Author: James L. Bruner
The emphasis of creating food plots has only increased in recent years with many products out there on the market. Questions arise whether or not to add supplemental foods and minerals along with the food plots. Are they really necessary? Shouldn’t the deer get enough nutrition from my food plot? Inside we will address a few of the questions and touch on the subjects of soil testing, creating a game plan, keeping costs to a minimum, and more.
Creating a food plot is beneficial to everyone involved including the deer. To successfully produce consistent plots there are many factors that need to be observed such as creation, costs, and resources. All your planning and hard earned dollars wont be worth, pardon the pun, a hill of clover, if you’re not getting the most from your food plots. This multi-part article will help you make decisions before jumping into a project of this nature and also provide you with the basic tools and products needed to create and hold deer on your plot.
Set Your Goals
You’ve probably already envisioned what you want from your property to look like but is that goal really reachable? Your goals as a partner in habitat management need to be configured around more than just how much property or money you have at your disposal. You also need to consider, and abide by, any types of game management policies that you plan to set for yourself. It doesnt make much sense to say we will only be shooting 4 year old bucks on our 80 acre plot when the neighbors around you shoot anything they see regardless of age or antler size. Think long term here. Dont set your goals so high that they are unattainable or at best barely reached in the long run. If you set a moderate goal from the beginning regarding the quality of animals harvested, you are always afforded the opportunity to “bump up” that policy in years to come. Healthy goal management is starting with an idea and building from there as your plots progress.
Probably the hardest aspect of creating goals is maintaining some type of pre-determined budget for the project. There will undoubtebly be unseen costs and hidden expenses so make allowances in the total spending of the entire process. When you find that you may have under-estimated a portion of the project, dont throw that money back into budget right away. Creating a wider buffer zone for your budgets allowances are always detrimental to the entire project. You will more than likely find that the $200 you saved on plot seeds was quickly eaten up by equipment rental fees or another issue regarding creating your plot. In the end if you find that you have successfully finished under budget you can then put that money back into the property or use it to purchase supplemental foods, which we will address later in this article.
Testing the soil can be very inexpensive, and many times free of charge at your local feed mill, or through the use of a ph meter, but this should be your first step after setting up goals before forging ahead with any types of development. A number of attributes dictate the fertility of your soil such as ph balance, the density of your soil, and the texture. You may need to acquire the assistance of a professional to read the results of your soils fertility test but in the long run their help is paid back tenfold in proper analysis of what you’re dealing with. Through a concious partner effort you will be able to determine whether or not your soil is in major need of fertilization, additions of lyme, or an introduction of organic materials to create a loamy rich enviroment where your plot seeds will germinate and thrive in a healthy manner. It can be guaranteed that the soil will be lacking in one area or another.
Through soil testing you may also determine that the type of vegetation you recently planned on may not be as suitable without a lot of extra time and money spent on the project. Keep in mind that being flexible with your plot can be more rewarding than dealing with uncontrolled costs for renovations of previous plans. Prepping and working the soil to accomodate the type of crop you planned to use may not be as economically feasible as making assurances with another type of forage. If your soil is already conditioned for a specific crop you may well be best suited to keep within your goals regarding revenue spending and plant that crop. Adjustments can be made in the coming years or the later stages of development without suffering the extra burden of cost in the primary portion of your project.
Create A Map
This could be considered as the drawing board or benchmark for putting your plans out on the table and making decisions. In most cases a lot of work will need to be done so creating yourself a blueprint with your own ideas is of the utmost importance. This blueprint, or map, should consist of the size and shape you will be dealing with for your food plot. Perhaps you have decided to create some mini-plots away from your larger food plot. Consider relevant plot sizes when drafting plans for property. We’ll talk a bit more about mini-plots and their effectiveness later in this article. Take into consideration any trees that may be left in the plot. A small stand of trees can create a great place to put up a blind or treestand for the upcoming hunts. It can also be used as a small haven for several deer seeking immediate cover. An idea to give thought to is creating shooting lanes through some of the timber that is left on the property to allow you to catch deer moving about inside the safety zones of the trees. Standing timber could be cut into the classic hourglass or double funnel shape giving you a vantage point at the area that creates the bottleneck. Remember, the plot does not have to consist of wide open fields.
