There you stand, hands on your hips, staring at a patch of dirt, a scattering of weeds and a few yellowing brassica plants. What was supposed to be your deer killin' honey hole has turned into something more closely resembling a black hole.
Not only did your food plot suck hundreds of dollars out of your wallet and countless hours from your life, but it crushed your hopes of killing a big buck this season. Your food plot totally, epically failed.
What happened? Any number of factors can contribute to a food plot fail. On the other hand, growing a perfect patch of clover, beans, brassicas or wheat really is pretty simple if you follow a handful of basic steps.
The Right Place
First, find a good place. Food plot seeds may sprout just about anywhere, but they need at least four hours of direct sunlight each day to flourish. Six is even better. That's why plots in deep woods, along heavily shaded roads and adjacent to tall trees often fail. They just aren't getting enough sunlight.
A general rule of thumb to follow is food plots need to be planted at least a third of the distance away from the height of the tallest trees to get adequate sunlight. In other words, if the trees surrounding the field are 100 feet tall, you'll need to plant at least 33 feet away from those trees — farther if the plot is on the north side of the trees.
Time It Right
Fall-planted plots have a relatively short planting window in many regions. Follow the recommended planting dates printed on most bags of plot seed. Plant too early and your seedlings may sprout after a thundershower, but they might be subjected to a hot, dry spell typical in late summer. That will kill them.
Don't wait too long, though. Your plants may sprout if you hold out, but they won't have enough daylight or adequate soil warmth to mature. Young plants won't provide adequate forage that will last into hunting season.
Spring-planted plots also have recommended planting dates, but they are a bit more flexible. Make sure you've passed the last frost date for your region, but don't wait until summer heat and drought become a real possibility. Plot plants need to be established before they are subjected to extreme heat and prolonged dry spells.
Beat The Weeds
Nothing can ruin a vibrant, healthy food plot faster than a flush of weeds. Grasses and broadleafs alike steal space, nutrients, moisture and sunlight. Weeds, and broadleafs in particular, are difficult to control in annual plots, particularly those planted in the spring. Slay, a Whitetail Institute product, knocks down broadleaf weeds in clover. Grasses can be controlled with herbicides like Whitetail Institute's Arrest, a grass-specific herbicide, in which the active ingredient is sethoxydim.
Mowing perennial plots can also help knock back annual weeds. Run a rotary mower over your clover, chicory and alfalfa in late spring before weeds produce a flower or seed head. Keep in mind, however, that perennial grasses such as Bermuda and fescue cannot be controlled by mowing. In these instances, you'll need a selective herbicide to kill them.
Prep The Bed
Before you turn any dirt, kill the existing plant growth with a heavy dose of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round Up
. Give it a couple of weeks to die before disking the ground. Wait a couple more weeks for the existing weed seeds to germinate, then hit it with another dose of herbicide.
Disk lightly to loosen the surface soil and then spread your seed. Small seeds like clover and turnips don't need to be covered — they'll fall into the cracks and get knocked into the ground with the next heavy rain. Larger seeds should be covered with another light disking or with a drag.
Pray For Rain
No amount of fertilizer or herbicide or happy thoughts will produce a perfect plot without adequate rain. That's asking as a lot as rain has been lacking throughout much of whitetail country these days. There's not much you can do about that except pray...and then pray some more.
You can, however, provide your plots with everything they need to flourish under ideal conditions. Plots that are healthy going into a drought are much more likely to survive once your prayers are answered.
Before you test the soil for a specific plant, determine if the site is suited for your seed choice. Well-drained and sandy soils tend to be best for plants with deep roots. Turnips and alfalfa, for example, can weather dry spells much better than clover, which performs best in heavy bottomland-type ground.
If you're still not sure, try a blend. The plants are compatible with each other, but some plants in a blend tend to perform better under different conditions. They also mature at different times, giving your deer more options as the season progresses.
Decide, also, if you want to plant annuals or perennials, which include chicory, white clover and alfalfa. They will last up to five years. Annuals like turnips, brassicas, wheat and oats only last a season but require little maintenance.
Size and Shape It
Bigger isn't always better, but small plots may be devoured before the season even opens if you have lots of deer. In most cases, a quarter-acre is sufficient, but slightly larger plots can withstand heavy grazing pressure well into the season. Scatter several plots around your property so you can hunt them based on wind direction.
A rectangle is fine for rifle hunting, but bow hunters need to bring deer into range. Many experts recommend an hourglass or kidney-shaped plot. Feeding or cruising whitetails will walk through the narrow section, which is where you should place your stand.
It's The Soil, Stupid
Fine-tuning the nutrients in the soil starts with a simple and inexpensive soil test. Soil tests tell you exactly what your plants need to thrive. Test kits are inexpensive and available at your local agricultural extension office or through places like Whitetail Institute, which offer food plot-specific tests. The recommended fertilizer and lime rates are tailored specifically to a variety of plot plants.
Follow the recommendations. Simply throwing a couple of bags of 10-10-10 may not give your plants what they need. Lime is also essential for a healthy plot in most situations. Whitetails won't eat unhealthy plants, at least not when they have other choices.