Perennial Food Plots: Clover

The undisputed king of perennial food plots forage, especially so here in the north, is clover. Therefore, clovers are the cornerstone to many successful food plot programs. Widely used, clovers can provide a dependable source of forage that will last you a few years at a time.

Perennial simply means the forage will last, if properly maintained, several years. If you plan and maintain your clover deer plots accordingly, you should be able to get several years out of the planting.

With a properly prepared seedbed, weed control in check and the soil ph and nitrogen in balance, the clover plantings we use on our farm will typically last a minimum of three falls before starting to deteriorate and weeds began to take over the stand; certainly more cost-effective than planting annuals year after year after year.

But a word of caution here for weedy plots or new plot planters, you might want to consider annuals for reasons outlined in: trophy whitetails. Our favorite annuals are covered in annual forages.

Perennial clovers are most important to deer during spring through early summer. During this time, perennial clovers experience the bulk of their yearly growth, which in turn, provides its’ highest protein levels. These high protein levels are perfectly suited for lactating does and for early antler growth development.

If you’re farm does not already have an abundance of natural clover, nearby alfalfa fields, or other areas of legume, clovers should be part of your food plot planting strategy. Your plots will then provide your herd with a spring and early summer high protein food source.

Following a productive spring, near the middle of summer, clovers slow their growth. As a result, clover quality declines and deer use them only sparingly, which really isn’t much of a concern, as there is ample food availability here in the north this time of the year. When cool temperatures return in early fall, most perennial clovers will experience another period of active growth. Deer will again utilize this food source, but not with the same resolve as they did in the spring.

A clover planting for your food plots

When considering a clover planting for your deer food plots, you should plant as a blend. The basic clovers are red, white and alsike. While almost any clover will do well in the spring, but a well-blended plot should perform well year-round under all but the most extreme conditions. I have found a simple mix of three pounds per acre of each red clover, alsike and Ladino, a white clover, has worked well on our farm.

Another reason to employ clovers in your food plot strategy is they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Simply put, as the clover planting begins to deteriorate and weeds begin to take over your stand, you should be rotating back into annual forages, such as chicory or rapeseed for a year or two. These annual forages need nitrogen in order to grow and reach their maximum potential.

The clover, once tilled under, will provide some of that nitrogen need in the soil, thus reducing your investment necessary for commercial fertilizer. Soil acidity is a consideration with clover. You should get a soils test and try to find a balance with lime so the PH range is in that 6 to 7 range. Without this balance, your food plot planting will not meet its’ maximum potential.

When getting clover seed there are two main factors to consider.

* If you plan on seeding three pounds of red clover, for example, make sure the amount of seed you get is Pure Live Seed, or PLS. The percentage of PLS in a bag may differ, from the high 90’s to 70 percent or so. This means there will be some seed which is not “live seed” and will not germinate. You may need to by 3.5 pounds of seed to get 3 pounds of pure live seed.

* The second, on planting day, inoculate your clover seed as described in your package or seeding guidance. This inoculate is a live bacteria which helps clover roots fix its’ own nitrogen from the soil, and necessary to achieve maximum growth. This process will also help eliminate less desirable seeds from growing. You can buy pre-inoculated seed as well; just know what you are getting.

Perennial Plots

Clover is also easy to seed. Your seedbed does not have to be perfect. Just be sure the weeds are gone. The site prep steps before planting, if the site is following a year or two of annual forage, would simply include a spraying of emerging weeds usually about the middle of May.

A tillage pass should follow that application to bury any dead plant residue. If more weeds emerge, a second spraying may be in order just prior to seeding. You could conduct a light tillage just before you seed. I try and plant my clover paddocks the last week of May or 1st week in June.

The seed can then be broadcasted, no need for a drill, and then just run a drag over it. It really is that simple. If you do use a nurse crop, a forage that will come faster than the clover, do not use ryegrass; it can take over a stand. Ryegrass has its’ place, but it’s not with your clover.

A better choice here could be an annual forage oats of some sort. As far as maintenance goes, you should mow your clover twice a year or so, or better yet, each time you start to notice the seed heads starting to form. At that point the energy of the plant goes into the seed head and the clover stalks and leaves will start to harden.

The mowing will ensure the leaves will be more palatable and provide better nutrient value. If you have intention of providing year round food source availability for your deer herd, clover should be part of that planting plan.

However, if you are only planting food plots for the fall attractant purpose, there are better options than clover. Perennial plots will however, provide better distribution of forage growth than with annuals alone.

Maintaining a number of deer food plots on your farm utilizing both perennial and annual forages will do much to achieve year-round food availability.

Dr. Judy McFarlen Veterinarian, Alberta Rancher, and publisher of Deer Food Plots Made Easy, Dr. Judy McFarlen has helped a large number of novice and experienced deer food plotters establish and improve their whitetail deer food plots.

From deer food plot location strategies to seed selection, this text is a nuts and bolts kind of reading. It is guaranteed to make sense to even to the most inexperienced grower.