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Grow Diverse Plant Mixtures in Food Plots

by Jason Johnson, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Gary Olsen of Audubon County inspects his sorghum food plot.Corn and soybeans continue to be a popular choice for Iowa landowners who grow food plots to attract wildlife, but adding more biological diversity with small grains, grasses, legumes, and even fruit-bearing trees are gaining in popularity.

Establishing food plots requires a basic understanding of your soil, the wildlife species you wish to attract, and wildlife food preferences. Food plots can benefit many types of wildlife, and they can serve several purposes, including providing wildlife supplemental or emergency food supplies during extreme cold or snow in winter months, or winter preparation, and assuring adequate spring and summer month food supplies for reproduction and raising young.

Food plots work well in or near protected grassland or woodland areas that offer good shelter and water, but lack an adequate food supply. For example, food plots may be beneficial on large blocks of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land and other lands under conservation easement.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends growing food plots on the least erosive areas of each field. To address erosion concerns, NRCS advocates planting on the contour and tilling minimally prior to seeding.

Marty Adkins, state resource conservationist for NRCS in Iowa, says it is important to ensure adequate food for wildlife throughout the year. “Well-designed food plots provide year-round, high-quality wildlife foods by including a variety of plant species,” he said.

Adkins says, for example, that many wildlife species prefer green growing plants in the spring, but their preference changes to fruit and seeds in the fall and winter.

Jay Jung, resource conservationist for NRCS in Charles City, grows food plots on his own land and helps plan and develop them for local landowners. He says many landowners he works with are looking for ways to attract deer, turkeys or pheasants.

“I like to rotate food plots to offer a buffet of dining options,” says Jung. “Traditional corn and soybean crops work well, but we have recently and successfully experimented with oats, barley, sorghum, sunflowers and wheat.”

Jung recommends planting small grains somewhere on your farm. “I have been incorporating more clover patches to provide forage options that promote antler health in deer,” he said. “Clover also attracts insects for hen turkeys and pheasants and their young.”

“We also use native wildflower plantings and burning to stimulate grass and forb growth to promote pollinators and insect feeding areas for young chicks,” said Jung.

Jung said he recently began using cover crops in food plot rotations. “Last year we experimented with winter rye in soybeans, and it seemed to keep the deer on the farm longer by providing a fresh green crop later in the year through early spring,” he said. “We plan to expand the use of cover crops in future years.”

Drew DeLang, NRCS district conservationist in Des Moines and Louisa Counties, recommends ladino clover plots. He says, as a perennial, they are fairly inexpensive to establish and deer “go nuts” for them in the fall and winter. “The ladino plots are also excellent for attracting pollinator species to your property,” he said.

Another food plot option Jung recommends is to plant apple and pear trees which require very little annual maintenance or input. “We have added one or two apple trees to our properties every year,” said Jung.

DeLang says it’s important to protect newly planted fruit trees with fence for at least five years, or the deer will destroy them before they can establish.

Visit your local NRCS office for more information about planting a food plot on your farm.

Jung’s favorite food plot plantings:

Green Foraging Plants

  • Imperial Whitetail Clover – Whitetail Institute
  • Frigid Forage – brassicas, turnips, rye

Small Grains

  • Field Sorghum
  • Succotash (combination of wheat, barley and oats)
  • Annual Sunflowers
  • Winter Rye

Field Crops

  • Corn
  • Soybeans
  • Oats