Southern Food Plots and Deer Hunting
Hunting and land management practices in the southern states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi require somewhat of a different strategy than that of the Midwestern states. While we often focus on the Midwest, we can’t ignore the need for some accurate tips and strategies focused specifically on the south. The south requires a very different set of tactics, strategies, and tips. Several factors are responsible for this of which population density, soil type, terrain, median climate, lack of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) areas, browse quality and quantity all weigh in. Hunters owning or leasing property, or even hunt clubs in and around the southeast and southern regions utilize food plots in the summer, fall, and winter months not only for the well-being of the deer herd but also for successful hunting.
Proper land management practices are a direct influence on the health and benefit of the deer herd of the managed habitat. A popular concept stands true among land management philosophy, “Preparation for next year’s hunt begins at the end of this year’s season.” With that in mind, no two plans will be exactly alike for different tracts of land; the individuality of the property will factor into what core needs will develop the best sustainable habitat.
Food Plots in the South
The southern and southeast regions of the United States are more populated per capita by the human population, and although there are ample farmland and vast areas of unpopulated land, the acreage numbers of agricultural land are nothing compared to that of the Western and Midwestern states. Add to that the fact that soil comparisons rank the southern soils as some of the most nutrient-leached soils by average. The mild median temperatures do allow more native habitat browse year around, but the supplemental planting of food plots provide nutrition to deer during the most critical nutritionally stressed periods and is vital to the nutrition and health of the deer herd. Not only do food plots assist in the nutritional health of deer herds, but also these food plots are a huge factor in providing a viable method to attract deer during the hunting season.
When planning to put in a new food plot location or revive an old plot, deciding what to plant and choosing the prime location for a stand, several considerations factor into the success of that food plot. Considerations such as site selection, crop selection, soil preparation, planting methods, and stand placement ideal for that location. Other factors such as median temperatures, average drought, weeds, deer population, amount and quality of natural browse, and proximity of agricultural fields in the area are also important to the success of perennial food plots.
Food Plot Site Selection
The size, shape, and distribution of food plots are not only important to utilizing those food plots for nutrition; it is critical in successfully attracting deer during hunting season. As a general rule, factoring in the palatable native plants, nuts, and browse, 1-5% of the entire acreage of managed property should be planted, and often as much as 10% if the plot locations are available. Larger food plots will sustain crops longer because they can survive heavy browsing by game animals. Often, agricultural fields that are on the property or the property has access to can be used according to the crops planted and are ideal for stand placement.
Typically, food plots for deer will range from half an acre to as much as five acres. Keep in mind that deer will usually utilize the edges of larger plots in the daylight hours, but usually will feed in the center of larger plots only during the cover of night. Feeding in the cover of night will meet the goal of enhancing nutrition for the deer herd but will not benefit hunting from an attraction standpoint. Long, irregular shape plots offer deer easy use and access to food plots with the safety of some edge cover; whereas long, even-sided plantings seem to make deer weary for lack of edge cover.
Location, purpose, size, sun and shade exposure of the food plot are all dynamics to the use of that area, but none of these are more important than the soil type and condition. The requirements of the crop and the season being planted will largely be a factor as to where it can be planted.
Food Plot Soil Preparation
Before crop choice can be considered for a certain food plot, it is important to have the soil tested to see what each plot needs to create prime soil for planting crops. Soil testing can be done through many county extension offices for a fairly economical fee. It is important to follow the instructions on the soil testing kits when obtaining the soil samples. Once the results have been confirmed, it is time to prepare the soil for planting.
Soil fertility is going to depend on several elements but mainly soil structure/texture and pH. For the southern/southeast regions the most productive soils are going to be found in the Black Belt Region, alluvial regions such as river beds, streams bottoms, and deltas which will be comprised of a combination of sand, silt, clay, and gravel. The deep sandy soils of the Coastal Plains are low in fertility due to a high rate of nutrient leaching in those areas. Soils that have a finer texture with some gravel will naturally hold more moisture than that of coarser texture with some gravel.
The pH numbers are classified as basic with a pH range of 7.1 to 14.0, neutral with a pH range of 7.0, and acidic with a pH range of 0 to 6.9. Each plant is going to have a range that is tolerable to its growth and sustainability. The popular range of the greatest variety of plant species and summer legumes and fall plant species is 6.5 to 7.0 pH. It is evident that a vast amount of land across the southern and southeast regions encompass highly acidic soils because of the number of pine tree species found in those acres; pine trees thrive well in acidic soils. Alluvial bottomlands commonly have a more neutral pH which hardwoods grow well in.
Soil fertility doesn’t stop at pH levels, the amount of phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, and other nutrients are important. One to two tons of Ag lime per acre is often enough to adjust pH and should be applied right before or immediately after plowing and should remain at the root level of the plant. Rotating certain legumes in summer plots can help build many of these nutrients and combined with proper lime and fertilizing, the result is fertile soil for planting.
