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Field Guide -Our Pros

Creating a Food Plot: Top Hunting Season Food Sources

Just imagine your dreams for that handsome-looking 2-year-old 10-point that has been feeding in your alfalfa field all summer. He is with a brat pack of two other young bucks that you know will be some real studs in the coming years.

Those little buddies love to hang out all day under the cool overstory of the open mature hardwoods within your woodlot. The trio has first been dining on your clover in May and then all summer long on the lush alfalfa, power-packed with nutrition and attraction. Larger antlers, higher body weights, and overall health have you beaming with pride at the potential.

As the summer progresses into mid-September, the boys begin to test each other while sparring lightly with their second set of hard antlers. The first frost of October comes around, and the leaves trade their slick green summer coats for their vibrant shades of fall. The trio becomes two – and then one – as they move off to find their own hunting season hangouts, but you still find occasional trail cam photos of each of them as they relate to the summer comfort you provided.

As the season progresses, each infrequent glimpse of one of the trio brings hope for the following year.

Then, the "horror" begins as one of the nice little 8 points falls to a neighbor a mile away, then the other 8 points, and finally, the 10 points end up falling in line for a trip to another neighbor's freezer. To add insult to injury, everyone commented on how heavy they were for 2-year-olds – meaning the summer food you provided in your food plot served its purpose, but to what end goal?

It's time to examine your food plot. Here’s what to consider for top hunting season food sources!

Jeff Sturgis with a bow standing in a food plot.

What Is Your Food Plot Variety?

Bucks love to wander, especially during the rut, in search of a few does, particularly when they have exhausted any receptive doe in their own backyard. However, at the same time, they will wander for other reasons too, namely food and security cover.

In this article, I will discuss how your hunting season focus on nutritional attraction through the use of food plot variety can play a critical role in your efforts to ultimately experience a quality herd on your parcel. I will also discuss what type of plantings you may want to consider when planting them and strategically how your plantings can make or break not only your management efforts but also your level of hunting season success.

On small parcels, you may need to move away from the thought that you can take care of the local deer herd for 12 months out of the year because, often, the lack of resources in the size of the land is not conducive to that approach.

If you focus instead on the four months that cover the complete deer season in your area, with both cover and food, then you can accomplish great things! It is called managing and hunting a "Part-time Deer Herd." As long as you hit those four critical months, your ability to experience a quality herd that includes an adequate number and age structure of bucks can be exceptional.

A deer eating vegetation in a food plot.

What to Plant

To know what to offer in your food plot variety, you have to think about what local forages can really give you the most bang for your buck in November. In my own personal northern food plot plantings in MN, WI, and both northern and southern MI, it has been tough to beat the rotated forage bases of brassicas and cereal grain combinations.

Mid-summer Brassica combinations, including forage soybeans, buckwheat, and peas, can really give your planting a boost if needed, and I've always liked a mix of grains, including oats and winter rye. Both the grains and the brassicas offer considerable attraction and nutrition in November, especially compared to what the local habitat or ag fields offer.

Something to ponder: “Is it better to offer a forage that is a 5/10 on the nutritional scale at a time when the local habitat and ag fields are a 2/10? or to offer a forage that is a 10/10 at a time when the local habitat and ag fields are also at a 10/10?”

Often, it's not the overall quality of the forage that will be the key to your success but the difference in quality between that forage and the local habitat at the time of the forage usage.

Think About Forages and the Time of Year

Think November when choosing your forages, surrounded by October and December, and finally, September and January wrapping it all up.

If you can start your forages in September, get them to come together in November, and then at least let them slowly diminish into the end of January, you have just accomplished an incredible task. Best of all, if grains were used within your equation, then you just hit a period of time before spring green-up that is rarely touched, providing an adequate green forage 2-4 weeks prior to when any clover fields have awakened from their long winter naps.

Providing forages that are available in August, or at the very latest, September, is important because it begins the pattern of use on your food sources. It is important to offer a consistent variety of forages on every food plot to initiate the chain of movements and use early.

Then, when October rolls around, the deer have been following the same pattern for several weeks. By the time the November offerings become attractive, it's a natural progression for the deer to move over a few feet and continue to move and feed. By offering consistency in attraction and variety throughout November, together with daytime bedding security, I have found deer to gravitate heavily to this type of setting.

If your food continues throughout December, get ready for late-season muzzleloader and archery seasons! Food is king during the late hunting season, and if you offer quality, cool-season cover, too, WOW-enjoy!

Finally, when quality food carries the local deer herd through January and beyond, they are well on their way to enjoying an energy boost within the dead of winter that will reap a great head start of rewards for the following summer's growing season.

A whitetail buck in a green field, creating a food plot concept.

Something Else to Consider

One of the points I would really like you to ponder is this: Will you offer a greater positive impact to the local deer herd by offering substantial forage for the four weeks just prior to and just after the months of Winter -or- during the growing season of green-up to September?

I have personally experienced that hitting the leanest periods of the year, as opposed to the most bountiful times of the year, will be your answer!

The timing of when various forages are available should determine exactly what you plant. Too many times, the ultimate level of nutrition receives an unwarranted focus instead of when your local deer herd needs the forage based on your management objectives.


