Top Ten Cream of the Crop Food Plot Plants...North and South
By: Kent Kammermeyer
Wait a minute, you say, how can a biologist from Georgia write about food plots both in the Deep South and the frozen north? Just like some outdoor writers, a couple of phone calls and we have an expert, right? Wrong! Let me explain. Where I worked in northeast Georgia for 30 years, we planted food plots at mountainous elevations as high as 4,000 ft. above sea level and as low as 1,000 ft. and everywhere in between. This is equivalent in climate and vegetation to areas as far as 1,000 miles north! We planted orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass and timothy, for example, which are not adapted to the south. Also, I have hunted on and assisted with food plot mixes for over 45 years on a very successful high quality hunt club in New Hampshire. I grew up in Connecticut and assist friends with their plots in that state. I also read Ed Spinazzola’s books Wildlife Food Plots, Easy as 1-2-3 and Ultimate Deer Food Plots and based on his extensive experiences in Michigan and speak with him and correspond with him quite frequently. I recommend the book to anyone planting food plots in the North. Finally, I also co-edited and co-authored the book Quality Food Plots, Your guide to better deer and better deer hunting with Lindsay Thomas and Karl Miller. All three books are available at www.QDMA.com or 1-800-209-3337.
Now that we have cleared the northern air, let’s try to clear up some of the food plot confusion! Choosing a seed or seed mix for your food plot can be like buying a car, hundreds of models (or seed varieties) to chose from, all with different options (plant characteristics) that either fit your driving needs (soil type and climate) or don’t. The whole experience can be mind-boggling, frustrating, confusing, and worrisome. It can sometimes be made more difficult by some dealers (seed and car) who have a hidden agenda or lack knowledge of the seed they sell. On top of everything are the pretty bags, extravagant claims, and mysterious mixes promoted by the seed dealer who is armed with all kinds of propaganda from the company seed salesman. Ironically, many of the pretty bags do have high quality, valuable seed in them at least as one component of a mix, but they can sometimes break your budget. Premixed seed mixes are convenient and certainly appropriate for small plots, just read the labels and look for the plants mentioned individually in my tables.
Download Detailed Tables with Planting Information
|PDF Download North|
|PDF Download South|
The best way I know to present a clear and true assessment of the best deer food plot plants is to divide the country into North and South and present appropriate seed species (not mixes, you do that on your own by reading labels or discussions below in this article) suitable for either one or both (see Tables 1 and 2). The seed species are very loosely ranked from top to bottom considering such characteristics as palatability to deer, production, quality (protein levels), and cool season value. However, there is not much difference (North or South) between the top three or four or the bottom three or four on either list. These plants are the cream of the crop for deer! There are some pretty good deer food plot plants conspicuously missing from both tables including annual ryegrass, kale, rose clover, berseem clover, subterranean clover, Kentucky bluegrass, timothy and others. For one reason or another, they just did not make the cut. Reasons may include lower preference by deer or not widely adapted (requiring special conditions for growth). Some are expensive or difficult to find, some are low producers, some grasses are too competitive for mixes with clover.
There are some seeds that are prominent on both lists, including alfalfa, ladino clover, red clover, wheat and rape. On these, it will be of utmost importance to select the right variety for your climate, soil and other conditions. I can help with this to some extent, but you need to check with your local agricultural extension agent, wildlife biologist or reputable seed dealer (finding the right seed dealer can be as valuable as picking the right family doctor).
One more preface before we begin to analyze the contents of the tables. You will notice this as we discuss the seed. Just because the seed are listed separately does not mean you need to plant them that way! As a matter of fact, with the possible exception of alfalfa, all of the plants in the table need to be mixed with something.
A word about legumes is also in order. You will notice that six of 10 plants on the northern table and seven of 10 in the southern table are members of the legume (pea/bean/clover) family. This is no accident. Besides being highly palatable to deer (high protein and high total digestible nutrients), legumes fix their own nitrogen from the air, a huge advantage to the plant and the farmer. Nitrogen (N) is an important part of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, an essential part of growth and body function. N is also the most expensive of the major fertilizer elements. Legumes fix 50 to 300 lbs. of N/acre/year for their own use and that of companion or follow-up grasses. This is equivalent to 150 to 900 lbs. of ammonium sulfate/acre/year ($60 to $180/acre/year)!
