Years ago, my buddy and I set out to develop the best food plot for deer in the Oklahoma. We hunted a property located in the eastern half of the state, where whitetail were found in good numbers. We always had a healthy population in terms of numbers, but always felt the deer were smaller body-wise than they could have been. We always questioned the bucks that we harvested because “deer management 101” suggests that a buck will never reach its full potential for antler growth if it does not get the food that it needs. I thought, if the buck is not as heavy as it could be, then how could it possibly grow its best set of antlers.
Food Plot 101
So years of “research” has found that deer really like food plots. Whitetail, like humans, enjoy tasty foods that are often found in limited quantities in the areas in which they live: think candy bars, ice cream, and pie! Plantings for deer act the same way.; they include nutrient-packed foods that deer crave. This is especially helpful for hunters in the fall.
Deer food plots include any planting, annual or perennial, warm season or cool season, that are planted for the sole purpose of providing supplemental food for whitetail. Most hunters plant fall food plots in Oklahoma because that’s when hunting season is in full swing. Although we were interested in cool season plots, on the property we hunted in eastern Oklahoma we were even more concerned with spring food plots that would provide adequate nutrition primarily for bucks, but also for late-gestation does. We knew that the right food plot on the right soil would help us get there.
Our Best Effort at Food Plotting
With the goal of improving deer nutrition and improving fall hunting, we set out to find the right food plot plants for whitetail in our area of Oklahoma. We started with a spring plot in year one that consisted of alfalfa and ball clover. We choose alfalfa because why not aim high, right? The ball clover did okay, but we felt like the plot was sparse overall. That meant that our goal of providing nutrition for the deer on our property was not met.
Our 1/2 acre fall food plots consisted of rye and oats since they seemed easy to plant. We missed our first chance to plant and it stayed wet, so we ended up getting the plots in the ground late. The plot finally got seeded, but we found that while the rye and oats did well during the early season, the rye did not really take off until well into the middle of winter. Deer did use the plot, which helped with seeing deer while hunting, but we did not feel like the fall food plot was acting as the draw it could have. We chalked the year up to a learning experience.
Best Food Plot: Take Two
We went back to the drawing board. We put in more time learning about food plots in Oklahoma and included NE Texas in our research, as well. We decided to go with a spring mix that included cowpeas with corn. We put the plot in the ground on time and it seemed to grow, but the cowpeas died out and the corn was spotty, despite decent rainfall. We decided to investigate further and elected to perform a soil test on our food plot, which gave us some good information.
The following fall we seeded white clover, turnips, wheat and oats and planted on September 1. We also added an exclosure, which allowed us to monitor deer use of the food plot. We think the spring food plot may have grown well, but maybe the rate at which we had planted the cowpeas could not stand up to the deer grazing pressure. By that October, we had the best food plot I’d seen as far as ground coverage, but it seemed as though the turnips and clover were comprising the bulk of the plot. We felt that the mix we had created was not ideal based on percentages, although we were thrilled about the number of deer using the plot. The cost of seed had increased and so had the number of deer on the plot, but we felt that something was off.
Exclosures and Food Plots
Source: “Exclosures allow a manager to determine how much forage the plot produces over the season. In areas where deer densities are high and food availability is low, food plots often will be over utilized, with no obvious plant material from the planted species. In the absence of exclosures, it would be easy to assume the planting failed when in fact, it was over utilized by wildlife.
Forage in a food plot that is consumed to the ground is an obvious sign of over utilization. Over utilization can be a result of planting a highly preferred or novel forage, small food plot size, high animal densities, or other variables. Be careful not to assume that over utilization is due to poor habitat or limited food resources. To accurately determine the level of forage produced and consumed, you will need to clip the area inside the exclosure and an equal area outside of the exclosure (several feet away from any fence or exclosure boundary) and weigh them. Divide the weight of the forage outside the exclosure by the weight of the forage inside the exclosure to determine the percent utilization. Alternatively, a visual inspection is often sufficient to monitor forage production and utilization.”
Putting Our Food Plot Know-How To Work
We were a couple of years smarter now and had been reading everything we could about spring and fall deer food plots. We found that some plants did not seem to like our soil, but some types did. We also found that use of plots can be misleading unless an exclosure is used to monitor deer foraging. We had found that timing is important when planting food plots, that as early as possible is usually better. We also found that having the soil tested and applying proper fertilizer and/or lime is also important. There really are no short cuts to getting the most out of a food plot. Stuff will grow and deer will come, but putting in the planning into it equates to the best success possible.
For Year 3, we realized that less may be more when it comes to food plots. We decided to never go with more than 3 seed/plant species when seeding either spring or fall food plots. This made sense for a number of reasons, but it also simplified the mix we created for our Oklahoma property. We also upped our plot size to a full one acre to accommodate the deer in the area. Our spring food plot for deer consisted of cowpeas and hairy vetch. We did everything right and the plot absolutely grew! It was hit hard by deer, but our exclosure showed how well the plot was doing. Deer had kept the cowpeas mowed down way lot in the past, but proper planting rate and fertilizer allowed the cowpeas to thrive. The vetch was a great compliment and performed well on the area. We had a hit!
That fall, we went with turnips, oats, and red clover. The plot started off slow because of rainfall, but kicked in and produced through winter. We did another soil test in late summer and added some fertilizer and that allowed the plot to bring in deer like we had never seen. My buddy shot the best buck to-date off of the property, but with continued spring and winter food plots and management we know that we can produce a bigger one.
Best Buck, Best Food Plot… Not Luck!
It took 3 years, but we finally felt that we had achieved our goal of providing good nutrition for the whitetail deer on our property. We just had to keep it up. We learned a lot! From a nutritional standpoint, the most important time for whitetail bucks to have food plots is from April through September during the antler growing period.
Food plots can definitely help increase the body size of a buck and improve antler growth. By the third year, the field-dressed bucks on our property were 10-20 pounds heavier than they were prior to food plots. We concurrently reduced the overall population through harvest management. We also got the best buck ever that year. Probably not a coincidence?
For whitetail does, food plots can help ensure healthy fawns. Our surveys showed increases in fawn survival the last two years. We felt like we were hitting on all cylinders and that at least for our part of Oklahoma, we had found the best food plot for whitetail deer. Will the plot mix above work for you? Probably so, as long as you are in an area with similar rainfall and have similar soils.