You don’t need a giant tractor to have a successful food plot.
Years ago, food plots were typically large agricultural undertakings — big greenfields of up to 50 or more acres found mostly on active farmland or huge hunt club leases.
There were several million other deer hunters out there who wanted to make plots but lacked the means to join in on the fun. We’re talking about the weekend warriors and backyard biologists who own smaller parcels or maybe only spend a week or two at camp each fall. They’re the guys who can’t afford a full-size tractor, an 8-foot disc and a 200-pound spreader and wouldn’t need such equipment anyway — a majority of the country’s deer hunters in other words.
A lot of those guys own ATVs, however, and more of them are realizing that, armed the right accessories, they can plant food plots and manage deer just like the big boys.
There are plenty of choices for equipment, and the list grows each season. Meanwhile, hunters are getting more creative about how and where they plant their plots. What follows is an overview of both. Specific circumstances call for different applications, and the possibilities are limited only by each sportsman’s imagination.
Your biggest and most expensive investment, besides the land itself, is a four-wheeler. If you already have one, you’re that much ahead. In general, any model will suffice, but certain types offer advantages. If you’re shopping for an ATV, do a little homework and choose the right tool for the job.
You can plow a field with one horse, but it’s faster and easier with two. The same logic applies to ATVs. Some ATV implement manufacturers recommend 300cc to 400cc as an acceptable range. But is it? Neil Dougherty, author of several books on food plots and a habitat consultant at the Wildlife Management Institute, recommends at least a 400cc engine, with emphasis on the “least.”
A 400 will suffice if you’re doing small plots with good, tillable soil. For larger plots, new ground or hard or rocky soil, a 400 might not cut it, literally. Something in the 600cc to 700cc range will have the pulling power you need for any ATV implements without putting excess stress on your vehicle — an important consideration for what could be a rather pricey investment.
Next, consider four-wheel-drive an absolute must. You might be fighting some tough conditions, and it’s preferable to put more strain on the mechanics and less on the engine. “Also, you want to make sure it’s liquid-cooled,” says Dougherty. “This will help cool the engine at slower speeds when pulling the disc.”
That’s a real concern, especially when it’s hot. You can’t run an ATV like a tractor. Work in shorter time increments and allow for frequent cool-down breaks.
ATVs come in two general varieties, four-wheelers and side-by-sides (sometimes referred to as UTVs). Either will work if it’s four-wheel-drive and has enough power. However, side-by-sides have advantages when it comes to building food plots. The most obvious is cargo space. As part of the planting process, you’ll have to haul all manner of materials and equipment to the site, including minerals, fertilizer and seed. This becomes even more of a consideration if you have remote plots.
If it’s a small plot, you can strap what you need on the racks of your four-wheeler. Bigger plots mean more materials, however, and you’ll appreciate the the extra carrying capacity of an SxS. An extra seat also allows you to take help. In general, SxSs are heavier and wider than four-wheelers. That’s an advantage when pulling a disc or other implement. Even among SxSs, there are differences. Some are designed for recreation, while others are intended primarily as work vehicles.
Also consider overall intended use when deciding on your vehicle. If you do a lot of recreational riding and a little food plot building, or if you’re just doing smaller, remote plots, a four-wheeler might be a better option. If you’re looking more for a work-hunting rig, go with the SxS.
You’re going to need something to turn the soil. With an ATV, that pretty much means a disc harrow or plow. That disc, according to Dougherty, “should have serrated edges that will chew up the sod.”
For size (length), he cites 52 inches as a good ballpark. Intended application, amount of expected use and the size of your wallet will influence the specific type. Larger plows with multiple rows of discs will turn over more ground faster, but they’re heavier, less portable and more expensive. Tillers are better suited to larger equipment like tractors.
You can cover most applications with a disc plow, but an S-tine cultivator might be a better option for initial preparation of hard-packed soil. Its longer tines break up compacted ground. For extremely hard soil, consider the more rigid teeth of a chisel harrow.
Once the soil is turned, you’ll need something to spread lime, fertilizer and seed. The choices range from a simple hand spreader all the way to a full-sized hopper. Which you choose should depend on how large your plots are and how ambitious you are. You can save money and get a little exercise by using a hand or backpack spreader. Small tow-behind ATV spreaders are another option, and some are designed to attach to other implements.
