If you would like to improve the overall health of your wildlife, along with your chances to see and harvest deer and turkey, you should plan now to establish cool-season food plots.
Outside of sound habitat management (timber harvest, prescribed fire, native plantings, etc.), there is arguably no better way to improve your viewing/hunting success for many species than by providing high-quality winter food. Often times, these plots can benefit both game and non-game species for several months at their greatest times of need.
Location, Location, Location
First things first, you will need to decide where your plot(s) will be located. Ideally, choose sites that are already cleared and will allow you access without being detected by wildlife. Areas like logging roads/decks, wind damaged areas, secluded corners of crop fields, firebreaks, old fields, and even utility rights-of-way are all great places for a plot. Areas with the most level topography and moderate soil moisture conditions (not too dry like on high ridges, or too wet in soaked bottoms) are your best bet. Plan to keep them away from boundary lines and roadways to allow game safer and more secluded areas to browse. In conjunction, all of these considerations will decrease the cost and effort to establish the plot and increase the odds of your hunting/viewing success.
By far, soil testing is one of the most important (and often ignored) components of a successful food plot. No different from your lawn, garden, hayfield, or row crops, your food plot requires proper pH and nutrients in order to achieve maximum production and wildlife attraction. For a fee of only $7 per sample, the Auburn University Soil Testing Laboratory will test and provide recommendations specific to the crop(s) you are looking to plant. Soil test boxes and instructions can be found at your local Extension office.
Results will indicate what lime and nutrients the site needs to be as productive as possible. It is
very important to apply lime if tests indicate it is necessary. This is because if soils are acidic, the majority of nutrients and fertilizer that is applied will be bound in the soil and not available to plants. Those who only rely on fertilizing acidic soils are wasting their resources and not seeing the full potential of their plots. Even more, some plants like clover may not grow at all in highly acidic soils. Although more expensive and short lived, applying pelleted lime now will help this year's plots while spreading agricultural limestone is cheaper and longer lasting but it takes several months to affect pH.
Size and Shape
The ideal size of plots ranges from 0.5 to 3 acres. In forestland, it is a general rule to provide 1%-5% of the area to food plots. This helps to reduce the chances of over browsing and keeps costs to a minimum. Of course, more plots or other types of wildlife openings can be established if desired.
It is better to have several well-distributed smaller plots than just a few large ones. Remember that there is no need for highly irregular shapes, narrow plots, or trees in the plot; all of these factors increase shade and decrease production while reducing your opportunity for clear viewing of wildlife. However, do not be afraid to allow a grassy/shrubby border grow on the perimeter of a plot, this creates a 'soft' edge. Soft edges provide escape cover that many species of wildlife, both young and old, find security with, this often helps to increase use of the plot.
What to Plant?
It is important to understand that the preferences of wildlife will vary by location and the season. Food plots are simply a supplement to the natural food sources. Planting a variety of crops can help to increase the duration use by wildlife and give more bang for your buck. As conditions change and natural food resources are reduced (particularly in the late winter/early spring), the feeding habits of wildlife will steer them towards your cool-season plots.
By far, the most common cool season plantings (particularly for deer and turkey) are a combination of clovers and cereal grains. Because these combinations grow fast, stay green throughout the winter and early spring, and provide both a source of protein and carbohydrates, they are attractive to a wide variety of wildlife. Annual plantings (Mix 1 & 2) are a great choice for many areas prone to weed issues. This is because the entire plot may be prepared with applications of 2, 4-D and glyphosate in the late spring and again in the late summer to provide grass and broadleaf control prior to planting. Over time, this practice exhausts the seed bank and reduces weed competition.
Clover can be a money saver when it comes to food plots as some clovers can last for 2-5 years (Mix 3 &4), and all clover fixes its own nitrogen (as long as the seed is inoculated), essentially lowering your seed and fertilizer bill. Some clovers come pre-inoculated while others require you to purchase and add the inoculum yourself.
Mixes - Cereal Grains and Clovers
Mix rates are per 1-acre
Mixes 1 and 2 perform well on a wide variety of soils and conditions but must be replanted each year, while Mix 3 does best on soils that retain moisture or are more shaded. Mix 4 will produce on sites that become too dry for ladino clovers. Clover Mix 3 can subside for 3-5 years depending on care and clover Mix 4 may produce for two years before requiring replanting.
If you decide to plant a pre-mixed plot mix be sure to read the label so that you can know exactly what you are buying and planting.
In North Alabama, late August to early November is the best time to plant most cool-season plots, with many traditionally planting around Labor Day weekend. Planting much earlier than this can lead to heat/drought stressed conditions and planting later can risk a killing frost before plants become established. Also, be sure to watch the weather and try to plant with rain in the near forecast to assure the best germination possible.
It is best to prepare your plot sites weeks prior to planting. This includes herbicide applications to reduce competition, applying lime and fertilizer as soil tests indicate, and disking or dragging to prepare a seedbed. This prep work prior to planting helps to assure that undesirable plants and cover will be dead which will reduce competition and allow you to more easily work the soil, soil amendments have had time to incorporate and fertilizers won't burn new plantings, and rains and settling will create a firm seed bed that aids in germination.
Small areas may be broadcast with a hand operated broadcast spreader while larger areas can be broadcast using PTO driven or motorized spreader.
It is important to factor in planting depth when planting any crop, particularly a mix of seeds. Planting cereal grains (large seed) and clovers (small seed) at the same time will ultimately lead to some seeds that are planted too deep while others will be too shallow. It is best to plant the larger cereal grains first as they will be covered deeper, then follow up with top-sewn clovers last.
Ensuring good soil to seed contact is important for good germination and conserving moisture. Ideally, a roller or cultipacker is best to run over the plot, but a homemade drag of chain or fence can also work well, or just simply driving over the plot with an ATV can also help.
Broadcast small grain mixtures evenly over the seedbed. Lightly disk to cover seeds about 0.5-1 inch deep.
Clovers are broadcast over the seedbed after the small grains have been covered. Again, clover seeds are very small so they should not be covered more than ¼".
With a little preplanning and careful site selection, preparation, and planting you can provide a great wildlife plot that can impact both game and non-game species all the while helping to improve your hunting or wildlife viewing success.
Information like this and so much more is available at your counties Alabama Cooperative Extension System office. Please give us a call or make a visit!
Regional Extension Agent – Forestry, Wildlife, & Natural Resources
Norm may be reached by contacting the DeKalb County Extension office at (256)-845-8595 or by e-mail at
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