When are deer hunting food plots a waste of time?

I assume there are whitetails who love food plots more than I do, I just can’t think of any at the moment. Every year I devote ridiculous amounts of time, energy, and money to building, planting, and maintaining food plots, and I kill my biggest bucks by shooting one. So yeah, I’m a fan.

That said, I’ve learned—through experience and epic failure—that there are times and features where food plots make little or no sense. And as a guy on a tight budget and precious little free time, I’m not going to waste either of those commodities planting whitetail seeds. Here are five times when a food plot just doesn’t make sense.

1) You don’t have the time, money or equipment

Despite glowing promises of easy plantings that will attract big deer like softball players to a free keg of beer, getting food plots right can be a lot of hard work. If the site is not established, at a minimum you will need to mow and/or spray weeds or other vegetation, and in some cases, there are trees to be thrown and rocks to be removed. All of this adds up to a ton of sweat equity, extra equipment, and inevitably some money—and you haven’t even planted the first seed.

Then you’ll need a soil test, and you’ll need to buy and apply the right amounts of lime, fertilizer and seed. To spread the changes and the seed, you’ll need even more gear, and even the cheaper versions of it will hit your wallet, not to mention eat up the free time you’ve built into your schedule.

Farmer's boots next to young bean plant, close up
It may sound simple, but planting food plots is a lot of hard work. Andy Sacks via Getty Images

So yes, good food plots will undoubtedly attract deer to your hunting plot, and you may even kill a few of them. But if you’re on a tight budget and have limited hours of free time, food parcels don’t make much sense. You’d be much better off holding on to those hard-earned dollars and investing your vacation hours looking for and hanging stands, not to mention chilling out with your bow or rifle at the range.

And if you feel the slightest bit guilty about not planting food plots, stop it. Remember, people were killing deer long before a single whitetail hunter knew (or cared) what brassica, chicory, or rape seed looked like.

Read further: The best edible seeds of 2022

2) Your property is too small

While food plots boast the obvious advantage of attracting deer to your property, they come with a potentially troubling disadvantage; they make those same deer stick around your food longer than you might have thought. Sound like a good problem to have? Not if your tract is a travel corridor where there’s a relatively constant flow of money passing through it and almost none of those animals are aware of your presence.

As an example, I hunt a tract in Kansas that boasts about 15 acres of prime whitetail habitat on a 320-acre half section. My stand is in the center of a creek bottom and three connecting draws, and my friends and I have tagged three walleyes from that spot in the last decade, and we’ve done so without alerting any nearby deer. That’s because the small creek bottom is a travel funnel that affects the behavior of bucks coming into it from miles away, and some of those deer have never set foot in that tract before the mess.

A beautiful Whitetail Buck walking along the edge of a forest
Don’t plant a plot in a travel corridor or anywhere you can ambush bucks just passing by. Larry Keller via Getty Images

Are there natural openings and gaps in that stand area that could host a food plot? Of course. But that food source would invariably affect deer bedding and food nearby. Those same deer would be spooked when I walked in and out of my stand, and before long, the same stand I used to hunt—a place that basically flew under the deer radar of even the residents—is now a moot point in their world. . Given the choice between a hermetic ambush and a whitetail feeding site, I’d take the ambush almost every time.

3) Have other important things the deer need

I had just finished speaking to a group of deer hunters at a seminar when a gentleman approached me and asked if I had time to talk with him about his property. “I have 40 acres, and about half of it is a new stand of aspen that opened three years ago,” he explained. “I was wondering how much of that aspen I need to bulldoze so I can get some food plots in there?” My response was a “Zero!”

Those of us familiar with aspen (we call it “popple” here in the Midwest) understand that it is a tree made for whitetails. In the early stages of growth, it offers unparalleled browsing and coverage, not just for a specific time window, but throughout the year. As it matures, aspen stem density remains suitable for bedding and security for several years. And just when the trees are tall, mature, and seemingly worthless to the whitetail, you can clear them out and the process begins again. It is like a perennial source of food/bedding that can be managed for decades. And just to sweeten the pot, the aspen attracts songbirds, grouse, turkeys and other species.

