By Steve Bartylla
When it comes to food plotting, there’s more than one way to be successful. A wide range of products and methods can be used to make your hunting land better. And not all of them cost a lot of money.
What follows isn’t necessarily a look at the ideal way to establish plots. These are simply lower-cost alternatives that still yield good results. To see the very best ways, all we have to do is look at farmers. They produce crops for a living, not just as a hobby. When that’s the case, you figure out the best ways to grow plants or it in effect becomes a hobby startlingly fast.
Remember, all we’re trying to do is grow enough food to feed some deer — we aren’t trying to produce cover photos for Farm Digest. Our standard of living doesn’t depend on the yields we hit. So long as there’s enough good food produced to keep deer happy and healthy, we’ve won the game of food plotting.
With this principle in mind, let’s look more closely at some ways to find success. And that starts with the soil in which we’re planting.
Every food plotter needs to understand soil pH and how it impacts a plant’s ability to utilize the nutrients already in the soil, as well as commercial fertilizers.
Soil pH is determined by a scale that measures how acidic (sour) or alkaline (sweet) the soil is. A pH of 1 is the most acidic possible; 7 is neutral; and 14 is the most alkaline possible. So any pH reading under 7 is acidic; anything over 7 is alkaline.
Across the world, plants vary in preferred pH range. That said, almost all food plot plantings will do OK, at worst, with a pH anywhere from 6.0-7.5. It’s when you get down under 6 that plot plantings tend to perform exceptionally poorly. With dirt that acidic, you must be very selective with crops.
While perfect pH level isn’t required for most crops, it still matters. That’s because pH impacts the solubility of many soil nutrients. In order for a plant to uptake soil nutrients, they must be in a soluble form. And the more acidic the soil, the less existing soil nutrients the plant can utilize and the more expensive fertilizer we must apply in order for a plant to get the nutrients it needs.
Acidic soils occur more naturally, due to rains leeching basic ions such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Decomposing plants also create a slightly acidic solution in the soil. Because such soils are generally more common than alkaline soils, let’s focus mainly on them.
Luckily, field lime and even pelletized lime are cheaper than commercial fertilizers and are effective at raising soil pH, allowing plants to utilize more of the natural and commercial nutrients in the soils.
Some plot plants, including many brassicas, require high nitrogen levels to truly thrive. Others, such as cereal rye, wheat, oats and even clover, aren’t that demanding, at least when it applies to merely producing deer forage.
Right off the bat, we need to conduct a soil test to determine pH. This can be done by collecting enough random spoonfuls of dirt, somewhat equally spread out across the planting area, to fill a sandwich baggie. Digging around four inches deep and sampling various areas of the plot gives us a fair representation of what the plants will be tapping into.
We can either use a fairly cheap strip test, such as those offered by various seed companies, or drop off the sample at a farm co-op or county ag office, which then will send it to a soil laboratory for testing. The latter approach will give us the soil pH for the ground, instruct us on how much lime to apply, and give all sorts of info on soil fertility, organic matter percentage and so on.
Once we have this knowledge, we can save a lot of money. For one thing, we can plant less-demanding crops. Or we can apply enough lime to get the pH up to 6.0 and ignore fertilizer altogether. (Don’t apply more than three tons per year. If the soil test calls for more, break it up across several years.) In fact, if you’re lucky enough to have soil pH falling in the 6.0-7.5 range, assuming other soil conditions work, you can plant the less nutrient-demanding options, without the use of lime or fertilizer, resulting in even bigger savings.
If the pH is starting out lower than 6.0, we can focus just on lime and ignore the more expensive fertilizers by going with less-demanding plantings. Heck, clovers and cereal rye are both good for improving soil nitrogen. (Clovers make their own; rye mines it from deeper in the soil than some other plants do, making it usable for future plantings.)
A few years of planting either or both of these forage crops will add enough nitrogen near the surface that we can then grow most other plants without adding much nitrogen fertilizer, if any. Upon depleting this banked nitrogen, we then can repeat the cycle to build up that nutrient level for a couple years, then plant brassicas again.
Again, addressing soil pH with lime is far cheaper than applying fertilizer. Using certain plantings to improve soil nutrients, then alternating with higher-demand crops, also lets us grow good deer food with little or no fertilizer.
Another area a lot of food plotters look to save money on is in seed purchase. For instance, you can almost always buy white clover seed from a farm co-op for less than you’ll pay for it in a food plot seed blend. So, it only makes sense to buy from the co-op, right?
