (i.e., woody) stems, and palatability and digestibility drops off.
Annual species only survive for a single growing season, which means they need to grow fast in order to mature. Many annual food plot species are high in both protein and carbohydrates, which makes them a very attractive forage for deer in the fall months. The down side is that they need to be planted each year. If you plant some species (e.g., turnips, oats, etc.) in the spring, they could mature too early and thus not be attractive during the fall hunting season. They instead need to be planted in mid-summer to ensure they will be lush and tender in fall. But some species (e.g., corn, soybeans) require longer to fully mature, and can provide a tremendous source of calories in the fall by planting them in the spring.
As far as which one is the best, it depends on your situation. In general, you should plant annual deer plots if your deer herd already has a lot of available forage and you only want to hold them on your property in the fall. But if there isn’t much available for deer in the summer months and you’d like to grow the deer herd or help bucks reach their full genetic potential, you should plant perennial species. That way, you will increase the amount of time they have high-quality forage available. Ideally, you should include a mix of all the strategies above. Plant a different percentage of perennial or annual species depending on your goals.
Best Fall Food Plot Species
The best crop to attract deer on your property will depend on many things. If you’re located in a heavily forested area of the country with very little agriculture, the deer in your area likely won’t be too picky. In fact, just about anything you plant will probably be heavily browsed. But if you’re surrounded by hundreds or thousands of acres of corn and soybean fields, food isn’t an issue for deer in the summer. Once harvest season comes, though, almost all of that food disappears. Sure, there will be some crop residue after they’ve been cut, but the food source really drops off. This is the time when fall food plots can really pull deer in, since it will become the local hot spot for miles around.
The overall key with food plots for deer hunting is to plant something different than the surrounding lands. In other words, don’t plant more alfalfa and clover if you have lots of hay fields around you. Plant one of the other species below instead. Better yet, plant several of them! Remember that the best winter food plots for deer will contain variety, either as mixed plots or planting strips of different plants. Planting these plots doesn’t have to be difficult either. Simply eradicate the existing plants and till the ground using an ATV, such as a Bad Boy® Onslaught 550. Then broadcast your seeds and pray for rain! Let’s look at a few common fall food plot seed ideas that you can try out right now.
In northern settings, brassicas for deer are the go-to fall food plot species. It is a category that most commonly includes turnips, rapeseed, and radishes. These species produce leafy green tops that are protein-packed and palatable to deer, especially after a hard frost when the starches sweeten into sugars. Their large leaves help shade out any competing weeds too. Some varieties also grow large bulbs that are loaded with carbohydrates, which deer will actually paw out of the ground after they freeze. Because their leaves stay green for so long and their bulbs provide additional forage throughout the winter, they stay attractive through most bow or firearm hunting seasons to keep deer closer to you. Radishes and turnips for deer food plots are very easy to grow and best planted in mid-summer to provide maximum attraction in the fall.
Even the best deer food plots need some help, and that’s where cereal grains come in. Wheat, oats, rye grain, triticale, and others are the species most commonly planted. They serve as great nurse crops when planted in deer food plot mixes since they grow fast and distract deer from the other species growing below them. Deer will typically feed from the top-most vegetation down, which can save the other species in the mix from being over-browsed before they establish themselves. Cereal grains vary in terms of the soil conditions they require, so you should be able to find at least one to incorporate into your winter food plots for deer. In fact, simply scattering rye grain onto disturbed soil can create quick and easy food plots with almost no other work involved, perfect for last minute fall food plots.
We discussed the value of perennial clover above, but the best clover for deer plots in autumn is actually an annual variety. They grow much faster than perennial clovers would, and offer the same lush, protein-rich forage that deer love about new plants in the spring, making them an important part of fall food plots. When planted as part of a mix, they can also provide nitrogen credit to the other plants in the plot since root nodules fix nitrogen from the air into the soil.
The best fall food plots mix should contain a good mixture of the species above. For example, plant 40 to 50 pounds per acre of cereal grains, discing them into the ground. Then broadcast 6 to 8 pounds per acre of brassicas and 2 to 3 pounds per acre of annual clovers, covering them lightly with soil or just cultipacking them in. Just be sure to plant them so that they have enough time to mature before the first expected frost date.
Size and Location Really Do Matter
The size and location of fall food plots will also depend on your objectives. Again, if you’re only looking to hold deer on your property to keep them safe from neighboring lands, a large and secluded fall food plots that you don’t hunt should be a priority. It will act as a sanctuary area where big bucks feel safe. Once firearm seasons open up, they will really seek out areas like these to hide where they can still keep feeding and seeking receptive does during the rut.
But if you’re looking to attract bucks during the season for the sole purpose of hunting one, you should instead plant multiple smaller hunting food plots. Bow hunting deer on one of these plots will require them to be smaller so that you can be reasonably certain you can make a shot with your Hoyt bow no matter where they are in the plot. Using smart hunting strategies and high-quality gear, such as Bone Collector clothing, you should be able to hunt them without being noticed.
Better yet, combine these two approaches for bow hunting whitetail deer. Keep one large, centrally-located food plot that you don’t hunt, which will act as a sanctuary for deer. Planting this as a perennial plot may be more beneficial, since it will hold deer year-round and require fewer disturbances towards the hunting season. Surrounding this destination field, plant several smaller hunting plots that you can easily access without disturbing the sanctuary area. Plant these plots with a highly attractive, annual fall deer food plot mix like we discussed above. Deer will still feed in the private perennial field during the day, but will venture out to feed in the surrounding plots as well. Blowing a Knight & Hale Arrowhead Deer Call, specifically vocalizing grunts in one of these areas can draw a mature buck out of the destination area looking for a fight. Additionally, small food plots will make bow hunting deer much easier, with less of a chance of educating them to your intentions and activities.
As you can see, fall food plots are an excellent way to make bow hunting deer even easier this season. But you need to start very soon if you’re going to get any of them planted in time to make full use of them. Good luck!