As outdoor enthusiasts, everywhere we turn, we’re hounded with testimonials to the benefits of food plots. But too often writers and experts make food plots seem overly complicated and expensive with detailed discussions of plot layout, soil types, pH balance, micronutrients, and high-dollar tractors.
Food Plots Don't Have to be Complicated
The truth is, anyone can create valuable food plots for deer and other wildlife easily and with minimal financial investment. To get good results, though, they must be done right.
You don’t need a college degree in agricultural engineering or science or an expensive tractor. But you do need to know what equipment to use, soil preparations required, and where and how to put plots in so they reach their full potential. Here’s a step-by-step introduction for the newcomer or those who tried creating plots a time or two with poor results. And as for timing, August and September are the perfect months to put in plots throughout most of the country.
In this article you'll find ten easy steps to guide you in the process of building a wildlife food plot. Also, if you're only interested in a specific step, try these ten quick links:
1. Food Plot Equipment, 2. Choosing the Food Plot Site, 3. Location & Size of the Food Plot, 4. Clear the Site & Kill Weeds, 5. Soil Test Fertilizer & Lime, 6. Working the Earth, 7. Prepare the Food Plot Seed Bed, 8. What to Plant, 9. Sow the Seed, 10. Protect the Food Plot.
Click to print or download: A 10 Step Guide for Food Plot Beginners
Step 1: Food Plot Equipment
Tools you use can range from a garden tiller at one end to a 40-50 HP tractor at the other extreme. ATVs fill in a strong spot between these two, allowing you to work a much larger area than the tiller would, but not quite as well as with a tractor.
If you’re just starting out, a tractor in the 21-30 HP range is a good choice. Of course if you can afford it and are going to be planting 10-20 acres of plots every year, moving up to a 40-50 HP machine is definitely a good idea.
Implements you will need include a tiller or disc to work the soil and mower to control weeds and initiate fresh tender regrowth of clover and alfalfa. A cultipacker which is a heavy, iron roller, usually with iron cleats, that you roll over soil after it has been disked to firm and smooth the seedbed. Or, drag harrow like the Tarter Terrain Tough ATV 8-Blade Disc or the chain harrow by Tarter Terrain Tough ATV is also good to have, but not absolutely essential. These items are available for both small tractors and ATVs.
A pull-behind or mounted spreader is a time-saver, but you can also just dispense seeds with a hand-crank spreader. Finally, you’ll need a sprayer to apply herbicide and keep your plots as weed-free as possible. This can be a hand-held sprayer, pull-behind model, or PTO-driven version for a tractor.
Step 2: Choosing the Site for Your Food Plot
Once you’ve researched and settled on some basic food plot equipment, the next step is choosing the site for your plots. This is extremely important. Poor site selection can doom your food plot from the start.
Don’t choose ground that is rocky, uneven, or has lots of stumps or trees growing in it. Select open or partially open areas that receive at least six hours of sunlight a day. Eight to ten hours is better still.
Old logging roads and landings in woods, overgrown fields, unused corners or edges on farms, and natural clearings in forests all offer possible sites.
Don’t be overly concerned about the shape of the plot. It doesn’t have to be a perfect square or rectangle. Curved edges are fine. Deer tend to follow the natural contours of the land as they move anyway.
Besides these basics, consult your county’s agriculture maps to find areas with the best soil when possible. If you only have a few options, you’ll simply have to grow the plots where you can and skip this step.
Extra Tip: Avoid areas visible from roads or the neighbor’s property. This may tempt people if they see good buck in the plots. And the vehicle activity and visibility will discourage older bucks from using the plots except at night.
Step 3: Location & Size of Your Food Plot
Try to find areas to put plots in along a deer’s typical travel corridor. This will usually be a route from daytime bedding areas to larger evening feeding spots in agricultural fields, creek bottoms, or orchards. These will be your hunting food plots.
Locate them along these travel routes so the deer will be tempted to use them on their way to the major evening feeding areas. But don’t put them too close to suspected bedding locations or you may not be able to approach the plots and hunt them without spooking the deer.
This is a mistake many novices make. Stay a few hundred yards from suspected bedding areas.
Be sure to keep in mind prevailing winds as you plan out your plots. You need to be able to reach your stand location without spooking the quarry or having your scent blow towards the site.
Also plant a few plots in more open areas strictly for nutrition. These should be spots you don’t intend to hunt. These are great locations for nourishing the herd and getting trail camera images. You can hunt trails back in the woods leading to these plots, but never hunt right over them or you’ll defeat their purpose.
Smaller hunting food plots closer to bedding areas should typically be 1/4-1/2 acre and long and narrow in shape. That way a buck will feel comfortable knowing he can jump quickly into escape cover on either side with a few quick bounds. And most animals you see will be in shooting range or close to it. Nutrition plots can be larger-- up to several acres--and shape isn’t as important.
Extra Tip: Besides prevailing winds, also consider sun direction when laying out hunting plots. The goal should be not to be staring into a glaring sun during late afternoon hunts.
Once you've decided to grow food plots, purchased necessary equipment and chosen some optimum sites, it's time for preparing the site, killing weeds, fertilizing and liming, working the soil, choosing seeds, and planting.
Step 4: Clear the Site & Kill Weeds
First off, you’ll probably need to clear some brush, rocks, and maybe a few stumps or logs. Hopefully the site isn’t too rough or covered with trees. If it is, you may need to hire a dozer operator for this work. If not you can simply use the equipment you have to remove all logs, branches, stones, and bushes.
