By Dustin Prievo
I’ll admit it: When I started out, I didn’t think food plots really cost that much money. You buy your seed and some fertilizer, get your buddy to till up your land, and voila: deer everywhere.
I built my first food plot almost 10 years ago, and it went almost the way described above. Something grew where we put the seed down. And to top it off, we actually killed some does out of it. The problem was, it lasted less than a year and looked like a high school practice football field. There were overgrown grasses and weeds and only patches of the stuff we actually planted.But hey — we didn’t spend much money.
As time passed and I became a property manager, I began looking at plots as a farmer, not just as a guy just trying to attract some deer. In the process, I started to find ways to save money and figured out what was more important when deciding on where to make budget cuts.
THE CHEAPEST STEP MATTERS MOST
Without a soil sample, you don’t really know the best route to take to get your plot where you want it to go. You could end up adding nitrogen when all you need is lime. Without a soil sample, you’ll waste more money than you’ll save. I repeat: Without a soil sample, you’ll waste more money than you’ll save. Soil testing is cheap and simple and is the most important part of building a plot.
USING THE SOIL SAMPLE TO BUDGET
As your results come back from your less than $10 purchase of a soil test, you’ll discover a few key facts. For starters, you’ll know the pH of your soil and its nutrient levels. If you told the soil lab which crop(s) you want to plant, you also can get specifics on the amount and composition of any fertilizer and/or lime needed to optimize your soil.
Proper soil pH is among the most important parts of growing a healthy plot. As you correct your pH levels, nutrients become more available to the plants. Conversely, if you fail to correct your pH level, you can put down all the fertilizer you want, but your plants will never be able to fully utilize them. Continually adding fertilizer and other nutrients to your soil without a corrected pH level is the biggest mistake many food plotters make.
As you look at your soil test and begin to formulate a plan, your first priority should be to neutralize your plot. If your budget only allows for so much, don’t skip out on bringing your pH to the correct level, which for most food plots in North America is between 6 and 7. Whether you’re planting in the sandhills of Nebraska or the acidic soils of Pennsylvania, your budget will never be more wasted than it is by failing to correct the soil’s pH.
SAVING MONEY ON LIME
Should you find you need to lime the site before you can go any further, you’ll discover that this soil amendment isn’t always cheap. If you have friends who are farmers, perhaps one has a lime spreader you can borrow. Pulverized lime, which is often much cheaper than pelletized lime, can be a big mess and often a waste of time if you try to spread it without the proper equipment.
The majority of us just looking to work smaller plots or add a few acres of forage to our properties have to resort to pelletized lime. This can be purchased by the bag or in bulk. How much you need will depend on which type of pelletized lime you purchase.
This past summer, I planted five acres of food plots that required a great amount of lime. It was much more efficient, at roughly $50 per ton, to have bulk, pelletized lime delivered to the farm than to buy it in bags. I ultimately needed five tons of lime, which ran me about $250 plus the delivery fee. If purchasing in 40-pound bags, at $5 each, I’d have needed 250 bags totaling well over $1200. If you thought adding fertilizer without correcting your pH would save you money, look how much buying lime in bulk can actually save you.
At times, you can’t get bulk lime. Either it isn’t available in your area or delivery to your plot isn’t possible. This might force you to purchase lime by the bag. If you must, talk to your local co-op or agricultural store and see if you can purchase by the pallet. Often stores will cut you a deal if there’s no stocking and handling on their end. They save when they can just offload a pallet of bagged lime into your possession.
THE MOST EFFICIENT APPROACH
When looking over an entire plot operation, one of the major restrictions many people face is their budget. If you can’t increase that, make extra sure you’ll get the most out of what you spend.
When money restrictions arise, many hunters try to cut corners on fixing the soil’s pH. Rather than planting a smaller plot, many will opt to apply less than the recommended rate of lime over a larger area. Some even will ignore liming altogether. This is an ineffective approach. If your budget only allows you to lime 75 percent of your planned plot, decrease the size of your planting, rather than skimping on raising the pH properly over the whole area. You’ll create more forage in soil that’s 100 percent efficient than you will by planting more land that’s only 75 percent efficient.
Again, to get the most forage out of your time and money, make sure you have a road map to success. Ensuring everything is done correctly prior to the first seed-to-soil contact is the hardest but most important part of the process.
Getting the seedbed fully ready is also vital. It must be done correctly in order to grow a good crop. Of course, the bettter your choice of location, the easier it is to prepare the site.
As you try to decide where to plant your plots, based on such variables as deer bedding locations, wind direction, access to/from and so on, also look at how practical certain areas are to access with equipment. Hiring equipment operators can cost anywhere from $50 an hour to over four times that. Alternately, ATV/UTV disc plows are affordable and actually very efficient for remote locations, but they can take a toll on your vehicle if you don’t have it properly set up for such duty.
Let’s say you found an old clearing in which you want to develop a plot. Regardless of access to equipment and whether you want to plant a no-till or conventional food plot, it’s important to spray and kill the existing vegetation prior to doing anything else. Look at those plants as thieves eager to rob your crop of needed nutrients, water, sunlight and space.
Cool-season grasses can be sprayed in fall; warm-season grasses can be sprayed in late spring or early summer. It’s also worth noting that different herbicides work on different plants. Perhaps you can plant in an area where a targeted herbicide can be used. If so, you might find that later into the season you can spray for weeds even though that will involve spraying the entire plot.
The details of herbicide selection and application in food plotting could fill an entire magazine. But for the majority of your initial vegetation control, a highly concentrated application of glyphosate will suffice. Be sure to follow all pertinent regulations, and ask for local advice as to what works well on common pest plants in your area.
KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
Before you can decide which seed blend to plant, where to plant and what time of the year to plant, know why you’re planting. The answer might seem obvious, but many hunters are mistaken. They believe they’re planting a main food source for deer, when in reality they’re largely just trying to develop better hunting spots. Small “kill” plots seldom are primary feeding locations.
Whitetails eat 2-5 percent of their body weight in dry food every day. Depending on the animal’s size, this can amount to well over 10 pounds of food daily. That consumption can add up quickly on a small plot, even if it’s growing well. Thus, most small plots are more for killing deer than feeding them.
That said, small plots are a good way to supplement the herd’s other available food supplies, whether they include farm crops or strictly native forage. Even in heavy agriculture locations, plots are especially helpful after crop harvest.
Many companies, including Whitetail Institute of North America, offer great seed mixtures that can help remove the guesswork from deciding which seed to plant. Following the directions and calibrating the seeding rate is important as we look at trying to be efficient with our plots. When planting such forages as clover, it doesn’t hurt to go a little heavy on the seeding rate — but with cereal grains and such, always make sure you’re using the correct seeding rate.
A good food plot isn’t as cheap as you might wish. Depending on the existing quality of soil, it can cost you close to $300 per acre. That said, many plotters can get by for around $150-$200 per acre, depending on the chosen seed mixture and soil quality.
As you begin to plant your plots, you’ll often find that if you do everything correct the first time, you’ll save yourself much more money and frustration over the long term. Yes, between the day you take that first scoop of dirt for your soil sample to the drive home after shooting your first deer in that new plot can lie a lot of time, effort and money. But if you do what you can to maximize the efficiency of your plot program, it will all be worth it in the end.