One of the largest undertakings of any hunting land improvement is developing food plots. Hunt clubs and leases utilize food plots as a supplemental food source for deer and other wildlife. The ideal plots will provide nutrition to help sustain wildlife when other food sources are scarce.
There is more to a food plot or green fields, as sometimes they are referred, than just throwing down some seed. To achieve a plot with quality forage, preparation, planting, fertilizer and the proper seed is a must. It is a trickle up effect. Better nutrients in the soil transfer to the plants and the nutritious plants provide quality food for healthier wildlife like deer and turkey.
Sure, minimum work and cheap seed can result in a field that is green. But, is there any food value in the plot. What about later in the hunting season? Will the plot continue to produce top-notch forage into January, February and longer?
Spending a little extra time and resources on food plots can improve the overall quality of your deer herd and other wildlife. And doing food plots correctly can help your hunting as well.
Ask any biologist about planting food plots and the first thing they will tell you is to get a soil sample. A soil sample is only about $20 and is the least expensive part of the food plot puzzle. Also, a soil sample may actually save you money in the long run with fertilizer and seed applications.
“A soil sample is the starting spot for any food plot,” said Jerod Knight of Cullman. “It will tell you the condition of your soil and what nutrients and the amount of fertilizer that needs to be added.”
Local farmer Co-Ops around the state can assist in obtaining a soil sample. They can also provide information on the report and help with lime and fertilizer applications if needed.
Size is a factor to consider for all of your food plots. Shape and size of the plots can vary throughout your property. Most food plots should be at least one to two acres. Plots need to be spaced somewhat evenly over the entire property. Depending on the land area and terrain, it may be better to have several plots of about ¾- to 1-acre rather than one or two giant plots. In some locations and on leases, owner restrictions may limit the size and number of plots.
A first-class food plot will provide a wide range of forage options. There will be various plants that will mature early and others that will withstand browsing and hard cold snaps. Proper seed selection and plant varieties will ensure your plot is balanced with good nutrition for several months.
Another important factor for a successful food plot is a firm seed bed. The soil should be tilled and free of weeds and unwanted grasses. It is a good idea smooth the soil surface before planting. Dragging a timber or chain harrow behind a disk will break up any clumps of soil.
“Proper seed-to-soil contact will result in better germination of the seed,” Knight said. “Starting with a firm seedbed and smooth soil will result in a better plot, especially with small seed like clover and brassicas.”
When to plant
There is a multitude of seed companies that offer many different varieties of single and blended seeds for food plots. Name brands like Whitetail Institute, Biologic and Pennington provide quality seed products that are designed for wildlife.
Seed companies can help hunters and land managers select the proper seed for their area and soil type. Certain plant varieties perform differently in different regions of the state. Some plantings will do better in the northern sections than in the southern portions.
Seed companies have already done the research in determining the variety and amount of each seed for a specific blend. Some blends are created for certain species like deer, turkey and ducks. Others have been developed for multiple game and wildlife species.
While these special blends may appear to be more expensive, the results are worth the difference. With quality seed there is better germination across the entire plot, if planted correctly. And with the blends the proper seed ratio is already in the bag.
My brother likes having a variety of plants in one plot give the deer something to browse through. Different plants mature at different times providing food for deer throughout the season. He has discovered different plant varieties mature at different times throughout the season.
Knowing the seed types can help land managers choose the proper seed for their area. Annuals are plants that grow for one season and die off. Wheat, cereal rye, turnips, and certain clovers, like crimson and arrowleaf are examples of annuals.
Perennials can grow over a couple of seasons. Certain types of clovers can last from three to five years once established. Some examples of perennials are White Dutch clover, ladino clover, and chicory. Red clover is classified as a biannual since its normal life span is about two years.
Some hunters and land managers may plant plot with pure strains of clover or clover mixes. These types of plots can provide food well into the springtime.
Add some chicory
A plant that is gaining in popularity among hunters and deer managers is chicory. This perennial is sometimes slow to establish but can grow for several years if managed properly. Chicory seed is very small and similar to clover seed. It is a forb and not a legume.
Ryan Basinger of Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) said one of the greatest benefits of chicory is it produces a long tap root, which helps it reach deep moisture during dry periods. This is good for drier areas of the South. Chicory also tolerates more acidic soils.
A study by the University of Tennessee reported that 60 percent of chicory was consumed by deer on low deer-density sites. According to the report, it ranked second only to soybeans among 20 different plant species including clover, cereal grains, and brassicas.
The QDMA mentions that chicory can be broadcast in a prepared seed bed at a rate of 8 to 10 pounds an acre. Or it can be drilled. In the South the best planting time is around early to mid-September.
This planting time will allow the long tap root to develop and produce forage later in the fall season.
Timing your plots
One situation food plot planters may experience is planting too early. Most plots are tilled and planted in the fall with cool season varieties. Some hunting clubs plant around Labor Day and this can be too early in most regions of the state.
Also, during this time of the year, the weather conditions can be dry and there is not enough soil moisture to germinate the seed. And if the seed does germinate the plants could wither and die due to lack of rain. Having the plots prepared and planting before a forecasted rain event is a wise choice.
Another issue is planting too early can have a growth of weeds that can choke out some of the smaller plants. Sometimes it is better to wait a little later tto allow the seeds to grow and get ahead of the weeds.
Many deer lease managers say planting too much seed can also be a problem in food plots. While the plots will grow and look healthy and green, all the plants are competing for water and nutrients. This can weaken the plants and the total amount of forage will be less.
Plots planted without enough seed can have it being overgrazed by deer and other wildlife. Food plot planters should follow the recommended seeding rate for the type and variety of seed they are using. This information should be indicated on the bag or contact the seed manufacturer.
Some land mangers broadcast an application of nitrogen fertilizer to their plots in late November to early December. The added nutrient gives the plot a boost and makes the plants more nutritious and palatable on into the winter months.
One of the main objectives of food plots is to provide supplemental food or forage to wildlife when natural food sources have declined or have been devoured. Ideally food plots will be available during the winter and early spring months before the natural forage returns.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoor editor. You can reach Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org.