Why Food Plots Are Needed Even in Farm Country

By Matt Harper
Diversity is key when planting
food plots where diversity is not a
key consideration for farmers
 Ascending to the ranks of professional sports is an accomplishment attained by very few. It takes a combination of natural ability, good genetics, incredible effort and focus in honing one’s physical skills—and maybe even a dash of luck. Even more rare are those handful of special athletes who made it to the big time in more than one sport. The natural athletic talent found in people such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders that gave them the ability to compete in both professional baseball and football (and do it pretty well) is more than just unique.

Although, there are those that would argue that this is really not all that incredible since many of the same physical abilities are needed to excel in different sports. Speed, hand-eye coordination, strength, endurance and so on are attributes common among most sporting activities. But to reach the professional level in any sporting endeavor, nearly all athletes find themselves at a point in their career where they realize that to achieve the highest level of performance they must doggedly practice and focus on the particular skills their chosen sport requires. Would Aaron Rogers or Tom Brady have been good baseball or basketball players? Probably, because like most professional sports figures, Rogers and Brady are natural athletes. But to become great and to make it to the pinnacle of their chosen sport, they made a decision to hone the specific skills they needed to push them to greatness.

I have had the fortune of taking some pretty good deer through the years. To harvest good deer one must work on the game strategy (reading sign, planning tree stand locations etc.), perfect the necessary skills (making sure you can hit what you aim at) and have a good bit of luck on your side. But even with all of these things, there must be good deer where you are hunting in order to harvest them. This last piece of the puzzle comes as a result of diligent management. When I tell people that I live in southern Iowa, the normal response is something like, “well, it’s no wonder you kill big deer, they are all corn fed.” While admittedly Iowa is a great place for deer hunting, to simply rely on the agricultural practices around you to produce great deer can result in “OK” results— let’s call it minor league Single A results. But to get to the majors where you have good deer year after year on your property, you can’t just rely on your neighbor’s corn fields. You must approach the management of your hunting land as a professional athlete approaches the perfection of his or her skills needed to play at the highest levels.


Unquestionably, deer that call farmland their home derive benefit from the grain and hay fields planted by the local farmers. When combined with sound herd management practices, the nutrition derived from agricultural fields will help produce a deer herd the quality of which typically exceeds that of deer found in non-agricultural areas. However, I can name countless examples of properties that, through the use of food plots, have produced deer that will rival any deer found in the Corn Belt. In fact, on many of these properties, the quality of deer exceeded that of their farmland brethren especially when compared to farms that did not practice deer management. When you target the specific nutritional needs of whitetail deer and grow food sources on a property that are intended solely for deer utilization, you can’t help but improve the quality of deer on that property. This is true whether or not the property is located in agricultural country.

Agricultural agronomics, regardless of the crop, are dictated by production goals of the farmer. The type of crop planted, the varieties used, timing of harvest etc. are all decisions that are made with the goal of maximizing the economic return of the crop. In most instances there is little or no thought given to how the farming practices will affect the deer herd. For example, we know that diversification of habitat and food sources are good deer management practices. But if the rotation calls for planting all the crop fields to corn, that is what is going to happen even though it does not offer diversification. Let’s say a farm may have good diversification with grain crops and alfalfa fields, but because of the high price of corn, the farmer decides to till up the hay field and plant it to corn also. The farmer is making these decisions on what to plant/grow in order to maximize the farm’s income just like any other business owner would do.

One might think that corn would be beneficial to the deer herd as a carbohydrate source to meet energy needs during fall and winter months. If the corn was available to the deer herd during the fall and winter it indeed would be a great source of carbohydrates. The problem is that corn is harvested between September and November (depending on where you are in the country), leaving little or no corn left during the most nutritionally stressful winter months. You may argue that waste crops or grains that were lost in the harvest would supply deer with a good food source.

Again, it is true that any grain that the combine missed will be a good food source but most people overestimate the amount of grain left lying on the ground after harvest. Equipment manufacturers and farmers both know that waste grains are the same as money thrown away, so equipment is designed to capture nearly all the grain, and farmers utilize harvesting practices that will make sure they don’t lose a large amount of their crop. In other words, if you are going to sell or buy a $300,000 combine you’re probably going to make sure it doesn’t miss much of the grain. I will admit that there are times when a field may appear to have abundant waste, but if you went out there with a bucket and tried to pick it up, you would be hard pressed to find enough to feed a deer herd thru the winter. Furthermore, deer are not the only animals looking for waste crops. Turkey, crows, geese, raccoons and a host of other animals are out picking up the scraps as well.

From a nutritional perspective, some agricultural crops can supply needed nutrients to the deer herd. Soybean fields for example are often browsed by deer, and they contain good levels of protein. However, digestibility varies depending on the maturity of the soybean plant. Corn is sometimes nipped off by deer when it is very young, but for the most part, deer eat the actual ear produced by the plant and not the plant itself. Deer require high levels of protein and other nutrients during the spring and summer months when bucks are growing antlers and does are lactating. Considering that corn is fairly low in protein and that the ear is not formed until late summer, a corn field will supply little nutrition during the vital spring and summer months.

