Planning Spring Food Plots for Wildlife

By Nathan Graham

When most people are planning a food plot for deer and turkey, we think of fall food plots. We think of brassicas, purple top turnips, and radishes. Maybe we even consider planting some winter wheat or rye. All these annuals are planted in the fall. Have you ever considered planting spring crops to diversify your food plot and attract neighboring deer and birds to your area?

If you have limited space or have limited time, plant clover. Clover trumps just about everything when it comes to summer and early fall attractiveness. From October until basically snowfall is too thick deer will be all over your clover field. When winter roars in and we start to get a couple inches of snow, deer will paw through the snow to get to the clover. Too much snow and it becomes too much of a chore for the deer, and they will seek other food sources. However, clover can make your place a prime deer hunting habitat from opening youth season in September, all the way up to the gun season openers in December, as long as there is not too much snow. Turkeys seem to enjoy clover as well as deer. They will often browse through clover fields. One of the downsides to clover food plots is the grass competition. Clover needs to be maintained chemically and/or mechanically. Selective herbicides can be used to suppress grass and keep fields lush. I also recommend mowing or brushcutting clover fields. This helps keep the grass competition under control and keeps clover shoots young and palatable. If left unmaintained you could lose a good stand of clover easily and one to two years.

Alfalfa is similar in attractiveness when it comes to deer for clover. At times alfalfa will be more palatable and attractive to deer than clover. However, after a good hard frost, palatability begins to diminish and deer start to move on to other food sources. Usually this is around late October when it starts to diminish its effectiveness on deer. One of the down sizes is that alfalfa seed is somewhat expensive. Alfalfa also should be mowed and you should keep grass out of it to keep from choking out the alfalfa. When it comes to turkey, they love the combination of the alfalfa plant and insects it attracts. It’s not uncommon to see some nesting in and around alfalfa fields. They also like the height of the alfalfa, it’s tall enough they can hide in it, but can also see above the plants when walking around. Planting alfalfa will add to the diversity of your food plot. If you do a combination of clover and alfalfa, you will for sure attract those early season deer and turkeys.

When it comes to planting trees, a lot of people do not want to invest the time in the trees. Trees take a long time to see a profit off of the produce and fruit. Yet planting a few specific varieties of trees can drastically improve your property especially in five to 10 years down the road. We know that deer like apples and pears. A lot of times these will ripen before the season begins. Even so, it can help bring deer to a camera location where you can start taking inventory of what deer are around. This also helps increase the usefulness of your property year-round to deer and turkeys. Turkeys love fruit as well. A few favorite trees include wild plum, apples and pears. I have not planted persimmon trees but I know that they are attractive to deer as well as turkeys too. The crabapple trees will hold fruit well into the winter months. While this is not as tasty nor attractive as some of the other fruit trees, it does have the benefit to produce food when the quantity of food is low and deer and birds are hungry. By planting a few crabapple trees, you can help supplementally feed wildlife throughout the bitter winter and improve deer and turkey traffic in your area.

Everyone knows deer and turkeys love nuts and acorns. When the mast crops begin to fall, the deer and turkeys change up their patterns to travel in areas rich with oaks hickories and hazelnuts. Planting trees in the spring, while they are dormant, will help you get them off to a good start throughout the growing year. It does take a few years to get these trees established. There are some newer breeds and newer varieties of oak trees that are producing mast crops earlier than ever. Swamp oak and sawtooth oaks are both oak varieties and are producing acorns at a relatively young age. You can definitely plant these two varieties and see a return on your investment within 10 years.

Another nut tree that is getting a lot of popularity is the chestnut tree. I’ve planted some of these and I’ve learned a few things. Chestnut trees have a crown above their roots. This means that planting the tree even an inch too deep can result in rotting of the crown and death of the tree. When it comes to planting chestnuts, keep the crown slightly above the earth’s surface to avoid rotting. You are definitely capable of planting chestnuts on your own, but you just have to know what you are doing. Another thing I’ve learned while planting chestnuts is you need to protect these trees, and I mean protect these trees well. One mistake I made while planting was not putting very good shelters around my trees. Rabbits got through to the trunk and stripped the bark off of most of my trees during the winter, and killed a lot of trees. The trees that did survive were mauled by deer. Deer came by and nipped off the tops of the growing branches. I know now more than I did the first time I planted. I ordered some more trees and planted these again. This time, I had a better plan and used proper shelters that are 6 ft tall. As the trees mature, I may have to completely fence off the trees from protection from the deer. I do know that planting these trees will be well worth the effort in a few years when they start producing chestnuts.

If you have enough area, I recommend at minimum three acres (or preferably more), I would recommend planting a grain this year to stand during the winter months. Having a combination of standing grain and brassica is a lethal combination for late season success. During winter, food is very scarce and deer and turkeys need standing food in order to replenish calories. I recommend planting either soybeans, corn or milo to remain standing and offer some food for the winter. If you have a standing grain source, you will notice a huge difference in your winter success. It is also the first place I check for early sheds as the deer will keep visiting these fields throughout the winter.

If you haven’t started planting a spring food plot, I advise making plans to do so this year. A spring food plot can definitely add to your overall attractiveness and your ability to hold more wildlife on your acreage. If you can only plant one crop, plant clover as it is a perennial that is attractive from spring until thick snow covers the ground. I also advise planting some perennial trees for a long-term investment into your hunting acreage. This will take a few more years to reap a reward, but once they start producing you will be glad you started planting them now rather than waiting and planting them later.