Aspens in peak fall color in western Colorado
Think twice before bulldozing plants like aspen to put in a food plot. They can offer deer more than you might expect. Deb Snelson via Getty Images

In the rush to “plant something good for deer” we often neglect to search our property for native species that not only serve that purpose, but can be much more difficult to establish or nurture than any food plot. White oak trees are another perfect example. In addition to being a tremendous financial benefit when mature enough to harvest, white acorns make one of the most attractive natural deer foods. I am blessed to hunt in a region where the fields, woods and food plots provide a salad bar of deer to eat. And I’m here to prove that white oak drop will make the whitetail ignore all other food. I’d rather have oaks on my property than the nicest food plot out there.

I take a similar stance on bedding/security cover, another asset I’d rather manage than a few acres of turnips or clover. Think about it: What would you rather have on your property, a snack bar where a deer can spend a few minutes every day? Or the cover that makes a mature buck feel safe for hours at a time? As someone who has hunted properties that have no cover, I can tell you that I would trade almost any food plot for just a few hidden whitetail holes.

4) Your neighbors suck

A few years ago, I was a member of a lease that boasted many acres that consisted of almost nothing that deer needed. Open areas were given over to pasture for sheep and cows, and pockets of wood were given over to grazing even more. After walking the expansive property, I finally found a corner that could be fenced off and worked into a food plot.

I checked with the landowner to make sure a food plot would work there and got the thumbs up. That weekend I worked some dirt, planted some seed, and eventually, I watched the plot blossom.

But when I went back to hang a stand I was crushed. Hunters on the neighboring property, which bordered my small plot on three sides, had set up stands to take advantage of my small patch of rye and brassica. Those stands – while clearly on their side of the fence and technically legal – were facing my plot, the clear purpose of the archers who hung them to hunt the deer feeding on my side of the fence.

I left that day without hanging a stand. I suppose with some effort or clever camera work, I could have established that those guys were hunting deer on property they didn’t have a permit to hunt on, but that’s not how I like to spend my precious fall moments.

A whitetail buck jumps a fence in TN.
Planting too close to property lines can attract other hunters to your food plot. Keith Szafranski via Getty Images

Since then, I’ve used that experience to evaluate other possible food plot scenarios. I have permission to hunt several hundred acres of private land near my home, but those properties are often bordered by state land on one or more sides. Whenever I consider planting a food plot on the private property I hunt, I think that such a plot will do more to benefit hunters on state land than it will for me.

Of course, those guys on the other side of the fence have a perfect right to hunt deer that hang out on public land. I also have the privilege of deciding whether to help them achieve their fundraising goals. Getting food? Food plots do just as much to attract other hunters as they do deer, so plan accordingly.

5) You are new to property

Every time I enter a new hunting tract, I’m scouting the area for potential food plot locations. I know that deer are slaves to their stomachs, and if a tract has the right stuff for growing deer food, plots have the potential to turn such a place into a good place—and a good piece of property in deer heaven. I have also learned, through hard experience, to tell myself “not so fast, Sparky.” Before I turn any dirt or plant a bunch of food, I want the plots I plant to a) feed the deer in a spot they’re already comfortable with and b) increase the chance of hunting. And the best way to achieve these goals is to simply hunt the property for a season.

I know I can look at Google Earth or almost any hunting app and spot some logical food plot sites, then verify them with a little boots-in-the-dirt research. And if I have access to a property in the spring and actually have time to walk it, I’m comfortable making educated guesses about where the feed should go. But if my first viewing doesn’t come until the summer or early fall, I’ll hold off on making decisions until I have a clear picture of the property.

Read further: How to finally win the fight against weeds in your food plot

Food plots should be part – not the focus – of a land management plan. As mentioned, I want the food plots to be placed in places the deer already want to go – and make sense for me to hunt. The best way to gather that information is to first observe how deer use a tract and then construct food plots sensibly as part of a sound management plan that considers bedding cover, routes of travel and what is happening in adjacent properties. Sure it’s exciting to give deer food in a place where there used to be none, but it’s far better to approach food plots methodically with an eye toward long-term results.

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