Choosing and Managing Effective Wildlife Food Plots.
Establishing an attractive food plot that enables wildlife to thrive is a rewarding way to extend your hunting enthusiasm beyond the seasonal harvest. Like any other project you take pride in, a successful food plot starts with good thought and careful planning.
Start with a clear understanding of the basic needs of the wildlife you're going to attract. These essentials include food, water, shelter and a place to raise the young. When selecting a site, try to make use of existing meadows, clearings, trails, firebreaks and field corners. Keep in mind that any food plot will need at least a half-day of sunlight. Avoid planting food plots near roads or property lines.
Although the deer population, natural forage available, and amount of crop or grazing land in the area all help determine its size, a food plot should measure about one acre for every 40 acres of habitat. Several smaller food plots attract wildlife better than one large plot. If you create a new opening, a long narrow strip with a bend or two will help wildlife feel more comfortable about using your food plot.
Probably the most critical and most-often overlooked step in food plot establishment is soil testing. It's well worth the upfront effort to find out exactly what kinds of amendments are required to achieve optimum pH and fertility for the best results. Many wooded areas are very acidic with a low pH number and simply will not grow crops unless corrected with lime. Go to Deer Creek Seed's homepage and download a soil testing form. This form will give more details on how to take an accurate soil sample and where to mail it for analysis.
Young seedlings can't compete with established weeds, so an application of RoundUp® herbicide (or other glyphosate chemical) might be required. It kills almost any plant that is green and growing when applied to the leaves at the recommended rates. It doesn't require chemical applicator certification. Ideally, it should be applied in the fall so the plot will be ready to till and plant in the spring. For springtime application, you'll need to wait until the target weeds have grown to a height of 6 to 8 inches before spraying, then wait 7 days before tilling.
Seed for wildlife food plots is sometimes sold as "no till", "throw & grow," and other wishful descriptions. But the fact is that there is no quick and easy seed magic. For most plots, obtain a small disc or digger that can be pulled behind a four-wheeler or small tractor. If your soil test recommends an application of lime or fertilizer, you can apply them to the soil before tilling. (Note: Lime breaks down very slowly and will require 6 to 12 months before perennial crop should be planted, so a small grain or annual crop is a good interim choice.) Go over the area enough times to break up and mix the top 6 to 7 inches of soil thoroughly. Next, drag the area with a spike-toothed harrow or similar device to remove any debris, level the seedbed and break up any clumps. If your feet sink into the soil by more than half an inch you'll need to cultipack or roll the soil to firm it before seeding. Skipping this step will result in seed placement deeper than a quarter inch and poor germination.
Strengthen the attraction power of your plots by contrasting against surrounding plant life. If there's abundant cropland in the area, plant mixes higher in annuals and attractant crops. In highly forested areas, plant more perennial legumes. Plant the desired seed mix at the recommended rate using a hand seeder, a broadcast seeder mounted on a four-wheeler, a pull-behind seeder or, for larger areas, an agricultural seeder or grain drill. To avoid the expense of over-application, you can seed smaller amounts per acre by mixing the seed with a filler such as Milorganite®, cat litter, clean sand, or appropriate granular fertilizer. To avoid separation, use a filler that's about the same size and density as the seed. However, if seeding conditions are not ideal, planting more seed increases your chances of achieving better results. After seeding, roll or cultipack the area to cover the seed with 1/4" of soil, and to firm the seedbed for good seed-to-soil contact necessary for germination. Now you can pray for rain, but not too much!
Monitor your plot throughout the growing season. If growth on your perennial crop reaches 14 to 16 inches, clip it back to 4 to 6 inches to stimulate new growth. Mowing in mid- to late- August will also create a new growth that will be at its prime for the fall hunting season. Compare what's growing under the protection of a few wire baskets placed around your plot to how much is actually being eaten. If the wildlife population is eating the crop as fast as it grows, the area may require the support of additional food plots.
If your plot has started to thin out, consider frost seeding or overseeding to thicken your perennial crop. Frost seeding is best done in the very early spring when the ground is still frozen at night and becomes very soft during the day. Seed 2 to 4 pounds per acre of the desired legume on top of the ground, allowing it to settle into the soil naturally. There must be enough bare soil to allow the seed to reach a favorable location where it can grow. This method works especially well with clovers. Overseeding is generally done later in the spring after scratching the soil surface to loosen it.
You'll learn something new every season. Get advice and plant crops that will perform well in your soils and growing conditions. Then make adjustments from what you see happening and how the wildlife responds. You can control what happens on your land to provide the best food plot possible to grow bigger, healthier wildlife and hold them on your land for your enjoyment.
Deer Creek Wildlife's Certified Crop Advisors are avid hunters with their own established wildlife plots. Field-testing means our mixtures are perpetually evaluated and improved to produce an attractive and nourishing food source for deer, grouse, turkey, pheasant and other wildlife. Blends of annual and perennial grasses, legumes and other species are carefully selected to supply a dependable and long-lasting food source as well as provide cover for all wildlife. Produced in the Midwest, Deer Creek Wildlife Brand mixtures are specially adapted and specifically blended for Midwestern wildlife and growing conditions-so you can plant yourself in position for a great hunt!
