What is a food plot and how important are food plots for wildlife in general?A food plot is simply an agricultural crop or forage planted to attract wildlife for observation or hunting. While food plots are readily used by wildlife, they are not necessarily needed by wildlife. When we manage wildlife habitat, we break the habitat down into four basic components. Those components are food, water, cover, and space. When we assess a habitat for the needs of a particular wildlife species, we want to determine which of those basic habitat components are most limiting, or in need of the most work. Food is rarely the most limiting factor for wildlife. The most limiting factors are usually cover and space. Therefore, food is usually not the first habitat component needing to be addressed on the landscape. The primary purpose of planting food plots is to meet human desires to attract wildlife, rather than a necessity for wildlife. That said, food plots can still be incorporated and managed as part of a comprehensive management plan for any property in which wildlife viewing or hunting is an objective.
What are the different types of food plots?What plants you provide in a food plot is largely determined by what species of wildlife you are interested in attracting. If you are interested in attracting white-tailed deer, which is quite often the wildlife species for which most food plots are planted, plants that provide green browse throughout most of the year would be recommended. The most popular green browse plants are typically forage plants and include clovers and wheat. Other green browse options might include soybeans, alfalfa, brassicas, turnips, kale, rye, oats, and triticale, among others.
Wild turkeys will also use green browse plots, especially during the spring. Due to the short growth stature of green browse plots in the spring, male turkeys will often use these areas for strutting. Hen turkeys will bring broods to food plots of clover or other legumes for “bugging”. These areas are often high in insect biomass, providing an abundant and easily accessible food source for growing turkey chicks.
Agricultural grains are often planted for small game wildlife, including northern bobwhites, ring-necked pheasant, and eastern cottontails. Grains like milo (or sorghum), sunflowers, and corn are popular for small game food plots. Eastern cottontails will also readily use green browse plots if there is dense shrubby cover close by to escape predation. Sunflowers are usually planted specifically for hunting mourning doves. Grain food plots will also attract many nongame wildlife, especially songbirds. A mature sunflower field will often be full of American goldfinches, indigo buntings, chipping sparrows and song sparrows.
When should food plots be planted?When food plots should be planted depends on what plants you will be planting. Most of the agricultural grains should be planted in the spring. Typically April and May are best for spring planted grains. Exact timing for spring planting is not as critical for food plots as it is for agricultural production. For example, soybeans can be planted in late June or even early July as a food plot. Soybeans planted for food plots are usually to provide green browse through the summer, rather than bean production for harvest. Although late planted soybeans may not grow as optimal as earlier planted beans, they can still enhance the nutritional quality of summer forage for deer. Green browse plots for winter forage, including wheat and clovers, are usually planted in late summer through early fall. Clovers can also be planted in late winter or early spring.
Are food plots expensive?Food plots vary in their expense to establish. Much of the expense depends on what you plant, equipment costs, herbicides, and soil amendments. The expense really boils down to how much effort you want to put in the food plot and how successful you want it to be.
Seed costs vary considerably. Some conservation organizations, like Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever, offer free seed for its members to plant grain food plots. You might check with a local agricultural seed dealer or Ag co-op for availability of old seed. Older seed is not usually sold for agricultural production and seed dealers may be willing to make a deal to get it out of their storage facilities. Some seed suppliers can provide additional services such as mixing your seed order for a small fee to save you time in the field. Of course, there are also the name brand seed varieties available through many sporting goods stores; however, they are usually much more expensive.
Equipment can be a considerable expense for planting food plots. Small tractors and utility vehicles can be quite expensive alone. Then you will need the implements to do the job, such as discs, planters, sprayers, and possibly tillers or cultivators. If you lease part of your land for farming, you might be able to negotiate food plot work as part of the contract. Some Soil and Water Conservation Districts have implements, especially grain drills, available for loan at a small fee or deposit. Some equipment can be rented from rental supply companies. There are also individuals who specialize in food plot establishment and other habitat management projects available for hire.
Expenses associated with food plot preparation should be considered during the planning process. You will likely need to control undesirable vegetation with herbicides. Fertilizer may be necessary and fertilizer costs fluctuate yearly. You may even have to consider exclusion of wildlife during the establishment phase, especially where deer are extremely abundant. Fencing for exclusion can be a considerable cost.
What are the basic steps in establishing a food plot?The first step in food plot planning is to consider your objectives for having a food plot. Are you a hunter wanting to attract game to increase your hunting success? Are you interested in bringing wildlife closer to you and your family for viewing and enjoying?
Once you have determined your objectives, you need to determine the location(s). If you are planting for viewing only, where do you intend to view from? A back deck, or perhaps from your living room or kitchen with large windows. You will need to consider the movement patterns of wildlife through the landscape, especially if hunting is your objective. Wildlife are more likely to utilize food plots when they are planted in areas through which they are already moving. It can be difficult to attract wildlife to an area they do not otherwise occupy unless you intend to address other habitat needs, especially cover requirements. If you are hunting, you will also want to consider wind patterns that will impact your movement into and out of the food plot during hunting. Providing multiple food plots increases hunting opportunities.
