By: Jason Herbert
“Sure honey.” I wasn’t going to bite. I’ve been married long enough to detect the slight tone of sarcasm in her voice. “Go ahead. Take as much money as you want to plant food plots for the deer. While you’re at it, do you want to buy them some Christmas presents, too?” Ouch, I thought; she didn’t have to go that far.
Being a public school teacher blessed with four children means that I’ve got all sorts of fun memories and adventures but generally an empty wallet. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though. However, my lack of finances doesn’t mean I love deer hunting any less. With six hungry mouths to feed at home, I need to hunt now more than ever. The lack of free time for hunting, compounded with the price of meat at the store, means that I need to be a highly-efficient killer each fall to keep everyone happy at home.
Food plots are a fantastic way to attract and hold deer on any hunting property. If you believe everything you read and see on TV, you’ll almost be convinced that you need to have large food plots requiring expensive farm machinery to kill deer consistently. That’s just not the case.
A large percentage of the deer’s diet consists of native, woody browse and vegetation, but food plots are still a wonderful treat for them. I believe the smaller, more secluded and gnarly the food plots are the better. Here are a variety of different tricks to try this year for effective food plots that won’t require you to take a second mortgage out on the house.
The easiest poor man’s food plot idea that I know of is simply throwing turnip seed down in a cornfield right around August 1. I like to get a pound or two of turnip seed at the local garden supply store for about $4 per pound on average. Then I’ll head out to the cornfield, hunch down low and spread these tiny little seeds back and forth between the cornrows. This is a perfect setup because as the corn matures and dries, the late summer leaves will start to wither away allowing more sunlight to come in. Generally, cornfields are also irrigated, watering your fantastic little buddies that are growing down below the corn. Come August, the field will have been hit with Round-Up a few times, and there should be virtually no weed competition. Once the farmer harvests the corn in October or November, you’ll have a wonderful 2 to 3 ft tall turnip food plot in its place.
I’ve also experimented with variations on this whereas we have planted turnips in soybeans with good luck as well. Lately, we’ve also been mixing in a daikon radish, which the deer love. Also known as “groundhog radishes,” these things grow deep, pulling all sorts of nutrients up from below the soil surface. In fact, several farmers are planting daikon radishes in fields as cover crops for over winter because they break up the ground so well and bring nutrients from down deep up to the surface of the soil.
Another version of my poor man’s food plot requires some basic equipment. I like to take an old, push lawn mower way back in near my treestand locations and mow out small, twisty, curvy food plots or trails. Generally, I’m mowing weeds, thorns, brambles, garlic mustard and whatever else grows in the area. Sometimes, if necessary, I’ll even bring a small chainsaw and knock down some competing trees.
Once I’m done mowing the plots and trails, I will leave for a cold drink and return in about two weeks. After the two weeks, I come back with a backpack sprayer full of Round-Up and go nuts spraying everything that I don’t want to compete with my food plot. Then I’ll wait at least two weeks (longer if there is no predicted rain) before I seed.
I cannot stress enough the importance of mowing and maintaining decent entrance and exit trails. First, sneaking in and out quietly is essential. Second, by planting clover on these trails, I have maximized the space and created a pretty low maintenance travel route for myself. Clover needs to be mowed a few times each year unless the deer keep it at bay. I also like to manicure several game trails to steer the deer by my stands and cameras.
Seeding these small micro-plots is really simple. I just walk back with a handheld broadcast seeder or a bucket and spread the seed by hand. I usually throw a mixture of clover and something else on my new plots and trails. I like adding clover in these plots because once it establishes it will choke out all of the weeds leaving me with a pretty low-maintenance food plot for years to come. I also add oats, wheat, cereal rye, turnips, daikon radishes, soybeans, leftover corn seed and really anything else I can throw down that the deer will eat. I never till these type of plots because when you do till the ground, you’re also creating a seedbed for countless years of dormant seed waiting for their chance to grow. I prefer to just throw my seed really heavy, about twice the recommended rate, down on the dead vegetation that I hit with Round-Up. The rain will force the seed down to the ground, and the vegetation will act as a mulch. Of course, not all of the seeds will get soil contact, but by seeding extra heavy, I’ve always been happy with the results.
This past winter and leading into spring, I set a goal of reclaiming a giant patch of multiflora rose. My goal was much easier said than done, but regardless, I stuck with it. While I was at it, I set my sights on a stand of autumn olive as well. I took our old push brush hog and after much blood and sweat (no tears, but a lot of screams in pain), I had the multiflora rose beat back to stubble. I also went with my chainsaw to the autumn olive bushes and knocked those back to the ground as well. Then I let everything green up around these areas for a couple of weeks before I came back with Round-Up. I ended up creating a beautiful clover and turnip plot in a once impenetrable stand of multiflora rose. This new plot is directly behind my house, so I get to watch deer wandering around in it at all hours. The autumn olive plot that I overtook isn’t visible from my home, but it is right by my dad’s Redneck blind, and he sees all sorts of deer in there eating turnips all day long. There is too much of a good thing, and thick cover such as multiflora rose and autumn olive can eventually become so thick that they are useless to deer because they can’t even navigate it. So when things on our property get that thick, I like to open them back up and create some food plots and trails.
Another inexpensive trick I like to employ now and then is simply fertilizing the native weeds nearby my tree stands. Like I mentioned earlier, a huge percentage of a deer’s diet is woody browse and native vegetation, regardless of how beautiful your food plots look. The deer need these other materials in their gut to keep up the chemical balance that is required for proper digestion. So I just play it simple and take the cheap way out by fertilizing the native growth around my tree stand. I think it is crazy how the deer will quickly notice where the most nourishing foods are and will soon devour these weeds that have been fertilized.
A tactic called “release cutting” is also a great card to keep up your sleeve. Each winter or spring, I go out in my woods and find the best nut or fruit trees to designate as lucky survivors. Then, with my chainsaw, I cut out everything that could be any competition for sunlight and nutrients under that tree’s canopy. By eliminating all the competition, very similar to what you would do in a garden with a tomato plant, you’re allowing all the water, nutrients and sunlight to go to that one specific tree. On a side note, save the mulberries! A mulberry tree is a landscaper’s worst nightmare, and I would argue a deer hunter’s best friend. The deer love to eat their leaves, eat the berries and scrape all over their low-hanging branches. When the budget does allow, taking the large fertilizer “spikes” and jamming a few of them in the ground at the edge of the canopy on these release cut trees will also help feed that tree for years to come.
Something new that I’m going to plant this year is simply wild bird seed. Yes, wild bird seed. Containing sunflowers, milo, millet, sorghum and all sorts of other goodies, this stuff is as cheap as cheap can get. We did some experimenting this fall at a friend’s house, and these bird seed food plots grew incredibly tall, offering edible cover for the deer throughout the summer and early fall. I will say once the snow and bitter winds came in late fall, the sorghum and milo laid right down like anything else and didn’t offer a lot of cover. But for a specific period, it was a deer paradise and certainly cheap to put in.
Those are just a few ideas I have for poor man’s food plots. Regardless of what you’re doing to improve your property, one thing remains the same: It’s incredibly rewarding. I love watching animals bed, live and eat on my property knowing that they are choosing to spend time there because of what I have created. It has made hunting much more rewarding and, yet, also ruined it a little bit for me. Because now when I’m watching deer living on my property, I almost have to talk myself into shooting them. It is a bittersweet feeling because I look at these animals like they’re my pets and although I know they’re not, I do want to see them continue to survive and thrive.
Here’s a challenge to you: Get out this winter and spring, plan out a poor man’s food plot or two, save yourself a bunch of money and stress at home and have fun.