There are two general reasons we plant food plots for deer: supplementing natural nutritional shortfalls, and attracting and holding deer on our properties during hunting season. Planting annual food plots can be a big part of achieving both goals.
Forages planted for deer are of two general types: perennials and annuals. Perennials are forages designed to last for more than a calendar year. Annuals are designed to last for part of a calendar year. Given sufficient land, equipment access and time, many managers use both perennials and annuals in their food-plot systems. Others may elect to plant only annuals. Let’s look at why both are excellent ways to improve the quality of your habitat.
Nutrition and Availability. Where property size, equipment access and time allow, many managers plant perennial forages as the backbone of their food-plot systems. Generally, perennial forages provide a huge boost in available protein to deer over what’s commonly available to them from natural sources.
Consider, though, that while protein is undoubtedly the biggest nutritional player during spring and summer, energy is king during the fall and winter. Fall annuals such as the Whitetail Institute’s forage oats, Tall Tine Tubers and Winter-Greens brassica blend are fast growing forages that provide deer with high levels of carbohydrates right when deer need them most – during the fall and winter. (And don’t let alarmist claims about brassica toxicity fool you. As Dr. Wayne Hanna, Plant Geneticist and Director of Forage Research for the Whitetail Institute says on the matter, “Animals can get diarrhea if confined to eating only high water content plants such as brassica or ryegrass. Also, if cattle are confined to eating Brassica where high nitrogen has been applied, there is a possibility of nitrate toxicity. Since deer are browsers, though, that should not be a problem.”)
Also consider that fall annuals do more than just help sustain deer through the fall and winter. They can also help bucks devote substantial nutritional resources to antler growth earlier next spring. Antler growth is a “secondary sex characteristic” in bucks, meaning that before a buck will devote substantial nutrition to antler growth in the early spring, he will first use those resources to recover his winter health (weight) losses. Annuals planted in fall can help minimize a buck’s winter health losses and allow him to devote substantial nutritional resources to antler growth as early as possible in the spring.
Attraction. As fall approaches, deer in most areas of the country are trying to pack on energy reserves (storing fat) for the coming fall and winter. Annuals planted in the fall can supplement, and can also last much longer, than, natural energy-storage foods. And since they are newly emerged in early fall, they are generally much more tender, sweet and attractive than any forage nature has to offer, which can draw deer and hold them on the property.
Whether you plant perennials or not, remember that annual forage planted in the fall can benefit your management program in a lot of ways. They can help deer store energy for the coming cold weather, provide a ready source of ingestible energy during the fall and winter, and help keep deer in better shape for next spring’s antler-growing season.
For more information about fall food plots, visit the Whitetail Institute of North America website.