By Kent Kammermeyer, Senior Wildlife Biologist
Both deer and wild turkeys will definitely benefit from agricultural food plots on 10 to 15% of the land in a heavily forested area, wherever this is feasible. This means 4 - 5 plots averaging 2 - 10 acres each per square mile. This large number may be unrealistic for many land managers because of the high cost of installation and maintenance; however, even 1% of an area in high-quality plots improves turkey brood rearing habitats and deer diets, which enhance reproduction, growth, and antler development. Recent research overwhelmingly supports food plots as valuable food for deer and as tools for increased or more selective harvest.
Studies indicate that intensively managed agricultural openings produce higher harvest and better deer condition. In Arkansas, 2% of a 600-acre enclosure planted in high-quality food plots doubled the size of the deer herd and stopped drastic fluctuations caused by hard mast failure. A recent Georgia study concluded that hunting clubs with a minimum of 1.5 % in high-quality food plots produced more quality bucks in their harvest than clubs with less than 0.5%. Deer sometimes adjust movement patterns, core areas, and home ranges to conform to food plots and high quality openings.
In northern Wisconsin, biologists suggest no more than 1% of the forest be converted into openings. This could be an easily achievable, realistic goal for deer managers to develop 6.4 acres of agricultural food plots per square mile (1%). Even half of this acreage (0.5%) has produced positive results in antler development and harvest. With grass-clover mixtures producing 5,000 - 12,000 lbs. forage dry weight per acre per year and deer, turkeys, and others utilizing up to 5,000 lbs. per acre per year dry weight, it doesn't take many high quality acres to impact a deer herd where native forages are low in quantity or quality. Speaking of other users of high-quality food plots, one study in Georgia documented the use of clover plots by 54 species of birds and 14 species of mammals during just a two-month period in spring.
Size and Location of Plots
In moderate to high deer populations, grazing pressure can be intense on new plantings. For this reason, most managers recommend plots of 2 - 5 acres. Minimum size to prevent overgrazing should be at least one acre, although successful plots have been established on less than 1/4 acre.
Whenever possible, plots should be located on the most fertile soil available because of the costs involved in improving the soil with lime and fertilizer. Often, however, the cost of clearing constrains food plot location. Many managers use power lines, log landings, and skid roads for food plots. Such sites are convenient and temporarily cost effective. However, there is a trade-off in that some of these existing openings require less initial bulldozer work but may cost more in the long run due to shade, poor soil, soil compaction, rocks, weed competition, or excessive slope.
These disadvantages (except for shade and slope) can usually be overcome by good farming practices (especially soil preparation) and liberal application of lime and fertilizer according to soil test. If plots are limed and fertilized up to soil test and maintained or replanted over a period of several years, however, carefully chosen fertile sites such as sandy loam or bottom land will be more successful and cost effective in the long run. Fit your food plot sizes to the shape and terrain of your property. Deer and turkeys within a 1 to 1.5 mile radius will find the plots readily. Use this rule of thumb to scatter your plots so that they are accessible to all the deer and turkeys on your property.