I just finished planting food plots on our family farm in Southwest Wisconsin. You might think planting additional crops just for deer, turkeys, and other wildlife on a farm that has over 100 crop acres of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa in addition to 200+ acres of oak woods and browse makes as much sense as taking sand to the beach. I used to think so. Let me explain.
There is method to why, what, when, and where I plant food plots. For example, a few years ago, Steven Rinella came to hunt deer with me on New Year’s weekend. The week before he arrived, I had lots of deer on the farm and plenty of food in the fields: soybean and corn debris in the picked fields, alfalfa and clover in the hay fields. There was about 2’ of snow on the ground, which was not a problem for the wildlife, the snow was light, and they just pawed through it to get to the food. Then, 3 days before Steve arrived, we got freezing rain followed by really friggin’ cold temperatures; I mean serious, below zero cold, which resulted in an inch of hard ice over everything. The deer moved off the farm and to areas where standing corn was available. The hunting was still OK, but not what it would have been had I had standing corn.
I plant food plots twice a year: In the spring I plant corn, soybeans, sunflowers, and grain sorghum in larger “field” type plots. In the late summer/early fall, I plant smaller plots of white clovers with a cover crop of sweet oats in some areas and mixed brassicas in others.
My spring plantings are crops that require an entire growing season to produce a crop. The corn and soybeans are traditional farm crops, which deer, turkeys, squirrels, and other wildlife in our area have known and eaten for generations. Modern harvest equipment leaves little behind in the fields, or it can get covered by snow and ice, so the food plots with those crops become an important over-winter food source for wildlife. The sunflowers and grain sorghum are not as important for the big game species, but they provide lots of food and cover for game and other birds, and the sunflowers look cool from late summer through the fall. So, think of the spring planted crops more as a food source for the winter that stand tall even if there is deep snow and ice.
The late summer/early fall plantings are smaller sized “hunting plots“ that I tend to plant near or on the way to stands. These plants grow very quickly and produce a lot of sweet forage that deer will go out of their way to stop by for a snack. I plant clover with the oats cover crop in areas where I don’t want to plant year after year, like trails or logging roads. The first fall, the oats are a great fall treat and the perennial clovers are good for the next 3 or 4 years. The mixed brassicas (sugar beets, turnips, etc.) are great deer and turkey forage for the greens they produce quickly. The tubers they produce, turnip and sugar beets, turn sweet after the first frosts, and the deer supposedly really like those. I have not had great luck with the deer eating the actual beets and turnips, but I know several guys who swear the deer love them.
My goal with planting these various crops is to attract and hold game species during the hunting season, especially the bow and late season deer hunts; provide food for a variety of wildlife for the tough winter months; and add some interesting visual variety to the landscape. And since our crop fields are leased out and are farmed with large, modern equipment, it allows me to feel like I’m still doing some farmin’!