What Should I Plant in my Iowa Food Plot

By Jessica Graham

Today, the food plot market offers a plethora of choices and varieties for food plots. You can find a multitude of custom blends and plant species. Quite honestly, it can be a little overwhelming with the amount of choices. To narrow these choices down and help you build a food plot paradise, you will first want to consider plants that will grow in Iowa, and then determine if these food sources are preferable to deer. The best food plots will be able to attract and hold deer all year long, and when used in combination, annuals food plots will help you increase your chances of harvesting target deer.

When most of us are preparing food plots, we are preparing for annual crops. That is the plants will complete their life within a year, and will need to be replanted the next. Generally speaking, annuals will grow faster and provide whitetails food within a few weeks of planting. Some annual food plots that seem to do the best job of attracting deer in Iowa include: soybeans, corn, and brassicas.

Corn varieties grown in Iowa tend to mature from 90 – 115 days from planting. Northern counties will want to plant the shorter season varieties. The soil takes a little longer to warm up to the recommended 50 degrees, and the danger of frost threatens to end the maturing of corn prior to southern counties. Southern Iowa can plant the longer maturing varieties as the soil warms earlier and the corn has more days to mature before the frost comes. Corn does best when planted 1 ½ – 2 inches deep in a loamy soil. Plant corn in some of our Iowa clay soils, and you can expect the corn to struggle and be stunted. This also means less grain will be available for the deer, turkey and other wildlife to graze upon.

Nutritionally, corn is not the best food plot choice. Deer are not able to fully digest the grain and part of the corn never gets fully utilized before passing out of the deer’s body. However, just because they cannot utilize corn grain efficiently doesn’t mean they don’t love it. You can observe deer grazing on growing corn plants, and once the grain is set, they continue to visit the food plot. This expands the attractive window of corn from May to late winter (if the corn is still standing). Corn may be one of the most attractive plants for deer and is a definite staple in the best Iowa food plots and obviously grows extremely well here.

Like corn, soybean varieties are planted starting in late April and are designed to mature before the first hard frost. If they do not, the soybeans can become mushy and may rot on the plant. For this reason, variety selection is important for Iowa food plots. Soybeans grown North of Interstate 80 should choose varieties that are 3.5 maturity or earlier (marked 3.5 – 1.8). Areas south of Interstate 80 can plant varieties that mature later, as late as 4.1. Soybeans have been reported to grow broadcasted on top of the ground if rainfall is consistent and abundant. However, for best results, plant or drill the seed approximately one inch deep. Planting a variety suited for your area will help you produce the most grain, and therefore the more food to support more deer.

Deer love munching on soybeans as soon as they germinate. They will graze on the tender young plants, and as long as the plants are green it seems whitetail will be seen in soybean fields. Early season bowhunting can be very productive around a green soybean field. However, once the soybeans start to turn yellow and lose their leaves, they lose their palatability and desirability to whitetail, that is until the plants are mature and all the leaves have fallen off the plant. Whitetail, as well as turkey and other game birds, will flock to the mature soybean fields to eat the dry soybeans. You see, they’re high in fats and oil, which will help bucks build up fat before running it off during Iowa’s coveted rut. Soybean food plots will be very effective the first week or so of Iowa’s bow season, you will see deer activity taper off, and then pick up again pre-rut once the soybeans are mature. During the late season, deer, turkey and a plethora of other wildlife will frequent soybean fields. For this reason, it is important to have the soybeans standing until the last of the season.

Brassicas are one of the most popular Iowa food plots, and for a good reason, they are planted in late August to mid-September. With minimal equipment, you can plant a productive food plot. The seeds are tiny and cannot be buried deeply, so broadcasting on top of a prepared seedbed followed by cultipacking will create a prime food plot within a few days.

A good combination of brassicas will be able to attract deer during early season, mid-season (after the first hard frost) and late season during snow. Radishes are attractive to deer during early season. They will browse the tops as well as pull the taproot up to eat it. After the first hard frost in Iowa different brassicas become more attractive: turnips and sugarbeets. As temperatures drop and the frosts come, the plants start putting energy back into their bulb. This energy is in the form of sugar. So essentially, your food plot starts to become “candy” to deer. It turns into a sweet food area loaded with calories and energy for deer. I have noticed deer will paw and dig through the snow to get to the turnips and sugarbeets.

The food production and attraction of annual food plots can be seen in a few days to a week from planting. Annual food plots have to be planted every year, but are some of the most attractive food plots to whitetail deer. Planting a combination of corn, soybeans and brassicas will attract and hold deer during the early archery season, all the way to the end of deer season. These three food sources give deer a selection of food on your property and will help keep them from visiting neighboring areas seeking out food. During late season, deer thrive on all these crops, and by having standing corn and soybeans, you will be sure to have deer present during the frigid Iowa winters. One of the biggest obstacles to planning this combination of food plots is planting a big enough area so you have the grain and brassicas available for success all the way from opening day to the very last day of Iowa’s deer season.