Next you’ll need to spray weeds and grasses that are likely growing on the site. Whitetail Institue has a nice selective herbicide the Arrest Max. Roundup or generic glyphosate is the best non-selective herbicide for this and will kill most vegetation. Spray on a calm day with no rain predicted for a few hours, or hire your local farm co-op to spray it for you.
Extra Tip: Wait 10 days after spraying with herbicide. If a significant amount of green is still visible, spray again. Not killing weeds thoroughly enough is one of the most common causes of food plot failures.
Step 5: Test the Soil & Add Fertilizer and Lime
At this point you should pause in your preparation to do a soil test. Dig up a few dirt samples from several areas down to about 6-10 inches and mix them up. Collect separate samples for each plot site, unless they’re located close together. Send them off using places like farm cooperatives, county extension agents, and agricultural colleges, or use mail-in kits from the Whitetail Institute.
You’ll get results back in a few days that will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium you need according to the N-P-K readings. The test will also tell you whether you need sulfur, or perhaps small amounts of micronutrients such as boron, manganese, or zinc. A fertilizer company or farm co-op can mix up bags to suit your specific soil needs.
The soil test will also tell you how much (if any) lime you need based on the pH reading. Try to get this up in the 6-7 range. Apply lime as dictated by the soil test or have a fertilizer company do it when they apply needed nutrients.
Having a good pH reading and the proper levels of fertilizers is vital for obtaining the best food plot possible. Without them, crucial nutrients will remain chemically “bound” in the soil and not be available to the plants you are growing. They’ll grow poorly and won’t produce as much forage as they could in properly balanced soil.
Extra Tip: If you decide to skip the soil test (bad decision), at least add lime at about 1-2 tons per acre and apply a 5-10-10 or similar fertilizer to the soil.
Step 6: Working the Earth
Once you’ve cleared the site, thoroughly killed the weeds and grasses present, and added needed lime and fertilizer, it’s time to till the soil. This will loosen it, mix in the lime and fertilizer, and kill most remaining weed seeds starting to pop up.
You can use a plow, disk, or tiller for this. Work the soil, wait a few days, and then work it again until you get a firm smooth seedbed with no large clumps. Remove any rocks you encounter.
Step 7: Prepare the Food Plot Seed Bed
For small food plot seeds, cultipacking or firming the soil is good before planting. These include seeds such as clover like the Imperial Whitetail Clover seed, alfalfa, chicory, and brassica vegetables . For larger seeds such as soybeans and lablab, this step isn’t necessary. Use a drag harrow, cultipacker, or drive over the plot with the ATV or tractor to firm the bed before planting.
Extra Tip: You can cultipack again after planting for even better soil-seed contact, but this step isn’t necessary if you time your planting just before precipitation is called for. The rain will firm the seeds into the prepared bed.
Step 8: What do You Plant in Your Food Plot?
What exactly you should plant varies with the time of year. In spring, you can plant perennials such as alfalfa, clover and chicory. These can also be planted successfully in fall.
During late spring and summer, warm season annuals are the best bet. These include lablab, cowpeas, soybeans, and Sunn hemp.
In late summer and early fall, cereal grains and brassicas such as the Big Tine Late Season Brassica Mix Food Plot Seed need to go in the ground. These can include wheat, oats, triticale, and rye in the grain category and brassicas such as ***, kale, turnips, beets, and radishes.
Extra Tip: Mixtures made by the major wildlife seed companies and available through Bass Pro Shops are often your best bet. The variety of plants included makes it likely that at least a few will do very well in your soils. It also ensures that some plants will always be at prime nutrition and palatability stage as they mature at different speeds.
Pay careful instructions to each seed label to get the seeds planted at just the proper depth. This means 1/8-1/4 inch for small seeds like clover, brassicas, and chicory, ½ to 1 inch for larger seeds like cowpeas, lablab, and soybeans.
Also be sure to follow recommended seed amounts for the size food plot you have. These will usually be given as pounds per acre. This may be as little as 4-8 pounds for small seeds such as clover or brassicas to as much as 50-75 pounds per acre for large seeds such as soybeans or lablab. Plant too few and you’ll have a spotty, light crop. Put in too many and you’ll have too many plants and they’ll be stunted and grow poorly.
Step 10: Protect Your Food Plot From Grazing Pressure
You might have trouble certain times of the year with deer eating the crop before it grows big enough to withstand the grazing pressure. Fall planted crops need to be protected to feed deer throughout the late winter. Warm season annuals planted in spring need to be protected through early summer, or until they are mature enough to withstand deer feeding pressure.
You can plant several plots that mature at different times so the deer aren’t consuming one plot. Another solution to prevent early crop damage is to use a high fence, portable electric fence or by using a deer repellent system such as Plotsaver, from Messina Wildlife.
Extra Tip: Some seed blends like Mossy Oak BioLogic AlfaClover have a variety of plants in them that mature at different rates, giving you huge amounts of forage production and constant food source for deer.
With this step-by-step guide, print or download A 10 Step Guide for Food Plot Beginners, you should be well on your way to successfully growing food plots that will not only help the deer and other wildlife on lands you own or manage, but also improve the quality of your hunting.
Any way you look at it, that’s a win-win proposition.