Planting supplemental forages is a popular method of attracting
deer. However, one must remember that food plots should not be used
as a "quick-fix" nor be substituted for proper habitat management
practices. Food plots can be used to supplement essential nutrients
that may be lacking in native forage. They are also valuable as a
tool to facilitate harvest and to increase non-hunting viewing
opportunities. Regardless of the purpose, consideration must be
given to each of the following to insure successful
- Site selection
- Soil analysis
- Liming and pH
- Forage selection
The purpose of this article is to provide Mississippi sportsmen
and landowners a guide for simply and economically establishing a
complete cool season forage mixture for white-tailed deer.
Site Selection: When choosing a site to use as
a food plot, the primary consideration should be soil productivity.
Productive soils are those that have adequate fertility, moisture,
drainage, and texture. However, other factors such as adequate
sunlight, accessibility, size, shape, and arrangement must also be
A good rule of thumb is to make plots at least one acre in size,
irregularly shaped, and at least 1/4 mile apart. We recommend that
3-5% of an ownership be devoted to supplemental plantings that
include a diversity of cool and warm season forages.
If land ownership prevents the establishment of food plots in
ideal locations, acceptable alternatives may include existing
openings such as logging decks, fallow fields, utility
right-of-ways, fire lanes, and logging roads. However, the
establishment of supplemental forages adjacent to public roads is
not recommended because of the increased potential for deer-vehicle
collisions and poaching.
Soil Analysis: Most sportsmen accept the
necessity of proper fertilization for optimal forage growth of
supplemental wildlife plantings, but rarely do they consider liming
or soil pH. The two components, fertilization and pH, work
together. Proper systemic uptake of fertilizer is diminished if
soil pH is low. For example, if soil pH is around 4.5, close to 80%
of the money you spent on fertilizer is wasted.
addition, important soil nutrients such as zinc, manganese and iron
are either unavailable or toxic to some plants if soil pH is not
correct. Farmers have long since learned the importance of this
relationship. If the wildlife manager of today desires to move up
to efficiently utilizing soil and producing maximum amounts of
quality forage at the most economical rates, he must learn from the
Begin supplemental wildlife plantings by soil sampling several
months prior to planting time. The Mississippi Cooperative
Extension Service is a valuable and competent source for soil
sampling information, analysis, and interpretation. They can
provide you with instructions, a soil sampling kit, and have
samples analyzed at a cost of $3.00 each.
When you receive your soil analysis, you will be provided with
specific recommendations for liming and fertilization. The time to
complete pre-planning of your cool season plantings is late spring
to early summer.
Liming and Soil pH: Soil pH is a measure of the
acidity or alkalinity of the soil. This measure ranges from 1 to
14, with 7 considered neutral. Any value less than 7 is categorized
as acidic, while values greater than 7 are alkaline. Normally soils
will not be more acidic that 3.5 or more alkaline than 10. Most
soils in Mississippi, which have not been previously limed, will be
moderately acidic (usually around 4.0 - 5.0) due to humid
conditions and the decomposition of leaves, twigs, and other plant
materials. The goal of the wildlife manager should be to achieve a
soil pH of 7.0. A value of 6.7 - 7.0 will net maximum productivity,
especially on legumes and, to a lesser extent, on cereal grains
such as wheat and oats. Proper inoculation of legumes is more
critical on acidic soils because the bacteria which aid legumes in
fixing nitrogen are more limited on acidic soils.
Your soil analysis will be returned with site-specific
recommendations on lime application rates. Do not be surprised if
you receive a recommendation of 3 tons of lime per acre on some of
your sites which have never been limed. (In the absence of soil
testing, a rule of thumb for lime application is to add 2 tons per
acre every third year.) You may also learn that some types of soils
require more lime than others to achieve the same result. Clay
soils will typically receive higher recommended lime application
rates than some of the more sandy soils.
There are many different liming materials available on the
market. Each of these materials will have varying efficiency
ratings. The only way to be sure of what you are getting is to deal
with a reputable dealer. For simplicity, we will limit our
discussion to powdered and pelletized forms. The powdered form is
the most economical. The typical cost per ton ranges from $30 - $50
per acre, including commercial spreading. The drawback to the
powdered form is that a commercial spreader truck must be able to
access the planting site. But, if access is not a problem, this
would certainly be the recommended method of application. You will
get the most benefit from the lime if it is applied and disked into
the soil up to three months prior to planting time. Adequate soil
moisture will also increase the ability of the lime to increase
On small areas or on plantings which are inaccessible by the
spreader truck, pelletized lime can be utilized. This form of lime
is packaged in 50-pound bags and costs about $250 per ton.
Accompanying this price is the added burden of uniformly applying
the pelletized lime on the planting site. This application is
normally made with a fertilizer/seeder spreader attached to a small
farm tractor. Smaller electric versions of the seeder are now
available as ATV attachments. The opportunities to utilize an ATV
and assorted attached implements for disking, seeding,
fertilizer/lime application, harrowing, herbicide application, and
even culti-packing are creating situations where supplemental
wildlife plantings can be incorporated in remote areas of a
Fertilization: Intelligent and economical
fertilization of supplemental wildlife plantings will consist of
applying a specific amount of three basic elements. These elements
are expressed as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).
