I was bursting with anticipation as I settled into my stand overlooking an interior food plot I had planted for the first time a couple months earlier. A year prior, the old natural gas well site was littered with trash and grown up with undesirable plant species. It did provide cover, but for the most part there weren’t many reasons for deer to hang out there. Still, the spot seemed to have all the key ingredients of quality food plots, including seclusion, good cover nearby, decent soils, and a couple potential stand locations. My trail-camera combined with the obvious feeding sign on my cereal grains revealed that deer were starting to visit it on the regular. This was my first chance to see it for myself.
Not long into the hunt, three does entered the plot. I felt like a proud father as I observed them comfortably feeding in front of me for the better part of an hour. It was the first week of archery season, so I never reached for my bow but decided to just be an observer. I admit to getting a little emotional as I thought about just how far that spot had come thanks to good planning and old-fashioned hard work. Over the last two seasons I’ve taken two bucks (one of them shown above) and two does from that spot.
While we all love it when a plan comes together, it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve had many conversations with hunters who put in food plots and work just as hard as I did but with the opposite results. I too have battled the food plot blues and have been baffled by the lack of deer activity in a spot that just screamed success. There are a number of factors that can limit a food plot’s success, and I’ve tackled a few of the most common ones here.
Location, Location, Location
Where your plot is located can be even more important than how well it grows or what you have planted in it, especially if your goal is to have deer visit it while you’re there hoping to fill a tag. A food plot alone isn’t enough to attract deer. They need ample cover nearby and must feel comfortable approaching it. Just like you wouldn’t buy a McDonald’s franchise and build a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, be sure to site your food plot in a community with ample hungry customers that have good access to your location. Your food plot shouldn’t be an island.
Also consider other factors like proximity to roads or residential areas, and active neighbors. You might have the nicest food plot in the county, but it won’t matter if it’s next to your neighbor’s active shooting range. If your plot is primarily designed to provide additional feed and nutrition for deer, then location won’t be as important.
One of my larger plots is adjacent to a rural road and my Amish neighbors who are constantly outside working and playing. Deer use the plot regularly, but it’s almost always at night so it’s not a feasible hunting location. It’s a nutrition plot.
The food plot I described in the introduction seems to have it all, but I could easily become my own worst enemy by overhunting it. I am extremely careful about how often I hunt it or even visit it for other purposes. I’ve learned over the last couple years what the ideal wind is, and if it’s not right, I resist the urge to hunt there. The primary reason you’re hunting over a plot is that you expect deer to come feed there during daylight hours. Likewise, deer will quit coming during shooting light if they’re likely to encounter you there.
I’ve never been too worried about bumping or getting busted by deer a time or two in a particular location, but it can’t happen continually, or deer will simply adjust their patterns turning your plot into a nighttime dinner spot. We’ve shared numerous articles about how deer are impacted by hunting pressure including this research by deer biologist, Clint McCoy. We also had guests Dylan Stewart, a master’s student at Auburn University, and Dr. Will Gulsby, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and management at Auburn University on our Deer Season 365 podcast to talk about their GPS-collar research into how hunting pressure and habitat selection impacts deer movement.
The Grass is Greener on the Other Side
As painful as it might be to hear and accept, it may be that your plot just isn’t as attractive as someone else’s, or another nearby food source. When I first got interested in managing land and planting food plots about 20 years ago, I knew little about varieties of plants and what deer found most palatable. One of my earliest plots was planted with a wildlife mix I picked up at the local feed store. It was cheap, and there was a picture of a deer on the front of the bag. That checked my boxes at the time, so I planted it and eagerly awaited the deer of my dreams to show up.
The seed germinated and produced a photo-worthy crop, but what it didn’t produce was deer. After a few weeks of denial thinking the deer would show up eventually I started investigating and learned that very little in the seed mix was palatable to deer. After learning the hard way, as one often does, I planted a chicory and clover mix the following fall and it seemed like free deer came with the seed. I instantly went from learning about preferred plant species to figuring out how to keep deer from eating my entire plot well before the season started! More on that below.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you plant or how lush your plot is if there is a naturally available food source that deer are seeking. Standing crop fields can remain highly attractive late into the year if not harvested, and if your region had a strong acorn crop, good luck pulling protein-seeking whitetails away from them until they’re gobbled up. Soft mast such as apples, pears, or persimmons are also likely to keep deer occupied while available.
Because my food plots are relatively small, I prefer deer don’t focus on them until well into fall. If they’re focusing on other food sources, they’re not mowing down my plots, which will be that much more attractive during hunting season. Timing can be everything so don’t be discouraged if deer seem disinterested initially. Chances are they’ll begin to prefer what you’ve put on the table just about the time you’re ready to fill some tags. This is very often the case with brassica crops.
Easy Come, Easy Go
It’s important to be thoughtful about what you plant and when to plant it, and to understand what you can and can’t control. In other words, put together a planting plan that considers all the variables and gives you the best chance for success. Even in the best circumstances achieving food plot success is like gambling, and you can only control so much.
Plant too early and you might find your plot was mature well before the season and the deer had their way with it before you could take advantage. Planting too early is also risky business due to lack of rain or extreme heat. Be thoughtful about when you plant, the size of your plot, what you’re planting, and your target date for your plants reaching maturity.
Being armed with a good plan and a willingness to see it through gives you the best chance of growing a quality plot and having it available at the right time.
I considered including a sixth reason deer aren’t using your food plot but will cover it here as an overarching factor. Try to avoid cutting corners and doing things on the cheap. This has almost never worked out for me. If you’re going to expend the time, effort, and money, go all in. Soil testing, following prescribed lime and fertilizer application rates, and planting quality seed are the building blocks to a quality food plot, and none of them should be overlooked.
Planting food plots can be a fun and rewarding way to make your land more attractive to deer by improving forage options and improving habitat. It can also be among the most frustrating tools to implement if you’re not going about it thoughtfully and with a good plan. Even then you can’t control Mother Nature, so there will always be an element of luck involved, good and bad.