Basic Food Plots ~ Thomas Hooker
You may remember a bit back in the “Do It Yourself” section I did an article on building a
box blind and promised you I’d finish with putting a food plot in front of it. Well here
First let me start out by stating up-front that I am not a professional on food plot
management. I do not play a biologist on TV, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express
last night. However, it is for my lack of experience that I chose to write this article
for those who may be slightly less experienced than myself so they might benefit to some
extent. I do this largely because no one did it for me, and the research to get myself
started was a bit confusing and over-barring at times. The possibilities food plot farmers
face are rather endless so I’m going to start off by being as basic as possible, and let
the professionals higher up on the food chain give you more information to find yourself
Food plots need to be determined by what exactly you wish to get out of it. Are you building
a QDM (Quality Deer Management) program? Wishing to increase the number of deer in
your area? Wishing to advance the overall health of the population or increase sightings,
or all of the above? According to research a deer needs about 16 percent protein in the
diet to reach its maximum genetic potential. Average natural habitat can provide about
100 pounds of deer browse an acre each year. Good native browse averages only about 10
percent protein. A quality food plot can yield more than 10,000 pounds of forage per
acre averaging over 20 percent protein! And that's just for warm-season plots. Total
annual production of both warm- and cool-season plots on a given acre can top 15,000 pounds.
So adding it up you can see that a one-acre food plot can grow more deer feed than 100 acres
of natural habitat, and that food-plot forage is far more nutritious. What does that mean
to you? Deer numbers have the potential to be at least doubled and body and antler size
increased by as much as 20 to 25 percent under serious food-plot programs.
How big a plot do I need? It is generally recommended that at least 2 to 3% or your entire
area should be in plot for the best effect. This does not mean that if you have 200 acres
that you need to plant one 4 acre food plot, but it would not be out of the question to plant
a 1 acre plot, and two 1.5 acre plots in different sections of the property. This would allow
you to spread the wealth if you will, and also allow you the opportunity to not over hunt a
specific area. Here I have 3 plots. Plot 1 and 3 are fall/winter plots. Plot 2 is an annual –
year round plot. Plots 1 and 2 are a bit over ½ acre and only 100 yards apart. Plot 2 and 3
are 250 yards apart. Plot # 3 is 2 acres which is today’s project. The first season all three
plots showed 3 completely different visitation patterns. All I can say is variety is the
spice of life!
An acre is 43,560 square feet. To determine your plot size use this formula:
Avg. Length (ft.) X Avg. Width(ft.) and divide by 43,560 = total amount of acreage.
Ex: 150 ft x 150 ft = 22,500 / 43,560 = 0.5165289 or ½ an acre.
Topography plays a role in plot effectiveness as well. What makes the separation between my plots unique is #2 is on a hillside bench. It lays 60 feet higher than plot #1 and 150 feet higher than plot #3. In short what I’m trying to say is play the land to your advantage when you can.
The first thing you need is a plan. Examine what it is you wish to accomplish with your plots and work towards accomplishing that goal. There are spring plots, summer plots, fall and winter plots. There are perennial plots (re-seed themselves and re-establish on their own each season), and annual plots (those that must be manually planted every season). Both have their advantages, but their use will largely depend on your plan. I don’t have time in this article to go into a full blown QDM programs so the best immediate advise I can give you is purchase your seed and follow the recommended planting instructions that are on the package. Plain and simple!
Taking under consideration your herd density and what agriculturally is being grown in surrounding properties. This should help make your decision for plot types. Ex: If there is a 200-acre cornfield just over the fence will a ½ acre plot of clover draw deer to your area in early season? Not likely. It will pay you to do some homework and find out what is around you and plan accordingly. If there is a question on what you need a TWRA biologist or similar professional can help you find the answer.
For any plot you must first and foremost figure out what kind of soil you’re dealing with. Believe it or not most soils are not compatible for planting unless they are properly prepared. Your goal is to test for soil pH or percentage of acidity or alkalinity the soil content has. pH scales range from 0 to 14. The lower the number the more acidic the soil, the higher the number the more basic. A pH reading of 7 is considered neutral. The optimum range for most food plots is 6.0 to 7.5! This is where most plantings thrive. Planting instructions on most seeds will tell you what your seeds require. (See chart below). A soil test will tell you what you need to prepare your soil for maximum growth potential. Remember, healthy plants make healthy deer, and happy hunters.
