Annuals Vs. Perennials: How to Choose Them. How to Use Them.

By Charles J. Alsheimer
  Oh, how times have changed! More than 30 years ago I embarked on a career to become a full-time outdoor writer and nature photographer, specializing in the whitetail deer. It’s been a special journey, one I wish every hunter could experience. Part of what I’ve done for over the last three decades has centered on speaking engagements, which have taken me across North America. For the first 15 years about 90 percent of the questions my seminar attendees asked dealt with whitetail hunting strategies. Back then hunters wanted to know all they could about techniques to make them better hunters. This is no longer the case. Over the last 15 years hunting-related questions have diminished to the point that they no longer dominate the discussions. Now, today, more than 75 percent of the questions I’m asked deal with how to manage whitetails — everything from forage offerings, to food plot layout, to managing properties for better deer and hunting.

With more and more people taking an interest in being better stewards of the land, the management of both land and deer has become a primary focus of deer hunters. Much of the credit for this goes to the Whitetail Institute. In the late 1980s Ray Scott was one of the first to recognize the role that food offerings played in having better deer and better deer hunting. Since Scott founded the Whitetail Institute, hundreds of thousands of hunters and land managers have been introduced and schooled on the finer points of quality deer management. Through this magazine everything from managing natural habitat and soil pH, to seed selection, to food plot layout, to how best to hunt a property has been covered. In spite of this, questions about these things continue to come up.

For many hunters interested in deer nutrition, forage is forage, be it orchard grass or clover. Though this is changing, the end result is that all too often an understanding of the difference between annual and perennial forages is lacking. In order to gain an understanding of the two it’s best to cover the basics.


Annuals are forages that last for a season and are gone. As far as deer feeds go, corn, soybeans, annual clover, brassica, tubers (turnips and beets), rye, wheat and triticale are examples of annuals. In terms of popularity in my area of the Northeast, annual forages like red clover, oats, rye, wheat, brassica, turnips and triticale are often used by food plotters for summer and fall plantings because they grow rapidly, providing a quick nutritious food source for deer. In terms of growth, annuals are faster growing than perennials because the plant’s purpose is to grow stems and leaves, rather than the needed root base required for perennials.

During certain times of the year, due to season, heat, drought, and cold, perennials might not provide the volume of nutrients deer require. This is where annuals can really shine. PowerPlant is an annual offered to fill such a bill. The beauty of PowerPlant is that it is a blend of a forage soybean with other seeds that are vining plants which produce more leaves. It can take tremendous grazing pressure and it’s available during the hot summer months when other plants are stunted from heat and dry conditions.

Another benefit of planting annuals is to provide harvest strategies. Come fall and the hunting season, many hunters want a fast-growing, nutritious food plot they can hunt over. A product like Secret Spot and Whitetail Forage Oats Plus can be planted in late summer or fall and be a real whitetail magnet by the time hunting season rolls around. The beauty of Secret Spot is that it requires a minimum of effort, has a pH booster for maximum growth and grows rapidly so that there is adequate forage for deer throughout the hunting season.


Perennials are forages that last two or more years. When it comes to popularity, alfalfa and perennial clovers rise head and shoulders above most other whitetail forages in popularity. Unlike annuals, which are growing stems, leaves, or tubers after they are planted, perennials are busy putting down roots in the weeks after planting. It’s only after the roots are established that stems and leaves begin to be noticed. For food plotters, perennials are the real super-stars for deer forage. Though they may not be the complete package, they come close. When longevity, nutrition and cost are factored together they cannot be beat. Imperial Whitetail Clover reigns king when it comes to forage choice among North American deer hunters. Its unique blend of clovers offers diversity and resistance to drought conditions enabling it to provide the biggest benefit for the hunter/land manager.

Longevity is a real plus when it comes to utilizing perennials. Being able to get 3, 4 and 5 years from a food plot makes them very attractive to serious food plotters. About the only down side of perennial seeds is that they tend to go dormant when summer stress conditions like heat and drought occur. However, because of their deep root system they will almost always bounce back when the stress period ends.

Whitetail Institute’s Steve Scott sums up the whole annual/perennial debate.

“There is no question that annuals offer variety and nutrients but they are very time specific. Because of perennials’ nature I believe they should be the base or cornerstone of the food plotter’s plan,” Scott said. “If you have a reasonable amount of land and the resources to prepare the land, consider planting annuals and perennials.” Shooting for a mix of 60% perennials and 40 percent annuals is almost always a solid plan.


