July 14, 2021
The buck photographed well and was easy to identify from a kicker point protruding rearward from a heavy brow tine. He’d lived the mature lifestyle of a nocturnal night stalker, but he stayed out a little too late this particular night, and at dawn I fired an arrow into him from my treestand. The stand was posted along a corridor to this buck’s favorite clover plot, one that was planted earlier in the spring for fall deer hunting.
Good food plots attract deer during hunting season and help keep a herd healthy year-round. But, despite all their benefits, sometimes certain factors prevent you from getting a spring plot in the ground. Luckily, summer isn’t too late to establish a plot, and it can serve as both a hunting plot and a nutritional buffet to carry deer through winter and into spring.
MAKE LATE GREAT
Although traditional farming occurs in spring, summer holds several advantages for planting food plots. First, many early-planted crops, like soybeans, can be overgrazed when fall arrives. Also, if a spring plot fails or you see a need for more nutrition, a summer plot offers a backup food source. And, summer offers friendlier conditions in which to plant over the cold and mud of spring.
Austin Delano has been with Mossy Oak BioLogic for the past 14 years. He’s the head of research and development for all seed blends and property management products. Summer plots are the main focus of the BioLogic product line and offer land managers a lush and palatable food source into fall and beyond.
Delano says late summer and early fall are ideal planting times for cool-season annuals, including cereal grains like wheat and oats. Small plots planted in spring can easily be overgrazed during summer. Plus, he adds, if planting in the summer when surrounding crops are at their height and native browse is thriving, your newly planted field may go unnoticed until fall when crops are harvested and cool weather has deer looking for lush food sources. By then, your plot should look pretty appetizing. Another option is alfalfa, a perennial crop with a high protein level—15 to 30 percent, based on the time of year it is consumed.
PLAN YOUR PLANT
Any farming project requires research, planning and implementation. Delano says summer plot preparations should begin well before planting time. A hunting app, like the free HuntStand, can help you choose where to place a plot. It offers satellite views of a property and has acreage calculators for an exact size of the area you want to plant. While at the mercy of what the land gives you, Delano suggests envisioning plot layout and orientation based on predominate winds, bedding cover, travel routes and possible pinch-point opportunities. A narrow point in a field offers a location for a closer shot, especially if you plant with room for a downwind stand and along a route leading to sanctuary cover.
Next, consider soil prep. A soil test should always be done before planting.
"We want the guy who is purchasing BioLogic seed to be as successful as possible," Delano says. "A soil test gives you the information to help the seed succeed and takes many variables out. So when the timing—and weather—look good, you have a good chance to grow the crop."
Your soil test determines the amount of lime and fertilizer to apply ahead of planting. This helps inform summer seed selection. Delano advises applying lime and fertilizer well before planting to give components time to begin working, as they don’t activate right after application.
After proper soil prep, work on becoming an amateur meteorologist. Delano advocates giving planted crops at least a 45-day growing window before the first expected frost. As days shorten and get cooler, the growing window also shortens. BioLogic and other seed companies have proprietary seeds bred to thrive in cooler temperatures, but they still need 30 to 60 days to grow as much nutritional vegetation as possible before continued frost shuts them down. Next, he says to look for a moisture event that helps jumpstart the growing process.
"You’re always hoping for moisture to start a crop off right, but you don’t want to plant too early, as crops can mature early and become stemmy and not palatable by fall," Delano says. "If you plant too late, you risk not achieving optimum growth and having a plot that isn’t as attractive as it could be. Timing is everything."
Petite Plots (5 Acres or Less)
From experience, Delano knows most land managers have less than 5 acres available to plant (the average plot is less than a quarter acre). Instead of figuring how many acres to plant, he believes in planting as much as you can afford in budget and time. This is especially true with Midwestern properties with a moderate to high density of whitetails. To further help a crop survive early browsing and make it into the fall and beyond, Delano suggests partitioning a field.
"I’m a big fan of plot partitioning," he says. "Separating a field into several different crops gives deer the opportunity to be picky and use certain separated crops at varying times of the year. Early, they tend to seek out food that is high in protein. As winter arrives, they move toward high-fat and high-carbohydrate varieties to battle cold elements."
