Rows of freshly watered corn growing in a garden

iStockphoto/Andrew Simpson

Introduction to How Food Plots Work

Have you ever put up bird feeders in your ­yard or added plants to your garden so you could watch ­different birds and animals come to feed? If your only goal is the enjoyment of watching wildlife, then your intent is recreational feeding. Supplemental feeding goes one step farther. For example, some people dump large quantities of corn or potatoes to help sustain a deer herd -- yet this method may be considered a form of baiting, which some believe is unethical.

A third alternative is a food plot. Food plots don't pose many of the same problems as recreational or supplemental feeding, which often don't provide a digestible, balanced diet for four-legged creatures. However, once a food plot is established, it must be maintained because animals will become dependent on it as­ their main food supply.

­Whatever your approach, it will likely not be problem-free. Since the 1930s, wildlife management and biologists have worried that artificial feeding spreads disease among animals. When an infected animal eats from a supplemental feeding plot, the other animals that come to feed may be infected from the saliva [source: Sperling].

Say you want to start a food plot for deer. Before you do, it's important to consider your motives. What sort of wildlife do you wish to attract? Are you interested in watching a variety of creatures? Do you hope to increase the quality of life or the health of animals on your property? Once you have identified your goals, you can then focus on what foods to plant.

For some people, however, the only reason to establish a food plot is to attract deer for hunting. If you are especially interested in deer food plots, see the next section.

Finding the Right Seed

Check with a local agricultural educator at a nearby college or university to get recommendations for what to plant in your area. Many businesses cater to farmers and will most likely sell you seeds. There are also wildlife organizations for particular animals -- deer, pheasant, quail, ducks and wild turkey -- that sell seeds [source: Zoller and McMillen].

Deer Food Plots

If you've de­cided that you want to attract more deer, whether for viewing or hunting, you should begin by realizing two factors. First, no single plant can offer complete nutrition to any animal. Deer like corn, one of the most popular food plot choices, but they need other nutrients. Second, there is no simple solution. In a perfect world, you would plant a variety of crops that mature at different times, providing a regular food supply for deer. Such efforts can get expensive and require a great deal of maintenance. Make sure you know what you're in for before you break ground.

­Just like people say in the real estate business, the most important factor is location, location, location. Think about your property: Do you have a wetland area, the edge of a forest, a field border, windbreak or a brushy fencerow? There's the place for your food plot [source: Zoller and McMillen]. In addition to finding an ideal location for starting your plot, you also need to consider its size. The plot needs to be a minimum of 300 square feet (about 93 square meters). A good rule of thumb is to plant about half an acre (0.20 hectares) for about every 20 acres (8 hectares) of land. If you also want to provide the animals with winter cover, you'll need about 2.5 acres (1 hectare) to do the job. Generally, you should place the food plot in a long strip abutting an area that the animals would use for a refuge. That way, animals will use it more.

Regional variations exist. Deer food plots are critical during major stress periods. In southern climates, late summer is one of these periods. In northern regions, deer often experience nutritional stress in winter [source: Food Plots.com].

You've got the land, the time, and the desire to put in a deer plot, but have you checked the soil? Have you thought about what to plant? To find out, amble on over to the next section.

What's For Dinner?

What smorgasbord would attract deer? Think about legumes for winter foraging. Deer need the calcium in those crops, such as red and white clovers, to produce antlers and develop properly. Legumes are also great for energy. Another good winter option is cereal grains, such as winter rye and wheat and oats that are winter-hardy. For summer, deer are especially fond of alfalfa, soybeans and cowpeas.

Planting Food Plots

Before beginning to plow, your first concern should be soil quality. Plants can't reach maximum yields if the soil lacks proper nutrients. If you live in the United States, you can determine the quality of your soil by checking with your Soil and W­ater Conservation District. This organization has copies of county soil surveys available. While there, pick up a soil-testing lab kit, which will include a sample bag. Take random soil samples from the earth about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) deep, which will be how deep the seed will be. Walk your land in a zigzagging pattern to collect the soil. Mix all the samples in a bucket, take out enough for your lab bag and wait. Results on your soil quality should be available in a few weeks [source: Zoller and McMillen].

