More and more hunters and landowners are planting food plots on their hunting grounds. It does not take as much land (as little as 2 percent of the total amount) as you would think to plant and maintain a food plot that will be attractive to whitetails. It will not only attract deer, but it will make an overall stronger, well nourished herd.
In order for a food plot to be effective it has to be well cared for. There is so much more to a food plot than dropping some seeds on the ground and then waiting for deer to arrive. Producing a healthy and nutritious plot that will attract and hold deer does not happen overnight. It is an ongoing battle the entire life of the plot. Work that is noticeable when hunters begin to see whitetails visiting his food plot.
Before seeds can be planted most land will have to be corrected in the way of adding lime to the soil. Lime will bring the Ph level in the soil to where it should be. Before you can expect a good food plot you first need to have a Ph reading of at least 7.0 in most circumstances.
Landowners have many options available to them when it comes to getting their soil tested. The easiest way I have found to do it is by ordering a kit that comes with instructions from a private company such as the Whitetail Institute. After taking a soil sample you then send it back to the company. In about 10 business days you will get the results back along with recommendations on making your soil the best that it can be for your needs.
Another method for obtaining Ph levels is done by having a local farm service company test the soil for you. This is an inexpensive method. When you get the results back the same farmers co-op that done the testing for you can help with whatever work that needs to be done with the soil to prepare it for planting.
Just because the soil is up to standards the first year of planting does not mean you can forget about it. That is a good way to ruin something good. Every two or three years you should go back to the plot to retest the soil. If the tests show that your soil needs corrected, by all means do it.
In order to have a food plot that will attract deer you have to have a plot that has a thick stand of plants that will provide eye appeal to wildlife. I am sure you can relate to this. It is a lot easier to sit down and eat a meal that looks good on the dinner plate compared to one that does not.
One reason a food plot does not achieve it’s full potential is because too many seeds are put into the ground. The more seeds that are in the ground the harder the plants will have to fight to survive. It is best to put down the amount of seed that each individual company recommends for that particular seed mix and no more. Do not trick yourself into believing that more plants will attract more deer.
Winter kill-off of some plants should be expected. This is especially true with annuals like clover and alfalfa. in early spring before the plants start to show signs of turning green go in to your plot and spread a light dusting of seeds to replenish what you have lost over the winter.
When you restock what you have lost be careful to not over-seed. When these new seeds take on sprouts they will have to compete with the mature plants for water and sunlight. This can put a lot of unneeded stress on the new plants that can hurt their growth. More is not always better.
In order to have a healthy plot you will need to fertilize the plants twice a year.
The first fertilizer should be put on in the spring one to two weeks after the plants turn green. The second time that fertilizer should be applied is around the last week of August – the first week of September.
For my plots that consists of peas and beans (legumes) I like to spread a low nitrogen fertilizer like a 00-14-42 at 200 pounds per acre. For my clover and alfalfa plots I tend to go a little heavier with the fertilizer, about 350 pounds per acre. This could be different with your particular plots and soil. Refer to your soil tests and the bag that your seed mix is bought in for fertilizing recommendations.
Never put fertilizer on plants right after a rain or when there is dew on the plants. This could cause the plants to get a chemical burn. If possible fertilize your plants one to two days before a rain.
Just like with the grass that is growing in your yard it is best to mow your food plot when the plants are not stressed. If it is at all possible mow your plot when the sun is not beating down on it, or in extremely dry weather. Mowing in hot and/or dry weather will put strain on the plants that they do not need. The best time to mow your food plot is right before a rain.
Whether your plot is a no-till or tillage plot it has to be mowed. Mowing will make the plants healthier and control weeds that you might have growing beside your plants.
I like to mow my clover and alfalfa twice a year. The first time I mow is when the plants reach the height of about 14-inches. I prefer to mow them down to a height of about 6-inches. The second mowing usually is done in late August, early September. If the plants get too tall I will mow more often. Anytime a plant gets to a height above 14-inches the protein levels drop off dramatically and they need to be cut in order to keep their nutrition levels where they should be.
