Knowledge for Northern Food Plots - by Neil Dougherty

As the food plot phenomenon continues to gain momentum, northern deer managers are becoming more interested in planting successful food plots for healthier deer and larger bucks. Acidic soils and short growing seasons are not a problem as long as you stick to the food plot basics.

Before deciding what to plant, you should first establish your goals. What do you want to achieve with your food plots? Do you just want something green to hunt over? If so, an annual mix planted during fall will work well. It won't be around next spring, but it will feed deer from late summer through fall. Or, do you want plants that feed deer year-round, nourishing lactating does and their fawns, and putting extra pounds and antler inches on bucks? If so, you will want a large percentage of perennial food plots, which in the North are usually planted in the spring. When properly managed, many perennial mixes last four to five years, and produce highly-nutritious forage from spring through fall. Add to these high-quality perennial plots with high-protein annual plots and your food plot program will provide maximum benefit.

It is important to understand that different plants have different performance traits. Study the various plant cultivars (varieties) to understand how they perform and what they bring to your deer's table. Don't settle for an “if it's green it's good” food plot philosophy. Northern deer managers can do better.

Northern deer managers serious about increasing both body weight and antler size must feed deer with high-quality forage for as many months as possible during the year. Winter food plots take on a whole new meaning when they can look more like a hockey rink than a green field. Year-round food plots can only be achieved by planting a variety of plants with different growth characteristics. Some plants do well in dry conditions, others need more moisture, and others do better in the cold. Northern managers need plants that will thrive in all of these conditions. Planting a virtual salad bar will help ensure your food plots grow through a full range of growing conditions.

Making a Northern Food Plot Program Work

If your food plot goals are to increase antler size and body weight, then perennial food plots will be critical. A proven strategy for most deer managers is to plant 60 percent of their food plot acreage in perennial food sources.

The undisputed king of northern food plots is clover. Most clover varieties produce best in soil pHs between 6.0 and 7.0, though some varieties can tolerate lower pHs. The trade-off is a lower forage production per acre. Temuka clover will persist in very acidic conditions, soil pH in the low to mid-fives. Most clover varieties offer protein ranges in the mid-20s to low 30s, and will grow during just about all weather conditions northern deer managers encounter.

Use caution, not all clovers are equal. Make sure the clovers you select are engineered for consumption by white-tailed deer. Many clovers have been designed with the philosophy “taller is better.” While this may be true in the farming business where crops have to be tall to be harvested by mowing machines, deer managers need short-growing clovers. If your clover blends are knee-high by June, you're planting cattle food. I call these varieties “feel good” clovers, because you feel good when you see them — they look tall and beautiful.
It has been our experience that tall-growing clovers are not the best for deer. First, deer do not digest fiber stems well. The energy that the clover plant puts into growing thick tall stems is wasted. Fibrous stems are high in lignin, which makes stems rigid, and deer digest lignin ineffectively. Cattle, generally, digest lignin more easily. As a result, most tall stem clovers are best suited to cattle.

Whitetail clovers should generally have thin stems and grow dense and low to the ground. Remember, deer are specific feeders. Their narrow head and muzzle allow them to pluck specific plants out of your food plots. Deer will consume plants that offer peak palatability — those low in lignin, high in protein, and with a desirable taste.

Clovers should be planted as blends. Almost any clover will do well in the spring, but a well-blended clover plot should perform well year-round under all but the most extreme conditions. This type of performance can be achieved by using clovers with diverse characteristics. These include maturation rate, heat and drought tolerance, cold weather performance, and grazing tolerance.

As a general rule of thumb, each plant within your food plot has a peak palatability season. Temperature, moisture, or plants going to seed will change plant characteristics. These changes will either increase or decrease palatability. The trick to creating successful food plots is to know what triggers a plant to reach peak palatability and make sure you have plants that are continuously reaching peak palatability as conditions change. Even mowing can restore peak palatability to clover stands when young, tender leaves replace mowed tops.

It sounds complicated, and it is. Clovers that produce well in the spring often falter as the temperature increases and rainfall decreases. (An exception to this is red clover that maintains vigorous growth in normal years.) Clovers that have performed well at my New York facility include BancWhite and Colenso clover. BancWhite was bred to be cool-season hearty, an excellent producer, and easy to establish. Colenso red clover is a long-lived red clover with excellent heat and drought tolerance.

Hot weather, above 85 degrees, will trigger most clovers to produce seed heads and prepare for summer. Generally, after clover produces seed the lignin content increases and the growth rate decreases resulting in less palatable forage. Mowing helps, but it will not combat extended periods of hot, dry weather. To combat heat and drought within your perennial clover food plots, chicory should be added. Chicory is about 22 percent protein, and has a long taproot that is excellent for droughts and hot weather. Chicory is the deer manager's equivalent to the farmer's alfalfa. Both have deep taproots and produce during extended periods of hot weather.