A good seed bed, the preparation for planting, is critical for summertime food plots to retain moisture and aid in germination in the dry summers of the southern climate. When planting, it is important to plan according to pending rain and 60° or warmer temperatures for proper germination of seed. In many areas, the practice most popular for summer plots are mowing and poisoning residual fall plants and spring weeds followed by disking or drilling for an ideal seed planting of ½” to 1” depths; anything deeper will often not allow proper germination and growth.
Food Plot Crop/Seed Selection
Once the plots have been soil tested, lime and fertilized where required, it is time to choose what to plant considering the season of planting. A variety of seed can be purchased Round-Up Ready, which means that the seed/crop can be sprayed throughout the season to kill weeds and vegetation that can choke out the crops that are planted. Alfalfa, a grass food crop widely grown in the Midwestern states, does not thrive in the southern regions.
A well thought out plan will include summer legumes such as Iron-Clay Cow Peas, soybeans, and other legumes which not only provide protein and fiber for deer, these legumes aid in adding nitrogen to the soils for fall planting. LabLab is a drought resistant, warm-weather legume that can withstand heavy browsing for areas with high deer density. Perennials such as crimson clover and ladino clover are often planted by broadcasting on top of other planted seed. Crimson clover and Regal ladino clover make good spring and fall browse. Brassica crops are fall crops that thrive well in the mild winters of the southern regions.
Cereal grains, such as wheat, oats, and rye, offer great cover but provide little to no nutritional value. Similar to cereal grain sorghum, Egyptian wheat, and millet also offer no real nutritional value to the deer herd. Egyptian wheat is usually considered for coverage or support of crawling or vining crops. Millet is often used for upland game and controlling erosion, but it chokes out most other crops so it should be planted only for these two uses.
Tree Stand and Box Blind Setups for Southern Deer Hunting
The typical terrain and characteristic of southern property are most favorable to stand type hunting. The overabundance of trees and planted pine plantations, topographical features, and the lack of long shooting ranges in the southern regions make hunting ideal for stand hunting over food plots that attract deer. After carefully planning out food plots, investing the time and expense into preparing and planting, the next step will be deciding on what type of stand and placement of the stand for the most effective advantage of a successful season. Using game cameras after the food plots are planted and before the season opens by placing the cameras in travel corridors and staging areas can also assist in deciding the best locations for stand placement.
There are several types of stands available that can be used in a variety of locations for the best shot opportunity. Permanent box stands will need to be planned precisely since erecting this type of stand doesn’t allow easy set-up, take down and mobility. Other stands, such portable box blinds, ladder stands, tripod stands, ground blinds, and bale blinds offer mobility.
Using the terrain and the characteristics of the land as factors in stand placement, take into consideration access to the stand, bedding areas, trails, corridors, staging areas, pinch points, typical wind direction, and the rise and setting of the sun. When placing a stand on a field with irregular edges, choosing a location that gives the hunter the widest angle of view will give an advantage. The most effective stand placements are those areas that will allow a stand to share a pinch point, staging area, or trails with the food plot view. As with any stand placement, it is critical to use any cover available, including a canopy of tree tops to protect from a skyline silhouette.
If planning to use a ground blind, for the best results, placing that blind and brushing it in well in advance to the season will allow deer to get accustomed to the blind. When placing a ground blind, avoid placing the blind in too close in proximity to a trail or the middle of a staging area. Bale blinds work well in large plots, and often allows the hunter a 360-degree view of the edges of the entire food plot. Bale blinds or tri- and quad-pods are often placed in areas that have the highest chance of a hunter flushing wildlife or being seen while approaching the stand, so attention to ingress and egress to those stands will be imperative.
Cutting shooting lanes is often necessary for elevated stands that are tucked into tree lines at the edge of food plots or stands that have irregular edge cover. With food plots that have long, straight sides, careful consideration of stand placement is crucial; take advantage of any cover available. One of the most critical factors in placing a stand is typical wind direction and natural thermals based on topographical features. Choosing a downwind location typical to the common wind direction for that location is going to be key. Of course, controlling the wind is completely out of our capabilities so having a second stand location or another food plot favorable to the prevailing wind is always good planning. Another factor to consider is the rising and setting of the sun because naturally, these are times when deer are most active and looking directly into the sun does not only hinder the hunter’s visibility, it also places a low factor of concealment on the hunter amplifying any movement.
Deer movement can change drastically from early season bow hunting, during the rut, and late season hunting. Even excessive hunting pressure or crop over browsing in an area can cause deer movement to change at any given time. It is often essential to the success of the hunt to change strategy and even to change stand location. This change in location can be done by adding a stand, which results in as little disruption as possible in that area, instead of moving a stand.
There will always be conditions beyond control such as the amount of rain and extremely high or low temperatures, but having a plan in place of proper land management for spring, summer, and fall planting and a well laid out plan for stand placement ensures the highest odds of a successful fall deer season.
If you are interested in learning more about food plots or feeding deer check out the blog below!