Sunn Hemp for Whitetails

There’s no coincidence this tropical/ subtropical legume native to India doesn’t get much attention in the mainstream hunting industry as it only grows in the Deep South.  You’re probably not going to see a discussion on a whitetail tv show and you’re certainly not going to hear a “serial big-buck killer” on a top podcast dive into hemp hunting strategies.  

By no means is this warm season annual a silver bullet but it’s definitely an excellent addition for habitat diversity, wildlife security, protein forage and soil health in the Southeast.


  • Tall, dense cover.  Personally, I prefer that you may lose sight of deer when they disappear in a plot, however, some hunters may look at that as a setback.  Mowing, laying down strips or raising a bush hog to cut a couple feet high is probably the best way to combat this concern.  In our area of SC, the first frost is usually early November.  Hemp will continue to grow back when cut until then.
  • Hemp is not preferred over most agriculture crops, traditional food plots and native browse.  Why is this a benefit?  I’m glad you asked.  We’ve found that sunn hemp typically remains untouched until September when in close proximity (for deer) to ag fields, food plots and quality native forage. They’ll hit the other sites first and as hunter pressure increases deer will drift in the hemp.  However, deer will hit hemp early as the plant is sprouting up.  It all depends on deer density and available food options. For instance, if our ag fields are heavy in cotton, deer will hammer hemp earlier than if corn, beans or peanuts are planted. 

Check out this distinct browse line. Only leaves above 4-5ft are left. This photo was taken 9/19/20 in a small .5ac plot.

  • Very little testing has been completed but the estimated crude protein levels exceeds 25-30% per the National Deer Association.  As a comparison, in Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants, Dr. Craig Harper reports that soybeans offer 36.5% protein. Diversity is king, especially throughout the hunting season.
  • Sunn hemp possesses many soil-building traits, including high rates of biomass production — over 20 percent greater than crimson clover and hairy vetch in research trials. It is not only resistant to plant root nematodes but actively suppresses them. In as little as 60 to 90 days it can produce 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre and can suppress weeds up to 90 percent.
  • Sunn hemp grows well in sandy soils and is fairly drought tolerant which is a huge bonus in the SE. It thrives in hot, humid areas.

Roping off fields to allow browse resistant growth worked for about 4yrs. Look at the browse line snipped off up to the rope.

Instead of mowing, last fall I started laying over strips so deer could eat the leaves over 5ft. This field will be re-worked to create taller height around the food plot.

Draw backs:

  • Hemp will need more maintenance than most annual food plots as it grows about an inch per day until maturity. Mowed strips will grow back until the first frost.   
  • It will take deer a little bit of time to focus on hemp but they will hit it the first year. Activity and timing of browse will pick up every year after.
  • Too much hemp year one may result in deer focusing on alternative food options. I suggest starting off with a couple test plots and evaluate results before planting in year two.

Early sprouts are highly attractive for deer. Monitor and if necessary, rope off plots or add milorganite fertilizer to keep deer out until the plant reaches 2-3ft.

My suggestions after growing sunn hemp for 5 years:

  • Plant hemp as cover screens, plot borders or to create travel routes in larger fields.
  • Utilize in sandy soils.
  • Use sunn hemp in larger fields and plots where deer are not relatively close to soybeans, corn or peanuts.
  • Plant, wait and observe. Sometimes deer won’t touch our hemp until mid/ late September and then browse it down to bare stalks. That could be great timing for Georgia bow season or the opening of South Carolina doe season.
  • I would imagine that deer will pound sunn hemp quickly in heavier pine plantation areas where row crops are scarce.
  • Hemp is an excellent source of nitrogen for soil. Rotate into areas to build up healthy soil.
  • Post season, mow the standing stalks and let the organic matter breakdown into the soil bed.
  • Diversity matters. Add hemp into your plantings with soybeans, clover, etc.
  • Deer love the security and cover sunn hemp provides as they browse. It can pull deer out during daylight hours much more than lower height plots.

Young plants will continue to grow back after deer snip off the stalk. However, by Sept the stalk will become more fibrous and less desirable for deer.

I took this buck 8/20/18 in a sunn hemp field about an 1.5 hours before dark. We had a nice bachelor group feeding nightly in the field and it did become tough for a good clean shot within the hemp. I had not mowed strips or some of the height yet. It was a quick shot just as he crossed into the field edge.

Some people don’t like to leave lone trees in a food plot or field but they can serve a purpose for deer. This buck quickly high-stepped from the left side tree line and paused behind the lone, field edge oak assessing the food plot. His vitals were just barely exposed.

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