Why Food Plots Fail

By David Hoover | November 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2003

It's opening morning of quail season. Your dogs are raring to go, and you can't wait to get started.Your anticipation increases as the sun peeks over the horizon,welcoming the new day. After all, you believe you are about to reap the benefits of the six food plots you planted on your property.

By midday, you have walked for what seems like an eternity, from one end of the property to the other and back again, and with nothing to show for it beyond a good workout.

As you roundup the dogs and walk back to your vehicle, you contemplate what went wrong. Maybe your food plots aren't big enough or contain the wrong seed mixture. Maybe the birds haven't found them yet. It could be those darn predators. All are possible explanations for the lack of quail on your property, but there might be something else at work. It may be food plots by themselves are not guaranteed to attract quail.

Since the beginning of modern wildlife management, food plots have been considered an important and beneficial wildlife management practice. Food plots provide wildlife with a high-energy food source during winter weather and an abundance of insects for newly hatched quail chicks. Over the years, however, food plots have developed a reputation as a panacea for wildlife habitat management, to the point that people use them without considering other needs of wildlife.

Food plots are best viewed as something that can make good habitat better. They do not automatically translate to more wildlife regardless of the condition of the surrounding habitat. Embarking on a food plot management program without first considering the species being managed for and the surrounding habitat conditions can be costly and frustrating.

All wildlife require food, suitable cover and water. Simply providing these basic habitat components may not be enough, however. Their arrangement and availability must be taken into account as well. This is especially true for bobwhite quail, one of the most popular wildlife species in Missouri.

Bobwhite quail populations continue to decline across their range, but study after study confirms that where there is suitable habitat in large enough blocks, quail populations are stable. Certainly, severe winter weather, excessively wet springs or extended summer droughts can cause quail numbers to fluctuate, but over the long-term, populations will be self sustaining. The key to having and maintaining good quail numbers is an abundance of quality habitat.

Quail have very specific habitat requirements. They must have nesting, feeding, loafing, roosting, dusting and escape cover close together. Nesting cover consists of introduced cool-season grasses, such as timothy and orchard grass, and native warm-season grasses, such as little bluestem, big bluestem and switchgrass. Nesting cover must have an accumulation of dead grass from the previous growing season. It must be open at ground level to allow free movement by adults and newly hatched chicks, and it must provide overhead protection from predators.

Bobwhite quail are not strong scratchers and cannot reach food that is buried in the soil or in heavy accumulation of litter. The first eight weeks of a young quail's life are critically important. Quail chicks must have access to cover with little residual vegetation, an abundance of bare ground--between 25 and 50 percent--and a canopy dominated by broadleaved plants. Such cover provides an abundance of insects for brood rearing during the summer months, and weed seeds for fall and winter feeding. Because quality feeding areas have high levels of bare ground and overhead protection, they also serve as ideal places for dusting and roosting.

Escape cover consists of dense woody cover from ground level to a height of about 10 feet, yet is open enough to allow quail to move freely underneath. Quality escape cover is the foundation of the "covey headquarters." These areas are occupied during midday for loafing and dusting, and for protection and roosting during severe weather.

Property without well distributed escape cover will harbor few if any quail. Thick hedgerows, brushy draws, plum thickets and blackberry patches are examples of quality escape cover.

Across the bobwhite's range, food is not a major limiting factor except, possibly, during times of extreme winter weather in northern portions of their range. Studies have shown, however, that quail near food plots have higher body fat content than quail far from food plots. Although quail existed for eons without food plots containing corn, soybeans and milo, it's likely that well placed food plots may promote better body condition in spring and improve reproductive success if there is good roosting and nesting cover nearby.

To realize all the potential advantages yielded by food plots, you have to have other critical habitat components present. Quail populations can remain stable, and even increase, given favorable weather conditions when quality habitat and an abundant native food supply are available. Also, quality habitat over a large enough area can reduce a quail population's susceptibility to weather, disease, and predation.

Management efforts that focus more on food plots than on first providing the critical habitat components of nesting, feeding, loafing and escape cover will likely yield less-than-desirable results. Food plots are best viewed as an insurance policy, guarding against infrequent and uncontrollable events such as severe winter weather.

Certainly, food plots have their place in wildlife management. For instance, annual grain food plots, by providing bare ground and high insect populations, could serve as broodrearing cover, as well as a high-energy, late-winter food source, in areas already having suitable escape and nesting cover.