Another consideration to creating your roadmap to a successful food plot is also the use of water. When you bring food, cover, and water together, deer have very little requirements outside of the plot area. When you think of attracting deer you should also be thinking of holding deer. This normally requires larger tracts of land but can be done to a certain degree with areas as small as 80 acres and less.
Your map doesnt have to be a fancy plan drawn out on a drafting table but should be as precise as possible with a clear legend of attributes if you plan to plant more than one species of seeds or integrate woodlands, mini-plots, cover areas, or water into the design. The details should also show predicted areas where you plan to hunt. Including these areas into the map will bring a clear picture of any obstacles when dealing with plot size and shape as well as terrain. Consider all factors including wind directions, sunrise and sunsets, and the current travel routes of the local deer herd.
The Mini Plot
Theres nothing really fancy in regards to equipment when creating mini-plots but here is a list of items that will be essential:
Some type of sprayer that can deliver pressure. The common models found at your local hardware that you pump by hand will work fine. If possible purchase the model that has the backpack accomodation.
Hand operated broadcast spreader for your seed and fertilizer and a small saw of your choice depending on the amount of clearing that needs to be done
Selecting a site for a mini-plot is first on the list. An area of 1/8 to 1/4 (roughly 75 to 100 foot in diameter) of an acre is sufficient for a bow stand. You can also plant swaths or lanes around your stand but keep the furthest area of your mini-plot within your archery capabilities. A standard rule is 30 yards in length and 5 yards wide for each swath. Keep in mind that your plot should receive at least 50% sunlight throughout the day so you may need to do a little extra pruning, trimming, or cutting, to the sorrounding area.
Spraying the desired area, details below, with a simple formula of non-selective Roundup. Follow directions carefully and keep your back to the wind when spraying. Always wear all recommended protective gear when dealing with chemicals. Make your first spray in mid-May for your intial area. Return again in late June and once again re-spray the entire area. To complete the process you will need to do some spot spraying again in September. This should all be done the year in advance of any planting. By the next spring there should be plenty of bare soil for your seeds to make contact with as well as enough dead matter to keep the soil cool during germination. Keep in mind this method is for areas that normally can only be reached by walking.
Springtime will be the best time to plant and fertilize. You will want a seed that can germinate without being tilled or worked into the ground like legumes, brassicas, rape, and grasses. Broadcast the seeds and follow with an application of appropriate fertilizer suxh as 16-16-16 for those not planting legumes and 7-27-27 for those planting legumes or similar seeds. Broadcast fertilizer at a rate equal to 200 pounds per acre but proportioned to your own plot size.
Legumes such as ladino clover, red clover, alsike clover, and birdsfoot trefoil, work well when planting in a mixture of 3 pounds each per seed. The mixture of the seeds will provide plot foods in succession as the ladino is a common hybrid lawn clover, the red clover lasts 2 years, the alsike is very hardy, and the trefoil takes up to 3 years to establish but is very competetive with the native grasses. This combination of seed mixture should provide most mini-plots with a successful crop for a number of years.
A second application of fertilizer is again recommended around the first of August. An application of 0-27-27 should really have the plants in a vigorous state of growth and will assure that, providing the deer arent eating it as soon as it pops up, you will retain the benefits of a mini-plot for the upcoming hunting season.
Low Maintainence – Low Cost
All your plans have come together and you’re ready to begin a larger scale food plot. If you have hired the help of a contractor for the main removal of trees or ground this area may not be the reference you’re looking for. This section will take a look at some of the gear and tools needed for creating a larger scale, low cost, personal food plot with access to more conventional mechanical products and big rewards to the small developer.