A landowner has several options on what to use to mow their food plot. If you have a no-till plot that you cannot get to with a rider or push mower, or a plot with a lot of debris on the ground it is fine to use a weed eater. My preferred method is an old lawn tractor I bought at an auction several years ago. I do not mind if the old mower gets dinged up or scratched in the line of duty. Set the deck to a height of 6-inches. If you have a large food plot that is over three-quarter acres in size I recommend mowing it in thirds, waiting three days between mowing. Several small food plots in close proximity to one another should not be mowed on the same day either. The reason behind this is you want the mowed plants to have time to recover while the deer feed on the plants that have not been mowed yet.
Grasses and weeds in a plot are not friends and can quickly take over a food plot if they are not managed. Not only will they get out of control, but they also compete for water, sunlight and fertilizer that is intended for the plants you have worked so hard to get to where they are. For the best possible plot, you will have to spray for weeds, especially if your plants are perennials.
Weed killers can be dangerous if not handled properly. Follow mixing instructions that are included with the herbicide. Always wear protective clothing that includes rubber gloves and eye protection. When purchasing a spray make sure it will kill what you want and not kill you plot. Consult the label on your seed bag for herbicide recommendations, or talk with the company from where you purchased the chemicals to make sure they will work for your needs. Herbicides normally come in two forms. One is to kill grasses. The other is to kill broadleaf weeds. I cannot stress enough how important it is to purchase the correct one for the job. Do some research so you don’t but the wrong weed killer.
For large plots that re more than an acre in size herbicides can be applied with a sprayer that attaches to an ATV. I use a 25-gallon tank that has a ten foot boom. A boom is often an optional item that is purchased separately from the tank. A sprayer will work with or without the boom.
For smaller plots a hand held sprayer will work, but they are time consuming and often do not give an even spread of the chemical. This will leave a few weeds and grasses growing. It is important not to overlap your spraying. This will cause stress to your plants, possibly more than they can handle.
You will notice best results if you tackle the weeds before they get too big. Weed control has to start before weeds become a foot tall. If they get over 12-inches in height take your mower that is set at 6-inches and mow them. Come back in two days and spray. If you can wait until the ground temperature reaches 58 degrees you will see better results.
I cannot say for certain how often you will have to spray. The weather and soil plays a big role as to how fast weeds and grasses grow. Whenever weeds or grasses reach a height of 12-inches start the process all over again.
Man made plots are great for deer. They offer food with high nutritional values, but they do not always last for the entire year. In order for deer to have a healthy food supply year round wildlife also have to rely on Mother Nature and the food she provides. We can do our part to help her ensure that natural food is available and nutritious.
Even though it is best not to plan too many seeds, the more natural food that is available, the better. Natural foods can be apple, persimmon, oak and other hard and soft mast trees. Shrubs that produce berries and cover what whitetails need can also be considered natural foods.
To get the most of the trees on your property prune the apple trees and fertilize the mast producing trees at least once a year. The drip line of a tree is where the water runs off the branches of the tree at the furthest point from the base of the tree trunk and makes a circular line around the tree. This is where fertilization needs to take place. Start by making a 1-foot deep hole with a 1-inch metal bar every 12 to 15 feet apart. This is all done around the drip line. Once you have made the holes fill them with a 15-15-15 fertilizer.
If you have the opportunity and more importantly the space, plant shrubs that deer like. These should be planted in rows. Honeysuckle shrubs offer berries that deer love in August and September as well as provide cover.
It is a good idea to go around your hunting property in the winter and select trees to be cut down. After you cull and cut trees make sure their branches are within easy reach for deer to browse on. If you do not know which trees to cut or keep consult a professional forester for advice.
Understand that in order to provide nutritious, healthy food for deer you will have to work all year long at it. When that year is complete it all starts again. Put together a time line and follow it. Realize that different parts of the country will green-up at different times. Below is what works best for me in my home state of Illinois.
January thru February – Select trees to cut that will provide browse for deer. If you have apple trees to prune now is the time to do it. Leave the branches for the deer to browse on.
March – Buy seed and test Ph levels.
April – Replenish seed killed off in the winter. Spread lime.
May – Preparing and planting the plot.
June – Spraying weed killer and mowing takes place when plants reach 12-inches in height.
July – Do any mowing or spraying if needed. Plant fall seeds.
August – Fertilize perennials.
September – Mow plants one last time to a height of 10-inches.
October thru December – Hunt.