What to Feed Deer Instead of Corn

Look at what is good for the deer to eat and maybe better than corn and look at what attracts deer better than corn

Those little pellets in the backyard in many towns, and the same little piles around haystacks, gardens, and alfalfa fields in the country let us know that deer have been feeding, often in the wee hours of the morning, or in the blackness of night.

Deer are herbivores, they’ll eat a wide variety of plants, leaves, and just about anything green. Deer have been known to walk across lush, well-watered lawns to rip out tomato plants by the roots, eating fruit and all.

While deer can have slightly different eating habits individually, as a species they prefer certain crops over others. In the west deer are often seen in open sagebrush prairies, but they don’t eat sagebrush, they’re grazing on the indigenous grass surrounding those fragrant, woody monarchs of the desert.

Deer are often seen in public parks, grazing on grass, flowers, and leaves off willow trees, they’re even more familiar sights in alfalfa, young cornfields, and in harvested corn fields grazing on the fallen kernels. In short, if it’s tasty, full of energy, and available, a deer will graze on it.

Food Plots vs. Bait

There are two very different approaches to attracting deer. The first is a food plot, a crop specifically planted to attract deer, with the secondary benefit of providing feed for deer when food is scarce.

The second approach is to only attract deer during hunting season, often below a tree stand or blind. This approach is purely attracting animals with no regard for their year-round nutrition.

Bait can be natural as piles of corn, oats, or apples spilled below the hidden hunting stand, or artificial in the form of things like Kool-aid bombs that mix aromatic drinks mix with sugar and possibly fruit. These have no lasting benefit to deer, but do bring them in on the bait.

Now that you know the difference, let’s take a look at food plots.

The “How to” of food plots

North America is divided into growing zones, with the extreme northern regions set at 2 and the semi-tropical areas where citrus fruit is grown in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida have a balmy rating of 9. Deer exist in every one of these zones, but the forage they consume is vastly different.

If you were to simply search online for “best deer food plots” you’d soon discover a vast resource of horticultural knowledge, facts, figures, and all the associated information needed to plant a successful deer plot, but devoid of whether it would survive in your specific area.

With that in mind, here are a few things to consider before you visit your local garden center or agricultural seed supply store:

Keys to a successful deer plot

  • Taste “will the deer eat it?”
  • Health “Is it good for deer to eat?”
  • Viability “Will it grow here?”
  • Sustainability “Is this an annual crop or a perennial?”
  • Climate “Will it survive sub-zero winters?”
  • Heat “Will it survive 100+ degree days?”
  • Drought “Will the plot need irrigation?”
  • Start “How easy or difficult is it to establish the crop?”
  • Carrying capacity “How many deer it can sustain?”
  • Survivability “Can it handle overgrazing?”
  • Soil sustainability “Will it benefit or destroy the soil?”
  • Cost “Is the price of the seed reasonable for the purpose?”

Taste

What to Feed Deer Instead of Corn

The greenest lawn sometimes doesn’t attract deer at all, while a scrubby area interspersed with bunch grass is a deer resort. As humans have taste preferences in food, so do deer.

Deer are the raccoons of the herbivore realm, they’ll eat just about anything green, as many a frustrated gardener can attest, but they have preferences.

The best way to select a crop for your food plot that attracts deer is to watch the deer in your area throughout the year.

If you pay close attention you’ll soon learn they like that little patch below the school, or they are always in that alfalfa field east of the airport. Discover what grows there and replicate it on your plot.

Health

The best crop for a deer plot is something natural to the area. Deer will eat beet or turnips out of the ground in winter, but the sugar content isn’t healthy for the deer.

Deer acclimated to alfalfa don’t have any digestive issues. It’s full of energy, has the highest protein of any non-grain crop and covers vast expanses of the Great Plains, Mountain West, and California.

Other clover-style crops attract deer as well, and overall they’re a healthy food source. Oats, corn, and barley are great crops as well, but they require replanting each year.

Other smaller crops, such as flowers, vegetables, and even fruit trees can attract deer to a food plot, but you want to mix these plants together rather than planting an entire area with them.

Viability

The worst thing you can do economically is to plant a crop claimed to be a deer magnet only to see it completely destroyed by the first early September freeze or desiccated completely by two weeks of 100+ degree heat.

Select a plant that will grow successfully in your specific growing zone. Most of America resides in Zones 3 to 5. If you find clover, grass, fruit or vegetables that are designed for these zones, that’s a great place to start to ensure the viability of the crop.

Sustainability

A deer plot should be available for grazing all year long. As the seasons change, so do the grazing habits of deer. A plot that requires tilling each spring, with replanting, weeding, and fertilizer is a lot of work. All that human activity detracts deer too.

You want to establish a plot that takes care of itself. That means planting it with something that will grow back each year on its own. In some cases, a section of the plot that can be replanted with only a little tillage so corn, oats, wheat, barley or rye can grow is a good idea. Mix it up to guarantee that something will grow each season regardless of any weather challenges.

Climate

Grass won’t grow on a playground is the best analogy for the climate considerations in a deer plot. If the plant you place on your plot is rated as a Zone 6 or 7 and is a “deer magnet” it won’t do you much good if the unpredictable weather of the Great Plains and the Great Lakes arrives a little early with a late August frost and kills all those plants.

Once again, select a plant that is hardy enough to handle the challenges of your specific area.

