If you expect to toss some seeds on the ground and watch them grow into a big-buck Shangri-la come November, you might as well just throw some cash in the trash, too. Because if you don't prep your ground before planting at the right time, you'll just be wasting time and money. Trouble is, most of us aren't farmers — we don't know what to plant or when to plant it. We're hunters who want to improve the herd's nutrition and maybe take a homegrown buck next fall. So here are the basics about what you need to know for sowing a successful food plot.
Steve Scott is vice president of the Whitetail Institute and an expert on food plots. His company makes numerous products to attract, hold, and nourish deer. The Alabama-based firm also provides consumers with free info on how to best grow food plots in their particular regions. What follows is Scott's advice, given in step-by-step form so you won't forget a key date. After understanding the concept and the order of events for food plot planting, go to whitetailinstitute.com to find out when to plant in your area. And don't hesitate to call for custom advice.
After the fall hunting seasons end but before spring, research and decide what type of crop you wish to plant. This will dictate your to-do calendar.
Scott keeps it simple for beginners by recommending one of two types of forages for deer: a fall/winter annual blend like his company's Pure Attraction that contains oats, winter peas, and brassicas; or a perennial crop like clover that's planted in the spring.
The fall/winter blends are planted in late summer/early fall. Most annuals are designed to top-out in fall and winter to attract and hold bucks and to be hunted over. Seed blends are ideal because they hedge against certain types of seeds not doing well in your soil; plus, they give deer variety, so there's always something sprouting in fall that's palatable. Assuming it all doesn't get eaten, fall blends provide nutritional value to deer all winter long.
Perennial crops like clover provide nutritional value during the spring and summer months. Unless you live in extreme southern states, they're generally not intended to be hunted over. Their role is to help whitetail does during gestation, thereby creating healthier fawns, and they can enhance antler growth in bucks. Clover is best planted in spring; it matures in spring and summer.
For the best of both worlds, hunters can choose a mix of perennials and annuals by planting a big plot and halving it down the middle or by planting multiple plots. Choose a forage or forages based on your goals.
Any time before spring starts to green up, choose ground for your plot or plots and decide on size. Your time, budget,
and machinery along with how many deer you hope to feed and for how long should be deciding factors. To determine plot locations, consider stand location, predominant winds during hunting season, access to treestands, proximity to roads, and ground quality. Obviously, if you select a tract that's laden with rocks, those rocks will need to be removed first for best results. So be smart.
As soon as the ground thaws and grass starts greening, take a soil sample and send it to your county extension office for analysis or get a kit from the Whitetail Institute and return it. Also, include your crop selection information with it. This is the single most important thing you can do to ensure great results. The test will reveal your soil's pH. The analysis will instruct you in how much lime, if any, to spread over your plot before planting to make the pH ideal. The analysis also will tell you what type of fertilizer you'll need.
Purchase your products, including lime, herbicide, seed, and equipment, such as spreaders and sprayers. While most crops can be purchased cheaply at your local feed store or co-op, the advantage of paying more for specialized products from firms like the Whitetail Institute, Tecomate, or others is that the seeds are engineered to have a higher nutritional content for deer. No doubt, many hunters do just fine buying locally.
Once you have your equipment, during the spring, spray, brush hog, and/or disc your plot to eliminate grass and weeds. A Roundup-type herbicide is best.
After the grass dies, disc the plot so that three to four inches of topsoil is broken and is loose for planting. This is best accomplished with a heavy tractor and disc for new plots, but it can be done with an ATV and implements with many passes.
As soon as possible after discing, apply the appropriate amount of lime. Lime needs time to lower the soil's pH. Every month or so after discing and liming - but before planting - disc, spray, and break up the soil routinely to keep grasses from reestablishing.
March-July, perennials; August-November, fall/winter annuals
Plant your crop. Try to plant when the soil is moist and rain is expected, but always plant within your area's suggested time window, which can be found at whitetailinstitute.com. Most seed types can be broadcast with a hand, push-type, or mechanized seed spreader.
Immediately after broadcasting, drag the plot. If you have a cultipacker, use it to lightly bury them. Note that the larger the seed, the deeper it should be buried.
Immediately after dragging, fertilize the plot.
Begin placing stands. Consider placing two or more stands - one on the south side of the plot and one on the north, with corresponding access avenues for north and south winds.
Wait. If you're religious, pray for rain. Then watch your food plot pop up and the deer flock to it.