Food Plot Management On A Budget
May 31, 2011
Every boy dreams of playing in the dirt with bulldozers, excavators, moto-graders and 200-horsepower tractors towing huge sets of hydraulic off-set harrows, and they're not alone. Those of us who hunt and manage whitetail deer dream of the same things. Problem is, for most landowners and deer managers, the equipment we dream about is often too expensive to own and operate. The efficiency, power and diversity of today's ATVs and UTVs, combined with a wide range of accessories and implements, make them extremely valuable tools for any land manager who's serious about habitat improvement and management.
The first step in habitat management is creating a plan. If you're starting with a "raw" property, you should define areas for food, cover, water and travel. Once these areas are defined on a map, you can begin implementing their construction on the ground.
One way to get the "heavy lifting" associated with clearing land for food and cover out of the way is to determine if you might have merchantable timber on your property.
By working with a forester or wildlife consultant, you might be able to use the timber harvest to facilitate a significant portion of your plan, making the finishing touches with your own equipment.
Once the trees are harvested to your specifications, work can begin on plowing, planting, spraying and modifying your openings to fit your management plan.
There are machines, implements and accessories that you will need to accomplish your goals. From the workhorse to the hatchet, I'll give you one land manager's take.
There are several factors to consider when choosing which ATV/UTV and implements to purchase. First and foremost, make sure that you will have enough power to do the job.
If you're planning on pulling disc harrows, pushing plows and dragging debris, you'll likely need a liquid-cooled, four-wheel-drive machine with a 450cc engine or greater. There are literally hundreds of combinations to choose from, and virtually every ATV/UTV manufacturer today makes a utility line that will fit the bill. In the ATV market there are offerings from Arctic Cat, Can-Am, Honda, Kawasaki, Polaris, Yamaha and Suzuki. All of the above companies also offer UTV or side-by-side models with the exceptions of Can-Am and Suzuki. Husqvarna, John Deere, Kubota and Bobcat also offer fully capable UTVs.
In general, ATVs can out-maneuver and out-run their wider and longer counterparts in the UTV lines, but the UTVs all have dump beds capable of hauling and towing more than most ATVs. At the end of the day, they will both work, but if you're in the market for only one machine as a do-all, the additional expense of a UTV will go a long way.
I personally have an 800cc ATV and a 500cc UTV, each of which provides its own advantages. If I'm hauling feed, seed or people, I like the room and payload of the UTV, while the ATV gets me around quickly.
Jeff Foxworthy once said to a room full of deer managers, "If you pay someone to mow your lawn so that you can go to the woods and mow your clover plots '¦ you might be a deer manager." Mowing fields, trails, and roads is one of the most visually rewarding tasks for a land manager, but it's also a necessary one. Today you can mow those clover patches, prep ground for plowing or keep your roads groomed right behind your ATV or UTV.
DR Power, Kunz Engineering and Swisher all make tow-behind rotary cutters with in-cab controls that have cutting widths from 44-72 inches and some are capable of mowing material up to three inches in diameter. These trail cutters are hard-working, and often times they're your first step in creating a honey hole food plot back in the woods where larger equipment can't fit.
In some cases, you will need to remove downed trees and brush as well. The simplest way to do this is to lay a chain or rope on the ground, stack manageable piles on top of it, wrap the pile up, and tow it away from the intended clearing. You can use these piles on the edges of the clearings to make funnels or pinch points for the food plot. They also make very good habitat for small game animals. If the debris seems overwhelming, you may need to burn it. Contact your consultant, local forest service and landowner prior to burning, as they will know the regulations and requirements to burn the debris.
SPRAYING AND SPREADING
Herbicide, fertilizer and lime are all critical components of site preparation on any food plot. These three elements will require two different accessories -- one to spray and the other to spread. The good news is there are many affordable options when considering which spreader and sprayer to go with. If you will be spreading on ground that is not level or in tight spots, you will need a rack/hitch-mounted spreader like those offered by Moultrie and On Time. These spreaders can be mounted directly to the rack of most ATVs and have capacities up to 100 pounds, making them perfect for spreading on small plots, in senderos or on roads. Larger spreaders such as the Hunter's Specialties pull-behind 5-bushel spreader can handle up to 300 pounds of material, allowing you to cover an acre or more without having to reload the hopper.