They are usually expressed in numerical form, such as the standbys
13-13-13 and 6-8-8. In these mixtures the number is actually the
percent of that particular element in the mixture. For example, in
the 13-13-13 mixture, the first 13 is the percent of total
nitrogen, the second 13 is the percent of available phosphorous and
the third 13 is the percent of available potassium. These nutrient
values can be 0, so do not be surprised to see a recommendation of
a mixture such as 0-46-46 on a soil analysis form.
Local feed stores do not carry every combination of fertilizer
mixtures. However, most larger dealers will custom mix almost any
mixture you request. Allow them several days notice to prepare your
mixture. If custom mixing is not possible, you can adjust pre-mixed
combinations to fit most of your basic needs. For example, 5-10-10
supplies the same equivalent mixture as 10-20-20. But, where you
would apply one ton of 5-10-10/acre you would only need to apply
1/2 ton of 10-20-20.
- Legumes fix their own nitrogen and do not require nitrogen in
the fertilizer mixture.
- In the absence of a soil test, "rule of thumb" fertilizer
applications are available for most forage species.
Forage Selection: Plants are most palatable and
subsequently most nutritious when they are actively growing.
However, as a plant matures fiber content increases and protein
levels decrease. By planting different forage species with
staggered maturity dates within the same food plot, the length of
time that highly digestible forage is available will be increased.
Combination plantings will also reduce the risk of total crop
failure due to insects, disease, or adverse weather since different
species grow and mature at different rates.
Planting cool season food
plots with a mixture of cereal grains and clovers can provide deer
with quality forage during times of nutritional stress. A cool
season combination that does well in the south is a mixture of
oats, wheat, crimson clover, and arrowleaf clover. Oats and wheat
will germinate and grow quickly to insure quality forage is
available during the hunting season. Although the clover seed will
germinate, growth will be slow until late winter, when crimson
clover will begin rapid growth that continues until blooming in
late March to mid-April. At that point the arrowleaf clover will
begin to actively grow. Arrowleaf (depending on the variety) will
mature from mid-June until the first of July. Therefore, this
mixture can supply quality forage on the same food plot from
October through June.
To establish this mixture, the following seeding rates are
- Oats 25-30 lbs per acre
- Wheat 25-30 lbs per acre
- Crimson clover 10-12 lbs per acre
- Arrowleaf clover 4-5 lbs per acre
Planting Methods: Seedbed preparation should
begin with thorough disking of the selected site in September. The
plot should then be harrowed to achieve a uniform planting surface.
The seed mixture should then be thoroughly blended (after legume
inoculation) and evenly broadcast over the prepared surface. After
seed distribution, cover the broadcast seed by lightly harrowing.
It is important to note that this mixture should not be planted any
deeper than 1/2 inch for proper growth of the clover component. A
culti-packer can be used at this point to help preserve existing
soil moisture and to insure seed / soil contact.
Legume Inoculation: Proper inoculation of
legumes will increase forage production and ultimately reduce
fertilizer cost by fixing nitrogen in the soil. Therefore, when
establishing forage legumes, it is critical that seeds be
inoculated with the required rhizobium bacteria (Inoculant Code O
for arrowleaf; Inoculant Code R for crimson).
Legume seeds are inoculated by applying live bacteria to the
seed with a sticking agent. Sticking agents serve a dual purpose by
adhering the inoculant to the seed and by feeding the bacteria
until the seed germinates. Although commercial sticking agents are
available, a 10% sugar solution or some kind of soft drink works
well. Seed should be lightly moistened with the sticking agent
prior to applying the inoculant. Apply and mix the inoculant well
to insure all seeds are covered . Allow the seed to air dry in
order to ensure even distribution from a seeder. However,
inoculated seed should be planted within 24 hours to retain viable
Several precautions are in order when planting forage legumes.
Rhizobium bacteria are very susceptible to heat and inoculant
should be stored in a refrigerator until ready to plant. Inoculated
seed should only be planted when soil contains sufficient
Although the seed might survive if planted on dry soil, most of
the bacteria will die before the seed germinates, resulting in poor
forage production. Some varieties of clover can be purchased
pre-inoculated. Pre-inoculated seeds generally have a lime coating
that not only protects the bacteria, but also adheres it to the
seed. However, the bacteria will not remain alive for extended
periods of time. Fresh seed should be purchased and stored in a
cool location until planted.
Food Plot Evaluation: An easy and inexpensive
method of determining the amount of production and utilization your
food plot is getting is through the use of exclosures as shown on
the front cover of this brochure. They are easily constructed out
of suitable fencing material, such as 1x4 or 2x4 wire. Light gauge
wire (such as chicken wire) is generally not sturdy enough to
withstand adverse weather conditions and contact from foraging
deer. The exclosures should be about 3 feet in diameter and 4 feet
in height. As a general rule, locate one exclosure for every acre
of food plot. For more information on how to build exclosure cages
and food plot evaluation, read the article
Exclosure Cages in Food Plots.