Your first task will be to take a drive out to your local co-op or farm conservation agency and obtain soil sample boxes. Be sure to tell the dealer what kind of plots you intend working with. There will be instructions on the box, but essentially you should use 2 boxes for each plot. Core samples are to be dug from at least 4 locations in the field for each box you use. A bit of each core sample is combined into a single bag to represent the field in its entirety. This insures an accurate reading of the overall plot. If you are using different seeding in sections of a single plot try to sample from each section.
Then you mail off your samples along with the associated fee. Usually about $7.00 per box. A few weeks later the lab will send you your results. Follow the recommended applications. If they say your acid is a bit high and needs to be neutralized with 2 tons of lime per acre then do so accordingly.
Lime comes in several forms and price ranges. Check around and see what’s best for you. In general palletized lime when integrated into the soil will give you faster results, but it is very expensive. You can purchase bulk lime very cheaply, but it usually takes around 6 months to get the results you expect so timing of you’re applications is critical. If you intend on having a fall plot then you will need to lime in the spring, When working plots remember just about anything you need can be rented if you don’t have it. If drivers can easily reach your plot location, bulk lime can be broadcast straight off the delivery truck. Otherwise you can rent appropriate lime applicators or do it the hard way and spread it with a shovel. However, you’d better have a strong back. Even distribution is important as lime pretty much stays where it is applied.
Good spots for food plots can be equated to an old real estate slogan. Location, location, location. This location needs essential elements to provide a successful spot. Plots should not be planted in plain view of the general public for obvious reasons. They should also not be planted in areas of extreme drought or wet areas unless the seed is specifically designed for those conditions. Thin and irregular plot configurations are preferred to large open fields. Why? Deer are like bass; they are cover and edge oriented. Not so much as fish, but they require edge and cover to be nearby to feel comfortable because it provides quick escape for them. Deer also use edges as travel routes. If edge does not exist in your plot you should do your best to provide it. A whitetail deer will almost certainly hesitate to step out of a wood line directly into a food plot. However, if you provide a soft edge for them to transition into the plot they’ll be more prone to feel comfortable, and comfortable deer is a good thing. I’ve done this with my plot by simply letting the native grasses grow uncut to create a 30-yard border on the edge of the food plot to the wood line. Hence I have added an extra edge and the deer love it. To maintain this edge I’ll only have to bush hog the line every two years to prevent re-forestation. Cut it every other spring and forget it.
Last fall I planted Dwarf Essex Rape (of the turnip family), Winter Rye, and White Clover in this particular field. Plot usage last season led me to the following conclusion. Winter Rye was not utilized, Clover did not mature well until this past spring, and the Rape was eaten to the dirt. Rape is known to be utilized more after first frost, but the deer were hammering it by the opener of bow season in September. This you should remember. Some plots and seeds need experimentation before you know what will work for you. The field now has a good stand of clover. So this season I will leave a section clover in place and put the rest of the field in Rape and natural cut grass, and yes they feed on that too! This map is this seasons “Plan”. Area 1 is native grasses left uncut. This provides extra cover, transition and borders to the filed. Area 2 is cut grass. Area 3 is rape, and area 4 is clover. The box blind is located at the south end. The field is a gentle upward slope and it is 250 yards from the blind to the top end of area 2.
My pH test is complete and this time and I don’t need to add anything probably because I did it last summer.
The last thing you want in a plot is competition. Seeds have to work hard enough to establish and don’t need to waste energy to fight native weeds and grasses. It’s time to kill them out. There are a few good products out there for this. Post, Round-Up, and Gly-4 are to name a few. If you shop you can save some money, but nothing is cheap. If the field is too high in growth you may wish to bush hog and let new growth start before spraying herbicides. Herbicides are most effective when applied during the growth stages of the plants it is applied to. They can be applied with hand sprayers, however even in the smallest plot you’re dealing with a lot of water, a lot of mixing, and a lot of work. Specified drip rates are essential for proper application as well and that is difficult to obtain without the proper equipment. I recommend an ATV style applicator if possible and a unit with a boom even makes the job even easier
Follow instructions and pay attention to them when applying herbicides. Again timing is important. I am working on a fall/winter plot. My preferred planting dates for my area are August 15 to October 1 (see chart below). I want my plots to be planted by early September because I don’t want to be doing plot work near or during bow season for obvious reasons. So I established a plan. I will cut the field in mid July and the first week in August I will spray. In general 2 weeks is all you need for an effective kill. However, some fields may require a second application. When you return and your field is brown you’ve done your job. Now it’s a matter of preparing your seedbed.
