DON’T CLEAR THE TABLE When the chow is gone, deer leave. Keep them fat, happy and on your property with a year-round food plot program.

By Gerald Almy

 The second helping of turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes sits heavy on your paunch at the family holiday gathering. But who can resist pecan pie? Or better yet, how about one slice of pecan and one slice of pumpkin, with a big dollop of whipped cream or ice cream on top?

The lively conversation begins to lag. The table is cleared. And soon, the dining room is empty as the last guests push their chairs back and head to the living room, sun room or deck. When the food is gone, the reason for being there is gone. Unfortunately, that scenario plays out on many whitetail properties. Landowners offer deer great food, most often from fall through winter. But then, they clean the table when the fall-planted annuals die and leftover table scraps are plowed under. Like dinner guests leaving the dining room, when the food is gone on a property, deer often leave, too. If the pies and a few clean forks were left on that dining room table — or maybe some nuts, cheese or cookies — those dinner guests might have stayed. And if you plant enough varied forage, so there’s never an empty table but always food available, deer will also stay. Whitetails, like all wildlife, need three things to survive and call a location home: food, water and cover (shelter). Hopefully, you have water sources or have added them. Most landowners also know the value of shelter and have natural cover or create it through habitat work such as hinge-cutting, planting shrubs, clear-cutting and sowing native warm-season grasses. When cover and water needs are met, food becomes the critical third ingredient to keep deer content and to encourage them to want to stay on your property. Providing a high-quality food source that’s available 365 days per year is the final step to keep mature bucks on your land year-round. Having enough food and sufficient variety year-round accomplishes three crucial goals. Most obviously, it helps you have deer to hunt. Also, it helps you manage them so bucks can reach older age classes. In addition, it allows you the opportunity to provide the highest-quality nutrition possible so they will reach their potential for body size and antler growth. This third nutritional advantage is important not just for bucks but also does and fawns. After all, the does’ milk is nourishing the next generation of bucks. And making your land more appealing to females also attracts more bucks during the rut. To keep deer on your property year-round, it’s vital to always have high-quality food available, whether it’s a sun-scorched day in July or an icy morning in February. That’s where many food plotters fall short. Too many go in big for one type of food plot but ignore the rest. Some estimates I’ve seen suggest that 75 to 80 percent of food plotters only plant in fall, mainly to attract deer for hunting. That’s understandable. This was, after all, the original goal of food plots for most people — to attract deer to hunt and lure them into the open. But food plot options and products have expanded dramatically, and land managers who only offer food from fall through winter will not have nearly the number or quality of deer on their property that a year-round manager does. The reason is clear: If you aren’t providing that year-round buffet, someone nearby probably is. Mature buck home ranges are the subject of many studies and conflicting findings. But the bottom line is that animals expand their ranges as much as necessary to meet their needs. The better the three needs of deer (food, cover and water) are met in a given area, the smaller that buck’s home range will likely be, or at least the core part of it, where he spends 90 percent of his time. That’s the guiding principle I’ve used on my 117 acres in Virginia. And with water and cover needs met through years of habitat work, I’ve focused more on meeting the animals’ year-round food requirements. I’ve done that by enhancing natural foods and, most important, planting a variety of perennials and spring and fall annuals. If you’ve only looked at food plots as a late summer-fall project aimed at improving your hunting, expanding it to offer a year-round buffet program is not difficult. If you already do so, tweaking it a bit or expanding your offerings with new plant varieties will offer even more nutrition and encourage deer to stay on your land, at least most of the time. Maybe you’re skeptical that you don’t have enough free time for spring and fall plantings. This isn’t as difficult or time-consuming as it might seem, because the appropriate planting dates are staggered, and just a few extra weekends in spring should let you establish a year-round food plot program. As a bonus, this also turns food plotting into a full-time hobby with engaging projects for spring, summer and winter instead of just fall.

Color-Code a Calendar

To make sure I get each seed mix in the ground at the optimum time, I purchase a separate calendar for food plot planning. I then color-code the appropriate dates for each type of Whitetail Institute product I might plant that year. This information is included on the product bag and in charts included in Whitetail News. The calendar gives me a clear picture of how much time I have to get that type of seed in the ground. But it also makes it clear that it has to be done during that period. For example, for planting PowerPlant where I live in Virginia, the dates are May 1 to June 30. I code those months on the calendar with a yellow or orange marker across the bottom of the dates. That’s when I have to get PowerPlant in the ground. Then, I highlight the dates for Tall Tine Tubers and Winter-Greens with another color during their appropriate planting times — July 15 through Sept. 15 where I live. And so on for the other products I plant. (Tip: I also mark the exact date on the calendar when I put the seeds in so I can move the planting forward or back a bit the next year if it seems appropriate.) This color-coding system will let you take a day off work or keep a weekend free during the appropriate planting time for planting that seed. Of course, you’ll need to schedule time for other chores, too, such as soil testing, fertilizing, liming, tilling and herbicide application. But those chores have to be performed even if you just plant fall annuals, so they shouldn’t be used as an excuse for not putting in summer annuals and perennial plots.

