Planting forage for deer is a popular activity among many hunters and landowners in Virginia. Food plots are valuable for attracting deer, turkeys, rabbits, and other wildlife to specific areas for hunting or viewing, but they do not substitute for management activities that improve habitat over large areas. Timber management, prescribed burning, and other activities that promote young, low plant growth can improve deer health and quality more than food plots. Habitats across your entire property and adjoining lands are like the cake, and food plots are like the icing!
Food plots will attract deer most where the surrounding habitat is poor. In areas where natural foods are abundant, where timber harvesting has provided a flush of new growth, or in farmland with an abundance of forage crops, you may have trouble drawing deer to even the best food plots. In good habitats, deer are able to meet their nutritional needs and are probably growing and reproducing at their maximum potential without the addition of food plots.
Food plots are of most value when natural foods are scarce. For example, in years with poor acorn crops, deer will visit food plots more during the fall (hunting season) than in years when mast is abundant. In drought years, deer may frequent warm season plantings during summer. In general, deer experience greatest nutritional stress in late winter and early spring. Therefore, perennials that last throughout the winter and green up early in the spring will be attractive to deer.
Food plots should never be used in a manner that will draw deer into conflict with people or other animals. They should be established only in rural settings away from residences and roads.
What should I do before I plant a food plot?
- Decide if food plots are right for you. Be realistic up front about expected outcomes. Carefully weigh expected benefits (increased visibility of deer for hunting or viewing) against estimated costs. Costs can easily exceed $250 per acre for site preparation, liming and fertilizing, seeds, planting, maintenance of food plots, equipment rental, etc.
- Choose your sites wisely. Locate food plots one-half mile or more from gardens, fruit or ornamental trees and shrubs, and public roads to prevent deer from becoming hazards or nuisances. Use power line rights-of-ways, log decks, firelines, old woods roads and other existing openings when possible to reduce clearing costs. Make sure that food plots are wide enough to receive adequate sunlight for most of the day. Pick the most fertile spots that you can access readily to cultivate and maintain. It is also better to disperse small food plots (1 acre minimum) across your property than to plant one large one. Research has shown that deer are only attracted to food plots or feed placed within their home ranges (approximately 640 acres for a buck, and 200 acres for a doe). You should not expect that even your best food plot will draw deer from across your property or from your neighbor’s hunt club a mile away!
- Test and amend soil. At least 3 months before planting, get a soil test using a testing kit or through your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. Repeat soil tests every 3 years. Apply the recommended amount of lime and fertilizer. Effects of liming will last several years, but fertilizer is recommended annually during September. In most cases, 1-2 tons per acre of lime and 500 lbs per acre of 5-10-10 fertilizer per acre should be sufficient.
- Prepare the sites. Plow and disk soil to a firm, smooth seedbed free of brush, large rocks, stumps, etc. Hard work up front will save you from hours of frustration and poor crops later.
- Exclude livestock. This can be accomplished with a standard electric or non-electric fence no more than 4-feet high so that it still allows fawns to use the area.
What should I plant? When do I plant it? How do I maintain it?
- “Forage Species for Deer” (PDF) provides a list of some proven forage species for deer, the seeding rates (in pounds per acre), the dates during which you should plant, and suggested maintenance and comments regarding plantings. Rates given are for broadcasting with a cyclone or drop seeder; these rates should be halved if you plan to drill the seed instead. In mountain areas where frost commonly “heaves” the ground during winter and spring, we have had best success by preparing sites during the summer, planting wheat during 8/15-9/15, and broadcasting legume/grass seeds during 2/15-3/15 when there is a light snow or heavy frost on the ground.
- Plant forage mixtures (e.g., ladino clover + red clover + orchardgrass) to provide forage over a longer period and to hedge your bets against a total failure of any one crop. Combinations are almost limitless, but just make sure that you plant species together with similar planting dates and maintenance requirements. If you chose to plant a mixture, lean toward the low end on seeding rates below for each species selected. Optimally, you should plant one-third of your food plot area in warm season annuals to benefit deer during the summer stress periods.
- Inoculate all legumes (clovers, lespedezas, peas, etc.) before planting, or buy inoculated seeds. Plant soon after inoculation and do not expose to heat.
- Experiment! You know your property better than anyone else. In just a few seasons, you will be the expert in plantings that work and don’t work on your property! So many variables affect growth and use of plantings that you may need to try a few before you find the mixtures that provide the most consistent results on your property.
Where do I get the seeds?
Local farmers’ cooperatives, gardening centers, and seed order catalogs/websites will carry all or most of these seeds recommended above. If you have trouble finding seeds, please contact Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for suggestions.
Are food plots considered bait?
No. Planting food plots is not considered baiting, so deer can legally be harvested in food plots.
What about supplemental feeding?
Placing corn, pellets, minerals, salt or other materials to attract deer to shoot is considered baiting and is illegal. It is also illegal to feed deer in Virginia for any reason from September 1 though the first Saturday in January. Providing feed or minerals to supplement the diet of deer during the rest of the year is legal, but discouraged, for the following reasons:
- Frequent contact between deer concentrated at feed sites increases the risks for disease transmission.
- Concentrating deer at feed sites increases stress, aggression, and risk of injury among deer, and may interfere with the natural social structure of deer populations.
- Concentrating deer leads to heavy deer browsing in the area around the feed site, damaging natural foods, tree seedlings, and ornamental or commercial crops.
- Fed deer are often emboldened to seek human foods, leading them into conflict with people. The same can be true of deer using food plots if placed too close to residential areas or roads.
- Supplemental feeding is very expensive, yielding limited benefits.
Where can I learn more about habitat management for deer?
Personnel of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Department of Forestry, and Virginia Cooperative Extension are available to provide forest and wildlife habitat recommendations for private landowners.