From the Ground Up | David Hart
In case you haven't noticed, food plots are the rage these days. Not only do they hold deer on a property, but they can provide high-quality forage on marginal habitat and ultimately produce bigger, healthier whitetails. Planting and maintaining food plots is also a rewarding pastime and an off-season activity that just gets in your blood. Once you start, it's tough to quit. For some hunters, however, food plots are frustrating, expensive lessons in futility.
"I talk to a lot of people that aren't successful because they go about it all wrong. They don't take the necessary steps to grow a good plot, they skip some necessary steps or they use the wrong things in the wrong places," says Jon Cooner, director of special projects for Whitetail Institute.
He said the first step to a successful food plot is a basic evaluation of your soil type and the amount of sunlight to determine which plants will work best.
"Some plants grow better in soil that holds moisture, while others do better in well-drained soil. Imperial clover, for instance, does best in bottomland soil that holds moisture. Sandy, drier soils are good for Alfa-Rack, which is an alfalfa we developed for whitetails," he says. "Whatever you choose, just make sure it is suitable for the conditions you are dealing with. You also have to consider average rainfall. If you don't get much rain where you live, you might consider some of the cereal grains like wheat or rye. East of the Mississippi, there is generally enough rainfall to grow any food plot plant, but there are variations in temperatures that have to be considered, as well. Clover does well in the south, but it needs to be replanted a little more frequently than in northern climates. You'll have to redo clover every three or four years."
Roger Ferrell, ATV product manager for Summit Treestands, says he and his fellow hunt club members plant a lot of clover on their 6,000 acres. They manage about 50 food plots from 10 acres in size down to narrow strips on abandoned logging trails and along the edges of active roads. By using a perennial like clover, he and his fellow club members don't have to spend so much time planting and replanting.
Aside from clover, Ferrell and the other hunters in his club plant a variety of high-quality deer foods. He says that by using different plants, they not only have the option of hunting those plots the deer seem to favor at certain times of the year, but they also provide the whitetails with lots of nutrition throughout the year, and not just during hunting season.
"One of the best things we've had success with is soybeans. The deer eat them all summer and they get a lot of protein from them," he says. "We also do several different foods in our larger plots. We might do a part of a field in corn, another section in winter wheat and another part in clover or alfalfa. This gives deer more choices and it keeps them using a certain field before and during hunting season."
Cooner adds that it's critical to evaluate your equipment and what it will and won't do. Hardcore food-plot enthusiasts own tractors, disks, broadcast spreaders, cultipackers and even seed drills. Bigger equipment can certainly do more acreage faster, and it can do things that lighter ATV equipment can't. That doesn't mean small ATV-specific disks and cultipackers won't work. In fact, Ferrell says his club actually started using ATVs more often than tractors on plots smaller than two acres.
"By the time you get a full-sized tractor back into a small plot, you can have a lot of the work done already with an ATV. Some of our plots are a fair distance from our equipment shed and ATVs are just faster. They also work much better on the smallest plots that are tough to reach," he says.
In fact, you don't always have to have any equipment at all. Top-sowing many types of seed can be a waste of time, but some seeds will actually take when dropped on unbroken ground. With suitable rainfall, wheat can sprout and root on untilled ground. So can some types of clover and brassicas.
"Whitetail Institute developed a no-till seed mix that can be put down right on top of the soil," notes Cooner. "In northern states, it's perfectly fine to do what is known as frost-sowing, putting seed down in the late winter when the soil surface opens and closes as it freezes and thaws. Clover works well for that. The seed falls down in those cracks and germinates."
Testing 1, 2, 3
The next step, agree Cooner and Ferrell, is to conduct a soil test. Not only will doing so help you amend the ground so plants grow to their potential, it will also save you money. Dump lime and fertilizer on the ground and your food plots will likely benefit, but fertilizer can be expensive and you may need far less than you think.
Cooner says probes that make an instant evaluation of soil acidity and nutrient levels are inferior and inaccurate. So are the slurry-type test kits that involve mixing a small amount of dirt with an additive and water.
"Those aren't the tools universities and labs use because they just aren't that accurate," adds Cooner. "I've used probes and slurry kits and then compared the results to what I got back from our lab, and they were very different. You want a soil test kit that is tested by a qualified lab."
He suggested taking a sample of soil from several different sections of each food plot to submit to a lab for analysis. The levels of acidity and nutrients can vary dramatically even in a small area, so it's vital to get a good cross-section of each plot.
The information provided by a soil test can tell you exactly how much lime to put down and suggest how much fertilizer of a particular type will work best. Of course, you need to tell the lab or extension agent who will conduct the test what type of plants you plan to use. Each has different nutrient and pH needs.
Prep It First
In most cases, the existing plant growth will have to be removed. In fact, Ferrell always starts with a clean slate before he puts down the first food plot seed. Fescue, Bermuda grass and a host of unwanted weeds will not only compete for a limited amount of food in the ground, but they can choke out seedlings, rendering food plots worthless. Both Ferrell and Cooner suggest starting with a non-selective herbicide such as Roundup. Ferrell will first bush-hog a field of thick grass, but if the existing plant growth is average, he'll go straight to the herbicide.
"Spray it, wait a couple of weeks and then turn the soil. Give it a few more weeks and wait for newly exposed seeds to germinate, and then spray it again. Sometimes you'll have to do that a few times before the plot is ready for seed," says Cooner. "There will always be unwanted weeds in a food plot, but the best thing you can do is to remove as much unwanted plant growth as possible before putting down the first seed."
Depending on what you want to plant - a spring and summer plot or a fall and winter plot - the timing of your preparation will determine the success of your efforts. Ferrell suggests starting in July or August for fall plot preparation. For summer food plots such as soybeans, corn or other warm-weather plants, it's critical to start in early spring when plants start to grow. Wait too long, especially for fall food plots such as clover and winter wheat, and cold weather may prevent your plants from getting a good root system.
Turning the soil several times also helps inject fertilizer and lime below the surface where it will come into better contact with roots. Cooner says spreading lime and fertilizer on the surface of the ground without disking it in won't give plants the quick boost they need to get started. In some cases, top-sown fertilizer will simply run off after a heavy rain.
Mow, Mow, Mow Your Plot
Once the plot is established and thriving, it's critical to keep it maintained with regular mowing and additional lime and fertilizer applications.
"Mowing on a regular basis helps prevent weeds and other unwanted growth from putting down new seed. It also helps prevent the plants you do want from flowering and seeding, as well. Instead of putting energy and nutrients into the seed head, food plot plants will put it into the leaves, which makes for better forage for the deer," explains Cooner. "You want to mow high enough that you are basically shaving off those emerging seed heads. That will help reduce weed growth over the long-term because there are fewer and fewer seeds getting put back down into the soil. You'll never completely eliminate weeds, but every little bit helps."
It's also a good idea to spray food plots with a selective herbicide, one that won't kill the desired plants but will kill unwanted vegetation. There are herbicides that are friendly to virtually every food plot plant, but be careful. Some have pinpoint uses that kill a wide variety of plants.
"You always want to read the label before you use any herbicide, not just for safety reasons, but to know what you are putting down and exactly what it will do after you spply it," says Cooner. "There are herbicides made specifically for legumes like clover and alfalfa, some that are used only on grasses like wheat and others that only kill grasses."
It can be confusing, but like anything worth doing, a little practice, some mistakes here and there and a few successes will put you on the right path to high-quality food plots and better deer hunting on your property. The first step, of course, is to simply give it a try.
For more information on planting, growing and maintaining food plots, click here.