Fallow Food Plots Offer Hidden Benefits for Deer. Don’t Replant Until You Read This.

March 6, 2024 By: Mark Turner
food plots

Most deer hunters have relatively limited food plot acreage and wish to maximize deer forage production on every acre. For many, it would stand to reason that planting both warm- and cool-season forages on every acre annually would be the best approach, as fallow food plots would seem like wasted space. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! 

A fallow food plot simply sits and ages during the season following the one in which you planted it, instead of being converted to the next season’s crop. Here are several good reasons you might consider allowing some food plots to lie fallow during portions of each year.

Extended Value in Food Plots

Allowing annual food plots to go fallow during the season following planting is an effective and efficient approach to management. For example, a warm-season cowpea food plot planted in April may produce forage until frost occurs in November. If the plot is killed to establish a cool-season wheat and clover plot in August or September, you would lose two months of forage production. To make matters worse, you would be “clearing the table” during a time of year when high-quality forages are limited in many areas. 

The same is true for a cool-season wheat and annual clover planting you may be tempted to disk in April or early May to plant a warm-season plot. If your cool-season planting included crimson, arrowleaf, balansa, or berseem clover, you will be missing out on one to three months of forage production from these clovers by killing them early. Additionally, your plots will be providing little to no forage during early antler growth and late fawn gestation, as most warm-season forages don’t begin to produce significant amounts of forage for at least a month. 

food plots
This very pregnant doe is feeding on annual clovers and natural summer forages in a fallow cool-season food plot planted the previous fall. The nutrition has been available all spring and early summer without interruption for replanting a different crop.

Instead of constantly planting every plot twice a year, consider designating some plots as warm-season and others as cool-season. Alternatively, you could plant one half of each plot during the warm-season and the other half during the cool-season. This approach allows each planting to produce forage for the maximum length of time, while also never fully removing all food from each plot. The exact acreage you plant in warm- and cool-season plantings may vary based on your objectives, but allowing each plot to lie fallow during a portion of the year is an efficient approach.  

Summer Forage Production

Fallow cool-season plantings also provide the opportunity to produce “free” forage during the growing season. Most cool-season plantings such as wheat, oats, and crimson clover mature during May, which leaves at least three months for native forbs to provide forage. Common ragweed, horseweed (a.k.a. marestail), and daisy fleabane are common forbs selected by deer in most areas that grow in fallow plots.

Don’t overlook the value of fallow food plots! Common ragweed in this fallow cool-season wheat plot is providing forage for deer and cover for turkey poults. 

I know what you are thinking: ragweed makes me sneeze, and horseweed isn’t a favorite of many farmers! However, both are native forbs that can provide additional forage for deer and cover for turkey broods in fallow plots without added costs. As a bonus, if you planted an awnless variety of wheat, fallowing the plot allows deer to consume the wheat seedheads during late spring and summer. 

Fallow warm-season plots can also provide additional benefits, especially if you allow them to lie fallow for a full year. For example, you might consider only planting half of a corn plot every given year. If the eastern half of the field was planted in April 2023, you might plant the western half in April 2024. The 2023 planting will be fallow all summer, and you might plant annual cool-season forages into the fallow corn during September of 2023 if desired. Next year, you would allow the other half to lie fallow while planting the eastern half in corn again. 

This rotation allows more time for deer, turkeys, and other wildlife to consume all the grain from the previous planting while providing additional forage from native forbs during summer. This also saves you money and is a great way to allow for crop rotation. 

food plots
It’s early May, and this plot of wheat and crimson clover is producing seed. Although it might be tempting to spray and prepare to plant a warm-season plot, the clover is still providing forage and the awnless wheat seedheads will be readily eaten by deer in the coming months. Maintaining separate cool-season and warm-season plots allows you to maximize forage production in each planting.

Turkey Brooding Cover

I know NDA is a deer organization, but I’m sure there are more than a few NDA members who will be chasing turkeys this spring! Much of our habitat work for deer benefits turkeys, and fallow food plots are a great example. 

Brooding cover is a limiting factor for turkey productivity, and fallow plots can help fill this gap. Fallow wheat and oat plots provide excellent open structure for broods, and the seedheads of both cereal grains are readily eaten by hens. Native forbs in fallow plots also provide cover while attracting insects which poults require. These fields don’t replace managed native early succession, but they are readily used by turkeys and help provide additional areas for hens to take their broods. 

Weed Control Opportunities

If you are worried about letting “weeds” take over your food plot all summer, you shouldn’t be. In fact, fallowing increases weed control opportunities! 

Instead of having to worry about killing your food plot species to control a particularly noxious weed, you can simply use the appropriate post-emergence herbicide (such as glyphosate in many cases) while the field is fallow. Spot-treatments often are effective, as you allow the beneficial forbs to produce forage while controlling weeds such as curly dock or thistle. In plots with dense coverage of problematic weeds, broadcast treatments also may be appropriate during fallow periods.

Planting a cool-season plot after fallowing during the summer isn’t much different from normal plantings. You’ll simply treat the plot with a broad-selective herbicide, apply soil amendments, prepare the appropriate seedbed (if using conventional tillage), then plant. 

If there are particular weeds you noticed over the summer that may be glyphosate-resistant such as Palmer amaranth or horseweed, simply include an additional herbicide for control. 2,4-D often is used in burn-down mixtures for this purpose, but be sure to check the label for appropriate rates and soil residual activity before applying.  

Go Fallow in Your Food Plots

Fallow food plots shouldn’t be viewed as wasted space or fields of weeds. Instead, they should be viewed as an opportunity to provide additional forage, rotate crops, control weeds, and ensure you never fully clear the table. I hope you will consider using fallow food plots to your advantage this year!

About Mark Turner:

Mark Turner is an NDA member and Level 2 Deer Steward who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee working under the direction of Dr. Craig Harper. His research is investigating how nutritional carrying capacity and land use influence deer body and antler size across the eastern United States. Instagram: @markturner442