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Basics of Food Plot Planting

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April 25, 2014
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In its simplest form all you need to grow a good food plot is some dirt and some seed. But nothing is ever that simple. Dirt has to be suitable enough to support growth and that typically requires some work. Still, food plotting is not all that tough, as millions of hunters have discovered. Plus, it's fun and you'll be glad you did it come fall. Following these steps will generally get the job done.

Step 1: Test Your Soil

This is the most important step but it is also the easiest. Unfortunately it's also the one step rookies like to skip. First, take soil samples by removing a number of pint-size scoops with a hand trowel or soil sample auger. Follow an "X" pattern across the plot, and put all dirt in one pail. Stir and mix the soil, and then remove 1 1/2 cups and place it in a poly-bag for analysis. You want the average of a good cross-section of the plot. The soil can be analyzed by an agriculture extension service or a private soil testing service. Most ag stores can help. Be sure to indicate what you intend to plant — clover, chicory, etc. With that information, they will be able to recommend the amount of lime and type of fertilizer to apply per acre.

If your soil is overly acidic you will need to apply lime to neutralize the acid. This is absolutely necessary and is best done well before planting. Lime generally works slowly so it may take multiple applications over a few years to "sweeten" up your plot. That's the bad news, but the good news is that it should stay sweet a good long time. Fertilizer will be added at planting time.

Step 2: Remove Competing Growth

After determining the soil's pH, apply herbicides and/or cultivate to kill all weeds and grasses. We apply Roundup or a glyphosate-based generic product first. Glyphosates do not work on dormant plants. For spring planting, we wait until most of the weeds and grasses have popped up before applying glyphosates to our plots. Herbicides work best when applied to vigorously growing plants. Plowing and disking weeds without herbicide treatment is not as effective as applying herbicides first. You almost always see weed and grasses pop up regardless of how thoroughly you plow and disk. Killing weeds with herbicides is more efficient than trying to eliminate them through cultivation. That's why most commercial growers use them.

Step 3: Prepare the Soil

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Ideally equipment like the Firminator, which prepares your ground, meters out seed and rolls it in all in one pass, would be the best for food plots — but it will cost you.

After the herbicide does its job, which takes about a week or so, it's now time to work the soil with a plow, disk, rake or some other tool to work dead matter into the soil and break up dirt clods for a smooth seedbed. The goal here is to prepare a fine relatively smooth surface to apply your seed to. This is one of the toughest steps for food plotters without access to tools designed to work dirt into a plantable condition. Sandy, light soils generally work up easily but some heavy clay soils can be tough to work with. Weather conditions have a lot to do with working soils. Wet soil generally doesn't work well. Either does dry, sun baked soils. Keep an eye on local farmers who have similar soils to yours. If they are working the ground, you probably should be as well.

You'll know your soil is ready for planting if you can cast a handful of seeds and none (or very few) fall into deep crevices or disappear under or around foreign matter like dead weeds or heavy dirt clods. Basically, you are looking for a smooth and even planting surface as you can create without turning the surface into dirt. Once again, look at the local farmers who are seeding their fields. Your finished product should resemble theirs (provided they are not using no-till equipment).

Step 4: Fertilize

After we have broken up the dirt clods, we add fertilizer if our soil tests call for it. Here is where your soil test is worth one thousand times the time and money you spent on it! If your soil has been tested and you indicated what you intend to plant, your results should include fertilizer recommendations. If you are super lucky, your soil may be able to support growth without adding any fertilizer. The only way to know for sure is to test your soil. You don't want to find out in the middle of the growing season when your plots run out of nutrition and fail.

Fertilizer can be spread by hand with lawn spreaders in small plots but is best done mechanically in most plots. A number of companies offer spreaders that can be pulled with an ATV or tractor.

