There is no denying that food plots have their place in Oklahoma when it comes to white-tailed deer hunting and management, but food plots have both positive and negative aspects. When planted with high-quality agricultural crops, food plots may be one way to provide additional food for white-tailed deer, especially during late summer and winter stress periods. Forages seeded made on marginal croplands may also provide some food and cover for turkey, quail, other small birds and mammals as well as deer.
Food plots provide easily accessible food for deer, and when used as an attractant may increase hunter success, but plots should not be viewed as a substitute for proper deer habitat management and/or population management. Their value to deer has been established only in isolated emergency winter situations. Although establishment and maintenance of scattered plots may develop supplemental forage during periods of natural food shortage, concentrating whitetail in relatively small areas can encourage disease as well as increased use of already-low natural foods.
A well placed food plot will attract deer without issue, but there are other problems that hunters and land managers should be aware of. Food plots will usually be limited in distribution and numbers over a given property by the cost of establishment and maintenance, limited personnel, and time constraints. Food plots often lack plant diversity, and available forage may be limited to one season, or the crop may be present when whitetail really do not require additional forage, depending on the crop planted. Food plots are often looked upon as a “silver bullet” for deer management, when population management or other habitat management techniques such as increased deer harvest or even controlled burning would be a better alternative.
But again, deer food plots have their place. This is especially true of fall and winter plots. During those years when mast shortfalls occur in areas of Oklahoma with extensive forest cover, food plots can reduce mortality. Cool season, winter forages such as wheat, rye, barley, and ryegrass that are planted as crops do well in food plots for deer when mixed with Ladino or Arrowleaf clover.
When planning for spring food plots, consider forage crops such as cowpeas, soybeans, or mungbeans, especially when planted with alfalfa will for additional variety. It is important to note that legumes, other than alfalfa, do not fair well in central and western Oklahoma. Also, if deer density is high, small plots may be overused in short order, thus providing no long-term benefit.
If you choose to plant a deer food plot, have a soil test conducted, prepare a seedbed just as if you were farming a crop, and fertilize at the recommended rate. Do not waste your time by foregoing these steps! If you do not have time to properly prepare a plot then don’t do it. Simply disturb the soil and skip the seed. Diverse, native vegetation such as forbs, browse and even some high quality grasses are preferred from a land management standpoint because of greater plant diversity and sustainability, and because they are better adapted to Oklahoma growing conditions.
In heavily wooded parts of Oklahoma, the management of forested habitats by conventional timber harvest, selective thinning of hardwoods, and use of prescribed fire in native grassland or forested habitats provides a more cost-effective and ecological approach to managing food supplies for white-tailed deer. These habitat management practices are ideal for deer and improve forage standing crop, forage quality, and plant diversity without the costs associated with traditional food plots. In southeast Oklahoma and northeast Texas, deer use of harvested and burned sites was equal to or greater than use of adjacent food plots during all seasons. And during hunting season, nothing beats an area that’s been recently burned.