Last-Minute Food Plots

By Doug Howlett

 Didn’t get plots planted in spring? No worries. These plantings will attract deer like magnets and can be put in the ground with little time left before opening day.

 It happens to a lot of deer hunters every year. Whether you own your own land or manage leased land, your intentions are good. Sitting on a stand or relaxing in camp with your hunting partners toward the end of the season, you’re not quite ready to let the deer hunting bug leave you for another year. This year is going to be different. In spring, you’re going to rally the troops and get those spring food plots planted to hold and grow big bucks on your property. Then life happens. You start getting caught up on the work and projects around the house that fell behind during hunting season. There’s yard work to do with the coming of spring and summer. Children have baseball and soccer games scheduled. There are cookouts to attend, summer vacations to plan, and maybe — just maybe — somewhere in there you squeeze in some turkey hunting (hopefully a lot of it, actually). But extra time for planting food plots? “Hmm, I’ll get to that next week,” you promise. And next week becomes the week after that and then the week after that until you find yourself in the middle of a dry, blazing summer with nothing but withered weeds scattered about the ground that should be lush with clover and other nutrient-rich greenery. Well, don’t feel so bad. You are not alone. “For reasons of time, cost or just simple priorities, a lot of well-intended deer hunters find themselves in the same situations,” said North Country Whitetails Craig Dougherty. Fortunately, there are plenty of fall planting options that are designed to grow fast and provide a nutritional boost in the fall and winter that will attract deer to the areas you want to pull them into.


As summer boils into its final weeks, thoughts return to deer hunting, and many hunters suddenly start trying to think of what they can do to improve their odds going into the season. Fall food plots are a great solution, but accept them for what they are. “Fall food plots usually fall into the category of attractants,” Craig Dougherty said. “They are not going to provide the sustained boost that spring plots will provide to grow big healthy deer or grow antlers.”  By the time fall plots are growing, a whitetail’s antlers have gotten as big as they are going to be that year. “But deer will be able to use them through the fall and into winter to help sustain their energy as other food sources become scarce. So there is still that nutritional benefit,” Dougherty said. Ideally, no matter where you live, whether it is in southern Alabama or upstate New York, you want to plant your plots at least 60 days before the first frost arrives. In New York, where Dougherty lives, that means getting plots planted by mid-August. But don’t just pick a date on your calendar and start disking and planting on that day. You need to look at the weather and try to schedule your planting around that as well. “It’s a balancing act,” Dougherty said. “You need those 60 days before the frost, which will greatly reduce most plants’ growth, but you also need to try to catch some late summer or early fall rains that will help plants take root and begin to grow.” It doesn’t matter what you choose to plant: Without rain, it will obviously not grow. Check weather forecasts and look for high-probability days where a gentle, steady rain is predicted. Then try to get your seed out a day or two before the rains come. This means you might need to take a day off from work instead of waiting for that perfect Saturday.


Just like spring plots, most fall plots require lime and fertilizer. For that reason, you should still have soil tests performed wherever you plan to plant. Look at the available open areas you have, determine the amount of total acreage and then decide if you have the resources and time to plant them all. If not, look at which plots are more strategically set near good bedding areas for when hunting pressure turns up and deer are reluctant to wander far for feed, which ones are more remote and off of traveled roads or paths so that deer feel more secure in them, and of course, which ones will best serve the various sectors of your land. You wouldn’t want to plant two or three plots all on the same side of the property, without planting some on the other side. Plantable areas may also include log decks and logging roads. Just because an area of your farm doesn’t have an open area, doesn’t mean you can’t plant deer-attracting foods along a seldom-used logging road. You might even want to identify an open area or two in the woods that will allow you to create a small, isolated plot where no other hunter would expect and that will take little more than some hand implements and elbow grease to plant. Such areas can provide a vital link in your food plot strategy. When you determine which plots you will plant, identify what you want to grow (more on that later), and get soil tests of those locations. This will tell you how much lime and fertilizer ideally needs to go in the ground before you plant. If for some reason you fail to get a soil test, there are general recommendations on the back of the bag of quality seed products. If costs and or time are forcing you to choose between going with lime or fertilizer, go with the lime. While your plants need both, lime to aid your soil’s pH is critical for plants to receive the benefits of fertilizer. Also, you can lime your land at any time and still gain benefits from it months later.


Fortunately, recognizing that a lot of us hunters are busy and distracted for various reasons and we don’t always get our plots in when we should, Whitetail Institute has developed high-quality products specifically designed for late summer/early fall plantings and they are designed to germinate and mature quickly. These products include Whitetail Forage Oats Plus, Winter-Greens, Pure Attraction, Tall Tine Tubers, No-Plow and Secret Spot. Dougherty likes using an annual like Imperial No-Plow with grains and brassicas to give the deer more variety to attract them and provide food throughout the season. If Tall Tine Tubers are planted, deer will be attracted to the leaves after the first frost and they will also dig the tubers out of the ground and eat them when cold weather sets in. At this time of year hunters also have the option to plant a perennial like Imperial Clover, which takes a little longer to get established because it puts roots down first, but it can offer great attraction if planted early enough. And when spring returns, the clover will be going strong and should last for several years, providing your deer herd with high protein levels that will benefit both the bucks with antler development and does while they carry their fawns and produce milk. Even if you’ve procrastinated all spring and well into the summer, you can still plant and grow great food plots that can provide whitetails with the necessary foods to hold and attract them throughout the early and late hunting seasons. “The good thing is that fall plots are some of the easiest to grow, which makes for a much more successful season for the hunters who put in that last-minute effort,” Dougherty said.