For the past four months, hunters have taken thousands of photos and sat for hundreds of hours in deer stands in hopes of taking after a trophy deer to peg on the wall. 

While many bucks fell into hunters’ traps and ended up in the freezer, a few wall-hangers slipped through the cracks and successfully survived the fall run. As winter settles in and hunting pressure subsides, deer gravitate to high-quality food sources, specifically green fields. These greener pastures are perfect places to collect antler bounty, giving hunters high hopes for next deer season. 

For most hunters and land managers, January fails to make too many waves as far as preparing and maintaining food plots, but winter is one of the most critical periods of the year for deer, because little natural food is available. Deer hope to find caches of acorns left over, but few nuts will be available. They are forced to survive on woody twigs and other browse that is less-than-preferred to sustain a healthy body. The breeding season takes a toll on deer when they need quality food the most. A solid food source is desperately needed when cold weather sets in and little green forage is available.  

Deer will often expand their typical travel ranges, seeking out something green to eat, and that can often put them closer to suburban neighborhoods and highways. In spite of speeding cars, the green grass along the shoulder of highways and the greenery around flower beds become tasty alternatives to the natural options in their native habitats.  

For some deer that live on hunting leases that have an ongoing food-plot plan, a late-season food plot of rye, oats and winter wheat produces a winter bounty, giving them a solid, cold-weather food source. When landowners incorporate a late shot of nitrogen into these fields, a winter food source will be readily available to draw in deer from afar. 

In agriculture country, farmers utilizing cover crops or a winter rotation of wheat or rye provide massive forage centers for deer. While some hunters with oversized food-plot budgets will plant significant acreage, the majority of food plots are small. Large-production farmers make a major impact on the deer herd, with hundreds of acres of green groceries to fill their empty bellies. 

Green fields are critical during the winter, and deer gravitate to them like no other. In the mid-South, deer begin dropping their antlers in January. As a result, fields become antler collection zones. 

While some deer will feed in daylight hours, the majority are still feeding nocturnally, and fields will receive a nightly deposit of shed antlers. After several months of sun bleaching, the antlers will typically be bright white, and a passerby should be able to easily detect a freshly dropped antler from afar. 

Hunters making daily scans of heavily-used green fields can find which bucks made it through the season and also rack up their antler collection. 

Apply lime now, split applications

The foundation for growing any plant begins with the soil. Plants need elemental goodness to fuel photosynthesis and produce rapid, healthy growth. Farmers and food-plot planters apply tons of fertilizers to the soil every year to grow a meaningful crop. 

If soil chemistry isn’t feasible, any fertilizer supplements will leach away or be unusable to target crops. It begins with the soil chemistry, and pH is the principal factor in setting the stage for growth. It must be contained within an accepted range in order for fertilizer treatments to be soluble for plant species. 

With a few exceptions, most food-plot plants prefer a pH at or near 7.0, but a pH of 5.8 or higher can be acceptable in some varieties. While pH is important for the plants themselves, pH controls what compounds the fertilizers become after applied. As soon as applications of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash are applied to the soil, a chemical reaction occurs, converting these nutrients into various compounds. When pH is within a favorable range between 6.0 and 7.5, they become soluble to plants. If the pH is too low, these chemicals will remain unusable. 

 Typically, most forest soils in the Southeast are acid rich, leading to a problem in the food-plot plan. Acid-rich soils don’t allow soluble fertilizer conversions and lead to a failed food plot. In order to elevate the pH, lime must be applied. There are several different types, including a fast-acting version of calcitic lime and a slower-acting dolomitic lime. 

While the fast-acting variety is often used at the last minute, its effectiveness is short-lived compared to the dolomitic forms. The slower-acting dolomitic lime will have a more-dramatic effect on soil pH, especially when applied several months before planting. The best way to change the soil pH is to schedule multiple applications or split the applications. 

When food-plot plans are in place for spring, planners/planters can get a jumpstart by applying the first half of lime in early January, followed by the remainder in March. If warm-season plots are not planned, the second application can be applied during the middle of summer, two months before fall planting. Splitting lime applications can be quite effective at making a difference in the soil pH and the productivity of the plot. 

Dig soil samples

When a food-plot plan leaves the planning stage and hits the dirt, the end product doesn’t always match what was envisioned. While a wide range of things can cause food-plot failure, the No. 1 cause of is unfavorable soil chemistry. 

When deer season ends on Jan. 1, it’s the perfect time to start figuring out what is going on with the plots, and the soil is the first place to investigate. Dig up soil samples this month on all plots and send them off to get an updated report. 

Several samples should be collected from the first 6 inches of soil across each individual plots and mixed. Each plot should have its own, individual test to determine what types of soil treatments will be needed for the year. 

Samples can be tested for a small fee at your county’s agriculture extension office.