­Prepare the soil with a tractor, a corn planter or drill, and a disk. The equipment you need can be rented. Renting equipment is another area in which the Soil and Water Conservation District can help. You may be able to hire a nearby farmer to do the tillage and planting for a fee. You could also use an all-terrain vehicle with special attachments. If the area is small, once the land has been readied, you can plant the seed by hand. Planting is a good project for a conservation club, 4-H club or family outdoor activity [source: Zoller and McMillen].

Don't neglect fertilizer, but don't assume that more is always better. Most seed available for purchase needs fertilizer for maximum yield. Don't waste fertilizer -- too much can negatively impact yields. Your soil test should indicate how much lime and fertilizer you need. Adhere to the recommendations [source: Zoller and McMillen].

Food plots may give you an advantage as a hunter. So is the practice ethical? To consider this question, read on.

The Importance of Protein

At various stages of life, deer have different protein needs. Fawns require up to 22 percent of their diet to be protein. This percentage is similar to but may be a few percentage points higher for lactating females. To develop antlers properly, males need a diet of 13 to 16 percent protein. [source: McGowan and Osborne].

Food Plot Ethics

Let's cons­ider how food plots are beneficial to wildlife. They attract and nourish deer and other wildlife in multiple seasons. Planting a food plot means that the deer are more spread out than they would be at a supplemental feeding dump. This brings less likelihood of passing disease throughout the herd.

Some people believe that food plots are simply part of effective deer management. Food plots also create a habitat that will attract other wildlife. Insects that pollinate the plot will provide food for nesting birds that may find shelter there.

Fewer people now must hunt out of necessity. Following sound ethical practices such as obeying the law, using appropriate behavior, and showing respect for and knowledge of animals can assist the non-hunting public in understanding and accepting the motives of hunters [source: Posewitz]. In general, a good relationship with landowners and adherence to all rules about hunting is required.

The major ethical questions a person should as before starting a food plot are:

  • Is the food plot good for the resource (deer, in this case)?
  • Is the practice good for the future of hunting [source: Hart]?

These questions can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. For a senior citizen or disabled hunter, for example, a food plot can permit the joy of hunting once more.

Whatever your motives for starting a food plot , keep in mind that you will be rewarded for your efforts. The wonder of wildlife, whether appreciated as a food source or as an object of beauty, might enrich your life.

Lots More Information

Rel­ate­d HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Food Plots.com. "The Ultimate Food Plot." (Accessed 11/26/08)http://www.foodplots.com/
  • Hart, David. "Outdoor Ethics: the Baiting Game." (Accessed 11/26/08)http://www.iwla.org/index.php?id=364
  • Lehmann, Robert. "Food Plots for Wildlife." (Accessed 11/26/08)http://wcwildlife.org/documents/NewsletterOctober2006.pdf
  • McGowan, Brian J and Dave Osborne. "Food Plots for White-Tailed Deer." (Accessed 11/26/08)http://www.huntfish.info/huntfish_information/view.php?view=381&feat=1
  • Oak Haven Forages. "Steve's Tips: "Hunting Ethics." (Accessed 11/27/08)http://www.oakhavenforages.com/OH_tips.html
  • ­Posewitz, Jim. Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting. Helena, MT: Falcon Press Publishing, 1994, pp. 15-16.
  • Sperling, David L. "The Bait Debate." (Accessed 11/26/08)http://www.wnrmag.com/stories/1999/dec99/bait.htm
  • Stevens, Russell. "Think Before Planting Food Plots." (Accessed 11/26/08)http://www.noble.org/Ag/Wildlife/ThinkFoodPlots/index.html
  • Zoller, Chris and Daniel McMillen. "Establishing Wildlife Food Plots." (Accessed 11/26/08)http://ohioline.osu.edu/w-fact/0019.html