Wildlife Food Plot FAQ
Is this legal?
Wildlife food plots are becoming popular with many people as a method of providing needed nutrition and essential nutrients to grow larger, more desirable wildlife. Some areas of the country have banned the baiting of wildlife, but the planting of food plots remains a legal method of providing food for wildlife.
In fact, in areas that do not have adequate farmland or grazing land, food plots can be essential for the survival of many wild animals. Of course, you must own some land or have permission to plant and use someone else’s land for this purpose. Depending on how much land is available and what is currently growing here, you may have to make the best of what you have. Don’t overlook the obvious. Make the best use of the natural vegetation that’s currently available.
How do I know if there’s enough sunlight in a forested area to support a food plot?
Any food plot will need at least three to four hours, and ideally a half-day of sun. Logging mature timber may be necessary to provide an adequate amount of browse and cover to hold deer and other wildlife on your land. If native fruit or nut trees are present, fertilize them with tree spikes at the recommended rate. This support will allow the trees to produce larger-yielding and possibly better tasting crops. Fertilizing can also be done on public land where you hunt.
How big should my plot be?
Size will largely depend on how much land you have and what you can feasibly do with what is there. If you have a wooded 40 acres with a small clearing and a logging road, then use these areas. A common question is: How large a food plot do I need on my 40 acres of land? This is not easy to answer because it depends on the deer population, natural browse available, and amount of crop or grazing land in the area.
A rule of thumb is one to two acres per 40 acres of woods. If there is inadequate farmland and deer numbers are high, your plots will be eaten right down to the dirt come fall.
If you have a bulldozer available and you are going to make fields, 1/4- to two-acre fields are best, but larger areas will work. Be aware that deer may not use larger fields until after dark. They’ll feel safer and use smaller areas before dark.
What best to plant?
Normally, about three-quarters of your plot area should be planted to a perennial legume crop. Alfalfa would be the first choice of any farmer, but unless your soil pH is at least 6.6, fertilizer has been applied to soil test recommendation, and your soil has good drainage, you will not be happy because the alfalfa will not grow or will soon disappear.
White clover, ladino clover, and alsike clover should be the basis of your seed mixture. You may want to add a small amount of kura clover, birdsfoot trefoil, chicory or a host of other crops to this mixture. The remainder of your plot acreage should be planted to an annual crop. Wildlife rapeseed would be a good choice, and wheat, rye, turnip, or forage brassica can also work well. Corn and soybeans can be used effectively if enough acreage is available (at least five acres each). Do not reduce your perennial legume acreage. Plant corn or soybeans only if you have a sufficient area of legume food plots established.
An area of wildlife rape or other brassica such as turnip or forage brassica can be planted and used as an attractant and to provide forage late into the fall and winter. Deer prefer these crops after a hard frost when an enzyme in the plant becomes sweeter, making the plant tastier. These plants are also very winter-hardy, remaining green when everything else is brown and dry. Deer will actually dig under the snow to eat them.
When can I plant?
Normally mid-April through mid-June is ideal for a spring planting period and the first two weeks of August for the fall planting. When you plant will be determined by the crop planted and what fits into your schedule. All of the crops can be planted in the spring, but fall may be a better choice if weeds have not been killed prior to the spring planting period.
The legume crops can be planted very effectively in August along with the brassicas, barley, winter wheat, rye and deer oats. August is best if you’re planting a crop for a fall attractant. If your crop was planted in spring, it will need periodic mowing, including an August clipping to stimulate adequate new growth for late fall.
Is it okay to skip the soil test?
Taking a soil test to determine the fertility and pH of the area to be planted is crucial. Many wooded areas are very acidic with a low pH number and simply will not grow crops unless corrected with lime.
Soils with a pH of 6.6 or higher will not need lime to grow a food plot. Soils with a pH of 5.5 or less may need several tons of lime per acre before a crop can effectively be grown. Most soils will be somewhere in between. Lime is crucial to neutralize the acidity in the soil, allowing a crop to grow and to release the fertilizer in the soil so the crop can use it.
Lime moves very little in the soil so it is important to mix it thoroughly with the top 6 to 7 inches of soil. Lime breaks down very slowly so allow six to 12 months for it to be effective before planting a perennial crop. A small grain or annual crop would be a good choice in the interim while waiting for the lime to raise the soil pH.
What about weed control?
Once the fields have been prepared and an adequate soil pH has been achieved, you need to pay attention to weed control to allow your food crops to become established. The use of the herbicide RoundUp (or other glyphosate chemical) is the easiest, most effective method in most cases. RoundUp will kill almost any plant that is green and growing when applied to the leaves at the recommended rates. It can be purchased from any hardware, lawn and garden, or farm supply store without a chemical applicator certification.
