Whitetails 365: Can You Plant Too Much Food?

By Tom Peplinski

For as long as I can remember, at least the past 20 seasons, I try to make an honest assessment of how my whitetail season went after it’s over each year. The assessment is made in overall terms of how good my chances were at harvesting a mature deer and was I consistently putting myself or others I hunt with in a position to have a great hunt. I don’t make judgement on success or failure necessarily on if I harvested a buck or not…or whether others hunting with me did. But rather, did the hunting experience live up to my expectations? Were we on deer consistently? Were my sets well planned out with deer in range on a consistent basis? Was I hunting un-pressured deer? Was I able to predict deer movement or was it a continual guessing game? In other words, did the investment into my season pay off?

Until recently, I have never had complete control over my hunting grounds. This changed in 2012 when I finally reached a lifelong dream of land ownership. Today, I have the full luxury of deciding for myself how many tillable acres I put into food plots. Because my first farm was enrolled in a CRP program, I was limited somewhat in that I could only put 10% of any given field into a food plot. (In a 10 acre field I could plant a one acre plot…a 5 acre field one .5 acre plot) This forced me to spread out my plots to take advantage of the 10% maximum. The largest exterior plot I was able to put in was 1 acre; with the 7 plots I could plant all totaling just under 5 acres. Now, 5 acres might not sound like all that much for food plots…especially when comparing it to the vast amounts of acres you see on the deer hunting shows. But these 5 acres would represent the largest amount of food I could ever plant in my life. So, what does this have to do with my year end assessment? Let me explain.

Can You Have Too Much Food?
Only a short few years ago I would say “no way”. In fact, planting more than enough just means you will have an ample supply of food going into and making it through the winter. How is it possible to have too much? To that extent, I agree or would argue that you probably can never have too much. But, because I was forced to spread out my food sources using that 10% per field approach, it made hunting more difficult because the deer remained spread out throughout the fall. In this way…I definitely had too much food!

I like to hunt food sources on my evening hunts. Better yet, over the years I’ve found it is actually more productive to hunt transition areas or interior food plots on evening hunts that lead out to exterior plots of larger Ag fields. But in 2016, the amount of food on one of my farms made it difficult to predict where deer wanted to be at sundown. They were spread out. Too much food…you bet! Instead of congregating at last light on a known food source that I could key in on and plan for, they had multiple exterior plots loaded with corn and soybeans to choose from. And when it came to the late muzzleloader season it took us two or three precious days to narrow buck movement down to two plots we could simultaneously reach from one tripod stand. The other plots were getting used but luckily not by our target deer. A lot of food spread out over many acres was not a good recipe for success.

2016 Was Unique
2016 was very unique in that it was the best growing season I had ever seen for food plots. I calculated my corn to yield above 200 bushels to the acre and my beans around 50-60 bushels. The neighborhood was heavily planted in corn and soybeans as well. There were also several hundred acres of CRP that came out of the program in 2016 all within close proximity of my farm. Those acres were also planted in corn and soybeans. A prime alfalfa field that bordered my property was put into row crops as well. In past years, my grain plots would have seen much more pressure from the deer herd than they did in 2016 simply because there was less available. This meant my grain food plots didn’t see a lot of pressure until after the fall harvest…which was also a little later than normal. Add it all up and I had over 5 acres of soybeans and corn spread out over 120 acres going into November.

Adjusting to the Neighborhood
For most hunters, we cannot control the habitat within a deer’s entire home range. So if we are putting together a good food plot game plan we must watch and take note of what’s happening around us on neighboring properties. I love having grain food plots for later in the season…which is why in most years I will plant all my exterior acres in soybeans and maybe some corn. I need to plant this many acres to make sure I have standing grain crops going into early January. I am somewhat disappointed that I didn’t see what was happening in the neighborhood before it was too late…I’m disappointed because I should have known better. If I had the option (which I don’t) I would plant one larger grain plot in a single location making it much easier to predict the deer’s movement patterns. Now, knowing I am virtually surrounded by row crops, I must learn to adapt.

Because I am now surrounded by row crops, I am offered the ability to plant more green food plots and still have confidence I’ll be hunting over some standing beans come January. This is a good thing because the lush alfalfa field on my neighbor’s property no longer exists. I had patterned deer movement off that alfalfa field since 2012…now I will have the opportunity to create my own preferred green plot on my land and I won’t have to compete with a lush alfalfa field. Had I caught onto what was going on last year, I could have adapted much sooner.

Sizing Your Food Plots
So far, I’ve gone through and shared my experiences from last year as a way to give you a real life example of how you can actually have too much food on your farm. Of course, having all that food made for some great winter feeding on my property as well as some fun shed hunting. But I hope you can see that for fall hunting purposes it made for some challenging sits. In all reality, and to be honest with myself, the issue probably wasn’t too much food…but too much food of the same variety.

In an ideal world, none of us would be limited with time, land, and money restraints. We could just plant any food plot of any type and any size and not worry about all those pesky details holding us back—like conservation restrictions and money constraints. But the reality is, we do have to worry about these things. If I had no restrictions of any kind, this would be my ideal layout of food plots on my farm:

First, I would plant one and possibly two larger exterior plots in some sort of grain like soybeans or corn. When I say larger exterior plot what I’m getting at is a plot away from security cover out in open terrain that deer will be working toward on their evening pattern. I’ve also heard these referred to as destination plots. Soybeans are my favorite because they offer a solid food plot from the time they come up until the last bean is consumed. I would plant enough of these grains so that they would last all through the season and into late winter when deer need this food the most. I would plant one large plot like this if I was hunting alone or if hunting pressure was low enough between a couple hunters…and two plots of this size if I had a larger farm with multiple hunters hunting at any given time. The point is to limit the main food source on the farm so that it becomes more predictable where the deer will end up for their evening feeding pattern. If I had two of these plots, I could plant one in beans and the other in corn so that I maximize diversity of habitat. Ideally, these plots would also be located in an area that you would never walk by while exiting on an evening hunt…or where you can plan an exit strategy if hunting the plot itself.

These larger exterior plots would be large enough to carry their grain crop through the winter season…and no bigger. For me, this would be one 4 acre or two 2 acre plots because I try to keep deer densities in check and I’m also surrounded by thousands of acres of agricultural row crops. If you need to plant huge amounts of these exterior grain crops to make this work, you might have too many deer, or the non-food plot type habitat that you have is poor. (This is topic for a whole different article) The point is to have one or two larger food plots that you can count on to pull deer in during the hunting season but not so large that they can’t be hunted—or too many that you are in this guessing game. In either case…too large or too many…you will run into the same problem I ran into this past hunting season.

Second, I would plant multiple staging area interior plots as I call them strategically placed between bedding and your destination exterior plots. These staging area green food plots are where I recommend doing the bulk of your hunting. These plots should be no larger than what you can handle in terms of shooting distance with your archery equipment. These are the areas I love to plan ahead on and incorporate them with fence crossings, water sources, and mock scraping scenarios so that you are using the staging area combined with other tactics to funnel deer past your stand. These are my preferred areas to hunt because most times deer will enter the area well before light, and if planned out correctly, will move on from them (heading toward your exterior plot) before quitting time making for a solid exit strategy. I would have a bedding—to staging—to exterior plot scenario set up for every wind direction with the “premium” sets ideal for westerly or northerly winds always associated with cold fronts.

So, can you have too much food on your property? In some ways you can and it will make the predictability of your hunting suffer for it. I learned by reviewing my 2016 season that I indeed had too much food of the same variety on my farm. Hopefully, this article helped you from making the same mistake. Good luck with this year’s food plot planning!