You might also want a cultipacker or roller to improve seed-to-soil contact, particularly if you use a tiller versus a disc. This will reduce rows and larger crevices. If you don’t have one, use a lawn roller or throw a few cinder blocks on a wooden pallet and drag it around behind your ATV.
If you’re doing a lot of plotting, it might be more cost effective to purchase an all-in-one implement like a Plotmaster or Firminator. If so, be mindful of weight. Dougherty recommends something in the range of 350-1,000 pounds and advises leaning toward the lower end of this range. “A 1,000-pound all-in-one implement will max out the capabilities of a 750cc ATV,” he says. Soil type also affects what you can realistically accomplish. Many of the smaller implements like the Plotmaster 400 or Tufline ATVD series are specifically designed for ATVs and work well with enough horsepower.
Backing up just for a moment, there are some instances where you need to apply herbicide, and for that you’ll need a sprayer. Unless it’s a very small plot, a simple pump sprayer won’t be enough. You’ll want an electric sprayer you can mount on your ATV, and there are several available. For example, the Plot-Pro from Great Day has a 25-gallon corrosion-proof polyethylene tank, a 12-volt 60 PSI pump and a boomless nozzle that covers a 15-foot spray swath. One fill should be sufficient to cover about two acres when driving at three or four mph.
The first two steps in building plots with an ATV are identifying existing conditions and planning out your plots. Then you can begin treatment.
You’ll get the best bang for your seed dollar starting with bare soil. This gives you better seed-to-soil contact and eliminates competition. If the area is currently vegetated, it’s highly advisable that you remove it. Cut first (and yes, you can get mowers for your ATV). Wait several days (during peak growing season) to a week (in late summer), or until the plants begin aggressive regeneration. Then hit them with a herbicide like Round-Up or one of its generic counterparts. Some sources say four or five days, but unless you’re in a hurry, it’s better to wait a week or more before the next step.
Next it’s time to turn the soil. If you have a thick sod layer, begin with the disc more or less straight — perpendicular to the direction of travel — and shallow, using your disc just to cut the sod.
After you’ve sufficiently cut sod into small clods, you can begin increasing the disc angle and depth. When you’re finished, make a few passes with your cultipacker to settle the soil.
Next, apply the recommended amount of lime and fertilizer. You’ll know how much from the results of your soil test. The foundation of any successful food plot is soil.
Having the right nutrition and the right pH ensures a better crop. The $10 or $15 you spend on a test will be your best and most important investment. Then, after the minerals are down, it’s time to spread seed.
It would take an entire feature to describe and explain the options for what and when to plant (see “Designer Food Plots” in this issue). In very general terms, annuals provide varying nutrition throughout the growing season. They’re more often used for feeding plots. Perennials grow fast and provide more nutrition, but for a shorter time. As a result, they’re more popular for hunting plots. You can get a lot more information from seed packaging.
In terms of the plots themselves, feeding plots are generally larger and built with agricultural efficiency in mind and usually require easy access for big equipment. Hunting plots, on the other hand, are designed for shooting deer, and are where ATVs really shine.
ATVs are best for building smaller plots and can access remote areas. You can get yourself, your materials and equipment back into places where it’s inefficient, difficult or downright impossible to get a full-sized tractor. With the right equipment, you can carry everything you need in one trip.
With a side-by-side ATV for example, you can fill the bed with lime, fertilizer and seed and add a hand, backpack or hitch-mount spreader. There’s even one model of plow designed for just this application called the GroundHog Max.
Smaller plots in out-of-the-way places can be very effective. With less human activity, deer are more at ease and are less apprehensive about venturing into the open during daylight.
With a little scouting and planning, you could put their dining room right next to the bedroom. As a result, you’ll be able to spend more time in your own dining room. Read Recent Articles:
• The Crossbow Effect: Are they good or bad for the sport of hunting?
• The Trophy Equation: It takes more than one ingredient to make big bucks, and some factors are beyond a hunter’s control.
• Like an Oak: Declining oak forests could mean big changes for future deer herds.
This article was published in the September 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.