Chicory is also one of the most effective plants at transferring minerals from the soil to deer. In many states, mine included, supplemental mineral licks have been made illegal. Natural food sources high in mineral content will help replace this void. Make sure your chicory is low in lignin content. Timaru Chicory is both low in lignin and drought tolerant. Last year, under extreme drought, our research facility went 45 days with little rain. Most clover varieties turned brown and went dormant while the chicory thrived. Deer stayed on the plot working the chicory daily.

By planting 60 percent of your property in proven perennial forages like chicory and clover, northern deer managers will ensure continuous high-quality forage on their property. After the core planting requirements have been met, it is time to start thinking about late season winter food plots.

Brassica, a Deer Manager's Favorite Weapon

Northern deer managers need to consider periods of heavy frost and snowfall. Brassica — a general term that describes turnips and kale — is the secret weapon for northern deer managers. In the spring, plant 20 percent of the total food plot acreage with a brassica blend. When planted early in the spring, brassicas achieve maximum, knee- to thigh-high, growth by fall. This growth is realized with relatively fertile soils and a soil pH near 6.5. A thigh-high field of brassica will contain nearly six tons of forage per acre. Brassica plants are extremely palatable and insect tolerant.
In very good growing conditions brassicas can grow waist high. Many varieties are 34 to 38 percent crude protein with a very high moisture content and 80 percent digestible. Varieties such as Oamaru will remain bitter for the first 30 days but become more palatable as the plant matures and converts starches to sugars. The level of sweetening depends on soil acidity. The more acidic the soil, the slower the maturation process. Generally, brassica varieties speed up the sweetening process after the first heavy frost, which dramatically increases late season usage. This late season trigger is perfect for northern deer managers.

Ideally, deer can work clover and chicory all spring and summer. As cold weather approaches, clover and chicory slow their growth, providing less forage. The cold weather will help finalize the sugar cycle in brassicas, providing a dynamite fall attractant and winter food source. Brassica plants stay green and upright during cold weather until consumed by deer, or until they breakdown in spring.

Each winter my brassica food plots are loaded with deer. This past year was the most difficult I've faced in 12 years of food plot testing. Deep snow hindered deer movements and covered our clover and chicory plots. Brassica fields were sought out and easy to reach green forage was consumed in quantity. It is critical for northern deer managers not to forget about their deer after they hang up their bow or gun for the season. By December, mature bucks might have lost 25 percent of their body weight because of rutting activities. With a healthy winter supply of brassica in your food plots, you will provide a prime food source to regain weight. This helps ensure that you will retain those bucks for the following season. Also, a good winter and early spring diet allows bucks to enter the antler growing season in prime condition.

By spring planting 60 percent of your property in productive perennials, and 20 percent of your property in high-protein annuals, you are well on your way to having a successful food plot program. Once the core 80 percent has been satisfied, it is time for hunting plots. Though the perennial plots are still producing tons of good forage, I like to devote 20 percent of my food plot program to fall-planted hunting food plots that set up for the perfect bow shot.

Fall-planted food plots are lush, tender, and ultra-attractive to deer. They can be located on the inside corners of larger perennial food plots or as small stand-alone plots located in or around thick cover.
Fall hunting plots should be planted in annuals. Northern
fall-planted food plots are racing the clock. From the time they are planted in August, the soil temperature is dropping daily, decreasing the plant growth rates. Most perennial plants spend the first 30 days establishing their root systems before producing high levels of forage. On the other hand, annuals spend very little time establishing root systems and produce high levels of forage immediately. In the North, fall planted annuals will produce more forage than new perennial plantings, but about the same as spring-planted clovers.

A high-quality fall food plot should contain a blend of plants that produce quickly after planting, and continue to offer high-quality forage after the ground has frozen. To do this, a quick green-up food source is needed. Wheat will work fine. Wheat initially has a protein level of about 14 to 20 percent and produces palatable forage for around a month.

A slower-maturing annual clover can be used to mix with the wheat. Mix in a Mairaki forage brassica and your plot will produce well into late fall and winter. The trick is in the blending percentages. Too much brassica and your wheat and clover will be shaded out, not enough and you won't have enough late season food. Locate these wheat, clover, and brassica blends in travel corridors between bedding cover and destination feeding sources and you will have lots of action come fall.

Northern deer managers are faced with lots of challenges, short growing seasons, high temperatures and drought, as well as winter snowstorms. The key to food plot success is to use proven plants. The core list of deer forages is short — brassica, clover, and chicory. Proven plants will ensure your next food plot cycle produces year-round food plots, northern style.

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