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Planning a Deer Food Plot in Eastern NC

Sorting through the reality and hype of the potential advantages of wildlife food plots for deer can be confusing. Numerous articles promote use of food plots for various reasons and advertisements often make claims based upon circumstantial data rather than science. Food plots for wildlife can be a valuate tool in management but they also may not have the desired result. So, perhaps the first step in making a decision to plant and manage a food plot for deer (or any wildlife) should be to evaluate whether one is actually needed or not.

IS A FOOD PLOT OR IMPROVED HABITAT IS MORE BENEFICIAL?

Within Eastern North Carolina there is an abundance of food from spring through fall for deer. Acorns, blackberry, honeysuckle, holly, greenbriar, willow and even field crops are simply a few of the abundant foods available. Thus, summer food plots are not likely to have tremendous benefit for deer. Conversely, a plot providing food during late fall and winter months is likely to be more beneficial. Thus, a survey of natural food sources and crops nearby should be the first step in deciding whether or not a food plot would be beneficial.

The next step should be to evaluate long-term conservation, wildlife and forest management plans and goals. If the primary reason for planting a deer food plot is for observation or harvest of deer, then limited management and expense is needed. However, if long-term goals are to improve the nutritional status for wildlife, increase deer herd productivity or improve deer quality, then more careful planning is needed.

While males may travel a bit further during mating season, typically, a deer’s home range is only about 400 acres or so. Thus, examination of the land managed in relationship to surrounding woodlands is necessary for most landowner/hunters simply because the typical farmland within this area is much smaller than this minimum area. Thus, the best management may include cooperation with other landowners and/or agricultural producers to establish long-term management goals.

Ideally, deer prefer a mixture of hardwood and pines. Deer are edge species preferring the area where differing habitats converge since this also provides the most abundant cover, food and water. Examination of both both vertical and horizontal plant diversity (tall, mature trees with a mixture of younger tree stands nearby along with layer of diverse shrubs, grasses, vines and forbs) should also be considered. If the land is lacking these traits, then it is most likely a greater benefit to improve the landscape to a favorable habitat for deer rather than establish a food plot. Better cover, diversity and native food establishment would more likely offer greater benefit.

These habitat improvements do not necessarily have to be expensive and will vary with the type of existing woodland/farmland and size of farm. Some examples of positive improvements that will impact deer are:

  • Prescribed burning to promote underbrush regeneration;
  • Regulating tree species when thinning (Aim for about 20% mast species such as oaks, beech, hickory);
  • Keep a 50-100 foot buffer of native species around streams;
  • Leave a shrub buffer of 50 feet along roads or paths;
  • Plant pines or pine/hardwood mixtures of young trees to link established pine areas;
  • Limit the size of clear-cutting to 40-50 acres and cut in irregular shapes; and,
  • Maintain 1-5 acres of grassy areas along established pine forest.

These are simply suggestions. The best means of making long-term improvements for deer habitat is to contact NC Wildlife Resources Commission for assistance. In fact, there are numerous programs, often with cost-share assistance, through various state and federal agencies available for those with specific management plans and goals. For information on conservation and habitat improvement, visit the NC Wildlife Resources Commission web page at http://www.ncwildlife.org/Conserving.aspx. To download an application requesting assistance, click HERE. 

PLANNING A FOOD PLOT

If the goal of a food plot is simply observation or harvest of deer, then there is little need for long-term planning or great expense in establishment of a food plot. Rye, wheat or oat planted appropriately is most likely the easiest and cheapest means to do so. Conversely, if long-term improvement is desired, then more effort should be made to consider all possibilities and how these changes might benefit deer and other wildlife. Regardless, of which choice is made, several management steps need are necessary.

LOCATION AND SIZE

Deer are unlikely to use a food plot located too far from cover. Thus, aim to plant any food plot in areas that receives ample sunlight yet near natural cover. Generally, aim for about 95% of the forest/farmland to be habitat and only 5% as food plots. Planting multiple sites in irregular shapes along converging areas will most likely provide the most positive results. Scattered smaller plots offer the advantage of being easier to establish, allow distribution that favors visits by deer and reduce chance of destruction by other wildlife.

CONSIDERATIONS OF MANAGEMENT INTENSITY 

Rather than spending hours researching the best plant food, spend time to determine limits in management and equipment. As example, many of the mixtures commonly sold contain a variety of winter annual grasses, clovers and broadleaf crops (usually a rapeseed of some sort). Pre-mixed packages sold as such may offer a wide range of foods but this may limit management. First, clovers and many small broadleaf crops germinate and thrive better when planted into a clean, well-aerated seedbed unless a no-till planter is used. These seeds should not be planted more than 0.25 inch deep and most require a special hopper and seeding equipment due to the extremely small size of the seed. In contrast, the commonly used winter annual grasses included in these mixtures should be planted between 1.0-1.5 depending upon soil moisture. These grasses can be planted either no-till or with cultivation. A consequence of planting a mixture of both at the same time is that any one selected depth may limit the germination and survival of either the clover/broadleaf plants or the winter annual grasses included. Better management would be to plant specific plants at appropriate depths and seeding rates. A listing of specific crops preferred by deer is available from the University of Florida publication outlining deer food plot management HERE. Additionally, those interested in cost analysis, production and deer grazing should examine the University of Florida evaluation of various mixtures at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fr167. For those interested in single crop plantings or clover/small grain mixtures, forage guidelines from NCSU are available HERE.

