Follow these tips to maximize plant growth and palatability for deer.
It was bad. Germinating right before the drought hit, the farmer’s soybeans never had a chance. The only thing in that area of the farm to survive was the acre of clover I’d established earlier that spring.
But with the farm crops ruined, I desperately needed more food for the property’s whitetails. Luckily, I still had time.
I scrambled to establish a lush growth of brassicas. Sure, it was a month past the recommended planting date, but the lack of rain left no other choice. Softball-sized turnips weren’t to be, but the fist size ones they turned out to be saved my bacon.
Waiting until the last afternoon of the firearms season, I slipped in to the stand covering the plot. It was still more than an hour before dark when the buck I was after emerged.
From the reaction of the other bucks already feeding, there was no mistaking who owned the plot and the does on it.
When he presented a good shot, I sent a hunk of lead his way. As much as I’d like to pretend he crumpled because of my superior hunting skills, the credit belongs to the carefully planned and thriving food plot.
Ultimately, there are seven controllable keys to creating successful food plots. Address those, and you’ll be much happier with your planting efforts.
As with real estate, location is the key for a food plot to be a real killer. Put it in the right spot, and your hunting will improve greatly.
One of the biggest mistakes food plotters make is planting where it’s easy, instead of where the plot would pay the most hunting dividends.
One of my goals is to provide nutrition for deer. But I want to do it in a way that increases my odds of taking a big buck. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Achieving both won’t happen without an in-depth knowledge of how deer use the property, along with land features you can use to your advantage.
The first step is to figure out where the deer are bedding and feeding, where they are traveling, what funnels exist and if any natural features provide low impact access to and from the plot.
Let’s say a high banked creek runs through the property. Scouting reveals deer cross at a low point in the bank. With the bedding areas on the east side of the creek, a plot placed about 100 yards west of the crossing would be ideal.
With a little dozer work to open the plot, and with stands on the north and south sides of the creek crossing, we now have a location that can be safely hunted throughout season. The bedding area and food plot are safe distances from the creek, and the multiple stands provide hunting opportunity on almost any variation of a north or south wind. The creek also provides nearly undetectable access to the stands.
Rarely do existing plots or easy locations provide all these benefits.
On the flip side, the location can’t be too difficult, either. It does little good if the area is flooded for much of the growing season or if the soil resembles a desert.
Luckily, except in extreme cases, there’s a wide enough variety of seed types to effectively match most soil conditions. The key is to identify the type of soil and its general moisture content.
For example, a sandy hilltop with little moisture will narrow crop possibilities dramatically. The same can be said for a wet, clay creek bottom that’s just dry enough to plant, but experiences brief occasional flooding.
Some of you are lucky enough to have rich, loam-based flat ground that offers almost limitless options, but you’re the exception. For the rest of us, it’s critical to identify soil characteristics.
Collect about a sandwich bag of spoonful samples of topsoil from random areas of the plot. For a small fee, many local feed mills will analyze the dirt and tell you exactly how much lime and fertilizer is required.
Once you know your soil type, moisture level and pH, you’ll have an idea of what you can plant.
Field lime takes more than six months to break down to a usable state in the soil. Pelletized lime is more expensive but faster acting, and 1,570 pounds is as effective as 2,000 pounds of field lime.
The increased effectiveness helps offset some of the increased costs, and its faster breakdown can really help first-year plots.
Three tons per acre is the maximum amount of any lime that should be applied in a single year.
Seed selection is partly determined by pH since some plants require a higher pH to thrive. For example, clover is a workhorse of a food plot, but it needs at least a pH of 6 to thrive — 6.5 is better.
A clay soil with a pH of 5.0 would require 5.3 tons of field lime to hit 6.0. With three tons, the maximum you should apply, that only brings the pH to just over 5.5. You would be better off to plant a more acidic tolerant plant, such as winter rye or brassicas the first year. You could switch to clover in year two after a second three-ton application of lime.
That’s a lengthy way of saying seed selection should begin by identifying soil type, moisture levels and pH. Plant something that has a good chance to grow in the soil you have rather than the soil you wish you had.
Another advantage of opening a new plot is the opportunity to shape it in such a way as to influence how deer come and go.
The biggest downside to clearing timber is the work involved, especially if you’re working with a chain saw and a strong back to get the job done.
It’s more affordable than you might think to rent the services of a bulldozer operator. In my consulting jobs in the upper Midwest, I always find local dozer operators who work for less than $80 an hour.
That sounds like a lot until you consider that a decent operator can clear three or more small food plots, and complement each with small water holes, in less than a day.
When the land allows, I prefer an hourglass shape, with the pinch being about 30 yards wide. I have the dozer operator push the trees into a blockade along both sides of the pinch.
By placing stands on both sides, the blockade stops deer from entering behind the hunter. The pinch provides easy shot opportunities on browsing deer and a water hole within the pinch further encourages deer to meander through.
I’ve had great success creating such plots 50 to 200 yards back from existing primary food sources.
Hunting the edges of large farm fields, meadows and young clearcuts is a nightmare for wind-conscious hunters, not to mention trying to find stealthy access. A little planning can remove those challenges on small plots inside cover.
Further, mature bucks that avoid large food sources during daylight are far more willing to frequent smaller, in-woods food plots during legal shoot-ing hours.
That brings us to the size of the plot. Size depends on whether you’re creating a hunting plot or a nutrition plot.
Both are important for holding and managing deer, but we’ll focus on hunting plots for the sake of this article.
I prefer hunting plots to be somewhere between a half and a full acre.
Whitetails feel more comfortable on smaller plots where they are never more than a jump from cover. The smaller size also provides opportunities for bowhunters, particularly for hourglass-shaped plots.
A 1-acre plot is usually large enough to prevent over-browsing but small enough to keep deer comfortable.
SEED BED CREATION
The next key is to prepare a proper seed bed. Once again, we’ll assume you’re not planting a grain crop like corn, sorghum or soybeans.
If you have an average or above average deer population, grain plots should be at least 4 acres. Anything less will be eaten in the blink of an eye. Most varieties of peas don’t do well in small plots for the same reason.
Since that eliminates most of the popular seeds that are commonly drilled for planting, the most difficult part of seed bed preparation is discing.
Although not as labor intensive, dragging, cultipacking, liming and fertilizing are all important. If you skip any step, your food plot will suffer or fail completely.
Finally, the best food plot in the world won’t pay dividends if it’s not hunted intelligently.
If you’re sloppy and take for granted the deer will always come to the plot, it won’t be long before deer visit it only at night or not at all.
How often you can hunt a plot depends on how it’s laid out and the quality of your access routes.
If you can remain undetected, it wouldn’t hurt to hunt a plot every day. If, however, access is noisy or there’s a high chance you’ll be spotted, even by does, save your food plot hunts for key times when the wind is right and for a time of year a bigger buck is likely to visit it.
When properly planned and established, food plots can be essential management and incredibly successful hunting tools. Like so many other things in life, though, you get out of a plot what you put into it.
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This article was published in the July 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.