A smooth-running sprayer can serve multiple purposes on your land. First, it can help you to manage existing food plots and cover types by allowing you to chemically release target species from undesirable competition. But sprayers aren't always used for poisoning and killing. After a good cleaning, you can use the hose attachments on your sprayer to manage planted trees by watering, applying fungicide and even fertilizing. Most sprayers are rack/bed-mounted and can be purchased with a boom or boom-less. The boom-less models are slightly more versatile simply because they can go anywhere your ATV/UTV can. Things to look for in a sprayer are a minimum 2-GPM pump, 15-gallon tank and an auxiliary hose/wand for applications done by hand.
I prefer to use a larger 20- or 25-gallon tank specifically because it means fewer trips to the spigot for refilling when watering fruit trees. Top models include BioLogic's SprayMaxx and those made by Fimco, Northstar and Cabelas.
The toughest task for any landowner working with small equipment is breaking new ground to prepare it for planting. The reason this job is tough can be described in one word: weight.
Today's ATVs/UTVs can pull more than ever before, so implement manufacturers have taken advantage of this by making heavier tools to get the job done. Kolplin, which specializes in powersport accessories, has a "Dirtworks" system that institutes a patented three-point hitch, which allows for quick change and versatility in implements previously unheard of in the ATV market. This three-point system has attachments that include chisel plows, discs, rakes and blades.
If you choose to get a single implement for plowing, a pull behind disc harrow is the way to go. Hunter Specialties has a Terrain Tough eight-disc plow that weighs 430 pounds and can have weight added to its solid steel frame to increase its cutting power. They also make this same disc with an added "culti-packer" for preparing the seedbed behind the plow. If that's too heavy for your needs, consider Tuffline's Ground Hog disc system, which uses the weight of the ATV and rider or weight in the bed of a UTV to optimize cutting power. The unit mounts into the 2-inch receiver and does its job under the back of the ATV, making it a compact unit.
There are also many conventional "flip discs" to choose from. Depending on your soil type, they might work fine, but remember, in most circumstances, the more it weighs, the deeper it will plow.
At this point, you've site-prepped the area completely, are looking at bare dirt, have chosen your desired seed and are ready to plant. You can accomplish this in one of two ways: with a planter or combination of spreader and drag harrow. There are two industry-leading "all-in-one" food plot implements on the market today: The Firminator and the Plotmaster. Both are available in ATV-sized four-foot units.
The Firminator is a plow, seeder and culti-packer bundled into one unit. It is operated by a chain-and-sprocket-driven, mechanical system within the wheels of the culti-packer, and it has a lever to engage/disengage the seed metering system so you can use the weight of seed in the hopper to increase its effectiveness. When the seedbed is finished, the Firminator will plant like a small seed drill, dropping seed directly down in front of the culti-packer, which firms up contact with the soil.
The Plotmaster also has multiple implements on a single unit -- a plow or cultivator followed by a seeder, a chain drag and a roller. This unit uses a 12-volt system (plugs into atv/utv) to power an electric jack that raises/lowers the implement and the seeder. You can operate each part of it independent from the other, so if you just want to plow or rip, you can. Like the Firminator, if you want to cut, plant, drag and roll, you can do that as well. The seeder is electronic as well, so you can control it on the fly. The Plotmaster also has an optional three-point hitch system and cultivator sets. The cultivators can replace the discs on the front gang to even further diversify this unit.
Having a multi-function implement can save money, seed and space, but is not always feasible because the initial investment can be greater than some hunters are willing to make. If you have a plow/cultivator, mower and spreader, the only additional item you'll need to successfully plant is some form of drag harrow. There are many forms of "chain" drag harrows available in four-foot models from Bass Pro Shops, Cabelas, Northern Tool and Tractor Supply Company. To operate these simple units, you just hook them up to your hitch and start dragging dirt. I recommend that you drag your seedbed both before and after broadcasting the seed, ensuring a level seed bed and consistent moisture. Remember, drag harrows do not work in reverse, you will need to get off the machine and manually move the drag if you get in a spot too tight to turn the ATV around.
Hard work, persistence and knowledge will allow you to create wildlife habitat in areas that previously lacked it. Sitting on your deer stand overlooking a green field that didn't exist a few months ago is very rewarding, and watching the first deer come into that field and eat is even more so. With the implements stored and time on your hands, start planning how you'll use those tools next year and where you can further improve your property. When it comes to land management, the work is never done, but that's what makes it fun.