Imagine waking up to a clear, cool morning, looking out your window and seeing deer or other wildlife feeding on your property. If you want to make it happen, consider growing food plots.

Before you do, a University of Georgia expert warns not all crops are created equally for the job of attracting wildlife.

A lot of wildlife feed products available on store shelves and the Internet don’t deliver what they promise, said Keith Fielder, UGA Cooperative Extension coordinator in Putnam County.

For ten years, Fielder and his UGA Extension colleagues in Baldwin and Jones counties tested 80 forage crops and forage blends to see which work best to attract wildlife. The best overall performer was chicory.

A perennial forage crop, chicory is used around the world as forage for cattle, sheep and goats. Southerners stopped growing the crop after the Civil War.

“I think we just forgot about it,” Fielder said. “But, now people are selling it again, and it is one of the better products we recommend.”

With a substantial taproot capable of capturing moisture from deep in the soil, chicory holds up well during drought.

Perennial clovers are excellent for food plots, too. Durana and Patriot varieties are successful across the state. Developed by internationally-renowned forage breeder Joe Bouton while at UGA, the products are now marketed by Pennington Seed.

In addition to evaluating crops, the UGA Extension agent team developed a program for landowners on land management. Since 2001, more than 1,350 forest landowners, hunters and wildlife conservationists have attended 25 programs to learn about the forages.

“Some of these forage crops were things we didn’t traditionally grow in the South, so we had to learn how to grow them,” Fielder said. “Determining seed rating and fertility management gave us a toolbox full of suggestions on a better selection of forages to plant for different wildlife.”

Hunters and land managers themselves, the group tailors suggestions based on what game or non-game animals they want to maintain. From deer to turkeys, bluebirds to honeybees and geese to bobcats, a range of animals benefit from feed plots, he said.

Pasture land is typically planted in Bermudagrass or bahiagrass for livestock. But deer and turkeys don’t benefit that much from these pastures, Fielder said.

“Deer won’t forage pasture grasses,” he said. “Deer are after clovers or perennial weeds. They are browsers not grazers. If you can replace some of these mono-cultural forage grasses that are not native with a perennial like chicory you are providing a better environment for wildlife and higher quality nutrition, food variety and areas for certain insects to create a habitat.”

Most perennial forages should be planted between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. To prepare, look for areas for planting, perform soil tests and prepare the soil now.

Attracting wildlife can be expensive and Fielder warns planting perennial forages is “by no means a plant it and walk away” practice. It requires management and input and is best done on at least a quarter-acre plot.

While perennial clover varieties and chicory may be more expensive initially, he said, in the long run they are the most economical.

On top of feed plots, Fielder recommends winter tilling of edge areas to promote weed growth and prescribed burning to combat heavy fuel loads and stimulate new growth. Contact the Georgia Forestry Commission to develop a burn plan.

Remember to watch the wildlife and interact from a distance. And it is not illegal to hunt over a food plot, but you can’t hunt over a truck load of corn kernels.

For more information on wildlife and forest management, attend the 2009 Agroforestry and Wildlife Field Day set for Thursday, Sept.17 at the University of Georgia campus in Griffin, Ga. For more information, click here.