Tops on the legume, N-fixing list at up to 300 lbs/N/ac/year is Because of its very high quality and very high production, alfalfa is at the top of the northern list. Because of the extra difficulty of growing alfalfa, it is midway down on the southern list, especially in the Deep South. Before everyone jumps on the alfalfa bandwagon, alfalfa is definitely not for the majority of deer hunters and their food plots. Because alfalfa is sensitive to overgrazing in the early seedling stage, requires a high pH (over 7.0), lots of potash (K at about 250 units/acre split in two applications) and annual maintenance in the form of weed control or weevil control, alfalfa is labor intensive and expensive to grow and maintain. Meticulous may be the right word to describe the type of deer hunter suited to growing alfalfa. If you can pull it off, however, the benefits/rewards are great in quality, production, and longevity which become directly beneficial to your deer herd. There are many varieties of alfalfa that work well in the north (Geneva, Winter Gold, Radiant, Laser and Vernal). Some are genetically improved to better resist weevils or to resist heavy early grazing pressure. Alfagraze is one, and there are others. These also work in the upper South or mid-South. The Deep South is another matter because of deep sands, droughts, poorer fertility, and high deer populations. Early trails show that Alfagraze and AmeriStand and Amerileaf varieties have a better chance than others to get at least two or three years longevity from the planting.
(including ladino [giant-leaved] white and medium-leaved) are high on both tables. On top of this list, both north and south are Durana and Patriot white clovers. These are new high quality, high production perennials that can produce significant forage for seven to 10 months of the year. In the North, these clovers may persist for over 10 years if managed properly, in the South, five to eight years would be a good expectation. Past severe droughts in the South and East have taken their toll on white clover plantings, however, this was during the test period of Durana in Georgia and it passed with flying colors persisting with fescue under careful management for seven years (and still counting) through these tough conditions. Some other varieties (such as Osceola) have been specifically bred for drought resistance and are holding their own, but everything has its limits. Other varieties common across the U.S. include California, Will, Tillman II, Advantage, Insight, Regalgraze, Tripoli, Alice, Pilgrim and Merit.
In my opinion, white clover should always be planted in a mixture. My favorite is Durana (5 lbs./acre) plus red clover (7 lbs./acre) plus wheat (50 lbs./acre). The wheat and red clover are very productive and palatable and fast starting while they “nurse” the Durana into early spring when it explodes and takes over for the second year and beyond. Pre-mixed blends include Rackmaster Supreme, Perennial Mix, Clover Blend, Refuge, and Ultimate Perennial and Elite.
Red Clover - (also known as June clover) ranks high on both tables. It is a highly palatable, productive clover that grows well in all of the eastern U.S. but acts as an annual in the Deep South, a biennial in the mid-South and a perennial in the North. It does better in the warm season than white clover. Like white, it is sensitive to pH (needs 6.0 or above) and is vulnerable to severe droughts. In the North and Upper South, Redland III, Kenland, Arlington, Marathon, Cinnamon Plus and Freedom are good winter hardy and disease-resistant varieties. In the Deep South, Cherokee and Redland Graze have the best chance to produce and persist. Again, mix red clover with wheat (50 lbs./acre) or oats (50 lbs./acre) or rye (50 lbs./acre) and white clover (five lbs./acre). Pre-mixed blends include Rackmaster Perennial Mixture and Elite.
Two annual clovers sit at the top of the list for southern states. These are Dixie Reseeding Crimson, a productive, fast starting, acid-tolerant clover that will often automatically reseed itself in the Deep South and Yuchi Arrowleaf, a slower starting, drought-tolerant, tall growing, long season, high quality clover that will reseed if disked lightly in late summer. Both have a lower temperature limit of about 10 degrees in winter whereupon they will be winter-killed. Because they complement each other so well in growth habit and reseeding ability, they make a good mixture with each planted at about 10 lbs./acre and mixed with oats (50 lbs./acre) in the Deep South and wheat (50 lbs./acre) further north (mid-South).
Trefoil is an excellent food plot choice for the North down to Mid-South (TN, VA, NC, north GA, north AL). Its big advantage is its tolerance of soil acidity down to 5.5 pH, its drought tolerance, and its longevity (5-10 years or more). It is a little sensitive in the seedling stage to overgrazing, drought or lack of fertility. For this reason, mix birdsfoot trefoil (10 lbs./acre) with a small grain preferably cereal rye at 50 lbs./acre. You can also mix with clovers to end up with an ultimately pure stand of trefoil two or three years down the road. Erect varieties (Georgia one, AU Dewey (South), Fergus, Norcen and Tretona (North)) persist under heavy grazing pressure and persist better against weed competition.