Step 5: Seed

Today's food plot blends specify how much seed to apply per acre. This information is found on the bag. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations. It's tempting to exceed the recommended level because if one bag is good, two must be better, right? Dead wrong! If you apply too much seed, the now overcrowded plants produce less forage per acre. On the other hand, don't try to stretch your dollars too far. Sow too few seeds and weeds will encroach between the plants. If you're confident in your soil and its preparation, plant as recommended by the manufacturer. If you don't expect good germination or if deer density is high, plant a bit more.

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If you don't have a metered seeder, use a hand-crank seeder to spread seeds a quarter-acre at a time.

High-quality seed can be expensive and your dollars will stretch further if you proceed carefully. If you don't have an expensive metered seeder — and most people don't — get a small, food-type scale to measure out a quarter-acre at a time and use an over-the-shoulder crank seeder about to spread it. They are very effective. Better to trickle your seed and go over the same quarter acre of ground a couple of times than to blow it out the first 20 yards (been there, done that). Don't pour too much seed into the hopper all at once, especially if you're using a large-capacity seeder. Trust me, $100 of clover seed can disappear before you know it.

You might also want to consider using an ATV or tractor-driven seeder. A 3-acre food plot is a lot of ground to seed by hand. The Cadillac of food plot seeders are combination tools like the Firminator, which prepare your ground, meter out seed and roll it in all in one pass. They are expensive but a joy to use. It is wheel-driven, has a great seed take up and metered drop system, and it also hauls along its own disk and cultipacker. Food plotters often hire local farmers to work their bigger food plots. These fellows have the equipment and know-how to get it done in a hurry. Unfortunately most of them will be busy with their own planting just when you need them (at least in spring). Do not hand-cast the seed — this is wasteful and creates uneven stands.

After seeding, you can either walk away from the plot and let the rain (hopefully) create seed-to-ground contact or run some kind of roller or compactor/cultipackter over your seed. Do not bury seed deeply with a disc or other cultivation tool. Buried seed is dead seed! Basically, your seed should be covered with no more dirt than three-times the thickness of your seed. On tiny food plots, we sometimes "drive the seed in" by running an ATV over it and pack it with the tires. If you're planting clover, rape, chicory or other small seeds, it's easy to bury them too deeply. If you cannot "contact" the seed to the soil by rolling, we believe it's better to leave the job to Mother Nature.

Step 6: Hope for Rain (But Not Too Much)

Ideally, a gentle, day-long rain will arrive as soon as you finish seeding. Rain and soil moisture are critical to success. But, you aren't looking for three days of gully-washers, which can wash away all your fertilizer and seed.

The worst scenario is germination followed by drought. Tiny seedlings need moisture to survive. Germination followed by drought is fatal to any kind of crop. Timing your seeding pays dividends — you can play the weather only a few days at a time, but it's worth a try. Beyond that, it's all up to Mother Nature. But remember, nothing happens without moisture and, of course, too much moisture is almost as bad as too little. No wonder farmers are such patient people.

Our best-selling book, "Grow 'Em Right" (The Bible of food plotting), covers all aspects of planting food plots in great detail. It is available at selected Bass Pro Shops stores and www.northcountrywhitetails.com.

 

Tagged under Read 6193 times Last modified on September 29, 2017
Craig Dougherty
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Craig Dougherty has been active in the hunting industry for over 30 years. He currently is president of NorthCountry Whitetails, a wildlife consulting company which specializes in developing deer hunting properties. He and his son Neil currently manage over 300,000 acres of whitetail habitat and are continuously developing new and improved techniques for growing and hunting mature bucks. They have published two books on whitetails and their NorthCountry Rut Tracking Report is read by hundreds of thousands of deer enthusiasts each fall. They are frequent presenters at deer gatherings, appear on TV and in videos, and are regularly cited in articles. His most recent book, "Whitetails: From Ground to Gun", can be found at Bass Pro Shops and online at basspro.com. Craig has been a senior executive in the archery industry, served on many hunting industry boards, and is past Chairman and a current Director of QDMA.

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