Forget the Corn

By Bill Winke
When brassicas are bulb forming, deer
will definitely learn to eat the bulbs.
Generally, the bulbs are most attractive  after
the first hard freeze. Imperial Winter-Greens
and Tall Tine Tubers feature bulb producing
plants in their mix 

have finally been broken, figuratively and literally. The hunting season two years ago was the final straw in my massive, years-long campaign to provide my deer with a winter’s worth of maize each year. I went into that spring like all good farmers, filled with the optimism born from the several-month gap since my last failure. I envisioned tall corn and a field full of big ears beckoning every buck in a three-county area. “I will surely slaughter them this year,” I thought with satisfaction.

Corn is at its best when the temperatures are brutally cold.
that is when deer will walk past all other food sources
to hit corn. As important as this is, it is hard to get
past the fact that corn is also very expensive to
grow right now, forcing us to look for alternatives.
Then came the rains, good at first then concerning, finally tragic. It never stopped raining all spring and summer. Next came the bills. Nitrogen is not cheap these days with the high prices of commercial corn pushing so much money into the system that everyone in the supply chain is frothing at the mouth to get their piece. By the time all the bills settled, I had nearly $200 per acre in my food plots—and that was with free seed. That was bad enough, but the stuff was severely stunted from all the rains to the point where I barely got anything out of it. 

A friend of mine once said, “I would just burn my money, but planting corn on a wet year is at least a bit more dramatic.” I felt the same way, might as well have just burned it. So, not only was I broken by the lack of production of my corn food plots, but my bank account was broken too. I would tell you how much I spent, but I am afraid my wife may stumble across this article and see that our net worth would have doubled if I had skipped the food plots for a year. 

So that brings me to my new conclusion. If I plant corn again, it is going to be on a much smaller scale and maybe not until the price of the inputs drops considerably. My mission now: find an alternative with all the upside of corn and none of its downside. 
A good brassica like an Imperial Winter-Greens plot can
produce a large amount of forage and when combined
with clover, as shown here, it serves to feed and attract
deer all summer, fall and winter. Clover should be a staple of any
food plot plan.


So what are the tradeoffs? What am I giving up by turning a cold shoulder to the maize? I’ll start with the negatives. Corn is too sensitive to growing conditions for a reliable food plot staple. It is fine if you are big farmer with crop insurance to cover the risk. It doesn’t work so well if you are only growing it for the deer. 

If the spring is too wet, corn does very poorly. Nor is it a good summer food source even in good years because it is not high in protein and is essentially sugar-rich junk food for deer at that time of year. And it is very expensive to grow, especially right now. 

That is the left side of the ledger. On the other side (the positive side) is the fact that corn provides a high degree of energy for deer in the fall and winter. It is a great source of carbohydrates and deer love it. They need energy to handle a cold winter. Corn stands up well above the ground so when the snows come it is very accessible and deer take advantage of this fact. They will walk across other food sources to get to standing corn when snow buries most everything else. They would rather feed than dig. 

OK, so now that we know the challenge, let’s get to work finding a good alternative. Here are the ones that came most readily to my mind. 

Soybeans: Deer eat the leaves of this legume aggressively during the summer, nearly with the gusto they go after clover and alfalfa. Soybeans are reasonably affordable to plant because they don’t require expensive nitrogen and the herbicides are easy to use and affordable.

 Though they don’t love having their feet wet all the time, beans do better under wet conditions than corn does. Also, beans do pretty well under periods of dry, as well. They are easier to grow and not overly temperamental. I like that. You pretty much know (unless the deer wipe you out early) that you will have a crop of some sort regardless of weather. 

On the downside, the actual beans (deer eat the entire pod after they dry down) aren’t as attractive as corn during the fall and winter. The difference is slight, but deer move more aggressively to corn when the temperatures are cold. This urgency often is the difference between success and failure during the late season. The same urgency isn’t quite as evident when deer are heading to soybeans. Yes, they will eat them during the cold days of winter, but given a choice between beans and corn, they generally select corn and will go out of their way to find it. 

