Planting food plots is by far the most popular habitat management practice among landowners wanting to enhance wildlife habitat. Indeed, planting food plots is an excellent way to improve available nutrition and increase the nutritional carrying capacity of a property for wildlife. Research has shown quality food plots can provide more than 10 times the amount of digestible energy and protein available in recently regenerated forests or within properly managed mature forests. Food plots not only provide nutritional benefits, but also can increase and enhance hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities. Planting and managing food plots also provides recreational activity, and the satisfaction of working with the land often exceeds the value of hunting and wildlife viewing for many people.
Food plots can positively influence wildlife in many ways, including daily movements, home range size, weight, reproduction (timing and recruitment), survival (adults, broods and fawns), hatchability (percentage of eggs that hatch), lactation rate and antler development. The potential benefits of food plots, however, should not overshadow other management practices. Before getting started with a food plot program, it is critical to understand how food plots should be used to augment the quantity and quality of naturally occurring foods, not take the place of them. Establishing food plots is only one habitat-management practice, and food is only one component of habitat. Food attracts wildlife, but cover holds them. When habitat improvement is needed, other management practices must be considered as well. That includes managing forests with the appropriate regeneration methods, thinning them when ready and burning the understory when and where appropriate. Early-successional plant communities (such as old-fields) should also be managed by burning, disking and using selective herbicides when needed. Hard- and soft- mastbearing trees and shrubs may need planting to provide additional food and cover. Native-grass buffers and/or fallow borders should be established around crop fields, and at least 30 percent of pasture and hayfield acreage should consist of native grasses. Food plots alone cannot replace the value of these practices.
The most important consideration when managing habitat for wildlife is providing and maintaining the appropriate successional stages and cover types for the desired wildlife species. Until this is accomplished, the overall impact of a food plot program will be minimal. That being said, when incorporated into a well-designed habitat management plan, quality food plots can help wildlife grow and develop to previously unattainable levels. The desired habitat types and the appropriate proportion and distribution of those types for several wildlife species are described in the pages that follow.
"PB1769-A Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots-Blending Science with Common Sense," The University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, E12-4911-00-018-09 PB1769-1M-6/09 (Rep) 08-0073, http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_agexfish/6