The basic management principles described here for quail can be applied to other wildlife species, including deer and turkey. It's best to tailor your management efforts to the habitats most used by a particular species or group of species. For instance, improving habitat structure in and around an 80-acre woodland will yield greater long-term benefits for deer and turkey than planting a 3-acre food plot. Combining both of these practices, however, could yield results greater than either of the practices alone.

Property owners can attract and hold more quail by creating quality escape cover along woodland borders adjacent to food plots. This might include shrub plantings. They might also improve the grassland cover surrounding their food plots. This could be done by reseeding with a wildlife friendly grass-legume mixture, prescribed burning, strip disking and moderate grazing.

The next time you contemplate what food plot mixture to plant and where, ask yourself, "Is there something else that wildlife may lack?" If the answer is yes, then perhaps you should direct your management efforts toward improving habitat. Then your food plots will have the best chance of attracting wildlife.

For assistance in developing a management plan for your property, contact your local Department of Conservation or Natural Resources Conservation Service office.triangle

Foods high in usable energy for quail

  • Insects
  • Ragweed
  • Corn Grain
  • Sorghum
  • Soybean
  • Sunflowers
  • Dogwoods
Quail-friendly management practices
PracticeSuitable AreasHabitat ProvidedTiming
Prescribed burningCRP lands, idle fields, pastures, small woodlands (40 acres or less) near nesting and brood-rearing coverFeeding, nesting following year, stimulates beneficial grasses/forbsFall/spring - depends upon vegetation being burned
Strip DiskingCRP acres, idle fieldsFeeding, roosting, and fall/winter foodsFall/late winter
Edge FeatheringWoodland borders near nesting and brood-rearing coverEscape cover and fall/winter foodFall/winter
Shrub PlantingCRP lands,woodland borders, crop field borders.Escape cover and travel lanesSpring
Native Grass/Forb EstablishmentCRP seedings, rotational grazing systems, field borders, buffersNesting, roosting, and feedingSpring/late fall
Timber Stand Improvement (TSI)Small woodlands (40 acres or less) near nesting and brood-rearing coverEscape cover, fall foods (acorns)Late fall/winter
Interseeding Forbs/legumesCRP lands, pastures, hay fields, idle fieldsFeeding and fall foodsFall/spring
Field Borders and BuffersCrop fields and hay fields adjacent to escape coverNesting, roosting, feeding, and travel lanesSpring/fall - depends upon vegetation being seeded
GrazingNative grass paddocks in rotational grazing systemNesting, feeding in some instancesSummer. Short duration - high intensity grazing best
Food PlotsCRP fields and open areas adjacent to escape and nesting coverFeeding, late-winter foodSpring - grain plantings best
Quail-friendly plants
Perennial Grasses*: Cover Type Provided Naturally Occurring Forbs/Legumes: Cover Type Provided
Little bluestemNesting, roostingCrotonsFeeding - fall
Sideoats gramaNesting, roostingPartridge peaFeeding - late-winter food
Big bluestemNesting, roostingGoldenrodsNesting, roosting
SwitchgrassNesting, roostingFleabanesNesting, roosting
IndiangrassNesting, roostingSunflowersFeeding - fall/winter food
TimothyNesting, roostingWild beansFeeding - fall
Orchard grassNesting, roosting  
Annual Grasses:Cover Type ProvidedNaturally Occurring Forbs/Legumes:Cover Type Provided
FoxtailsNesting, feeding, roostingRagweedsFeeding - fall and winter
Panic GrassesNesting, feeding, roostingLespedezas**Feeding - fall and winter
CrabgrassFeedingBeggar-ticksFeeding - fall
  Tick-trefoilsFeeding - fall
Shrubs:Cover Type Provided  
Blackberry/black raspberryEscape, loafing, feeding - summer  
American plumEscape, loafing  
American hazelnutEscape, loafing  
Rough-leaved dogwood (north)Escape, loafing, feeding - fall  
Flowering dogwood (south)Escape, loafing, feeding - fall  
Fragrant sumacEscape, loafing, feeding - fall  
Smooth sumacEscape, feeding - late-winter  
Common elderberryEscape, loafing, feeding - fall  

* Can provide feeding cover if mixed with forbs and legumes
** Sericea Lespedeza is an introduced invasive plant. Do not plant.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler