Food plots allow hunters to supplement the diet’s of deer found on their property. Winter food plots also improve the chances of hunters harvesting more deer and turkey during the fall hunting seasons, and this is the number one reason hunters plant deer food plots for winter. Whitetail always select foods that provide certain nutrients that they need at certain times of the year. Therefore, a variety of food plot plantings is better than a single crop during any given season. And in general, it is better to have a larger number of well-distributed small food plots than a small number of large ones.
When at all possible, winter food plots should be situated in sites that are already fully or partially open. This will generally decrease the initial cost of site development. Possible locations for summer and winter food plots are natural forest openings, old roadways, idle crop fields, fire breaks, and even utility right-of-ways. On larger properties, develop the bulk of the food plots around the core of the property so that deer will be “held” in the area.
Cool season, winter food plots for white-tailed deer are typically planted to small grains and clovers. These plants remain vibrant during the winter and they are quite palatable to deer. When it comes to choices, there are many small grain and clover varieties for managers to pick from. An important thing to consider is that some plants produce early, while others provide maximum forage production later in season. Because of this, a food plot mix should be selected to spread forage production over a longer period of time. This also ensures that at least one or more of the species planted develop successful stands.
Austrian winter pea is a cool season forage that is quite similar to its summer plot cousins, cowpeas and soybeans. Whitetail love Austrian winter peas too and they really add to a winter food plot. Austrian winter peas should be inoculated prior to seeding and seeds should be drilled in between September 1 to November 1 at the rate of 40 pounds per acre. Winter peas can also be broadcast, but if this method is used the seeding rate should be increase to 60 pounds per acre. These peas are best adapted to heavy clay soils with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 and moderate to heavy fertility, so fertilizer is recommended at the rate of 250 pounds per acre with 0-14-14.
Oats are hard to beat in winter food plots. This cool season annual will practically grow on a wet rock and deer really flock to them, especially if food plots are fertilized. Oats do have the disadvantage of being less cold tolerant than rye or wheat, so they are really only recommended for hunters in the South at lower latitudes. Oats are easy to grow, very hardy and usually get browsed heavily by deer in their early growth stages. Wild turkey will also use them. Oat seeds should be drilled or broadcast between September 1 and November 1 at the rate of 80 pounds per acre. With a soil pH between 5.5 and 6.5, a 13-13-13 fertilizer should be applied at the rate of 200 pounds per acre at the time of planting.
Wheat is a cool season annual small that is used by deer in the early stages of growth and it works great in deer food plots for winter. Wheat seed should be broadcast between September 1 and November 1 at the rate of 80 pounds per acre onto soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Fertilize wheat seeds at planting with 200 pounds per acre of 13-13-13 fertilizer. Wheat can be combined with oats and other small grains, clovers, or winter peas into a beneficial food plot seed mix.
Ryegrass is a cool season annual grass that is used heavily by white-tailed deer in its early growth stages. Like wheat, rye is very cold tolerant and can survive the frigid conditions most areas receive by mid- to late winter. Like other plants, ryegrass loses some of its protein levels as it matures. That being said, it is easy to grow and deer will readily eat it if they need it. Ryegrass seeds should be drilled or broadcast between September 1 and November 1 at the rate of 20 pounds per acre. In addition, soil pH should be at 6.0 and a balanced fertilizer blend such as 13-13-13 should be applied to the food plot at the time of planting at 250 pounds per acre. This plant grows under a wide range of soil conditions – including sandy soil – and will persist until early summer.
Clover can be planted across the white-tailed deer’s range to provide a high protein food source in the winter. In general, clovers are generally planted in a mix with other cool season annuals. Do not get discouraged when you see how much clover cost per pound. Clover seeds are very small and a little goes a long way! By the way, there are at least 8 varieties of clover that I am aware of, and most clovers are very site specific. Make sure to maintain the soil pH at recommended levels for your clover food plot.
The reseeding of clovers can be enhanced by disking or mowing in the fall after initial establishment. After soil disturbance, apply 0-20-20 fertilizer at the rate of 300 pounds per acre and maintain soil pH between 6.5 and 7.5. Clover seeds can be planted from September 1 to November 15, seeds should be inoculated, and they can be drilled in at a rate of 15 pounds per acre or broadcast at 20 pounds per acre. Clovers make great deer food plots for winter, especially when mixed in with any or all of the plants listed above.
Lastly, there is no ideal winter food plot size. Most end up being odd sizes, which is good – the more edge the better! Aim for a plot no smaller than 1 acre in size and no larger than 4 acres in size. A good rule of thumb is to plant from 2 to 4 percent of your habitat to deer food plots for winter. Make sure to break and harrow your food plots several weeks before planting. This allows rains to settle the soil before planting time. Always seed to a bed that is well prepared and firm. Good luck!