By Tony J. Peterson
For most of my deer hunting career, food plots never interested me a whole lot. At least not until I signed the paperwork to buy a small property in north-central Wisconsin in 2011. With those 28 acres, I figured I’d be able to put some sweat equity in and create my own little deer paradise.
If I had only known then what I know now. Between poor soil, low deer numbers, legal baiting, and a host of other factors I’d have to contend with, the reality of raking out a spot and throwing some clover seed down to easily fill my tags during the season never materialized. Since that time, I’ve gotten better at the food plot game but have also come to understand what it fully means to become a small-scale farmer for the deer and other wildlife.
Here are five things I didn’t understand then that I do now.
Plots Aren’t Easy
Tune into the Sportsman Channel on any given day, and you can watch huge bucks get killed in food plots all you want. What you won’t see on most of those shows is the time and money it took to get to the lush, deer-filled plot stage. Just like most hunting shows are a highlight reel of encounters with big bucks and not the far more dominant reality of watching an empty woods for hours and hours, anything related to food plots is most likely to be an end result product.
The idea of throw and grow seeds is just that – an idea. Most people who are in the know on this stuff will tell you right off the bat that without a soil test, you’re spinning your wheels. My personal experience very much reinforces that belief. Even if you want to develop a small kill plot for bowhunting, you’ve got to know exactly what kind of soil you’re dealing with and what you can do to make it conducive to growing the groceries.
Heavy Equipment Isn’t Necessary
Sure, having a couple acres of prime farm ground to devote to the deer and then a $50,000 tractor to whip it into shape sounds nice. For most of us, that’s a fantasy right up there with taking our supermodel girlfriends on a quick date to Mars. I’ve created half of a dozen plots in my life that have all produced deer kills, and I don’t own any equipment more advanced than a manual seed spreader.
You can make it happen with a chainsaw or brush cutter and then all of the necessary hand tools to expose the soil and get something planted in it, but you’ve got to understand that it might take you a few years to get somewhere. If you like deer work, then it’s not so bad and can actually be really rewarding. But it is work, which is something you’ll be reminded of every time you haul in bag of lime or spend a couple of hours working on the weeds or hand tilling the soil with a rake or…
Because it looks easy and sounds simple, a lot of people skip necessary steps when trying to start a plot. As mentioned, this begins with a soil test but goes further into buying the right fertilizer and planting something that will actually grow in your neck of the woods. You’ll need to understand what zone you’re planting in and how much sunlight your plot is going to get per day at a minimum.
You’ll also need to be realistic about what you should plant. For my Wisconsin property, clover and oats/rye are about it. But the deer in that area, which is primarily ag-light and big-woods heavy, don’t have too many choices that don’t involve browse or mast. Any greenery tends to get their attention, so even though the plot options are somewhat limited, the deer don’t care. If you’re not dealing with perfect soil and rain conditions, don’t fret and don’t get fancy. Pick something the deer will eat and then follow the manufacturer’s directions on how to get the most out of your work.
One thing we continually learn about the world is that if Mother Nature wants to mess with us, we are nearly powerless to stop it. This goes for crazy viruses, hurricanes and other world-changing events. It also goes for the lowly food plotter who just wants a couple handfuls of little seeds to germinate and become something desirable to rabbits with antlers.
Even if you do everything right, your planting might not amount to much depending on a host of factors that are out of your control. Understand that sometimes the rain doesn’t come when it’s needed or the August heat sticks around for three extra months and fries most of the greenery.
This is why it can be nice, if possible, to have a couple of small plots that are located on different parts of your property and can be planted at different times (spring and fall), with a variety of seeds or seed blends – hedge your food plot bets if you can.
Big Bucks Everywhere or Nowhere?
A kill plot can put a deer in an excellent position for a shot opportunity, which is not nothing. What it won’t do is create quality deer hunting that is a lot better than your area already offers. You might get a better rut hunt by keeping a few does around, which is also a good thing, but you won’t suddenly have four times the bucks on your property because you’ve got some brassicas or turnips growing in a quarter-acre plot.
If you’re realistic about food plots and how they’ll actually benefit you, then it’s pretty easy to enjoy them. I love taking my young daughters to sit in a blind with me on the edge of one of my kill plots because we will probably see a deer or two but also have the chance to watch a whole host of critters coming and going. That might be the best endorsement for making a food plot for any of us – not only do they provide good food for all kinds of critters, but they sure can be fun to just sit over and watch.
If a deer comes through and offers up a shot, that’s just icing on the cake.