Whitetails 365: Why Grain Food Plots

By Tom Peplinski

Each winter, I go over what worked and what didn’t during last year’s deer season. The self-assessment is really taking place during the entire season. Did my access points to the properties I hunt offer me concealment? Were my setups close enough for archery hunting? Do I need more stands? Did my property attract and hold deer?

In order for a property to be able to attract and hold deer the entire hunting season, it needs certain things. First, deer need to be able to feel comfortable and unpressured in their bedding areas. If they don’t have areas that they can seek out and be undisturbed, there stands a very good chance they will vacate the land or only use it at night. Undisturbed security cover is a must. There are things that make a bedding area better or worse than the next, but all things being equal, hunting pressure will tip the scales as to what property is used most.

Regardless of hunting pressure, a property that holds deer all season will have preferred food sources available on it or close by. Security…and food! If you consistently have a low-pressure hunting tract with food available, you’ll have great hunting all season long. However, food source attractiveness is always dependent on what is available. I’ve seen deer walk straight through standing beans to get to cut corn. And watched those same deer ignore the corn and hammer the standing beans on a different hunt. There are times deer will seem to ignore green plots and seek out only grains, then ignore the grains and go out of their way to greens.

There are some hunters, other writers, and professional hunters that will tell you there is a method to all the madness. What is preferred at any given time is predictable. Well, it sure seems like cold weather gets the deer on grains. Really cold, they’ll track to corn. When it warms up, back to greens. It does seem that food plot attractiveness does follow some kind of pattern. But that’s not always the case. I’ve seen exceptions to all those rules. In fact, there are many times I’ve seen deer hit one food source when they were supposed to be on another that I’ve come to the conclusion that exceptions are the rule! I will try to sit corn when it’s very cold out, maybe soybeans when it’s cold but not bitter, and then green when it’s warm.

What if you have access to only one food source? What if you own or have access to private land. What type of plot do you plant? Do you target green food sources like clover, or maybe rye and brassicas? Maybe you plant soybeans. They are green all summer and early fall, then when they mature and dry out, you’ll have a grain crop. Corn. Who has enough acreage to plant corn right? The problem with having only one of the three is when the local deer herd prefers the other two you’ll have some poor hunting. Making matters more challenging for many hunters is the fact that our neighbors are likely putting in food plots as well. Twenty or thirty years ago, hunters that were planting food plots had all the advantage as deer food plots were less common. Today there’s almost no area of the country where hunters are not putting in food sources specifically to attract and hold deer. And I can say, having been one of the hunters doing it thirty years ago, if you aren’t covering all your bases today it is very likely that one of your neighbors is!

There’s another thing to consider when choosing what type of food source you can provide the deer herd for better hunting. Timing. At the start of the deer hunting season, food availability is abundant. There are almost unlimited sources of green food like soybeans that have yet to yellow, lush hay fields, natural green vegetation, and so on. This also coincides with warmer weather. So if you are of the opinion that when it is warm deer seek green food sources, it’s easy to see that deer have it made during September and early October. In fact other than providing better hunting, or maybe trying to establish bed to feed patterns on your property, deer don’t need us to provide them food during the early season.

As the season progresses and as we start to get colder weather and killing frosts, the green food sources that were abundant are disappearing at an alarming rate. By the end of October, for sure early November, green food sources that can tolerate cold weather really start to shine. Winter rye, brassicas, clover, all will see their attractiveness go up as other green sources disappear. That once lush alfalfa field that has now seen a couple heavy frosts no longer draws deer like it used to. Natural green browse is disappearing. Leaves are dropping. The landscape goes from green to brown in the timber and across the farming landscape.

Then the fall harvest takes place. In just a few weeks, millions of acres of soybeans and corn are gone. The abundant grains that were present all across the Midwest, on most years, will be gone by the middle to end of November. And modern harvest equipment leaves little behind. Deer went from almost unlimited supplies of food to diminishing food sources in just a few weeks. Food plot attractiveness increases as the season gets older and colder not because the cold made your plots taste better, but because very likely that’s all that’s left to eat. The importance of having a preferred food source goes up with each passing day of the hunting season. Green food plots might have drawn the lion share of activity in October, and even much of November. But by the end of November, standing grain crops of soybeans and corn will attract and hold deer to your hunting property with more consistency than green sources alone.

By this time, freezing rain and snow accumulations also make standing vertical food sources even more important. If your neighbors are planting and leaving corn and soybeans, and you aren’t, there stands a very good chance that your hunting will get very tough. Some years this can take place as early as mid-November. I don’t remember a late season hunt I’ve been on where standing soybeans and/or corn wasn’t the ticket to having a great shotgun or muzzleloader hunt.

March is time for planning out your food plots for the coming season. Both green and grain food plots have been and will continue to be part of my season long approach to good deer hunting. Next month, I’ll be talking about putting in spring food plots on a budget, and in May I’ll cover ways to make small grain plots last for fall hunting. If you want to put in grain food plots, but are concerned about available acreage or costs, make sure to read the next two months as I try to cover strategies I’ve used to make smaller grain food plots work.