Spraying can be done with a large pickup or pull-type sprayer, an ATV sprayer, or a backpack sprayer depending on the acreage to be sprayed and equipment available.
Ideally, spray the plot area with RoundUp in the fall and let it sit until spring when it will be ready to till and plant. The other option would be to spray in the spring before planting, but timing is important with this option. You must wait until the target weeds have grown to a height of 6 to 8 inches before spraying. After spraying wait seven days to allow the chemical to work. Weeds will not look dead, but have faith. Next the plot area can be tilled and planted.
Under severe weed pressure, a combination of fall and spring spraying may be necessary. With fall plantings a chemical application may not be required because weed pressure is much less at this time of year and the plot seeds will germinate and grow much quicker.
What kind of equipment do I need to plant?
Once the plot area has been prepared, you are ready to seed the desired crop. The golden rule for seed germination is: Till the soil and remove trash from the area where the seed will be placed to allow sunlight to reach the soil, then place the seed in a firm, but not hard, seedbed and cover the seed with up to a quarter inch of soil.
Keep this in mind as you consider your options for tillage and seeding. There are many methods and combinations of equipment that can work just fine, but no matter what method you choose, if the end result does not meet the above criteria your seeding will not be very successful.
As you read all the propaganda from companies trying to sell you seed, remember that there is no magic seed and often they are telling you what you want to hear in order to sell a product. No-till, minimum till, throw and grow, and other catchy terms are often used to imply that this seed is quick and easy and will work wonders. Under some conditions these shortcuts can be effective, but remember, there are no magic seeds.
For most people the best method will be to obtain a small disc or digger that can be pulled behind a four-wheeler or small tractor. Go over the area enough times to provide a well-mixed soil that is not clumpy.
If needed, you may wish to add lime to the soil during this step. Next drag the area with a spike-toothed harrow or similar device to level and break up any clumps. If your shoes sink in more than half an inch when walking over the soil you will need to cultipack or roll the soil to firm it before seeding. Skipping this step will result in seed placement deeper than a quarter inch, resulting in poor germination and a poor crop stand — and you will be unhappy with the results.
The seed can be sown in a variety of ways, including with a hand seeder, a broadcast seeder mounted on a four-wheeler, a pull-behind seeder, or with an agricultural seeder or drill for larger areas. Start by setting the seeder to apply less seed than you want.
There’s nothing wrong with going back over an area to put more seed on, but if you set the seeder too heavy and apply two to three times more seed than is necessary, you can’t get it back.
One method that can work well for seeding smaller amounts per acre is to mix cat litter, floor dry, clean sand, or milorganite fertilizer with the seed as a filler to avoid over application. Try to use a filler material that is about the same size and density as the seed you are using to avoid separation.
Applying two to three times more seed than is needed in most cases will not cause problems; it just gets expensive. However, if seeding conditions are not ideal, putting more seed out there increases your chances of achieving the desired plant stand of the crop seeded.
After seeding, roll or cultipack the area to firm the seedbed, resulting in better seed-to-soil contact for better germination. Now you can pray for rain (but not too much) because even if you do everything right and Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, your food plot will not be as good as it could have been.
I think I did everything as described, but I still got disappointing results. What happened?
Often people are unhappy with their plot because they feel it’s not growing and they don’t understand why. In order to have a healthy crop growing to its full potential, you’ll need to fertilize according to recommendations. Monitor the plot throughout the growing season and, if growth on your perennial crop reaches 14 to 16 inches, it would be beneficial to clip the crop to stimulate new growth. Mowing in mid- to late-August will also create a new growth that will be at its prime for the fall hunting season, if desired.
It can be revealing to place a few wire baskets in your plot to monitor how much is actually being eaten by deer and other wildlife. The crop under the basket is protected and can’t be eaten, allowing it to grow. If the crop grows very quickly under the basket compared to the rest of the plot, then the wildlife have actually been eating the crop as fast as it grows. This can indicate a need for more food plots in the area to support the wildlife population.
If your plot has started to thin out, you may want to consider overseeding or frost seeding to enhance your perennial crop. This is best done in very early spring when the ground is still frozen at night and becomes very soft during the day. Seed 2 to 4 pounds per acre of the desired legume on top of the ground and let the seed settle into the soil. There must be enough bare soil to allow the seed to reach a favorable location where it can grow. This method works well with clovers but can also be effective with many crops.
Smart people learn from their mistakes and make adjustments according to what works and what doesn’t. The rest of us can also make adjustments from what we learn, making the best with what we have.
A crop that works well in one location may not be as effective in another because of native vegetation and surrounding farmland. Get advice and plant crops that will perform well on your soils and growing conditions. Then make adjustments from what you see happening and how the wildlife responds. You can only control what happens on your land, but you can work to provide the best food plot possible to grow bigger, healthier wildlife and hold them on your land for your enjoyment.