The work looks daunting but it just isnt in your budget to hire out contracted help for the turning of ground and creating a proper seedbed for your plot. Many people look to rental companies for rates when creating a food plot that is between 1 and 5 acres of property. The fact is that, with the common help of an ATV, many people can really get their money from the machine by purchasing the equipment for their own use time and time again. You may even decide to expand your food plot in the future or hire out your services to friends or better yet, create numerous food plots for yourself. In any event if you’ve made the purchase you can do this at your leisure rather than running to the local rental shop.
Working The Dirt
Commercial discing is very quick, and very expensive. You pay for the man hours plus equipment rental fees which can really put the hurt on the individual only looking to create a smaller personal food plot area. With innovative products from Mossy Oaks Bio-Logic systems you can put your ATV to work with your own disc system and begin working the dirt! In the long run this will be a cost efficient method with very low maintainence for the developer.
This method will entail the use of some larger equipment such as spreaders and discs. The first rule is matching the equipment to your current rigs. Purchasing a discing unit that requires a tractor to pull, when you own an ATV, just isnt effective money management. Remember that you can effectively find many uses for a disc unit or spreader for every day chores. In creating a low maintainence food plot that statement couldnt be more true. The time saved will alone be time well spent for each dollar of your hard earned money.
The Low Maintainence Plot
After you have throroughly disced the area its a good idea to bring the php level up. Applications of lyme can be worked into the soil to achieve a level between 6.0 and 6.5 with the latter being more suggested. Your area should be out of the view of the general public to allow the deer a comfort zone. Created properly the deer will find sanctuary to browse and relax at all times of the day. Many times the deer will bed in the area as well. With proper care this formula should work in excess of 6 years straight but it does require some waiting.
Spray Roundup in the area to be worked early in the year. Spray again later in the summer around mid-June and let the plot sit for 2 weeks then disc the entire area. Continue to disc every 2 to 3 weeks til the first of October. We did mention this requires waiting but you’re making that new disc pay for itself and saving a lot of wear and tear on your own body! The next year, in early May, spray the area once again and broadcast 19-19-19 fertilizer at the rate of 200 pounds per acre. After fertilizing you’re ready to seed.
The rule here is perrenials and annuals planted in varying depths at the same time. A mix of equal proportions of Timothy, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Alfalfa, Alsike, Chickory, and Ladino Clover will serve up a rich recipe for the medium sized food plot. Broadcast all these seeds mixed together and compact at a light depth with a weighted drag board or similar version to create good contact between seeds and soil. This area may require mowing in mid summer and re-fertilization should be done every 3 years with 19-19-19 at a rate of 200 pounds per acre for optimal growth and longevity. You have waited and done the work. Now enjoy your mini food plot.
Dealing With Weeds
Your worse nightmare come true. You followed all the steps we have outlined but you are over-run with weeds. Well not every single plan is perfect but dont count out your food plot just yet. Your first sighting of a weed is the best opportunity from stopping its reoccurence in future years and the weed is most vulnerable in its infant stage.
What Is It?
First you’ll need to identify the weed or weeds invading your food plot. If you’re not familair with the local weeds of your region it would be best to purchase an illustrated manual describing the most common weeds. This will arm you with the right knowledge to finding a solution. Roundup provides anctidotes for most species and chemical treatment is probably going to be your most efficient method of disposal. Keep in mind never to spray when rain is forecasted within the next 24 to 48 hours. Never spray plots when they are wet or in extended periods of drought.
For the smaller food plots and mini-plots you should be able to use a hand sprayer attached to a backpack. A sprayer with an extension wand is nice as it doesnt account for constant bending over. If you are able to attach a pressurized tank to your ATV and make the spray that works great also. It’s possible that you have found a granule type weed control system and that could be broadcast from your spreader. In any event you need the right application for the types of weeds.
The most noted weed control products are as follows but we recommend an application in a small area for testing purposes:
Roundup® – Roundup kills a broad range of both grasses and broadleaves. Its best use is to control unwanted vegetation prior to the use of a grain drill. With Roundup and a no-till grain drill, you can just about get rid of your disk harrows, or plows.