In my experience, it depends. Having been a plant breeder’s technician for three years back in college, I can tell you that not all white clover is the same. Just within the white clover group you’ll have some bred for longer, tougher stalks, so they’ll stand better for cutting as hay. You’ll have some focused on thin, more easily digestible stalks for grazing. Some will be geared toward increased seed production, some for fewer seeds. Some will be geared for drought tolerance, others for maximum protein content. Each type of course will be different in some way. Some of the differences will be subtle, others less so.
Part of what you’re paying the better seed providers for is their having done our research for us to determine which specific seed types they believe are most advantageous for food plots. From my experience in the seed world, this can be extremely valuable. Prices will also be high enough to absorb marketing and overhead expenses and still provide a reasonable profit margin.
With some types of crops, I don’t see enough of a difference in deer usage or plant traits to justify increased cost of “deer” seed vs. the seed I get at the co-op. However, I know serious managers who swear by various soybeans or cereal grains packaged for deer plots, believing they’re difference makers for them and their situations. Of course, there are also managers who swear up and down that any seed purchased from a “deer seed” company is a waste.
For buying seed, going the co-op route is certainly a cost-saving option. I personally purchase a decent amount of seed in that way every year. But at the same time, I very strongly feel it’s worth going the deer seed route with certain types of plantings.
Seed Prep & Planting
Next we’ll look at seed bed preparation, another key part of the process.
I’ll tell you straight up that the Firminator G-3 is easily the best ATV food plot utility machine I’ve ever used. The tractor version of this machine is pretty killer, as well. Discs, cultipackers, seed drills and mowers are things of great food-plotting beauty. Whether using a Fiminator or traditional farming equipment, you can create stellar seed beds. I use both approaches a bunch every year.
However, there are other ways. In fact, the simple combo of a backpack sprayer, gas-powered weed whip and cheap hand seeder can accomplish a lot. Let’s look at three examples of how.
The first is for those not afraid of controlled burns. We can create a good food plot simply by burning an area (under ideal conditions and following all regulations, of course) and top-seeding it with clover, cereal rye, oats, wheat and/or brassicas after the burn cools. As grasses start to pop, we can spray chemicals to kill them.
Of course, we’re going to forget about buying chemicals in the big box chain stores, as that’s the biggest rip-off you’ll ever see. Instead, we’ll buy the same stuff farmers do, at a small fraction of the prices we’d pay at the home-improvement center. The catch is that we’ll start out with way more than we need, but we can either split that with other local food plotters or carry it over year to year until gone. All we have to do is explain to the co-op what we’re trying to do, and they can set us up with the exact chemical we need and tell us the rate at which to apply it.
A weed whip will work for “mowing” crops such as clover. If we time the cuttings for before the broadleaf weeds seed out, the whip also does well at controlling them. For deer forage, we don’t need a completely weed-free plot.
If we don’t want to or can’t burn, fill the backpack sprayer with a RoundUp or equivalent product, spray the area, seed and let the grass and weeds fall down naturally over the seeds, blanketing them between the dirt and the dead plant life. If you’re impatient, you can fashion a drag to knock down the weeds and grass after they die. From there, we can use the sprayer and weed whip the same as in the previous example.
Finally, anywhere we have bare dirt, we can merely toss certain types of forage seeds — clovers, cereal rye, oats, wheat and even brassicas, for example — right on top of the dirt and walk away. Preferably we’ll do this just before a day-long rain. It’s a great trick for utilizing existing corn and bean fields as food plots. Whether you’re buying the crops back from the farmer or not, once the corn or beans start to yellow, merely walk down every fifth row with a hand seeder, tossing seeds onto the dirt.
For this, I like using a 3:1 mix of cereal rye and oats at a rate of about 100 total pounds per acre. With that, if the farmer harvests the crops, no worries; we’ll still have rye and oats after those crops are done and gone. If the crops aren’t harvested, the rye and oats still help stretch the life of that plot, keeping deer coming back for more even after they’ve eaten all remaining crops.
None of the methods described here is as effective as using expensive equipment. That said, we aren’t cash cropping — we’re merely feeding deer.
Yes, I strongly recommend doing it “right,” when you’re in a position to do so. However, I recommend even more strongly that you be creative and find a way, when funds and equipment are limited. Creativity and analytical thought are our most powerful weapons in the deer woods. Don’t be afraid to use them!