Clover: I love clover for my spring/summer and fall food plots. Nothing else comes close the efficiency of clover. Clover feeds deer what they need when they need it and it is inexpensive to maintain. A seeding generally will last three years, with only the need for annual fertilizer and at least one mowing (two is better) per year. For spring and summer food, I don’t think anything beats clover.

The only downside of clover is that it is not as attractive during the late fall and winter as some other options. So clover is not a true alternative to corn in the northern states like Iowa and Wisconsin. It fills an important niche as a top spring, summer and early seasonal fall food source, however, and will always be a big part of what I plant on my farm. 

Sorghum: Deer like sorghum once they have gotten used to it. I have planted sorghum instead of corn many times. The biggest advantage of sorghum is the fact that deer won’t touch it during the summer. They eat corn aggressively during the summer if there are large numbers of deer. By fall, much of the corn is gone. Sorghum has an advantage here and is the reason it can produce a big healthy plant capable of bearing a full seed head even with moderate to high deer numbers. The deer eat the seed head in the fall and winter. 

One big negative for sorghum: I learned the hard way that deer love sorghum when the seed is in the dough stage (usually late August and early September, depending on planting date). Once the deer get used to sorghum, they will nearly wipe it out during the dough stage leaving little for fall and winter consumption. 

The other downside of sorghum is the fact that it requires a lot of nitrogen to grow well. Nitrogen is expensive now, as I have already discussed. You don’t need to add as much phosphorous and potassium to the soil for sorghum as you do for corn, but sorghum also doesn’t yield as many bushels per acre (about half) as a good corn crop. 

It makes sense to consider sorghum in some situations, especially if you have pheasants and quail that you are also trying to manage. The game birds do very well on table scraps—the seeds that sloppy deer drop onto the ground— and they will live very well in the cover of the sorghum patches. However, if you are focusing strictly on deer, sorghum is a bit costly for what it produces in terms of winter food. 

Cereal grains: Winter wheat and oats are affordable to plant and they grow quickly. They do require some nitrogen to grow well, but not to the extent required for corn or sorghum. They are also quite attractive to deer in the fall and early winter. For this reason, they do serve some purpose in certain food plot situations. However, on the downside, they don’t produce a high amount of forage compared to other options and tend to flatten when snow comes, making them less attractive than other options for late season hunting in the snow belt. In areas with out snow, cereal grains are a viable option, not at the top of the list, but at least in the running. 

Brassicas: In my own personal experience, this is where it starts to get interesting. If there is a simple alternative to corn’s late season attractiveness, maybe it is brassicas. In fact, we need to spend some real time here sorting out the pros and cons of brassicas and see where we end up. 

First, I will look at attractiveness. From what I have seen on our farm and heard from others, deer love certain brassicas after the first hard freeze. They will run to them when the time is right. With a good mix, the attractiveness of the brassica blend is not in question. Once they get used to it, the deer will crave it. Of course, you want to stick with mixes that are proven to assure that you are getting this benefit. 

Second, the brassicas do supply a lot of what the deer need in the late season. The leaves are very rich in protein, rivaling most legumes and when the brassica also bears tubers (not all do), these also are fairly high in protein. So protein is not a problem either. Brassicas (leaves and tubers) tend to become more palatable later in the fall/winter (after at least one hard freeze) which suggests that there is some kind of sugar or starch (carbs) there that will also provide energy. 

Third, brassicas produce a lot of forage. Information I have seen suggests that a good mix will produce between 1.5 and 5 tons per acre depending on soil quality, weather and fertilizer. I always figure two to three tons per acre of any food source (forage or grain) is pretty darn good. So, brassicas also produce a good (great) supply of forage. We are up to three pluses for brassicas. 

