A Beginner's Guide to Food Plots
March 31, 2016
The food plot craze has caught on in the whitetail hunting community in a big way. It seems as if almost everyone who hunts deer is also planting food plots — or at least wants to plant a food plot.
Most deer hunters are not farmers and may lack the basic understanding of what it takes to "grow a crop." This lack of knowledge is not something to stress over, as most of today's successful food-plotters were also beginners not too long ago.
If you happen to be one of those hunters that wants to plant a food plots on your hunting property, but aren't quite sure how to get started, here's a step-by-step guide to help you get started growing food plots on your land.
Choose The Right Location
Choosing a good location for your plot should be the first order of business. In order for your crop to reach its maximum growth potential it will need as many hours of sunlight as possible. Trying to grow a food plot under the canopy of trees is a recipe for failure.
To be successful your plot needs to be in an open area such as a woods opening or along a field edge. The site should also be fairly level and accessible with whatever equipment you have to farm your plot.
Determine Your Plot Size
The kind of equipment you have at hand will likely determine the size of your plot. Some serious food-plotters have large tractors with multiple implements, but many plots have been planted with simple hand tools, such as shovels and rakes.
Many plots are also planted using ATVs or small lawn tractors. Don't get discouraged if you lack the high-dollar equipment that some food-plotters have access to. Many big bucks have been shot over small food plots.
Once you have decided on the location and size of your plot, it's time to get started. There is no better way to insure a successful plot than by starting with a soil test. These tests cost less than $20 and will tell you the exact fertilizer requirements needed for your plot. Without a soil test, fertilizing is nothing more than a blind guessing game.
To take a soil sample to submit for testing simply dig down a couple of inches and get a small handful of soil and deposit it in a small container such as a bucket. Do this in several locations within the plot, mixing the soil from each collection with the others. This will give you an average soil profile of your plot. When you submit the sample for testing you will only need about a cup of the mixed soil.
Eliminate The Weeds
Your food plot site will likely have some sort of vegetation growing in it that will need to be dealt with. Do not make the mistake of thinking you can just work the soil and thereby kill the vegetation that is growing in the plot. Grasses and some weeds have very resilient root systems that will sprout new growth and compete with your crop for water and nutrients unless they are eradicated.
Spraying the vegetation with an herbicide, such as glyphosate, is your best bet. Glyphosate is a non-restricted herbicide that will kill weeds and grasses, including their roots.
A small hand-held sprayer is adequate for applying herbicide on smaller plots while larger plots will require the use of a larger tank sprayer.
Choose The Right Seed
After you have sprayed your future plot you will need to wait a couple of weeks for the weeds and grasses to die before working the soil. This is a good time to do some research and purchase your seed. Keep in mind that some seeds, such as soybeans, are planted only in the spring.
Others, such as turnips, are planted in the fall, while some foods, such as clover, can be planted in either spring or fall. If you plant the seed you have chosen at the wrong time, the results won't be good.
I suggest you don't get caught up in fancy packaging, celebrity endorsements or advertising campaigns when selecting the seed for your plot. Instead, learn to read the seed tags, which are required by law to be on all seed products.
Look at things like germination rates and the percentage of inert matter in the seed mix to see exactly what you're buying. You may think you are buying 10 pounds of seed, but once you subtract the inert matter and figure in poor germination rates, you could literally be getting less than half of that amount
When you are deciding on which plant species to grow in your plots you really should consider what equipment you have available to work your plot. Small seeds, such as clover, turnips or sugar beets, will not need to be planted very deep and can sometimes be simply broadcast on top of the ground.
Larger seeds, such as soybeans and corn, will require the soil to be worked well and planted one to two inches deep. This is fine if you have the equipment to do it, but someone limited to a garden rake would be better off planting a smaller seed.
When it comes time to actually plant the seed, the success of your plot will largely depend on what you do that day. After this point everything is out of your hands, up to the weather and Mother Nature.
If your soil test shows that you need to apply lime or fertilizer to your plot, now is the time to do it using either a hand-held spreader or a larger one. For small plots you can buy your lime and fertilizer in bags at many farm and home stores.
Working the soil can be done with a number of tools from garden rakes to large disks pulled by tractors or specialty implements designed to be used with ATVs.
Whatever tool you have to work the soil, make sure you end up with a seedbed that is not too rough or cloddy and is free of large clumps of dead weeds or other debris.
The actual planting can be done a number of ways. Broadcast spreaders are great for a lot of the seeds and blends used on food plots. After the seed has been spread you will then need to either roll the plot or lightly disk or drag it, depending on what seed species you planted.
For larger seeds, such as soybeans, lightly disk the ground to cover most of the seed. Be careful not to bury the seed too deep. Most of the time it is better for the seed to be too shallow than too deep.
Smaller seeds, like clover, can simply be rolled into the ground with a cultipacker or even a lawn roller. If neither option is available you can still get a good stand if weather conditions are right.
If you lack a way to roll your seed into the soil after planting then plant at a slightly increased seeding rate. There you have it, a short-course in planting a wildlife food-plot that should get you started down the right path.
Managing your land takes work, but you just might find that planting food plots and improving wildlife habitat becomes as addicting as hunting itself.
Author Don Higgins owns and operates Higgins Outdoors Inc., a multi-faceted company specializing in wildlife habitat products and services.