Food Plots 101: Knowing Food Plot Basics

By Ryan Graden

Food plots can be a big part of hunting here in Iowa for many reasons. Do you absolutely need to have a food plot to have success hunting? No. Would a food plot be a tool in your arsenal for deer and turkey? Absolutely! If you have the opportunity to plant anything that you could hunt over during Iowa’s hunting seasons, I would highly suggest you do so. Why plant a food plot? That’s a very good question. Like I stated previously, food plots are not a must if you are a hunter. I’m certainly not trying to shame anybody out there if they are not planting food plots. However, there are great advantages to having them and I’d like to point out a few of those in this article.

What’s The Purpose?
Food plots offer two great results for Iowa hunters. First off, they are a great source of food and vital nutrition for your deer herd if planted property. Deer, during the early summer, have a lot happening biologically. Many are coming out of the winter months suffering from a lack of variety in their diet. Some might even be suffering severely in their health lacking certain nutrients needed for basic survival.

Second, besides regaining what was lost during the winter months, you have two other major events happing within the herd. Does are birthing their fawns in late May into the middle of June. Once those fawns are born, the does then have to produce enough milk to keep them fed and healthy in their first weeks on the hoof. Remember, does don’t always give birth to just one fawn. If it is a good, healthy doe, she might deliver twins or even triplets. Try to think that through. How much food she must ingest in order to keep three hungry mouths fed?

With bucks there is also quite a bit happening within their body. Shortly after they drop their antlers, their body starts growing new ones. During peak antler growth, bucks could be growing up to an inch of antler every day! Antlers are mostly composed of calcium and a few other minerals. The blood that assist with the antler growth is increased through the velvet (protective antler growth layer) and much of what nutrients the buck consumes in his diet goes right into producing antler.

When all of this is happening, the importance of a good nutritious diet is key to assisting in the deer’s survival through the summer. As hunters, not only do we harvest, but we also should care for what we harvest. If we can offer a “boost” of nutrients to the deer that we are caring for, I think that is a responsibility we should take on.

Where to Start?
That’s a great question. Remember, food plots do NOT have to be these larges tracks of land. Successful food plots could be as small as a few hundred square feet. Whatever you choose to do depends on the availability of the property you have to work with. Your first step in this process is to choose an area that you could prepare to grow a food plot.

Next, I would also suggest testing the soil that you are about to plant in. One of the best things you can do as you prepare to plant your plots is to know what the PH measurement is in the soil you have to work with. Depending on the acidity in your soil, you can do things to prepare the soil to receive and grow your seed. It also depends on what you are planning to plant. Certain crops do better in certain PH levels. It’s good to know your starting point and where you need to get to depending on what you’re planting. If you don’t have the money to invest in soil sampling, that’s fine too. I would suggest starting plots with some greenery and then begin to rotate your crops through the years. Generally, you’ll produce a good crop of food for the deer by doing this. But, remember, adding a fertilizer every few years will also help in the continued production of food your plot.

Some easy “first time” seeds to plant would be soybeans, brassicas, clover, and some other leafy greens. Deer are naturally attracted to these and they will produce a good nutritious diet for deer to consume. Does, bucks, and especially the fawns will enjoy these meals if you choose to provide them.

Food Plots on a Budget
I will tell you honestly, I am a hunter that always plants a “poor man’s plot”. What I mean by that is I don’t put a lot of money into my plots. My budget does not allow for that. However, I have been planting very successful food plots for over 10 years now. My biggest “expense” is my own time and sweat in planting them. If you have the money and can afford to spend an amount on buying seed, by all means, go for it. My point is this, whether you have the money to spend, or don’t, food plots can still be planted!

I have friends that do a very good job managing their plots throughout the years. They can afford to test the soil regularly, order the right seed that they need to put into the ground, and purchase the equipment that helps them do the job well. Their plots produce great vegetation for the deer herd and come hunting season, these people have a great plot that gives them a great opportunity at harvesting some healthy deer for their table fare. Someday, I hope to have this opportunity financially as well. It certainly gives you a more precise ability to plant a plot that will be successful. However, like I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have the funds to do this, please don’t let that discourage you. If you have the will and the time, you can still produce a good and functional food plot.
Personally, I do a little “begging” every year in order to plant my food plots. I have access to a small tractor that has a tiller on the back of it. Instead of a tractor pulling a disc behind it, I slowly till my plots with a garden tiller. It takes a good amount of time, but it gets the job done.

When it comes to planting my seed, I contact my farming friends. I’ve done this for so long over the years that they now contact me. What I’m looking for is any of their old and leftover seed that they aren’t going to use. Rather than tossing it, they give it to me. Some seed is one or two years old by the time that I get it. I just plant it “heavy” knowing that not all of it will germinate and, presto, I have a growing food plot that didn’t empty my pocket book.

Fall is the Time!
After October 1 rolls around, it’s time for you to reap the benefits of all your work. You’ve spent your late spring and early summer planting your plots. You’ve watched them grow and produce a healthy food source for your local deer herd. Now it’s time for you to make a selective harvest that will, in return, feed your family. Once you see that your herd is using the plot as one of their food sources, legally, you can take advantage of the situation. Placing stands or blinds in strategic places will allow you an advantage to harvest a deer.

Remember, there is a method to proper harvesting that keeps a herd healthy. Taking out the older, more mature deer allows the younger deer to grow to the peak of their maturity too. Harvesting a good balance of bucks and does will also keep the herd in check and allow healthy genetics to spread for future years. Having a food plot in your “bag of tools” will give you an advantage for success, make for a fun hunt, and provide you with some healthy, food for your family to enjoy. So what are you waiting for? If you can, go plant a food plot! Good luck!