What I like to do is to offer two different combinations of plantings that target four critical periods of forage needs, including:

  • Pre-season (August/September)
  • In-season (Oct-Dec)
  • Post-season (Jan-March)
  • Pre-spring green-up (April).

Taking a look at the table below, I have put together a list of various popular deer forages and the typical window of use I have experienced that deer utilize the most.

An example of the timing I look for in a couple of fairly easy plantings would be a brassica/soybean combo planted around 8/1 that targets the period of August-March, and a grain/pea combo planted around 9/1 that targets August to December, and again in April. I like to plant those two plantings side by side and then expect to enjoy a variety of "peaks" during an overall window of use covering several months.

Northern Forage Window Peaks of Typical Use:








September to November, April (wheat and rye only)


August to October







Spring Planted Soybeans


Corn and spring-planted soybeans do have their place in the world of food plot variety, but they typically require large amounts of acreage that many deer hunters, including me, lack the resources to employ.

A whitetail buck in a green field, creating a food plot concept.

When to Peak

In the Midwest, without a doubt, your level of food plot variety should be at its highest in November. Think November first, and then work out to the surrounding months.

Consider that deer throughout the Midwest and most northern areas have several times more quality forage than they can utilize during the summer months.

I personally have my doubts that in many Midwest settings, you can actually increase the overall quality and nutrition enough during April through September to notice a change in the local deer herd except for in the rarest and poorest of conditions.

On top of that, it never bothered me if my neighbors were taking care of the deer all summer long that I'm hunting in October, November, and December. I'd hate to offer food in June, July, and August at the expense of the most critical period of hunting season, where buck age structure, sex ratios, and populations, in balance with the habitat, can be most affected.

Other Than Peak

The second most critical period of the year in the northern 1/2 of the country is from January to April. You don't want to ignore this time of the year!

What I find is that if you put a strong effort into offering the best amount of food and cover during the four months of hunting season, you will have a great carry-over into the months of winter and early spring. Left-over beans, corn, and brassicas can provide great forage until late winter, and the cereal grains of winter rye and wheat hit the most-missed portion of the year within the whitetail woods: the 4-6 weeks prior to spring green-up.

Also, focus on a great fall habitat with many stems per acre, including grasses, shrubs, and both native and hardwood regeneration. Through the diversity of native habitat offerings, you will offer a smorgasbord of winter dining. If you are doing a great job of keeping your habitat at its best during the fall, it becomes a hard task not to take care of the months of January through April!

Check out more of my thoughts on deer food plots in my video below.

When to Plant

With the exception of corn, many forages can be planted during the late summer, and that is beneficial to you in the form of fresh young growth starting just prior to and during the start of hunting season.

Brassica vegetables have about a 10-week maturity, so late July plantings in much of the Midwest are appropriate, and I really like to plant grains within 2-4 weeks of the expected first frost. On my SW Wisconsin lease, that means the forages of brassicas, buckwheat, and soybeans can be planted in late July, and a grain and pea combo can be planted around 9/1. The combinations of soybeans and/or buckwheat within your brassica mix also pack a little more punch during the early season than with brassicas alone.

Rarely do you need to plant during the springtime because outside of planting corn and soybeans. Most deer-specific forages can and/or should be planted during the late summer. For example, brassica combinations of rape, turnips, and radishes should be planted around August 1st in the north of the country, and grains of wheat, oats, or rye do quite well with a target of Labor Day weekend.

At the same time, perennial plants such as clover or chicory do extremely well when combined with brassica or grain plantings during the late summer. Establishing your perennials during the late summer is a great practice that allows the young plants to grab a good foothold at a time when weeds are dying and not thriving, as well as at a time when moisture is typically increasing instead of decreasing.

When combining perennial plantings with cool-season annual plantings, such as brassicas or grains, let the cool-season annual dictate the optimum planting date but still plant the recommended amount of perennial seed per acre.

A whitetail buck in a food plot seen through a trail cam.

You'll See the Fruits of Your Food Plot Labor

My personal camera observations have always revealed an explosion in the buck population within the months of October and November – and I'm not talking about midnight wanderers from three miles away. I'm talking about mature bucks that set up shop for 2-3 months with multiple daytime sightings in person and by game camera.

By offering great hunting season food and cover, you can end up with a "Part-Time" deer herd on your parcel that has the potential for some great hunting season "fun," with the additional benefits of improved sex ratios and buck age structure.

Instead of your neighbor congratulating you on how fat the two-year-old buck he shot was, the better compliment a neighbor can give you is, "Why do you always shoot the mature bucks I feed all summer?" Just smile and say, "Thanks for taking care of them for me!" 

Learn to manage and plan for a part-time deer herd with great hunting season forages, and then expand your efforts if you have the resources.

Track Food Plots and Deer Activity with HuntWise

Keeping track of everything Jeff shared with us in this resource can be overwhelming if you don’t have the HuntWise app! With the app, you can mark your forage areas, make notes about what you plant (and when), and then add markers as you track deer activity based on your plot strategy.

Then, when it’s time to hunt, you have data and maps to help you bring home the big bucks you’ve fed all season!

Use these tips from Jeff Sturgis, download the HuntWise app, and explore every feature free for a week!

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