If you cannot use a proper sprayer for herbicide application it is not the end of your food plot dreams. Disking is your answer. A plot tilled several times can usually temporarily kill off enough unwanted stuff to at least get you through one season, but don’t expect to see a perfectly healthy plot without extra work. I use a 3- point hitch disk tiller pulled behind a tractor. ATV tillers or even hand tillers can be used it just depends on the size of the plot and the amount of work you want to do. If your ground has never been broken before you will need to till several times regardless. If you are double or triple disking the field to replace herbicide application it is best to wait a week or two between tillings. Staggered multiple diskings tend to take out any secondary emergent growth you may miss on primary rounds. However, some grasses and weeds always return. One way to control them is with regular mowing
Another way to control weed and grass growth is the application of Post or similar product, which has a grass-killing herbicide that does not harm broadleaf plants. Once your plot is established if you have a broadleaf plot like clover for example, this can work wonders.
My planting instructions for this particular seed call for good seed to soil contact with a firm bed. After your final disking you need to cultipack the ground. Cultipacking is simply “packing” the dirt to prepare a hard bed. There are several ways to accomplish this: A lot of driving with an ATV or tractor to let the tires flatten the dirt, dragging a hurricane fence with cinder blocks on top, chaining several logs together and pulling them, or use a cuptipacking device. Mine is a cylinder about the size of a 55-gallon drum filled with water for weight.
Cultipacking is done twice. After your final disking cultipack the field. Then use a seed broadcaster placed on the proper spread setting to broadcast your seed and then cultipack again. This assures proper seed to soil contact. When it comes to spreaders most any will do the job weather it’s a hand or automatic spreader. The purpose is to insure an equal distribution of your product. Timing is important here too as weather plays a huge role in your immediate success. Soil cannot be wet for planting, but you want it good a wet after the fact. If time allows watch the weather and attempt to sow seed a day or two before rain is expected. Last year it wasn’t supposed to rain until the next day, but I got lucky when I no sooner finished cultipacking a 50-pound bag of winter wheat into the soil when the heavens opened. The result was 4 inches of growth in one week. Again it all gets back to that planning thing I keep mentioning. All this hard work should pay off by the end of the season when hopefully you’ll be able to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” while you’re taking a nice buck to the taxidermist.
Seeds. The list is endless and so are the prices. Just like hunting apparel there is a vast plethora of varieties to choose from. You can also choose to section your plots like I did, or use a variety of mixes. Prepackaged seeds are convenient, but extremely costly. It is much more cost efficient to have your local co-op mix seed for you. Plus, they know what works for the area and are usually more than willing to help you out. For Tennessee a typical mixture per acre for cool season plots may look like this:
Seed prices vary year to year and are dependent on the markets yield. Regardless, seed by the pound at the local co-op is cheaper than buying it in a plastic bag with pretty colors and deer pictures all over it. The below information is provided by the UT Agricultural Extension Service: * Note: all legumes should be inoculated prior to planting. This ensures crop success. Ask for pre-inoculated seed.
Are the deer hitting you plots? Unless you take steps to monitor your plot you will not have accurate information on its usage or how healthy the plot may be. If you are lacking good growth it could be soil problems, a need for fertilizer or lack of proper pH and such, or it could be that the deer are feeding so heavily they are keeping the growth to a minimum. In order to determine what you are facing an exclusion cage is needed. Pick a section in your plot and stick 4 stakes in the ground and surround them with chicken wire. Make sure the top is covered also. A good size to go with is and area 3 feet x 3 feet. This area will be protected from feeding and give you a clue as to what your plot is actually doing. If you find a cage with 3 feet of growth in it and the rest of your plot is only 4 inches high it is pretty easy to assume that deer are hammering your food plot. This information helps you plan for the future. Perhaps you need a larger plot next season, or you need to thin the population a bit. Whatever the case you know that particular plot has something the deer like so make note of it.
Maintenance and feeding of your plots is another ballgame. Some well maintained perennial plots can last as long as 5 years. It’s only a matter of following the instructions. It’s hard work, and not a cure all to successful hunting by any means. It’s just another tool in our arsenal in our search of healthy whitetails. I hope I’ve helped somewhat. I wish the best of luck to you with your future projects.