April 11, 2023
By Dr. James C. Kroll
When we established the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, the first thing we did was establish what commonly is called a “focus group.” My goal was to establish a 20-year plan that would produce useful and scientifically validated “tools” for the emerging deer managers.
The group was made up of landowners, foresters, a handful of wildlife biologists and hunters. My question to them was succinct: “What would you like to know about whitetails and deer management?” The first answer was, “Is there something we can plant to grow more and bigger deer?” The second was, “Why can’t we find and kill the older, trophy bucks?”
There were more requests, but our first two-year plan was developed. Today, we are in our third plan, and we still have not answered all the questions produced by earlier research! Sometimes it seems like the Scientific Method does not work all that well, because it creates more questions than it answers . . .
Since then, and partly due to the emergence of North American Whitetail magazine and other popular publications, deer management on private lands has exploded. Today, print media, TV and social media provide an overwhelming amount of information on the very first question ever asked of us: “Can we plant something for whitetails?” Our extremely popular Build Your Own Deer Factory series, first in the magazine and now on North American Whitetail TV, remains one of the most popular presentations available to deer hunters and managers.
Paralleling all this has been a desire to own or lease land for the specific purpose of wildlife management. It is safe to say, the vast majority of rural properties sold today are for outdoor recreation. This created an entire industry of folks offering goods and services to support private deer management; and again, planting for whitetails heads the list!
The initial focus on educational materials on planting food plots involved standard farming equipment (tractors, disks, planters, etc.), which collectively requires an investment in the thousands of dollars! This is problematic for the “average guy or gal,” since expensive equipment is way out of the range of their budget.
Fortunately, in the last decade or so, the emergence of small-scale, more affordable farming equipment has made food plot planting and habitat management within the reach of most small landowners. The new problem that has emerged, however, has been the average recreational landowner doesn’t live on the property being managed! Many landowners live in large metropolitan areas, sometimes 50, 100 or even more miles away. This creates a new problem: how to get the equipment needed for planting and maintaining food plots to the property!
If the landowner opts to store the equipment on site, it creates a need for securing the equipment from those who look upon absentee landowners as prime targets for theft. I have seen some pretty creative innovations by landowners to thwart unwanted visitors. One of the most common is the shipping container you see being hauled over the highways by 18-wheelers. However, lately these have become both scarce and unbelievably expensive, not to mention the challenges of getting them to your property.
WHAT DO YOU NEED?
The principles of food plot planting are actually simple!
You have to clear an area, prepare the soil, make amendments to soil nutrition according to soil analysis, incorporate these into the soil, plant your seed and maintain the plot by controlling weeds and applying supplemental plant nutrition as the season progresses. Each one of these requires one or more types of equipment. At a minimum, “normal” agriculture requires the following equipment: tractor (25-plus horsepower), rotary cutter (Bush Hog) or mulcher, disk or harrow, fertilizer spreader (PTO driven), herbicide sprayer (PTO or battery), seeder (spreader or drill) and a cultipacker or drag. This equipment not only is large and expensive, but each also has a set footprint for storage and moving to or about the land and plot.
In the late 1990s, we began seeing folks create smaller versions of this equipment, usually by cutting down larger implements. Four-wheelers and side-by-sides were becoming popular, as did equipment small enough to be drawn by these small vehicles. For example, one innovative landowner took a 16-foot-wide John Deere grain drill and cut it into four parts; each of these were modified to function as a smaller unit. Rather than using larger double and quadruple gang harrows, they also were cut into single gang disks. This equipment was pulled by the ATV using a standard trailer hitch.
Shortly after, the first small-scale implements made specifically for planting food plots appeared on the market. These include the PlotMaster, Golden Valley, Firminator and Micro Food Plots units. I have used all of these, and they are excellent! What they all have in common is that they serve essentially as a one- or two-pass planter, combining several pieces of equipment into one useful machine.
Scaled down implements now include mowers, tillers, herbicide sprayers and wicks, and spreaders for seed and fertilizer; all available in both pull behind or 3-point-hitch models. This has led to reduced equipment costs and a smaller footprint of the equipment needed to plant food plots. Why is that important? If we consider both the weight and size of traditional food plot planting equipment, getting your equipment to your land miles away becomes a logistical issue!
Traditionally, food plots are planted during a “work weekend,” in which family members, friends or club members come together to plant all plots in just a few days. These “events” often coincide with the opening day of dove season in many states, so it turns out to be a work and play event! Work is divided among the attendees, including transporting the equipment to the property. In the past, this constitutes a “hodgepodge” of equipment brought individually in the back of pickups or on trailers. It is a given that some of the vital equipment will not show up, or it will be improperly set up or maintained to meet the demands of planting.
I have seen planting weekends put a strain on friendships and family relations due to these “little” problems!
Using small-scale equipment, especially ones that serve multiple purposes such as a one-pass planter, can greatly reduce the stress and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of planting food plots. Some of this equipment may fit nicely in the bed of a pickup, while others require a utility trailer. Trailers come in many sizes, ranging from 6 feet long to 24 feet long pull-behind or “Gooseneck” trailers.
In loading your equipment, you should consider when and where each piece will be needed. That way, you can load the equipment in order or location of need. Obviously, a tractor or ATV/UTV will be needed to help unload some equipment, so these should be ordered for that need. Care should be taken concerning the weight of equipment, which also influences where you place it on the trailer. It is somewhat amusing to watch the unloading of equipment, as that is when these critical issues become very obvious. I am a bit of a stickler for organization, so I often measure the footprint of each piece, then using a scale drawing, I’ll decide where to position the equipment.
Over the years, the equipment needed for planting wildlife food plots has gotten less expensive and smaller, significantly reducing cost and effort required for developing your deer supplemental nutrition program. Still, the combined cost of this equipment can be fairly high. We now see groups of landowners and hunters going together to purchase jointly-owned equipment. I have seen this work very well, but I also have seen it lead to disagreements and chaos!
If you opt for this approach, sit down with the entire group and work out written agreements, procedures and schedules for using the equipment. This also would include “what ifs” regarding damage, repairs and maintenance of the gear. It will save a lot of frustration, reduce failure and strengthen friendships and family ties.
Like all of deer management, a good program begins with a plan!
Planting food plots for wildlife has become much more approachable for the average hunter, largely because of the development of small-scale equipment, like the Micro Food Plots Master Series. Although there certainly are still costs associated with smaller equipment, they are lower and more manageable than that of traditional farming equipment.
For now, use the information in this article to help plan your food plot strategy. You won’t regret it!