Maximizing rate of gain isn't the only factor Mississippi cattle producer Walter Riddell considers as he maps out annual strategies for growing forages. He also takes into account how he can maximize deer and turkey populations.

“We like to hunt, and we like to see wild animals,” says Riddell. “We want to keep the wildlife coming back here.”

Toward that end, Riddell maintains 10-12 wildlife food plots, ranging in size from 1 to 3 acres, on three land tracts that he manages near Brooksville. While parts of some plots are planted to corn, most are planted to forages — clovers, ryegrass and special wildlife blends produced by commercial seed companies.

“Setting aside a few acres of ground in different pastures for the food plots has really paid off in terms of attracting wildlife,” says Riddell. “We see a lot more animals in those stands than we do in the areas where we don't have any plots.”

A similar philosophy is evident at Richard Key's 300-cow dairy near Eatonton, GA. Depending on the year, Key scatters 15-25 wildlife food plots on 1,000 acres of owned and rented land. The plots range from ¼ to 2 acres. Crimson clover, wheat and chicory are among the forages he uses.

Key's primary goal is to enhance hunting opportunities for family and friends.

“When we get the chance to go hunting, we want to see game,” he says. “Putting in the food plots definitely improves the odds. We've been doing this for more than 20 years and, over that time, we've definitely been seeing bigger deer and more deer. Other species, like turkeys, doves, rabbits and song birds, are reaping the benefits of what we're doing, too.”

Stories like these are being repeated with increasing frequency throughout parts of the country.

“In some Alabama counties, more forage seed is being sold for wildlife plantings than for livestock production,” says Auburn University extension forage specialist Don Ball. “And the number of inquiries our office gets from people wanting to know more about how to use forages to benefit wildlife is increasing all the time.”

“It's pretty amazing,” adds Ann Blount, University of Florida forage researcher. “I think it's pretty safe to say that a large portion of the forage seed being sold in many parts of the southeastern U.S. today is being used for wildlife purposes — everything from planting food plots for deer and turkeys to establishing cover for quail and other species.”

A growing interest in actively managing property for wildlife-related recreational activities like hunting, photography and wildlife viewing drives the trend, according to John Carpenter. He's national sales manager for Pennington Seeds, one of the world's largest suppliers of forage seed for wildlife, which is based in Madison, GA.

“An upsurge of interest in hunting in recent years has a lot to do with it,” says Carpenter.

“Today's hunters are different from the hunters of 20 years ago. They don't want to just go out and shoot a deer or a turkey. They want to be involved in the overall management of the land and the wildlife that's on that land. They want to experience the fulfillment of growing the biggest deer or the best turkey. And they want to be good stewards of the land.”

He points out that, when Pennington first started bagging forage seed specifically for wildlife over 20 years ago, the company had just a handful of competitors. “Today, there are about 20 companies trying to get a piece of the pie nationwide,” he says.

The trend carries potential income enhancement opportunities for farmers. Carpenter notes that producers in some areas are generating additional income by leasing hunting rights.

“If you can advertise or promote the fact that you're taking specific steps, like planting food plots to attract more wildlife to your property, you can often charge a premium for the hunting rights,” he notes.

Establishing food plots for non-farming neighbors presents another opportunity.

“Farmers have the equipment and the know-how to plant or maintain these areas,” explains Carpenter. “The doctor or airline pilot in town who wants to improve wildlife habitat on the land he owns out in the country doesn't necessarily have that. What they do have is money and they're often willing to pay someone else do the work for them.

“And in many cases they're willing to pay quite well.”

Beware When Buying Forage Blends

Make sure you're getting what you pay for when buying commercial forage blends to establish food and cover plots for wildlife, advises University of Florida forage specialist Ann Blount.

“Some companies do an excellent job of matching up their blends to local soil and climate conditions,” she notes. “Others sell the same product in every market. As a result, you can end up with forages that won't tolerate local conditions.”

Before buying, Blount says, check with your local extension office to see if any forage variety testing has been conducted to validate a company's claims about the product's forage production or nutrition value.

You'll also want to read bag labels carefully. “In some mixes, companies will use a lot of bin sweepings or antiquated varieties as filler,” says Blount. “So you end up paying for something that really isn't going to come through for you.”

Don't be lured by packaging. “People see a great big buck on the front of the bag and all of a sudden they're willing to pay premiums for that seed even though it's not recommended for their areas,” says Blount.

“In some cases, they might be better off buying individual varieties and mixing their own blends.”