One of the benefits of annual forages is that they are often easier to establish and can be time specific to deliver the nutrition deer require when some of the perennial plants go dormant or are stressed. Three of the best authorities I know on annual and perennial forages are Whitetail Institute’s Mark Trudeau, Iowa animal nutritionist Matt Harper, and northern land manager Neil Dougherty. They are outstanding deer hunters and land managers who have a strong background in farming practices. To a man they agree that the decision of whether to plant annuals or perennials is dependent on the goals landowners have for their deer herd and when and how they want to hunt their properties.

Trudeau points out that planting both annuals and perennials is ideal for a successful food plot program to really thrive.

“Because every property is different I’m a little reluctant to give a hard and true percentage of how much should be planted in perennials and annuals. In general terms I like to have at least 60 percent in perennial forages. Perennials are the workhorse in my programs because they are highly nutritious and available most of the year — especially from spring through fall when bucks are growing antlers and does are birthing and nursing fawns,” Trudeau said.

Harper concurs with Trudeau but with an added caveat.

“I used to tell people that their food plots should be 60 percent perennials and 40 percent annuals. Now I ask more questions before giving a figure,” Harper said. “If I hear that a landowner has a high deer density I know that he’ll need a higher percentage planted to perennials. On the other hand, if the individual does a lot of late season hunting and wants to winter deer, he’ll have to plant more annuals. I learned a long time ago that annuals can really shine when it comes to hunting because of the way they thrive once the weather turns cold and snowy.”

When I discussed the perennial/annual percentage principle with Dougherty, he said. “I agree with both Mark and Matt. In general I recommend that at least 60 percent of a property’s food plots be planted to perennials because they are able to produce great tonnage for a longer period of time than most annuals. Perennials are the backbone of the programs I run.”

I began utilizing food plots on our farm in the late 1970s. And like Trudeau, Harper and Dougherty I know that perennials are king — the meat and potatoes. As important as perennials are, I also know I can’t have a successful program without annuals. I hunt from October through December and want as many deer as possible to winter on our farm. Without annuals this isn’t possible in my part of New York State. So, I rely heavily on annuals to accomplish my hunting and feeding goals. On our farm 60 percent perennials and 40 percent annuals allows me to accomplish this.


The proper rotation of a food plot from one forage to another is key to food plot success. This is nothing more than sound farming practices. The reason crop rotation is necessary is because each forage depletes certain nutrients from the soil. By way of example, clover adds nitrogen to the soil, so it is beneficial to rotate clover to an annual forage like Winter-Greens (which needs nitrogen). Because annuals like Tall Tine Tubers and Winter-Greens deplete nitrogen from the soil they should not be planted in the same soil year after year, even if you heavily fertilized with a nitrogen-based fertilizer.


The decision to plant annual or perennial forages will depend on the resources available, need, locations, and time of year they are needed. In the best of all worlds a good food plot program should have some of each. Generally speaking at least five percent of a property should be planted into food plots. Following are examples that have worked for me over the years. I’m always trying something new (i.e., seed and plot location) and constantly tweaking what I plant in different locations to take advantage of hunting opportunities.

Five acres: A mixture of at least three forages. Plant 2-1/2 acres in a perennial forage like Imperial Whitetail Clover. The other 2-1/2 acres might be split up with annuals like PowerPlant for spring/summer and Winter-Greens, Whitetail Forage Oats Plus, and Tall Tine Tubers for fall/winter.

Three acres: Similar to five acres but scaled down with 1-1/2 to two acres of Imperial Whitetail Clover with the other 1 to 1-1/2 divided in annuals to provide strategic hunting opportunities.

Two acres: One acre in Imperial Whitetail Clover with two one-half acre plots in annuals for late season hunting and food options. Another option I like for this size acreage is to put half in Imperial Whitetail Clover and the other half in Whitetail Forage Oats Plus.

One acre: If this is all you can plant, you may want to consider using all the space planted to maximize hunting opportunities. In this case, divide the area up and utilize Imperial Whitetail Clover and other great annual attractants like, Whitetail Forage Oats Plus, PowerPlant, Secret Spot, Winter-Greens and Tall Tine Tubers.

 View a complete description of the following Whitetail Institute’s annual and perennial offerings at 
Whitetail Forage Oats Plus  
Pure Attraction  
Secret Spot  
Tall Tine Tubers

Imperial Whitetail Clover  
Chicory Plus  
Alfa-Rack Plus