Foraging Ahead with Dr. Don Ball: Planting food plots for wildlife
Wildlife management has evolved greatly in recent years. Twenty-five years ago, the amount of acreage of wildlife food plots planted in the Southeast was much smaller than it is today. When such plantings were made, they usually consisted of cool-season annuals (often a small grain and/or annual ryegrass). These species are easy to establish and require little management after establishment. The main, and often the only, objective for such plantings was usually to attract game animals during hunting season to increase the likelihood of hunting success.
Things have changed. These days many wildlife managers are quite sophisticated in their management approaches. An increasing number are thinking about the long-term implications of management, including the importance of striving to provide optimum nutrition throughout the year. There is more awareness that nutrition can improve the health of wild animals, increase their size and weight, as well as increase wildlife populations.
Wildlife Potential of Selected Food Plot Plants
Most plantings for wildlife are still made by hunters or people hired by hunters, but there is also increasing interest in non-game wildlife. Many different plant species are used by wildlife or regularly established specifically for wildlife. Here is a brief (and necessarily incomplete) summary of how some commonly grown plants benefit (or don’t benefit) wildlife.
Warm-Season Perennial Grasses: Widely grown forage species such as bahiagrass and bermudagrass are only a minor source of nutrition for wild animals, although wild turkey eat bahiagrass seed. Some native warm-season perennial grasses such as switchgrass provide good wildlife habitat but are not normally planted to provide nutrition.
Warm-Season Perennial Legumes: Sericea lespedeza, bicolor lespedeza and perennial peanut are browsed by deer but are not normally planted for them. Bicolor lespedeza is often planted for quail, however.
Warm-Season Annual Grasses: Corn, sorghum, and browntop millet are often planted for deer and ducks. Browntop millet is also frequently planted for doves.
Warm-Season Annual Legumes: Cowpea, lablab, soybean, and sunn hemp are often planted to provide good nutrition for deer in summer. Seeds of cowpeas and soybean are consumed by quail.
Cool-Season Perennial Grasses: Tall fescue, orchardgrass, and other cool-season perennial grasses are not good sources of nutrition for wild animals.
Cool-Season Perennial Legumes: Alfalfa and white clover are among the most nutritious and preferred forages for deer and other forage-consuming animals. Birdsfoot trefoil, red clover, and alsike clover are also excellent. Legumes also attract insects that benefit birds.
Cool-Season Annual Legumes: All annual clovers provide good nutrition for deer and other forage-consuming animals. These include arrowleaf clover, ball clover, berseem clover, crimson clover, and rose clover.
Cool-Season Annual Grasses: Annual ryegrass and the small grains rye, wheat, oats and triticale provide excellent nutrition for deer and are widely planted in food plots (but the competitiveness of volunteer ryegrass may make it difficult to grow other cool-season forages in subsequent years).
Non-Leguminous Forbs or Non-Grass Plants: Chufa is a nutsedge often planted for wild turkey. Chicory is a cool-season, non-leguminous forb, and rape, kale and turnip are non-leguminous annual Brassicas. Each are widely used in food plots for deer.
Agronomic principles don’t change. Before planting any forage or wildlife plant, it is important to make certain that the site and soil type are suitable. A soil test should be done to determine the soil pH and fertility status of the field, and lime and fertilizer should be applied as recommended. The planting date and seeding rate should be in accordance with local recommendations, and the planting technique should ensure seeds are placed at the proper depth and that there is good seed/soil contact. As with plantings for livestock, use of an herbicide may be necessary to obtain a stand or later reduce weed competition.
Other Food Plot Considerations
The food situation for wildlife is dynamic. The quantity of available natural food sources varies through the year, as does the nutritional value of a given plant during its growing season. The nutritional needs of particular animals also vary depending on reproductive cycles and season of the year. For this reason, assessing the nutritional needs of wildlife and making plantings that bridge nutritional gaps is often desirable.
Wildlife food plots should be located away from roads and out of the sight of vehicular traffic. If possible, plots should be located in areas where the type(s) of animals for which the plots are being planted are regularly seen. It is best for the site to have nearby cover that the animals can use. Wildlife food plots are often planted in remote locations, so thought should be given to how easily the plot area can be accessed by planting or other equipment.
The size of wildlife food plots can vary greatly depending on wildlife species being targeted and the food sources already present. It is sometimes recommended that for deer, food plots might occupy 1 to 5 percent of the land on a property. Having enough space to operate equipment easily and the possible effects trees may have on the species planted should also be evaluated. Animals might not use the center portion of a large plot, so often, several plots located in various areas is ideal.
In areas with a large wildlife population, especially deer, it may be difficult to establish a stand due to grazing pressure. This is much more of a problem with plants that are highly palatable as seedlings and that have little tolerance to grazing. Increasing the amount of area planted or planting several different food crops (either in a mixture or in different areas) can help reduce this problem.
It is often difficult to assess how much benefit wildlife are getting from a food plot because the wildlife eat the vegetation. This problem can be solved by use of “exclusion cages” that prevent animals from eating the foliage in a small protected area. Wildlife cameras can also be helpful in evaluating food plot use.
Foraging Ahead is a bi-weekly column presented by Ragan & Massey and written by Dr. Don Ball, Professor Emeritus at Auburn University. Dr. Ball is one of the authors of the popular book “Southern Forages,” available here.