Think Spring, Think Food Plots

News & Tips: Think Spring, Think Food Plots

With spring on its way it's time to begin thinking about planting food plots. Food plots provide deer and other wildlife with excellent nutrition and lots of it. Most wildlife experts would like to see around 3 of a property put into food plots with 5 percent being even better.

Food plots like this will attract and nourish wildlife through the entire growing season.

A typical food plot will produce 2-3 tons of forage per acre per year. Contrast that with a typical northern woodlot which might produce 100-200 pounds. of food per year or typical "brush lot" that may produce 500 or so pounds per acre; it's easy to see why food plots can and do, make a difference.

But volume (tonnage) is only half the story, most food plots are high in nutrition (25-35 percent protein) and easily digested by deer. This is important to lactating does, fawns, and of course bucks as they grow antlers all spring and summer. Most natural vegetation is somewhere less than 10 percent protein. Food plots are the clear winner when it comes to nutrition. We noticed a 15 percent weight increase in our harvested deer after we started planting food plots 20 years ago.

Plots planted in the spring are particularly important to wildlife in the North as they provide nutrition all season long. Fall plots provide nutrition for a month or two before they go dormant in the cold weather. They make for great hunting and wildlife viewing, but if you want to benefit deer all season long, think spring planting.

The key to good food plots is good ground. Look for rich soil areas with plenty of moisture. Weeds are a good indicator of soil quality as they grow best in good soils. It is tempting to plant "bare" areas as they look like they won't need much preparation. That may be true, but they are bare for a reason, and that reason is generally poor growing conditions. Stay away from ground that will not support good vegetation if you have a choice.

Exclusion cages like this show how much forage your deer are actually consuming. In this case, it is tons of great nutrition.

Once you have settled on an area it is imperative that you test your soil. Weekend warriors hate this step but it is absolutely necessary. Most soils in deer country are quite acidic and will have a pH of around 5; 7 is ideal and what you are shooting for. You can get acid soils (4.5-6.5) in the neighborhood of 7 by adding agricultural lime to your soil. Lime is slow acting so you will need to add it over an extended time period (2-3 years) but you can't grow good food plots in acidic soil.

A good soil test will also tell you what kind of fertilizer to use and how much to apply. Soil tests can be done at most feed and seed stores or by your county extension agent's office.

You can make seed selection as difficult or as simple as you wish. We prefer simple. That is, we pick up a bag of pre-mixed scientifically developed food plot blend and follow the directions on the bag. We like to use brand names that way we are assured that the quality we are looking for will be there. Bass Pro Shops carry an extensive line of food plot blends by all of the best seed producers. Bass Pro's hunting department associates can help you select the best blend for your needs.

The hard way is to try to mix your own by buying raw seed from local feed and seed stores. Much of the seed they sell is designed for cattle forage which does not always mean deer forage. Be sure to purchase deer forage seed. You will also need to inoculate certain seeds and be sure you plant in the right ratios etc. etc. Bottom line, mixing your own gets pretty tricky and you need some help unless you are very well versed on wildlife food plot forages. The easiest and most cost effective solution is to buy a bag of premixed seed designed to meet your food plot needs.

food plot seed bannerAbout 60 percent of your plots should be planted in perennials (re-grow year after year) and the remaining in annuals (grow one year and die). Perennial food plots can last up to 5 years before they are overtaken by invasive grasses and weeds; annuals grow for a season and die. Perennials are nice to have in place for spring green up as they are some of the first forages to pop up when the soil warms. Typically they are up and running by mid-spring and are a welcome shot of nutrition for whitetails just coming out of a tough winter.

We tend to start working the ground when our hardwoods are just starting to leaf out. By then the soil has warmed up sufficiently to support germination (60 degrees or so) and most of the early spring run-off is gone. And, we do mean work the ground.

Clover is the work horse of most food plot programs. They grow readily and deer and turkeys love it. Most deer clovers are easily digested and provide around 25 percent protein. Chicory is another great food plot plant. It does well in warm, dry weather and is great when mixed with clover. Brassicas is another food plot favorite which is often found in commercially developed blends. It's an annual so it will need to be re-seeded every year but it is rich in nutrition, grows well, and deer love it in the late season after a freeze.

We grow all kinds of forage crops on our property including corn. But, in the food plot game, corn is a specialty crop and should never take the place of a good foundation of clover, chicory, and maybe some brassicas. Winter wheat and oats, can be put in for fall plots as whitetails love the tender young sprouts. They will generally hold over winter and start growing again in spring but they loose there value to deer once they mature. Turkeys and other birds do use their seed heads when they mature.

Seed must make contact with soil in order to germinate and grow. Young plants can not compete with pre-established weeds and grasses. That means you need to be working with bare dirt. You get to bare dirt by getting rid of competing vegetating by plowing, disking, rototilling, or some combination of the three. You can also get to bare ground by killing off existing vegetation with herbicides and scratching through the dead vegetation with drags or some type of rake.

ATV's with the right implements work fine on plots up to a half acre or so but if you are looking at a couple of football fields (2 acres) of tillage, you are going to be needing something more serious than an ATV. That means a tractor in the 30-50 hp. class and some implements to go with it.

Once you have worked up as seed bed and your ground starts to resemble the local farmers you are ready to put down your seed. Hand spreader (whirligigs) work fine for small plots under an acre but larger acreage generally will require more advanced equipment. Electric seeders mounted on an ATV work just fine. Bass Pro Shopr sell a good assortment of ATV food plot implements.

Soil testing is mandatory when planting food plots.

Fertilizer should be spread at this stage as well. Most plots will do fine with a few hundred pounds per acre of general purpose fertilizer like 10-10-10 or 8-15-15 although clover does not need nitrogen (the first number in the sequence).

Once the seed is down it is generally best to walk away and leave it alone. This is especially true if rain is in the forecast. All seed needs to grow is to be in contact with moist soil. A little rain or dew will create the contact and turn brown dirt green in a week to ten days. Warning: don't drag or disk food pot seed in. This will bury the seed and buried seed is dead seed. Food plot seed is tiny and should not be buried deeper than 1/8 inch; best to spread it and leave it on top.

Spraying with a grass specific herbicide mid-summer will keep grass from overtaking the plot (deer generally don't eat grasses) and keep the plot fresh for at least a couple of years. We like to top dress our plots with a shot of fertilizer just prior to the fall growing season (late August early Sept). This gives the plants a boost when they resume vigorous growth with fall rains and milder temperatures.

Once you add food plots to your habitat equation you will never go without them again. They make for fantastic hunting, are good for wildlife, and are fun to install. If you are a first timer, expect to make a few mistakes, but also expect to get more satisfaction than you could ever imagine from doing something good for wildlife and the land they use.

Neil and Craig Dougherty's best selling book Grow 'Em Right a Guide to Creating Habitat and Food Plots covers everything you need to know about planting food plots for wildlife and creating wildlife friendly properties.