Land Management

Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots

Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots

By Kent Kammermeyer

1. Understanding basic wildlife needs when developing your property will help you get started and lead to much greater success. Making sure you meet the basic needs of wildlife is essential to developing a true wildlife refuge that will make your property a real showplace. Food, water, shelter and a place to raise young are the basic necessities needed by wildlife to survive and thrive on your property.

2. The next step to successful food plots is knowing and understanding your objective. Land managers develop food plots on their property for many different reasons. Determining your main goals and objectives up front will help you establish the right kind of plot. Before you begin, ask yourself these questions: Is your food plot intended to facilitate the harvest of game, to develop a wildlife viewing area, to improve management, to increase carrying capacity, or a combination of these goals? Your goals and objectives will help you determine the different sites, planting materials, size and shape of the plot and plot management techniques you use in establishing a successful wildlife food plot on your property.

3. After determining the goals and objectives for developing food plots, the next step is site selection. The location you choose is very important to the success of your plot. If your goal is to establish a plot only for harvest, you will want to locate it within clear view and close proximity to your stand. On the other hand, if you are developing a plot to feed deer to improve antler size, promote milk production in does, increase body size and promote overall herd health, you will want to select a site that is in an isolated area. A secluded, undisturbed area will promote greater use of the plot allowing wildlife to come and go as they feed without fear. Many areas throughout a farm will make ideal sites to establish a food plot. These areas would include woodland openings, right-of-ways, firebreaks, logging roads, log decks, interior roads, thinned pines, field corners, etc. Just keep in mind that all plots need at least 50% sunlight to be productive. In addition, soil type and weather will help to determine which crops will grow best. Food plots are very attractive to wildlife, so careful selection is important. Never locate a plot near a roadside or in plain view of a road or near property lines.

4. The size and shape of your food plots can make a difference. The size of the plots or overall acres to be planted can be difficult to determine. One rule of thumb is to plant at least 2 to 5 acres for every 100 acres of habitat. You should start off on the lighter side of the percentage and work to build more plots as deer utilization increases. Depending on natural habitat, deer density and many other factors, you will need to increase the total number of acres you plant over time to maintain a reasonable amount of growth within each plot. Once again, it is important to understand your goals and objectives because they will play a major role in determining the size and shape of your plots.

For example, if you are strictly a bow hunter looking to establish a harvest plot, you will want to locate your plot close to a good stand location with the outermost edge of the planting still in bow range. A number of factors will play a role in determining the size and shape of your food plots. The factors include, but are not limited to, overall number of plots you will have, total acres you want to plant, distance between plots, game species you want to attract, lay of the land (slope, direction to the sun, lowland or upland). Even the plants you want to grow can determine the size and shape of your food plots.

How the food plot will affect the surrounding landscape will also be a consideration. For example, many game species benefit from edge created alongside a food plot. Creating an edge effect will give wildlife more diverse habitat, cover, more diverse food supplies and make them feel more secure. A long narrow food plot with a bend or two would be the most preferred shape for creating the most edge effect. In addition, leaving a natural grass/weed/vine habitat along the edge of the plot or tree line is great for attracting and increasing insects for turkey and quail chicks. Edge areas should be disked every third year to keep them from getting too overgrown.

Disking edge areas: Divide edge areas into thirds, so you only disk one third of the areas each year. Disk across these areas multiple times to kill any tough weeds that have established over the past two years. Smooth the surface so that the soil is easy for quail and turkey chicks to pass through. Then let nature take its course. Grass and weeds will soon fill in, creating cover, an insect haven and additional natural food supplies.

5. Once you have selected a site or sites to grow your food plots the next step is soil testing. Food plots are crops and understanding the soil, its fertility requirements and ability to grow different plants is essential for success. Good soil fertility can mean the difference in how much food per acre you can grow, how well your plants will compete with weeds, the survivability of perennials, simple nutrient uptake and many other important factors. One of those other factors is pH. Most plots require a pH in the range of 6.0 to 7.0. Many land managers overlook soil testing and never realize that many of the problems they encounter come from this oversight. Do not underestimate the importance of soil fertility and pH. For example, a soil pH of 5.0 will cause about 50% of all the fertilizer you apply not to be utilized by the plants you are growing. In dollar value, this means that fifty cents of every dollar spent on fertilizer is wasted. You are encouraged to test your soil and keep the pH around 6.5. It can make the difference in your success or lack thereof. In addition, a good, well-balanced, complete fertilizer applied at ideal times is essential.

Pennington Wildlife Food Plot Fertilizer 8-12-12 at a rate of 400 pounds/acre or 10 pounds/1,000 sq. ft. may be all the fertilizer your plots need to be lush and healthy. This fertilizer is specially formulated for wildlife food plots as well as native and natural vegetation. It is made up of slow release nitrogen that will last for months, plus it has all the major and minor nutrients your plants will need, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, boron and more. In addition, it contains dolomitic palletized limestone as the filler to aid in neutralizing acidic woodland soils. This complete fertilizer is made of 100% usable ingredients, so you are not buying and hauling heavy fillers that take up space, add weight and do nothing to help your plot grow.