Hay fields, planted to alfalfa or clover can be nutritionally beneficial to the deer herd. Keep in mind, however, that the varieties used are designed primarily to be used as hay for cattle. These varieties are designed to grow and mature quickly and produce large amounts of tonnage. This rapid growth must be supported by a sturdy plant stem. Because of their large rumen, cattle have the ability to utilize both the leaf and the stem of a hay crop. Deer on the other hand, being small ruminants, require a much more digestible forage and have little ability to digest stems and/or mature vegetation. Therefore, deer benefit from hay fields mostly when they consist of short vegetative plants. As the field grows, digestibility decreases along with the benefit to the deer herd.

Furthermore, most agricultural hay fields are a combination of legumes (alfalfa, clover etc.) and grasses such as orchard grass, timothy and so on. Grasses tend to not be preferred by deer as they lack the more highly digestible leaf of a legume and are higher in fibrous compounds that deer have difficulty digesting. Cattle, with their large rumen, can utilize grasses very well and in fact a legume/grass hay is typically more preferred for cattle than a straight legume crop.
The Imperial Winter-Greens and Whitetail Forage Oats in the
foreground will still be available long after the corn field
in the background has been harvested.


I have had many people ask me how food plots would work when their hunting property is surrounded by agricultural fields. Why would deer come to a food plot when they have all the food they want elsewhere? The answer is that your success of drawing and holding deer in the midst of thousands of acres of farm fields is a matter of variety selection, food plot location, plot management and human pressure. Plot location is important in that if deer feel secure using a food plot, they will use that plot more than a neighboring field where they don’t feel as secure.

Security comes from being close to escape cover, so a plot that is surrounded partially or completely by cover will greatly encourage deer usage. Human pressure also affects the amount of usage your food plots receive, again due to a matter of security felt by the deer herd. Minimizing human pressure by strategically planning food plot locations and stand locations along with using sanctuary zones on your property will greatly increase deer usage on your food plots. Choosing the right food plot varieties is also a major key to drawing and holding deer on your property. Merely borrowing varieties from the agricultural sector, whether or not they have been renamed as “deer food plot seed,” will probably not give you the desired results.

One may argue that planting corn or soybeans in food plots, even though they are agricultural crops, will draw deer to those plots. I don’t disagree that corn and beans will attract  deer, but deeper thought into that plan will reveal a few problems. First, remember the goal is not just to draw deer onto your property during the fall, but rather to encourage deer to use your property all year long. Something different and more preferred by deer can help accomplish this goal. Year-round, attractive food sources will increase the odds your property will become a core area or home range. Furthermore, just attracting deer is not the total goal. We are also trying to provide nutrients that will maximize the quality of the herd. In order to accomplish this, the property must contain food sources that provide needed nutrients throughout the year, not just for a specific time frame. Corn and beans can be part of your food plot program, but should be only that— a part of the total plan.

The backbone of my food plot program is perennial legumes. Being perennials, these food plots provide a consistent food source year after year and are the main source of spring and summer nutrition. The products I incorporate in my perennial food plot program are Imperial Clover, Alfa- Rack Plus and Extreme, with soil type determining which product I use in a specific location. Why wouldn’t I use a standard hay variety red clover or alfalfa? They are certainly readily available and competitively priced although not necessarily always cheaper. I use the Whitetail Institute perennials because they are designed specifically for whitetail deer. In fact, unique to Whitetail Institute perennials is that they contain certain varieties that are genetically developed specifically for whitetail deer. What this means to me as a property manager is that the perennials I am using in my food plot program contain traits that trump agricultural varieties in both attractiveness and nutrition.

In southern Iowa, I have hay/alfalfa fields all around me, and I even have alfalfa fields right on our farm. Deer consistently use my food plots more aggressively than the hay fields because of the variety characteristics we discussed early in the article. The Whitetail Institute products are designed to be heavily leafed, thin stemmed and remain vegetative for a long period of time. Furthermore, Whitetail Institute perennials are higher in protein and digestible energy than commonly used hay variety perennials.

The second part of a good food plot program in farm country is the utilization of annuals. Where the contribution of perennials is more broad based, annuals are used to pinpoint specific food source management goals. For example, I plant several acres of Winter-Greens, soybeans and occasional corn for a late fall/winter food source when my perennials go dormant in the winter. These plots are primarily designed to supply carbohydrate- sourced energy. Since my neighbors have typically harvested their crops by then, it is important to make sure you plant adequate acres of winter food as you will likely have most of the deer in the area visiting your plots. I also use annuals such as oats and wheat or blends such as Pure Attraction to target certain time frames such as mid to late fall. These annuals also work well in rotational programs when I’m transitioning fields out of perennials. As you can see, I have a great diversity of food sources on my property. Diversity is critical when it comes to whitetail habitat and most agricultural operations lack diversification. One year the fields may be planted to all corn, the next soybeans or even some of both; but compared to my farm, the neighbor’s farms are like a pitcher that only has a fast ball.


Peruse the Boone and Crocket or Pope and Young record books and it becomes very apparent that farmland deer are the benefactors of good soil and agricultural crops. But with some management strategies targeted toward a deer’s needs you can raise your game to a whole new level. If you have ever wondered how people consistently produce great deer on their property while neighboring properties only occasionally achieve these results, the answer is most often a specifically designed management plan. Of course that is easy to say and what else would you expect me to say since we are talking deer management. I can back this statement up, however, using my own farm as an example. In the past four years I have harvested a 150, 162, 170 and a 193 and I can tell you it is not because I am some mystical deer hunting guru. I simply have put a management plan in place that consistently produces a quantity of quality deer that are above average even in farm country. For comparison, before I started managing my farms, I had harvested one buck more than 150 inches in the previous 10 years of hunting.