Heat

Gardeners worry about frost, sometimes to irrational levels, but heat can quickly wither plants as easily as cold can. A non-irrigated plot can’t handle extreme heat. The plants will wither and die quickly under relentless high temperatures.

If you live in an area of extreme heat, many plants won’t survive the summer unless you plan to irrigate. That “dry heat” of a 122 degree July day in Arizona will destroy the best deer plot as if a blow torch were passed over it.

Drought

Heat and drought are not the same thing. The horrid conditions on the Great Plains during the 1930’s in the Dust Bowl didn’t have extreme, out of character heat, but the lack of rain destroyed almost all the crops in America’s breadbasket.

If your area is prone to long dry spells without rain, either select a crop that is drought resistant or plan on irrigating that food plot.

A green, irrigated oasis amidst a drought stricken area can be the best deer plot imaginable. They’ll come to the tasty green plants in droves, and are likely to stay until either the drought ends or they’ve eaten everything in your plot.

Start

How easy are the plants you’ve selected to get started in your plot? Some plants require a lot of early nurturing to get going, while others are simply a toss of the seed and wait a few weeks for the green shoots to pop up through the soil.

The amount of work you’re willing to do dictates the type of plants you’ll place on your food plot. If you don’t mind planting individual shoots, or hand planting trees and shrubs do it. If on the other hand you just want a crop with minimal effort, find grains that can be broadcast by hand or from a walking spreader and get the plot going.

Carrying capacity

What to Feed Deer Instead of Corn

How many deer do you want to invite to the party? Think of your food plot as a boat. It’s a great place to be for you and a few friends, but invite the entire softball team and all their families onboard and you’ll soon make the evening news with tales of a capsized boat and people stranded in the water.

Food plots are like that. If you’ve done a good job, the deer will come. If too many deer arrive they’ll graze the plot into submission, then move on. This is the most difficult aspect of a food plot to control. You want to attract deer, but not too many. Good luck.

Survivability

This goes hand in hand with carrying capacity. If your plot is overgrazed, experiences an unforeseen early frost, a drought or extreme heat, will it survive?

While you can’t plan for all these challenges, you can prepare your plot by planting a wide variety of plants on it. Some will handle the heat, others the drought, and still others can be grazed down to the roots and still come back. Variety of species is the key to survivability.

Soil sustainability

Soil isn’t an eternal source of minerals for plants to grow, it has to be nurtured just as the plants that grow on it are. The soil can be depleted from growing just a single crop year after year.

The Dust Bowl is a great example of monoculture agriculture that eventually takes all the vitality from soil.

Planting a variety of plants, and either fertilizing or practicing fallow procedures every few years by plowing under your plot, and replanting it with different species of plants will sustain the soil.

Cost

The final consideration is almost always the biggest consideration. How much will it cost? Determine this early in the process or you’ll find your budget expanding beyond your plans and the plot will suffer.

What to plant?

You now know the parameters of what you’re about to do. Now it’s time to choose the plants.

Here are a few suggestions, but each of these must be weighed against the specifics of your climate.

Brassicas

Many people have experienced great success in attracting whitetail deer specifically with these types of plants. They grow well in temperate areas. In general, if the local farmers don’t need to irrigate to get crops to grow, brassicas are a great choice in attracting deer.

Oats

Oats will grow anywhere with adequate soil and a little moisture. Deer love every aspect of oats. They’ll graze on the early shoots as they emerge from the ground.

They will wait for the “milk stage” where the oats begin to form in rows on the top of the plant, and they’ll eat the oats off the ground as they fall off the head. Oats are one of the best crops around for deer. The same is true of wheat, rye, and barley.

Garden plants

You have to start tomatoes by hand, but peas, carrots, cabbage, radishes, and turnips grow just fine by broadcasting.

Rough up the ground with a disc or tractor driven rototiller, throw the seeds by hand, with a handheld spreader or a walk-behind or tractor driver spreader for larger plots. Drag the area with a light harrow, and wait for the crops to arrive.

If you mix a variety of garden seeds together, they’ll pop up at random. Some won’t make it but some will, creating a varied feeding area for the deer to choose from.

Sorghum

An old standby in deer food plots remains one of the best. Deer will graze on young sorghum since it is just another form of grass, then they’ll hit it periodically as it matures.

As the sorghum matures, the deer will return. They’ll graze on the green sorghum since it is sweet and deer have a sweet tooth. Sorghum was a traditional source of molasses before sugar cane became prevalent in the south.

Alfalfa

Alfalfa is a high-protein, tasty food source and is the most popular livestock feed in America. It’s also popular with deer, elk, and pronghorn.

Alfalfa is the most widespread legume in North America. If you have a field near you you’ll find deer grazing on it 12 months a year.

Alfalfa lasts a long time, up to seven years naturally before it needs to be rotated with corn to keep the nitrogen cycle in the soil viable. Chemical fertilizers can extend the life of an alfalfa field indefinitely.

Clover

Clover ticks all the right boxes for deer. It’s affordable easy to establish and can handle most climates. It can last up to five years comes in a wide variety and has excellent nutrition.

Clover is often best mixed with other species, like chicory or oats to provide a more well-rounded plot. Chicory works particularly well with clover during the summer months when there is not a lot of forage from clover.

Conclusion

Food plots for deer are a great idea if you have a little acreage to prepare an attractive mix of plants for them to eat. Make sure the plants will survive your climate, will come back on their own, and if they’ll grow on just natural rainfall versus irrigation.

In the end, it’s all about how much work you want to put into your plot that determines how successful it will be.

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