6. Field preparation is the next step to developing a successful food plot. The current condition of your food plot will determine how to get started. Young seedling plants cannot compete with established weed competition, so if weeds are a problem a good chemical burn-down is essential. In addition a good seedbed will make a big difference in how well these plots establish. The best method of doing this is to kill the weeds, then disk and drag to prepare a smooth, level seedbed. Finish by firming the soil before planting the seed with some type of roller or packer. This will kill all of the existing weeds, remove all vegetation and debris from the site, break up the hard soil and firm everything back to a smooth level surface. Fertilizer and lime can be applied during the disking step so that it can be worked into the soil. A fine soil texture is most desirable, so break up clods and level the soil as you work it. This will create an ideal seedbed for even the smallest seed such as white clover to thrive.

7. Seed selection comes next and is vital to accomplishing your goals in establishing your plots. Different species of wildlife will utilize different plants throughout the year, so know what you are planting, where it grows, how it grows, when it grows, what wildlife will be attracted to it and how productive it will be. Other considerations will include knowing the plant material and its ability to grow high quality, high protein food plots and knowing if they will be drought, heat or cold tolerant.

8. Be as diligent at planting the plot as you are in selecting the right seed. Today there are many different planting implements to choose from including drills, no-till drills, cyclone seeders that fit your truck, tractor or ATV, and also hand-held seeders. In addition you must consider the date, timing, soil moisture, soil temperature, soil condition, seed coatings, inoculants, planting depth and all the other considerations mentioned in these planting guidelines. Consider all of these factors while you are in the planning stages. This will pay huge dividends in the end. Plant the seed evenly at the recommended seeding rate. Use a drag or packer to cover the seed no deeper than the maximum depth indicated. Good seed to soil contact is key to establishing a productive food plot.

9. Understanding how to manage your food plot is also a key component to its success or failure. Maintaining a good soil fertility program, keeping the plot weed free and scouting for potential insect or other pest problems can aid in extending the life of any food plot, increasing the overall yield of the plot and achieving full satisfaction for you.

10. Food plots are supplemental plantings, so knowing when wildlife will utilize these plots will help you enjoy them even more. There are two major periods each year when wildlife needs these plots the most: late summer and late winter stress periods. A good food plot will be growing strong through the fall and late winter to supply wildlife forage during harsh winter conditions. Likewise, the same is needed through the spring and summer months to supply wildlife during summer droughts and the late summer stress period. Managers should expect utilization to be at its peak during these two most stressful times of the year.

These times are also good times to evaluate your plots to determine if there is enough food on the table, or if more needs to be planted in subsequent years to better meet the needs of wildlife through these stressful periods. Attractiveness of the forage also attributes to utilization. Simply put, certain plants are more preferred than others and certain plants are preferred during different times of the year. During the 200-day antler development cycle, bucks need a high protein food source, while during the fall, they need foods high in carbohydrates to store fat. Developing plots with diversified plants is an easy way to cover all your bases. Mixtures of seed that have been properly formulated are easy to obtain to achieve this diversity.

11. At the end of the day every land manager wants to evaluate and judge the plot on how well it was utilized by wildlife. This can be done simply by making an exclusion cage to keep deer, turkey, rabbits and all other game out of a given area. An exclusion cage can be made of heavy gauge wire and staked to the ground so it will not move. This will allow the same amount of sunlight, rain and fertilizer on the area, but will eliminate any browse pressure from that specific spot. In time you should see the enclosed area grow and mature inside the cage while the productive plot around it will be eaten down, especially during the stressful months of the year. An exclusion cage can also tell you a lot about your plot. Many managers will plant a plot and not return for several weeks and in some cases, the return can be a disappointing one.

When the manager sees the area and it is bare ground or full of grassy weeds, they tend to assume the plot did not germinate, or perhaps germinated, but did not survive. An exclusion cage is invaluable because it gives you a protected area so you can evaluate exactly what has happened in your absence. If the seed did not germinate, then both inside the cage and outside should look the same. But if plants are growing strong inside the cage, but don't appear to be growing outside the cage or you only see weeds outside the cage, you will know that wildlife moved in and ate all the forage production. And it should tell you to plant more because wildlife in this area does not have enough to eat.

12. Natural and native vegetation is important wildlife food. As you establish supplemental food plots, be sure to maintain native and natural fruit and nut trees, shrubs, hedges, vines and other plant materials already present so that the overall habitat is more appealing to the species of wildlife you are managing. Properly identifying, fertilizing and caring for these plants is key to ensuring they survive on your property. Pennington's Wildlife Food Plot Fertilizer has a complete fertilization label for these plants. Refer to the back of the bag for complete details.

13. Mineral licks can also be an important part of an overall food plot program. A good mineral lick can provide essential minerals not provided by the food plot or natural vegetation. Rackmaster Deer Mineral is a complete all natural, loose mineral supplement that can help to achieve overall herd health. This 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus plus sodium chloride can be applied straight onto the ground or placed on a stump or log. It is easy to use and blends in well with its surroundings.  It is utilized most during the spring, summer and early fall months. The loose mineral product makes it easy to recharge licks and keep plenty of minerals available as a free choice supplement.

14. The final step in creating successful food plots is keeping records. Good record keeping will help you in a number of ways. The information should be logged into some form of diary or record book and should include seed planted, time of year planted, rate and depth of planting, growth and observations, fertilizer and lime used along with rate and date of application, animals observed or harvested and any other information you choose to jot down for future reference. It will be a valuable reference for you at a later date.

— By Kent Kammermeyer / Certified Wildlife Biologist/Consultant

Copyright 2021 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd