Hunting over food plots has become standard operating procedure for most landowner/hunters. Fall food plots concentrate deer and frankly make it a little easier to take that buck of a lifetime or harvest sufficient does to keep your population in check. But, there is a whole lot more to creating fall food plots than sprinkling some seed under a tree stand — a whole lot more.
Start With the Design
Hunting food plots are laid out for efficient hunting. They're are generally on the small side (1/4 to 11/2 acres), irregularly shaped, and designed to make hunting easier. Cover often juts into the plot to take advantage of wind direction and maximize hunter concealment. These peninsulas of cover provide close-range encounters for hunters, and add visual interest to the plot. Good hunting plots look like they've been there forever because they blend into the landscape. While feeding plots are laid out for agricultural efficiency, hunting plots are set up for close encounters with game.
Before creating and setting up a hunting plot, it's critical to select your hunting location. Analyze how deer move in and out of the area by studying their trails. Early spring is a good time for this. Consider prevailing winds during the hunting season, and leave concealment cover intact. Consider bedding areas and anticipate a deer's route from the bedding area to the plot area. Study wind factors and weather patterns the hunting season before you lay out your plot.
Pay attention to how you approach your hunting plot. Deer usually try to approach smaller food plots with the wind in their face, but deer-blocking wind-rows created by felled trees and piled brush channel deer through ambush sites. We always try to use wind-rows of piled brush to prevent deer from entering the plot downwind of a bow stand. Wind-rows get there with the help of a bulldozer or chainsaw.
Once you've studied the area, begin laying out the location and shape of your plot, and where you'll place your stands. Whenever possible, locate your stands in dense, dark trees. Conifers are excellent hunting trees because they provide concealment and shelter from the elements.
Once a chainsaw or bulldozer removes a piece of cover, it will never be there again. Plan carefully. Plan in advance. Pick sites for your plots with hunting in mind. Hunting plots are often laid out in a wooded or heavy-brush environment. A bulldozer is usually needed to clear the ground. When using a moderate-sized bulldozer, plan on at least eight hours of bulldozer work per acre of ground to be cleared. Lighter brush can be mowed with a stout rotary mower and 30-50 hp tractors.
Food Plot Prep
The steps for creating quality food plots are the same as steps for most agriculture. 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. Use the topsoil or subsoil on each plot. Stir and mix the soil, and then remove 1 1/2 cups and place it in a poly-bag for analysis. The soil can be analyzed by an ag extension service, private soil testing service, or through commercial seed companies like Whitetail Institute of North America. 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 they recommend an application of lime, be sure to follow it as proper soil pH is a must for successful planting.
Weeds need to be eliminated before planting. This can be done by applying herbicides or through cultivation. We apply Roundup or a glyphosate-based generic product to eliminate weeds. Glyphosates do not work on dormant plants. For spring planting, we wait until our hardwoods are sprouting dime-sized leafs before applying glyphosates to our fields. Herbicides work best when applied to vigorously growing plants. Plowing and disking weeds without herbicide treatment is not as effective as applying herbicides first.
|Use the right amount of seeds — too little will allow weeds to take over.|
After the herbicide does its job, which takes about a week or so, it's now time to turn the soil with a plow or disk to work dead matter into the soil and break up dirt clods for a smooth seedbed. This step helps prepare a seedbed. After we have broken up the dirt clods, we add fertilizer and smooth and pack the surface with a roller or cultipacker before we seed to remove air pockets and soil fluff which interferes with seed germination and root development. Sometimes (depending on what we are going to plant) we incorporate fertilizer into the top few inches of the soil. Packing the surface also creates a smooth surface for spreading seeds, and allows the soil to better hold moisture and heat. A firm seedbed improves seed germination and produces a better stand of forage.
It's now time for the Weather Channel. Fall plots are generally planted sometime in the August-September time period and weather can be a bit tricky then. Ideally, a gentle, day-long rain will arrive as soon as you finish seeding. Rain and soil moisture are critical to success. The worst scenario for late summer to early fall planting 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.
What to Plant in Your Food Plot
We prefer a mixture of high-protein forages that stay available all year, from early spring through winter. We want to meet the nutritional needs of lactating does, nursing fawns and bucks growing antlers. That means perennials or forages that come back each year. Clovers, chicories and some alfalfas are hard to beat when it comes to annuals. Food plotters primarily interested in attracting deer for hunting often plant annuals. They have to be planted each year (late summer-early fall) but they are generally easy to plant and aggressive growers. Green grain species like oats, wheat and rye are very popular as are various brassicas forages like ***, kale and turnips.
We only plant name-brand forages designed for deer. These blends grow low and dense, and are low in stem material or lignin. Their density keeps down competing weeds. They're designed to be grazed, and as such, mature at different times of the year. The Whitetail Institute of North America has been researching and developing deer forages since 1988. Use only name-brand forages. They save you huge amounts of money and time, and your deer will thrive on them.
We don't plant cattle forages like red clover, tall white ladino clover, timothy grass. Cattle forages like these are grown to be chopped or baled and fed dry. They are high in coarse stem materials and lignin, which deer do not digest as well as cattle do. We call clovers that grow hip-high on fibrous stems "feel good" clovers. You feel good when you walk by the stand because of its height and appearance, but that's about the end of it. Stemmy forages grow that high because deer don't care to eat them when more digestible cultivars are growing nearby.
A food plot program should have roughly 60 percent of the food plots or fields planted in perennials. Done correctly, these plots should produce nutritious forage year round, even in the North. On our New York property, spring green-up starts in mid-April. Our clover blends kick in then and are heavily used by pregnant does. By mid-May, all of our clovers are producing major tonnage and are starting to get ahead of the herd. The chicory kicks in shortly after the clover, so by mid-June, we're often knee-high in clover and chicory. We supplement where needed with fall plantings of annuals.
With rain in the future, it's time to broadcast your 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.
|Over-the-shoulder crank seeders can be very effective in spreading seed over several acres.|
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 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 us, $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 is called the Firminator. 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. Do not hand-cast the seed. This is wasteful and creates uneven stands. Hand-casting is for the movies.
After seeding, run the cultipacker once over the food plot. A roller also works well. If you're planting clover, ***, chicory, or other small seeds, don't bury them too deeply. They should be in the top quarter-inch of soil. Some people like to disk after seeding, but we don't. A disk usually puts tiny seeds too deep into the soil, causing most of the sprouts to die before they ever reach daylight. If you cannot "contact" the seed to the soil by rolling, we believe it's better to leave the job to Mother Nature. On tiny food plots, we sometimes "drive the seed in" by running an ATV over it and pack it with the tires.
A successful seeding will generally show green in a few days to a week — maybe more if the weather has been dry. Ideally, green up happens about a month before hunting season so by the time you are ready to start hunting the deer are in the habit of using the plot. After that it's all up to the hunter and, when it comes to fall food plots, good farmers make good hunters.