Lastly, consider the variety. Regrettably, there is not a lot of science-based research to support or dispute claims of products grown within this area for food plots. As example, many of the mixtures now contain triticale. Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye and is a preferred winter, small grain crop of deer. Regrettably, not all triticale varieties are alike. Triticale (and many winter small grains) are bred as three basic types: Winter-hardy, Spring-hardy and Intermediate. Winter-hardy types tolerate colder temperatures but also tend to grow more prostrate. Too, tillering (new shoot development) requires very cold temperatures seldom reached within this area. Spring-hardy types grow rapidly but do not tolerant cold temperatures. Intermediate types grow rapidly but also tolerant the colder temperatures. Normally, varieties are bred for specific climatic conditions of a region. As such, a variety that performs well in Texas, as example, will not likely perform well in this area. Thus, make sure to plant varieties appropriate for this area.

TAKE A SOIL SAMPLE

There is no substitute for taking a soil sample and following the recommended lime and fertilization rates. Anything else is simply a guess and likely to result in poor crop performance or gross over- application of lime and/or nutrients that may negatively impact plant growth or the environment. Soil samples can be submitted to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Service’s Agronomic Section (NCDA & CS) any time of the year but there is a charge of $4 per sample for samples arriving to the lab from November 26th through April 1st. The rest of the year samples are free of charge. Information concerning payment, appropriate forms and other information is found HERE. Additionally, publications on taking soil samples, boxes and appropriate forms are available from any NC State Extension office within North Carolina. If needed, either the NCDA & CS or NC State Extension staff will gladly assist in interpretation and application of soil sample results. Simply contact either for an appointment. Find your local N.C. Cooperative Extension Office HERE. (These statements apply only to NC Residents. Contact the NCDA & CS for information for out-of-state fees and processing).

Soil samples should reflect the typical soil type of each planted food plot. Thus, if one area of the plot is sandy yet another portion poorly drained or has higher soil organic matter, then take a separate sample from each area. Sample size should not exceed about 7 acres. Take 10-20 cores about 6-7 inches deep from random areas. Mix these cores thoroughly and remove any grass, stems, twigs, etc., from the soil. A small amount of this sample should be placed inside the soil-sampling box provided by the NCDA & CS. Samples can be delivered in person to the Raleigh facility or mailed to the lab.

PLANTING DATES

Within this area, a good date to plant either small grain winter annual, clover, rapeseed or mixtures is between September 1-October 25h. Earlier planting dates expose plants to potential disease and insect damage while later dates may reduce germination and plant vigor. (Early November planting dates may be acceptable provided climatic factors are favorable for rapid growth). When possible, aim to plant according to the specific crop/forage planting dates. Specific information is found HERE.

WEED CONTROL

Far too often deer food plots fail due to a lack of planning for weed control. If no weed control will be performed, then simply accept the fact that a variety of weeds may greatly limit productivity of the food plot. Whether weeds will be a problem or not will vary by the type and number present. There is no means to predict the potential negative impact of weed competition of the planted food plot other than observing existing weeds or past production history. Thus, some planning is necessary prior to planting.

In most cases, a majority of the weeds can be controlled with a post-emergence herbicide application when weeds are between 2-4” in height IF the plot is planted to a single type of food crop (all grasses or all broadleaf crops). However, the weeds should be identified. Simply put, all herbicides are not equal. Some herbicides control only grass-type plants, some only control specific broadleaf type plants, some control only sedge plants, some a mixture of sedges, broadleaves and perhaps very small grasses, and some are non-selective (kill all plants). This is critical for “mixtures” of food plots. Herbicide products applied to control broadleaf weeds within a food plot with both grasses and broadleaf crops is likely to kill the desired broadleaf crops. Likewise, any herbicide to control native grass weed species will also kill the desirable winter annual grass planted too. So for such a “mixture” of grass crops and broadleaf crops within a plot, weed control with an herbicide may be difficult, if not impossible. Frequent mowing is perhaps the best option. This again, emphasizes that plots planted to a single type of crop is easier to manage.

Management of specific weeds by crop is available HERE. it is critical to read the label of the specific product you purchase not only for direction of application but for potential grazing restrictions. As example, products with 2, 4-D as the active ingredient, may have grazing restriction that varies from 7-21 days depending upon the specific product. Read and follow the pesticide label!

FERTILITY AND INNOCULATION

Similar to weed control, fertility must be appropriate for the crop. Legume crops that have been inoculated or that are planted into fields with recent inoculation do not need to have nitrogen (N) added. However, if no inccoluate is added and a native population of the bacteria is not found at the site, then N must be added. In contrast, winter annual grass crops require N. Again, the primary point is to plan prior to planting to avoid adding an input or management strategy that will limit productivity of the food plot. Other recommendations such as lime, phosphorous, potassium or micronutrients will have recommendations provided with the soil report. These reports assume crop harvest for grain or animal grazing. As such, rates other than lime and micronutrients may be reduced by 25-50%. If growth slows due to heavy grazing, additional fertilizer may be warranted.

Additional resources

N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Wildlife Web Page – https://forestry.ces.ncsu.edu/forestry-wildlife/

North Carolina State University- Woodland Owner Notes, Developing Wildlife-Friend Pine Plantations –http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/developing-wildlife-friendly-pine-plantations.pdf

North Carolina State University-  White-tailed Deer:  Working with Wildlife, No. 3 – http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/white-tailed-deer.pdf

University of Alabama Effective Food Plots for White-Tailed Deer in Alabama –http://columbia.ifas.ufl.edu/documents/aldeerfoodplots.pdf

University of Tennessee:  A Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots:  Blending Science with Common Sense –http://www.bearsmart.com/docs/WildlifeFoodPlots.pdf