Chicory is easy to grow, persistent, productive, and drought-tolerant. Deer sometimes eat it lightly in fall but jump on it heavily the following spring and summer. For this reason, it really needs to be planted in a mixture (at about 3 lbs./acre) with clover and a small grain. Rackmaster Choice Chicory, Puna or Oasis are all good varieties. Rackmaster Refuge is a good pre-mixed blend.
Alsike is a fast starting, winter hardy, acid-tolerant and flood-tolerant clover adapted to the North. It does best in a mixture (at 5 lbs./acre) with red and white clover, a small grain and maybe even trefoil.
Austrian winter pea
Austrian winter pea is a highly palatable legume appropriate for the southern and central U.S. It makes a great early season bow hunting plot when mixed at 20 lbs/acre with any clover and small grain. In small fields, it will likely be killed by deer over-grazing before winter. If not, it may take over the field with rank growth by mid-spring. If it blooms and goes to seed in spring, disking in August will bring it back from seed for a second year.
Sweetclover is appropriate in the North if pH is above 6.0 and will tolerate very low fertility. Sweetclover is not quite as palatable as most other legumes but is very drought-tolerant. It is a true biennial. There are white and yellow-blossomed varieties of sweetclover. The yellow flowered species are higher quality but yield less than the white-blossomed sweetclover. It can be mixed at about eight lbs/acre with any of the clovers, trefoil, wheat or rye.
Hairy vetch is a high quality legume appropriate in the South. It is used extensively as a winter cover crop that fixes N and can be followed in the spring (especially with a no-till drill) by corn, grain sorghum, millet, or any summer grass crop. It produces a beautiful purple bloom in mid-spring and produces hard seed by late spring. It would do well at 5-10 lbs./acre mixed with Crimson clover, Arrowleaf clover, oats, wheat, or rye. Disking in late summer will ensure the reseeding of both clovers and the vetch.
Oats, wheat, and rye
Oats, wheat, and rye have been repeatedly referenced to in this article. Fall planted oats can winter-kill in the North; rye will grow in acid soil and low fertility, but is not quite as palatable as wheat. All three can be mixed together in a food plot, but don’t skimp on N. A better tactic would be to pick one of the three and mix with any of the legumes mentioned above. Rackmaster Deluxe and Supreme Fall and Elite are good pre-mixed blends of annual grasses mixed with annual legumes (Deluxe) or perennial legumes (Supreme and Elite).
Trophy radishes, rape and turnips
Trophy radishes, rape and turnips (and kale and canola) are all members of the Brassica (mustard) family. They are high quality and easy to grow in acid soil, low fertility and drought but are high N users (75 lbs/acre). Deer use has been extremely variable. With radishes, heavy deer grazing almost always occurs the first fall. Some experienced users of other Brassicas (especially turnips) indicate that it may take up to three years for deer to get used to eating these plants, then they really begin relish them. Often, heavy use will not begin until December or January, when repeated frosts increase sugar content of the leaves). Some users report high preference for rape (or a related canola variety) that begins at planting and continues through winter. Turnip foliage is mostly used in winter and some deer learn to eat radish root and turnip bulb throughout winter. Due to a serious disease problem, brassicas should not be grown on the same ground for more than two successive years even if they reseed and volunteer back. My recommendation is to mix radishes (5 lbs./acre) with turnips and rape at a low rate (2 lbs./acre of each) and plant early in August in the North and September in the South. Rackmaster Deer Greens is a good pre-mix of all four Brassicas.
Thanks to Quality Deer Management Association Chapter president Ed Spinazzola for his insights and long experience at planting food plots in Michigan. I also want to thank two knowledgeable and trustworthy seed companies/dealers: John Carpenter of Pennington Seed Company in Madison, GA (www.Penningtonseed.com) and William Cooper (deceased) of Cooper Seed in Lawrenceville, GA (www.cooperseeds.com). Responsible for a wealth of information used in this article were agronomists Dr. Bill Sell and Dr. Dewey Lee.