Poast® – Poast is a grass selective herbicide that basically kills most grasses but no broadleafs. So, if you are still standing in your food plot in June or July and the plot is a broadleaved perennial like alfalfa, clover, or trefoil being invaded with crabgrass, johnsongrass, bermuda, or fescue, then Poast is your weapon of choice.
2,4-D is a broadleaf killer that has been around under many brand names for several years. It will not kill grasses. Grain sorghum infested with coffeeweed, ragweed, jimsonweed, morning glory, or any other broadleaf qualifies for 2,4-D application. 2,4-D, Poast, and Roundup are all available over the counter with no license required.
As with any chemical products be sure to read all warning and usage labels before proceeding. Take extended caution to wear protective equipment.
It’s been debated time and again whether supplemental feeding through mineral blocks is an effective way to enhance deer and antler growth. What is for sure is that the healthiest deer live the longest and grow to a larger proportionate size in mass. Much of this is attributed to nutrition and the availability of mineral resources, through natural and commercial products, and the areas where specific herds reside.
Deer gain their nutrients through the food they eat. No surprise there! But they also gain, or not gain, the necessary amount of nutrients in the food they eat due to the region where it was eaten. For instance, even your best food plot may be lacking in nutrients because of the leaching found in many soils. Calcium, phosphorous, and sodium, have all proven beneficial to deer. If they are not found in your soil they wont be found in your crop. You have to be careful what you buy when it comes to supplemental mineral feeding to assure you get some sort of benefit to the deer and not yourself. Products like Buck Grub 30-30, Trophy Rock, and Wildgame Innovations, provide some good products.
How Much Is Enough?
A suggested rule for a well balanced deer herd is to place 1 mineral lick per 100 acres. As with most areas this formula is probably less than effective due to the fact that deer herds are generally not within normal herd constraints. Does this mean that you could overfeed the deer nutrients? No. The deer seek out the mineral blocks when they need it which is generally, for the most part, in early spring and summer. Considering the fact that deer only use the minerals when they need them we suggest a formula of 2 blocks on 100 acres at each end of the property whenever possible. This would be more than enough to take care of the herd even with ratios being more than twice that of the balance estimate.
Restoring Natural Food Plots
Nothing short of Mother Nature can create a productive food plot as quickly as a prescribed fire. It is one the oldest and best tools known to man for renewing an area with fresh growth. In fact many plants rely on fire to survive as well as many animals.
Most plants that benefit from prescribed burning are legumes. Legumes can be simple plants or weeds but legumes are high protein foods because they take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the plant tissue as protein. The proteins in these plants are then eaten by deer, and used for the growth of muscles, bones, fawns, and antlers. Before ever attemtping any type of burn be sure to contact your local authorities for proper procedures and permits.
Habitants that benefit from burning are fallow fields, clearcuts, and pine forests.
Fallow Fields or overgrown pastures are mostly compromised of matted or tall grass with small saplings. Removing this tall grass through burning will allow the sunlight to penetrate once again and is probably one of the easiest areas to burn.
Clearcuts are the areas that have been cut in the past and normally have a lot of debris on the ground from the cutting. Shortly after this area was clearcut a new growth of plants, legumes, emerged and undoubtebly attracted a lot of wildlife. By prescribing a controlled burn here you can renew that area which should produce healthy new forage again for the next 5 years.
Pine Forests are usually laden with thick mats of needles on the forest floor. This inter-woven array of dead needles are very effective at blocking out all sunlight. Most times you can feel the bounce and you walk in an older pine forest due to the years of layered needles on the ground. Although a burn in an active forest is usually considered a job for hired professionals, its money well spent. If done properly the burn should have very little effect on the sorrounding trees yet provide a new growth of crop for years to come.
The timing at which a tract of land is burned is usually late winter to early spring. These times will promote a quick greening process and speedy legume germination during the early warm days to follow. Generally speaking most areas will not need successive burns in each year but should be checked again in no less than three years.