Let’s face it, if you are not planting food plots, you are missing one of the keys of good deer hunting. Deer need quality food and will travel miles to get it. Simply stated, “if you plant it, they will come.” Planting food plots requires a little work, but a weekend or two of work will pay huge dividends come hunting season.
Food Plot Basics
In its simplest form, all you need to grow a good food plot is some dirt and some seed. But nothing is ever that simple because the dirt has to be suitable to support growth and that typically requires some work. But food plotting is not all that tough, as millions of hunters have discovered. Plus, it’s fun and you’ll be glad you did it come the fall season. Following these 5 steps will generally get the job done.
Step 1—Test Your Soil
This is the most important step but it is also the easiest and unfortunately the one the rookies like to skip. First, take soil samples by removing a number of pint-size scoops with a hand trowel or soil sample auger. Follow an “X” pattern across the plot, and put all dirt in one pail. Stir and mix the soil, and then remove 1½ cups and place it in a poly-bag for analysis. You want the average of a good cross-section of the plot. The soil can be analyzed by an agriculture extension service or private soil testing service. Most agriculture stores can help. Be sure to indicate what you intend to plant – clover, chicory, etc. With that information, they will be able to recommend the amount of lime and type of fertilizer to apply per acre.
If your soil is overly acidic, you will need to apply lime to neutralize the acid. This is absolutely necessary and is best done well before planting. Lime generally works slowly so it may take multiple applications over a few years to “sweeten” up your plot. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that it should stay sweet a good long time. Fertilizer will be added at planting time.
Step 2—Remove Competing Growth
After determining the soil’s pH, apply herbicides and/or cultivate to kill all weeds and grasses. We apply Roundup® or a glyphosate-based generic product first. Glyphosates do not work on dormant plants. For spring planting, we wait until most of the weeds and grasses have popped up before applying glyphosates to our plots. Herbicides work best when applied to vigorously growing plants. Plowing and disking weeds without herbicide treatment is not as effective as applying herbicides first. You almost always see weed and grasses pop up regardless of how thoroughly you plow and disk. Killing weeds with herbicides is more efficient than trying to eliminate them through cultivation. That’s why most commercial growers use them.
Step 3—Prepare the Soil
After the herbicide does its job, which takes about a week or so, it’s now time to work the soil with a plow, disk, rake or some other tool to work dead matter into the soil and break up dirt clods for a smooth seedbed. The goal here is to prepare a fine relatively smooth surface to apply your seed. This is one of the toughest steps for food plotters without access to tools designed to work dirt into a plantable condition. Sandy, light soils generally work up easily but some heavy clayey soils can be tough to work with. Weather conditions have a lot to do with working soils. Wet soil generally isn’t easy; try dry, sun-baked soils. Keep an eye on local farmers who have similar soils to yours. If they are working the ground, you probably should be as well.
You’ll know your soil is ready for planting if you can cast a handful of seeds and none (or very few) fall into deep crevices or are disappearing under or around foreign matter like dead weeds or heavy dirt clods. Basically, you are looking for as smooth and even a planting surface as you can create without turning the surface into dirt. Once again, look at the local farmers who are seeding their fields. Your finished product should resemble theirs (provided they are not using no-till equipment).
After we have broken up the dirt clods, we add fertilizer if our soil tests call for it. Here is where your soil test is worth one thousand times the time and money you spent on it! If your soil has been tested and you indicated what you intend to plant, your results should include fertilizer recommendations. If you are super lucky, your soil may be able to support growth without adding any fertilizer. The only way to know for sure is to test your soil. You don’t want to find out in the middle of the growing season when your plots run out of nutrition and fail.
Fertilizer can be spread by hand with lawn spreaders in small plots but is best done mechanically in most plots. A number of companies offer spreaders that can be pulled with an ATV or tractor.
Today’s food-plot blends specify how much seed to apply per acre. This information is found on the bag. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. It’s tempting to exceed the recommended level because if one bag is good, two must be better, right? Dead wrong! If you apply too much seed, the now overcrowded plants produce less forage per acre. On the other hand, don’t try to stretch your dollars too far. Sow too few seeds and weeds will encroach between the plants. If you’re confident in your soil and its preparation, plant as recommended by the manufacturer. If you don’t expect good germination or if deer density is high, plant a bit more.
High-quality seed can be expensive and your dollars will stretch further if you proceed carefully. If you don’t have an expensive metered seeder – and most people don’t – get a small, food-type scale to measure out a quarter-acre at a time and use an over-the-shoulder crank seeder (about $20) to spread it. They are very effective. Better to trickle your seed and go over the same quarter acre of ground a couple of times than to blow it out the first 20 yards (been there, done that). Don’t pour too much seed into the hopper all at once, especially if you’re using a large-capacity seeder. Trust us, $100 of clover seed can disappear before you know it.
You might also want to consider using an ATV or tractor-driven seeder. A 3-acre food plot is a lot of ground to seed by hand. They are expensive but a joy to use. The best are wheel-driven. Food plotters often hire local farmers to work their bigger food plots. These fellows have the equipment and know-how to get it done in a hurry. Unfortunately, most of them will be busy with their own planting just when you need them (at least in spring). Do not hand-cast the seed; this is wasteful and creates uneven stands.
After seeding, you can either walk away from the plot and let the rain (hopefully) create seed-to-ground contact or run some kind of roller or compactor/cultipacker over your seed. Do not bury seed deeply with a disc or other cultivation tool. Buried seed is dead seed! Basically, your seed should be covered with no more dirt than 3X the thickness of your seed. On tiny food plots, we sometimes “drive the seed in” by running an ATV over it and pack it with the tires. If you’re planting clover, rape, chicory, or other small seeds, it’s easy to bury them too deeply. If you cannot “contact” the seed to the soil by rolling, we believe it’s better to leave the job to Mother Nature.
Pray for Rain (Optional)
Ideally, a gentle rain will arrive as soon as you finish seeding. Rain and soil moisture are critical to success. But, you aren’t looking for 3 days of gully-washers that can wash away all your fertilizer and seed.
The worst scenario is germination followed by drought. Tiny seedlings need moisture to survive. Germination followed by drought is fatal to any kind of crop. Timing your seeding pays dividends; you can play the weather only a few days at a time, but it’s worth a try. Beyond that, it’s all up to Mother Nature. But remember, nothing happens without moisture and, of course, too much moisture is almost as bad as too little. No wonder farmers are such patient people.
Following these 5 steps can turn your deer hunting around from “every so often luck happens” exercise in futility to having your meat processer on speed-dial. The choice is entirely yours.
Our best-selling book, Grow ‘Em Right (“The Bible of food plotting”), covers all aspects of planting food plots in great detail. It is available at www.northcountrywhitetails.com.