Two Plant Types Most Food Plotters Need

Those plant types — perennials and summer annuals — are the ones you need to add if you’ve focused mainly on fall hunting plots. To me, perennials are the most important. They should be the foundation for any food plot program. Whether you choose Imperial Whitetail Clover or go with Fusion, Extreme, Edge or Alfa-Rack Plus, these plantings will provide food year-round in Southern regions and nine to ten months in Northern locales. But as good as perennials are, they aren’t perfect. That’s why you need annuals. They offer deer highly palatable nutrition during the lower-production periods for perennials. Remember, don’t clear the table. Because most land managers already put in fall annuals, the easiest way you can improve food offerings is by adding summer annuals. If you don’t put in warm-season annuals in late spring, you’re missing a huge opportunity. The fall annual crops you planted have pretty much petered out by spring. So why not put in another annual that grows super-fast and offers food from May through September where those cereal grains and brassicas were? This lets you make use of those fields for four to five months of high-protein forage production instead of leaving them fallow (that is, cleaning the table) until your fall planting.

The Year-Round Program

Every situation is different, but I like about half of my tillable acreage devoted to perennials. That serves as a base that will support deer with lush nutritious growth in spring, when antler growth is largely determined. These plots will also produce varying degrees of forage during summer and thrive in fall, keeping deer on your land and fattening them up for the rigors of the rut and winter. With that perennial base, I also dedicate acreage for warm-season annuals planted in spring. This is the step that too many food plotters ignore. A great choice for most of us is a mixture of plants that complement and protect each other, such as PowerPlant. This product includes high-protein offerings such as peas and climbing forage soybeans, as well as other plants that offer food and structural support for the legumes to attach to and climb for enhanced production. These include sunn hemp and sunflowers. Best, every one of these plants thrives, even in hot weather. From my calendar chart, I see that PowerPlant goes in from May 1 to June 30. This time is free for a food plotter who just plants fall annuals, which typically go in the ground from August to October. Even those who have perennials don’t have much to do at that time except perhaps mowing or herbicide spraying to cut back on weeds. So there’s no excuse not to put in a warm-season annual in spring. Even in Northern regions, there’s a good six-week window for planting. Surely, everyone can squeeze out one weekend out of six. With major antler growth still to come from June through early August, the high protein content in PowerPlant can help boost tine length and mass. Not only that, bucks not wanting to move far during hot weather will often bed right in the 5 to 7 foot-tall plants to save time and energy traveling to a distant bedding area. Take a breather and maybe go fishing. Then, you have another window of opportunity. Check the calendar for where you’ve color-coded the time to plant brassicas. For various areas, this starting date might range from July through October, with a planting time frame lasting six to ten weeks. Although cereal grains were once king for fall annual plantings, brassicas have become increasingly popular with many food plotters. And it’s no wonder. Their attractiveness, tonnage production and protein levels far surpass most grains, and they’re easy to plant and manage. Winter-Greens or Tall Tine Tubers are excellent brassica choices. I like to put both in the ground in different areas. And don’t believe the myth that deer won’t eat them until after a frost. Often, that’s the case with poorer quality brassicas or generics. But Winter-Greens and Tall Tine Tubers have been developed to have the highest palatability possible, with tender lettuce-like leaves. Be sure to plant enough that deer don’t destroy the crop. I made that mistake with a quarter-acre plot of Winter-Greens in front of my office. It’s an area does and their fawns like to hang out in, and I love watching them between writing sessions. If the sight of fawns bucking and chasing each other and then running back to their mother doesn’t bring a smile, I don’t know what will. But by the middle of September, those deer, now bigger and lacking spots, wiped the smile off my face when they almost obliterated the plot, even though it was weeks until the first frost. This year, I doubled the plot to a half-acre, and now it’s thriving despite heavy feeding pressure. And again, they’re eating it before the first frost. To take the pressure off these plantings, the next offering I turn to is Whitetail Oats Plus. This planting period does not overlap substantially with that of the brassica products, leaving plenty of time to get both types of fall annuals in the ground before hunting season. Deer love the oats when they’re just a few inches tall, which takes pressure off the brassicas, letting them obtain larger leaf sizes and produce more forage. And the great thing about Whitetail Oats Plus is it can continue to produce highly palatable forage through the dead of winter, when other food sources become scarce. Chances are that after I get some oats in, I’ll plant another plot or two of Imperial Whitetail Clover at that time. That will wrap up my food plot efforts in time for the bow opener in October. Then in March or April, if the soil isn’t too wet and I have a weed free site prepared, another perennial plot might go in the ground. After that, the planting cycle for annuals will renew in May with PowerPlant. Of course, each person has time limitations for food plot efforts and times of year when it’s harder to get away. But if you can work a few days free during the widely spaced prime planting dates for spring annuals, fall annuals and perennials, you’ll have a buffet of food that can be available to deer 365 days per year. Don’t clear the table, and the deer living on your land will have no reason to leave. Now, can I get another piece of pecan pie?