Food plots, like bait piles, provide an attractive food source for deer that hunters can use as a tool. And that’s about where their similarities end.
Anyone who has delved into this world knows that by planting forage you can connect more deeply with the landscape around you, gain an unprecedented education for plant life and provide a myriad of benefits to the wildlife in the surrounding area. But on top of that, food plotting requires a tremendous amount of learning and consistent hard work.
Taking your food plotting to the next level requires building these inputs to an even higher degree. Here are three next-level food plotting concepts that I’m working to implement, which can help you too.
Food Plot Screens
I killed the biggest buck of my life last year because of a “screen.” Not a phone screen, window screen or a TV screen—a food plot screen. In short, a food plot screen is some kind of vegetation planted specifically to make a visual barrier around a field or food plot.
Having a visual barrier like this can be useful in several different ways. First and foremost, a screen provides wildlife an added sense of security when feeding in the surrounded food source. Rather than being out in the open, deer prefer being in or near cover. A screen of vegetation can provide this sense of security by transforming a corner of a wide-open field into a smaller, more secure opening that a mature deer would enter.
This was exactly the scenario I encountered with my 2018 Michigan buck. The food source he was feeding on was adjacent to a wide-open, cut bean field and within view of a regularly traveled road and several houses. If it hadn’t been for the 10-foot tall strip of Egyptian wheat that completely hid the small food source, I don’t think that buck would have stepped into range during daylight.
A food plot screen can also provide you an opportunity to move about your property without spooking deer. By visually blocking a food plot, deer feeding within it won’t see you approaching or leaving stands—leading to more effective hunts and deer that are more comfortable using your property during daylight.
Food plot screens also encourage more deer movement across a property by encouraging rutting bucks to travel into a food plot to visually survey it, and reduce social stress by allowing doe family groups to have their own areas to feed without interference. Simply put, screens are great for hunters, deer and other wildlife.
This visual barrier can be created in a number of ways. Planting a quick growing, tall annual grass, like Egyptian wheat or sorghum, is a popular and effective option, and one that I’ve used myself over the past five years. Other annuals, like corn, sunflowers and sunn hemp, are often used as well.
Long term options, like switchgrass, evergreen trees and large bushes, can also be useful. They take a while to establish, but require less maintenance down the road. Whatever you go with, remember that the most important criteria are that the screen blocks sight in and out of a secluded area, and doesn’t attract deer to the edge.
Since first planting food plots about 10 years ago, I’ve followed the conventional wisdom of disking or tilling the soil of a food plot before planting. It turns out this might be a big mistake.
According to Gabe Brown, author of “Dirt to Soil” and a popular speaker on the topic of regenerative agriculture, “Tillage destroys soil structure. It is constantly tearing apart the ‘house’ that nature builds to protect the living organisms in the soil that creates natural soil fertility.”
Over the last few months I’ve dove into the literature surrounding ecologically friendly farming techniques and found that possibly the single greatest change food plotters can make is to stop ripping up the earth.
When you disk or till soil, you rapidly reduce organic matter important to future plant growth, lose important soil moisture, reduce future water infiltration capabilities, and damage soil biology. All of this leads to less fertile and less productive ground. It seems that by transitioning to a no-till approach, whether with a planting drill or creative broadcasting strategies, you can effectively plant your food plots while retaining soil moisture, reducing soil erosion and taking advantage of the systems in place that naturally produce healthy forage.
Over recent decades, certain segments of the commercial agriculture world have come to understand this same set of issues and adopted no-till drills as more soil-friendly implements. But the idea has largely been ignored in the food plotting world. Dr. Grant Woods, a habitat consultant and host of “Growing Deer TV,” advocates a no-till “regenerative” approach to food plotting. He recently discussed this in detail on episode 279 of the Wired To Hunt Podcast.
Diverse Food Plots
For a long time, I was also under the impression that it was best to plant just one type of seed in a given area. I’d sometimes plant solid strips of one plant next to another, but they’d always be in a monoculture. The idea is that with only one forage planted in a given area, you could properly time and fertilize that planting and get maximum growth without interference. As I’ve delved deeper into agronomy, this assumption from my early years has proven misguided.
Monocultures only appear in man-made scenarios. Diversity, on the other hand, is more natural. Rather than fighting nature, some farmers and food plotters are realizing the benefits of embracing it.
Diversity is not only more in tune with the natural way of things, but its presence in food plots might also lead to more effective plots. Purely from a hunting standpoint, a diverse planting provides the ability for a plot to attract deer throughout the entire year, rather than just during a short, single attraction period that might be offered by a monoculture. With a blend, you could include oats for early season, clover for mid-season and brassicas for late season. This long-term attraction leads to more consistent patterns that hunters and wildlife can.
According to a study by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences looking at cover crops planted by farmers, “Planting a multi-species mixture of cover crops—rather than a cover crop monoculture—between cash crops, provides increased agroecosystem services, or multifunctionality.”
These “agroecosystem services” are essentially helpful processes performed naturally by certain plants that benefit the surrounding life forms. This can come in the form of weed suppression, nitrogen fixation, biomass production, better capture of sunlight and water, and many other improvements to your soil. For example, some plant species need a lot of nitrogen to grow, while other species take nitrogen from the atmosphere and then naturally add it back to the soil for other plants to use. By planting these types of plants together, both will benefit. A diversity of plant life in a plot also promotes a diversity of microbes within the soil, which leads to more complex and resilient soil biology.
In short, the theory is that by blending your plantings, you’ll get a more consistently attractive food source that is also naturally more nutritious to deer, higher yielding, more resilient to fluctuations in weather, and less dependent on expensive synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicide.
Feature image via Captured Creative.