Site preparation is determined by several factors, including the amount of undesirable vegetation you will have to treat with herbicides, soil tests, and planting method. If the site you have selected contains a large amount of herbaceous vegetation, you will want to consider using herbicide to kill as much of the competing vegetation as possible. Which herbicide needed depends on the nature of the plants you will control. A general herbicide most people use is glyphosate. If you have mostly grass to control, then a grass specific herbicide can be used. If you need to control mostly broad-leaved plants, then a broad-leaf specific herbicide can be used. It is critical that before you use any herbicide that you read and follow all label directions.
A soil fertility test should be conducted for each food plot in order to determine if any of essential soil elements are lacking and in need of amendment. The basic test will provide information on soil pH, plus the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and lime (calcium) that should be added. The folks at your county Extension or Soil and Water Conservation offices will provide you with the information you need for soil sampling and submission for testing. After you receive the test results, it is up to you on whether you want to amend the soil as per the test recommendations. Factors to consider are cost of the amendments and the desired vigor of the crop you plant. The more vigorous the crop, the more nutritional value it will have.
The planting method you choose will dictate how much soil work will be necessary. If you will be using a no-till drill, then you will be able to drill your seed directly into the soil through vegetation without disking it first. If you are using a conventional drill or broadcasting the seed, you will need to disk the soil prior to planting. If broadcasting, you will want to make another pass over the field with a cultipacker, harrow, or other drag to lightly cover the broadcasted seed.
Annual plants, such as agricultural grains, will need to be planted every year. You could lightly disk a field of annual grains following seed set and perhaps get a second growing season from the seed production, assuming all of the seeds have not been consumed. You could also leave the field fallow the next year, which means do nothing with it and let it go without disking or spraying. Either way will result in some germination of the previous year’s seed production along with annual weeds. The annual weeds are likely to be of good value for wildlife. Invasive weeds, such as Canada thistle, should be controlled with herbicide. Keep in mind that ragweeds and foxtail, while agricultural weeds, are highly valued by wildlife who consume seeds.
Other food plot plants, such as many clovers, are short lived perennial plants and do not usually need to be planted every year. Once established, many clovers can be mowed periodically to maintain a vigorous growth. It would be beneficial to allow the perennials to produce seed to help maintain the field. Reseeding perennial plants may be necessary where browse pressure by deer is excessive.
Are there negatives associated with food plots?There are not many negative impacts of food plots on wildlife. Two that could potentially impact wildlife are disease and predation. Any time you concentrate animals, you increase the risk of communicable disease transmission and predation. These negatives can be reduced through vigilant observation of your plots and habitat management. If you do notice a disease problem, then you may want to take the plot out of production for a year or two to reduce the concentration of animals. Disease transmission associated with food plots is rare.
Anytime you concentrate a food resource, you attract animals that eat that food, and this logic follows on up the food chain. If you plant milo, you will attract northern bobwhites and other birds. This, in turn, will attract predators of those birds. You can reduce predation by providing adequate escape cover in close proximity to the food plot.
What resources are available to help with food plots?One of the best resources available for wildlife habitat management, including food plots, is your local District Wildlife Biologist from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The District Wildlife Biologist will be able to assist you in meeting your land management objective, especially as it relates to wildlife habitat. They will also be able to determine if your wildlife management objectives qualify for any cost share opportunities. If you are not in Indiana, your state’s natural resource management agency will also have a team of wildlife biologists dedicated to assisting landowners.
Another source of information is the Cooperative Extension Service. All states have Extension Wildlife Specialists housed within a Land Grant university that can provide you with information on managing wildlife habitat. Your county Extension Educator/Agent will also be able to provide you with information. The University of Tennessee Extension Service has several food plot resources available that are applicable throughout the eastern United States, including the book A Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots: Blending Science with Common Sense (8mb pdf). For more resources view Food Plots, University of Tennessee Extension.
There are many books about food plots available from online book stores. You can also get information about food plots from non-profit conservation organizations such as Whitetail’s Unlimited, Quality Deer Management Association, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Duck’s Unlimited, etc. If you use the internet for information, look for information from organizations previously listed, from government natural resource agencies, and the Cooperative Extension Service.
Don’t forget to ask neighbors, friends, hunters, and others with similar interests from your area. They may be experienced with planting food plots and, from my experience, enjoy talking about their experiences. They can be a wealth of knowledge, especially in regards to what will grow and what will not in your area. They may also be willing to help you with the planting of your plots!
This information is intended as companion reference from the Purdue Got Nature? post on June 19, 2014. Food Plots is part of the Got Nature? Podcast series where you will find MP3 file links or the ITunes Got Nature? list to listen in.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at Rnchapman@purdue.edu.
Food Plots, University of Tennessee Extension
A Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots: Blending Science with Common Sense, University of Tennessee Extension
Indiana's District Wildlife Biologist, Indiana Department of Natural Resources
Got Nature? Podcast Series
Food Plots for White-Tailed Deer, The Education Store, Purdue Extension
The Basics of Managing Wildlife on Agricultural Lands, The Education Store, Purdue Extension