Food plots are commonly used by deer managers to provide supplemental forage for white-tailed deer. Most hunters and deer managers prefer to plant forage species that are easy to maintain, but some plant species are worth the trouble. After all, nothing worth having comes easy and a little extra work can pay off big, especially if you consider alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) as a forage plant. Alfalfa is an excellent spring, summer, and early fall food plot choice for white-tailed deer. Alfalfa is a cool-season perennial legume that contains 16% to 26% of highly digestable protein. Not only will whitetail flock to a well-established alfalfa field, but this perennial can surive for 5 to 10 years, if properly managed.
Since established alfalfa plants can have taproots that extend to a depth of over 5 feet, this forage species makes for a very drought tolerant food plot. And what’s better than a drought tolerant food plot? Well, how about a highly productive food plot that is capable of fixing its own nitrogen? Yes, this forage plant is a legume that does not need the application of nitrogen fertilizer. Although not always easy to establish, alfalfa should be considered a highly effective forage plant for fall and winter food plots.
Despite the fact that alfalfa has many attributes that make it a great choice for forage plots, alfalfa can be difficult for landowners to establish and maintain. Alfalfa is not a plant where you can just disk, throw, and grow with the addition of a little fertilizer like oats or wheat. Alfalfa has low tolerance for moisture and soil acidity and it performs best on well-drained soils (loam to sandy loam) with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5. And even though alfalfa is capbable of fixing its own nitrogen, plots usually requires annual applications of other soil nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, and even boron. Alfalfa must also be inoculated with Rhizobia bacteria (Type A) prior to planting.
Recently-planted and poor (thin) stands of alfalfa are susceptible to heavy competition from weeds and are susceptible to over-grazing by white-tailed deer, especially before establishment or early in the plant’s growing season. For this reason, it is important that proper seedbeds are prepared, competitve plant species are controlled, and that white-tailed deer are not present at a high density. If over-browsing could be an issue early on, then it is recommended that animals be excluded from the food plot until it is established.
Currently, there are over 220 varieties of alfalfa. Alfalfa varieties are rated for fall dormancy and winter hardiness, and these factors should be considered based on the latitude of your property. Fall dormancy relates to how soon an alfalfa variety stops growing in the fall and how early it begins growing again in the spring. Winter hardiness is how well an alfalfa variety will survive over multiple winters. Once established, the dormancy and winter hardiness ratings determine the length of the variety’s annual growing season and the life of the alfalfa food plot. The best way to choose alfalfa varieties that are suitable in your area is to talk directly with local seed dealers, agricultural extension agents, and wildlife biologists.
Alfalfa can be planted in September and October, grow 2 to 3 feet in height, and produce an astounding 3 to 5 tons of high quality forage per acre! It is a cool season species that will start growing in late March, persist through the summer, and grow throughout October at southern latitudes. Planting rates vary by variety, but usually run around 15 to 20 pounds per acre at a cost of $70 per acre. Alfalfa food plots may require some effort and be more costly up front, but the reward is a high quality forage that will benefit your whitetail and deer management program year after year.