To appeal to deer in early- and mid-season periods, Delano likes planting half the plot heavy in cereal grains—wheat and oats—or a perennial like clover. BioLogic’s Outfitter’s Blend ($29.99; plantbiologic.com) covers these bases, along with peas and brassicas. The Green Patch Plus ($26.99), with its blend of brassicas and clovers, is also solid. Another choice is something from Evolved’s ProGro line, which features an advanced, proprietary seed coating that renders a stronger root system for germination and a greater forage yield per acre. For providing in the early and middle parts of the season, look to the Clover Pro ($22.99; evolved.com).
For the opposite side of the field, Delano likes a winter combination with a heavier mix of broadleaf varieties, such as brassicas, plus ample bulbs—turnips, radishes or beets. BioLogic’s New Zealand Maximum ($19.99) and Final Forage ($21.99) fit this bill. Evolved’s Turnip Pro ($19.99) and Sugar Beets and Bulbs Pro ($24.99) are also good choices.
Prodigious Plots (5 Acres or More)
If you have ample land to farm, Delano suggests working a spring planting into your long-term plan. More land means more deer, and winter adds stress to rut-weary bucks and pregnant does alike. Delano’s solution is partitioning a field into three regions. Divide it in half and plant the first half in forage soybeans, like Biologic’s Game Changer ($79.99). Soybeans offer a browse option early and, if not abused, provide continued energy in the winter.
"You’ll need at least five acres of soybeans to ensure they don’t get overgrazed and have the ability to produce a bean," Delano says. "If you’re fortunate, there will be surrounding soybeans or other agricultural crops that take pressure off of your smaller field."
Delano refers to his suggestions for smaller plots for the other half of the field. Plant later in summer with half in cereal grains and the other half in an energy mix for winter forage. This, along with the spring soybeans, should attract deer throughout the fall and into winter.
PLANT FOR THE FUTURE
Consider these longer-term improvements to your food plots.
Food plots will certainly attract deer to a property, but whitetails look beyond these ephemeral food sources when gauging habitat. They also need access to water, bedding cover, staging areas, thermal cover and, of course, mast trees.
If you already have mast-producing trees on your property, improve their productivity by thinning out competing trees around them. If you don’t have mast producers, get planting. Ideally, you want trees that bear fruit or nuts within a few years of planting. But, if you’re thinking long-term and are prepared to wait, you can plant larger, slower maturing trees.
Chesnut Hill Outdoors offers a variety of suitable hard- and soft-mast options. Many of the soft-mast trees—pear, plum, apple and persimmon—bear relatively quickly. However, their Dunstan Chestnut also bears nuts in about three to five years, and a few oaks, like the
Dwarf Chinkapin and Sawtooth, will bear in a handful of years, as well.
Factor USDA planting zones into your planning. Some varieties fare well in colder weather; others don’t. Also, follow planting instructions about spacing, watering, fertilization and pruning. Lastly, mix up tree species so that you’re providing a combination of hard- and soft-mast nutrition to sustain deer throughout the year.
Look to plums and mulberries for summer; chestnuts, apples, pears and persimmons for early fall; and late-drop pears (like Dr. Deer and Thanksgiving pears) and persimmons (Deer Magnet Persimmon) for late fall and into winter. — Drew Warden
Plot-specific equipment to get the job done.
Tending food plots is farming, and farming is labor- and equipment-intensive. Field location, the number and size of plots, potential terrain roadblocks and soil management are all factors that influence how challenging it can be. And, for many hunters, time is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome. BioLogic’s Austin Delano suggests hiring a local farmer to put in your plots if a lack of time and/or equipment are hindrances.
Do-it-yourselfers with the means, however, should consider a purpose-built food plot implement designed to prepare, seed and pack the soil all in one pass. Plotmaster offers four models ($3,662–$8,799; theplotmaster.com) that fit everything from a 300-cubic-centimeter ATV to a 60-horsepower tractor. Firminator (thefirminator.com) is another option for implements that handle every step of the planting process. These, too, vary in size, with some models built for tractors and one suited for ATVs and UTVs.