On the downside, brassicas can be temperamental. I have had some bad luck with pure turnip plantings when the conditions were too wet. They died and withered away during the late summer during wet years. Properly selected blends do much better because there is usually something in the mix that will hold up under wet conditions. That is another reason why I like blends—you never are completely wiped out if the growing conditions turn less than ideal. You do have the option of a summer or early fall planting so generally, you are going into a moist (not wet) seedbed. You can time the planting to coincide with a good rain. 

Finally, we need to look at the cost of brassicas versus corn. I think I have established the fact that a good brassica blend is definitely a worthy addition to the food plot regimen, but we don’t want to jump out of frying pan and into the fire on this one, so let’s see what it costs to grow a robust crop of brassicas before we convert all the acres over. Studying the information I have at my disposal, as well as looking back over my own experiences, brassicas require about 70 percent as much nitrogen per acre as corn and slightly less phosphorous and potassium. After properly killing the existing plants and tilling the seedbed, there is no herbicide treatment needed in most cases. Therefore, to keep this simple, you can figure that brassicas are less expensive to plant than corn and they yield greater amounts of forage and produce a good combination of protein and carbohydrates for winter attraction. 
When the conditions are right, you can over-seed thin areas
within other food plot crops with brassica-like Imperial Winter-Greens.
This produces additional forage and give you the most possible forage
in your plots.


I am always going to keep the farm lush and green with clover so the deer have many secure, small plots in which to feed during the spring, summer and early fall, but I still need to figure out a cost-effective food source for winter attraction. Here is my solution. 

My plan is to use a rotation of soybeans and brassicas. It is never a good idea to plant brassicas for more than two years in the same plot, so rotation is inevitable anyway. Besides, the brassicas can benefit from the nitrogen credit left in the ground from the prior year’s soybean crop. It is a natural way to get the most out of your plots for the least amount of money. I will fertilize the brassicas as required on the bag and then depend on the P and K carryover to help my soybeans the following year. The two crops complement each other just as nicely as corn and beans, but at a lower cost and with less risk of a failed crop. 

There are two ways to create this rotation  You can swap entire fields from one year to the next or you can split the field roughly in half and swap back and forth within that field annually. Splitting the field is really the best way to create maximum attraction in your plots as long as the soybean portion is big enough to sustain summer grazing pressure. Beans are going to get hit harder because the brassica portion of the plot is fallow until planted in summer or early fall. However, there is a nice way around this if you plan, and that is what I will cover next. 


To take the complementary nature of these two crops one step farther, you can include a plow-down mix into your soybean plot to enhance the soil fertility for your brassica blend the next year. This also gives the deer something to eat during the spring and summer rather than simply a fallow field of weeds. This concept is known as green manure. 

You frost seed a blend of a clover into your soybean plot around the time the leaves start to turn yellow on the soybeans (early fall). The clover seeding will germinate and start to grow in the fall but will really hit its stride the following spring. By late summer, you will have a thick stand of some rangy looking clover that you can mow down and till into the soil. 
Brassicas like Imperial Winter-Greens
 are particularly attractive to deer after a hard freeze
making, them a great choice for mid-fall through late

Believe it or not, a good stand of clover plowed down like this will provide nearly all the nutrients you need for the ensuing crop of brassicas. Organic farmers use this practice all the time. 

You also benefit from having some weed control in the form of a plant that deer will eat during the spring and early summer leading up to the time when you till it in and establish the brassicas.

Just to be on the safe side, you should still include a half dose of conventional fertilizer before tilling and planting the brassicas. Seeding a blend of clovers in the late summer will save you a lot of money on fertilizer the next year while getting the absolute most possible out of your food plot acres. 


If commodity prices ever drop and fertilizer costs come back to earth, I may start planting corn again, but for now, I would rather forego corn plots in favor of paying my mortgage. They are of about equal size! I am sure the family will appreciate a place to live and some food. Yes, corn is attractive in the winter, but man, is it ever expensive. Fortunately, there are very effective strategies you can use to eliminate corn without reducing the late season attractiveness of your property.