Most of us know that hunting a food source can be very successful. Many hunters are into planting their own food plots strictly for hunting. The problem is once hunting pressure increases the deer vanish. Their feeding becomes a night activity and I can tell you from experience nothing is more frustrating.
To encourage daytime feeding there needs to be some cover for security. Some of the best food plots are surrounded by thick cover or a screen. When cover is abundant very near or within the food plot, deer will use it all day long.
There are a number of things you can plant to create a food plot screen that will make the deer feel more comfortable. Some of these species will also provide their own nutritional value to the wildlife to further increase the use of your food plot.
Fast Growing Trees/Shrubs
For a permanent solution to screening a food plot, you can plant some fast growing trees or shrubs. They will take several years to create the type of screen you want but once they’re established the problem is solved. Pines are probably the most common type of windbreak or screen but they are slow growing. Most pines and spruce trees will grow anywhere from 1-5 foot per year depending on type, soil conditions, and competition. You can always plant some type of temporary screen next to them for the first few years until they grow up.
Other options are hybrid willows or hybrid poplars. They are both fast growing and make for a good screen. Hybrid poplars work well when planted with pines in alternating rows. The willows do best in wet to moist ground and can grow six plus feet in one year.
We recently planted some common service berry, arrowwood, hybrid willows, hybrid poplars, and both silky and red osier dogwood around a few of our food plots. This will not only create a nice screen, but will provide cover and browse for the deer. Research each species to know what soil type and moisture they are best suited for.
As a warm season annual grass, corn will germinate and establish quickly. A 15-20 foot wide row of corn will create a nice screen. Weed control can be a problem but using Roundup Ready corn can make life simpler. Corn is a non-legume and therefore needs nitrogen for good growth so soil test and fertilize accordingly.
Deer love corn but the downside is that so do a lot of other critters. Besides deer – raccoons, squirrels, possums, bears, birds, and beavers can devastate a small corn field in no time. Many of these animals will climb the stalks and pull the plant down so they can reach the cobs. Depending on the deer population, I would use corn for a screen only if I were planting at least 2-3 acres of it or if there were other corn fields nearby.
Corn makes a great winter food source for deer and I know in the Midwest if there is any standing corn left late in the season – you can be sure that is where all the deer are hiding. So corn will certainly serve several purposes (screening, cover, and food) if you can plant enough of it.
Forage and Grain Sorghum
Related to corn, grain sorghum (milo) is also very beneficial to wildlife. The question of whether to plant forage sorghum or grain sorghum is a hot topic. Forage sorghum can grow up to 10 feet tall providing good cover and forage as deer will feed on the seed heads. Grain sorghum however, normally only grows 3-4 feet high but it has been argued that it’s more palatable and nutritionally beneficial for deer than forage sorghum.
Cowpeas, lablab, or climbing forage beans can be mixed with milo to create a more attractive screen. They will climb the stalks and create a denser screen as well as produce more forage for the deer. For a food plot I like grain sorghum, but for a screen (which is what we are talking about) I like forage sorghum better as it gets taller. If it is less desirable for deer than the grain variety, that doesn’t really bother me. For one, I am using it for a screen not the primary food source and secondly even if it is less desirable, the deer and other wildlife will still eat it.
Native Warm Season Grasses (NWSG)
Certain grasses can make a wonderful screen for plots. The grasses won’t have any forage value for deer but you gain the benefit of cover and bedding. So you are not only providing a secure feeding plot by screening, you are also providing bedding and deer cover next to food which is the ideal scenario.
Most NWSG mixes will take 2 years to establish but once they do you have a great screen. There are state and federal programs that will even pay you to plant and maintain a stand of NWSG.
We are currently in the process of planting grasses right now through the state that will reimburse the landowner a percentage of the cost and provide him with an annual payment.
This bird buffer as they call it consists primarily of big bluestem, Canadian wild rye, and side-oats grama along with other various wild flowers and some legumes. This will butt up against some of the food plots on the property and in 2 years will provide adequate screening, cover, and bedding.
Another effective grass mix is big bluestem, indian grass, and switch grass. Real World Wildlife Seed sells this mix as Bedding in a Bag and shows some great video of bucks using it to move through and bed in.
As a member of the sorghum family and also a warm season annual grass, Egyptian wheat makes an exceptional screen for food plots. Birds of all types will feed on the seeds and it makes great cover for pheasant and quail. Deer may also eat the seed heads but damage from excessive feeding is usually not a problem. A 15 foot wide row will make a dense screen around any food plot or travel area to help deer feel more secure.
Egyptian wheat matures in 110-140 days and can reach 7-10 feet in height. The stalks stand up well into winter and can withstand severe weather although in the north it will eventually thin out as snow, ice, and wind begin to take over.
As a stand alone or in a mix, sunflowers can create a nice food plot screen. Sunflowers are a warm season annual broadleaf plant that can grow to 5 foot or more in height. Deer will browse the leaves of immature sunflowers but don’t prefer the seed heads once maturity is reached. Birds on the other hand love the seeds, especially doves.
Being creative yet practical with your food plot screens is usually your best bet. If you don’t have the money, ideal soil conditions, or equipment to plant corn then don’t. Go with something more practical for your needs. Both forage sorghum and Egyptian wheat are very affordable and both will serve the purpose.
If you want to establish a more permanent screen with NWSG, trees, or shrubs then you might want to plant milo, sunflowers, or Egyptian wheat in addition until the slower establishing screen grows up. Regardless of what you screen with, the idea is to provide security to the deer to entice them to feed during hunting hours. This will lead to more deer sightings and hopefully to harvesting a trophy buck.