It’s disappointing to put in time, money and effort and then see your food plot founder. Here’s how to avoid common food plot mistakes — those critical errors that doom your best efforts from the start.
Food plotters today have it made. At no other time has such a wealth of information been available on how to grow crops that will help your local deer herd and improve your hunting. You can search the Internet and read magazines such as Deer & Deer Hunting for the latest cutting edge insights. Or you can join a hunting club or Quality Deer Management Association chapter for tutoring and hands-on advice.
Things weren’t so easy back when I got into creating food plots many years ago. The movement was just getting started, spurred on by Ray Scott’s groundbreaking introduction of Imperial Whitetail Clover in the late 1980s.
Learning back then was mostly a process of trial and error. I was particularly proficient at the latter. That’s why I feel well qualified to write about the topic of making food plot mistakes. Over the years I’ve made about every flub-up possible, some several times over.
Fortunately, I learned from those mistakes and can help you avoid them. And even though information is easier to find today, many food plotters are still making critical mistakes that doom their efforts from the start. To save you the time, money and disappointment that are the price of mistakes, here’s a rundown of the 10 most common ones. I’ll delve into why plotters tend to make them, what the consequences are and how to avoid them.
Food Plot Flub No. 1:
Not Doing a Soil Test
You’re tired of hearing this one. But it dooms so many food plots to mediocre results, or worse yet, complete failure, that it merits being listed as the No. 1 mistake food plotters make.
It seems like a tedious step, and that’s why many beginners ignore it. But it’s crucial for growing the best food plots. In a haste to get moving it’s tempt- ing to just throw on some 10-10-10 fertilizer and a bit of lime, or worse yet, do nothing. But the fact is each food plot has different soil composition, and almost all soil needs some help. The test will tell you two crucial things: how acidic or alkaline the soil is and what exact nutrients it lacks.
The pH reading reveals how much lime the soil needs to bring it up close to the neutral range (7.0). You should strive for at least a 6.0 reading, or better still, 6.5 to 7.0. Weeds thrive in low pH, acidic soils.
With a low pH not only will your crops grow poorly, weeds will flourish — a double whammy. A too low or (rarely) too high pH can also cause other problems. It allows crucial nutrients such as phosphorous to become electrochemically “bound” with other particles in the soil and unavailable to the plants you’re growing. That reduces or negates any value of adding fertilizer.
And that brings up the second crucial piece of information soil tests give you: fertilizer needs. The soil test tells you exactly how much nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) your soil needs for the crop you intend to grow. You want to add the amounts required, but not more than that or you’re wasting money. Soil tests are available for a small cost from farm co-ops, agricultural colleges, and by mail through www.WhitetailInstitute.com.
Food Plot Flub No. 2:
Not Starting with a Weed-free Site
Nothing can ruin a food plot quicker than being overrun by unwanted weeds and grasses. Before even thinking about planting, spray the site with a non-selective herbicide such as Roundup or generic glyphosate. Wait at least 10 to 14 days and if there’s still some green growth, spray again. If the weeds aren’t gone before you plant, the plot faces an uphill battle from the start.
In addition to spraying, till or disk the plot after the herbicide has done its work. Then repeat this step again a week or two later. This will uproot and smother any remaining weeds and newly emerged plants that the tilling brought to the surface. It will also smooth and prepare the seedbed for planting.
Food Plot Flub No. 3:
Not Matching Plants to Soil
If you enjoy success with a particular forage, it’s tempting to plant more and more of it all over the property. That might be a poor decision, though. Depend- ing on whether the soil is mostly dry upland or moist bottomland, clay, loam or sandy in consistency, different food plot forages might be required to get the best results. Don’t just assume because ladino clover did well for you in a lowland plot that it’s the best bet for an upland site that’s drier. It won’t be. Similarly, some plants such as oats might not mind a low pH, while for others, such as alfalfa, a near-neutral pH is vital.
Learn the soil characteristics of the different areas where you plant plots. A good source for research is the NRCS website: www.WebSoilSurvey.nrcs.usda.gov. Consulting with your county extension agent, a wildlife biologist or other food plotters or farmers near you can also be helpful. The amount of sunlight the plot receives is also important and can favor one forage over another, as can the accessibility for getting equipment in to prepare the site. “One size fits all” doesn’t work in food plotting.
Food Plot Flub No. 4:
Not Considering Potential “Huntability”
Of course some plots may be planted just to help provide nutrition to deer. But if you plan to hunt it, consider every strategic aspect before you lay it out and put it in. Is there access to the plot that will allow you to approach without being spotted by deer? Does the prevailing wind direction blow away from where deer are likely bedded in relation to the field?
How about sun angle? Are you going to be staring into a glaring afternoon sun? Some hunters also put in plots too close to bedding areas and then find them difficult to approach without spooking deer. A better bet is to put it slightly farther along likely travel routes toward major evening feeding areas.
WATCH: ARE FOOD PLOTS IMPORTANT ON SMALL ACREAGES?
Food Plot Flub No. 5:
Too Many Single-Species Plantings
If you have a large property and want to experiment and compare how deer use specific plant varieties, this makes an interesting project. But for most small-property landowners, mixtures are preferable to single- species food plots.
Wildlife seed companies conduct extensive research to discover plant combinations that grow well together and complement each other. For just a few bucks more than buying cheap generic single plant seeds, you can put in these mixtures designed in just the right portions so the larger plants don’t overwhelm the smaller ones but rather complement them and protect them, too.
The plants included will also often reach peak palatability at different times. For instance, a cereal grain/ brassica mixture might tempt deer first with its tender early oat shoots in September while the kale, rape or turnips in the mixture become more attractive after the first frost converts the starches in the plants to sugars.
I’ve also found that some bucks prefer a specific plant while others prefer a different one. Having a mixture ensures that all of the deer in your area will likely find something to their liking in your plots. And if one plant doesn’t do well in the soil on that site, chances are the others will thrive and compensate for that poor performer. Of course there are exceptions to this advice. A pure radish, ladino clover or oat plot can be dynamite!
Food Plot Flub No. 6:
Putting Plots Too Close to Roads or Property Boundaries
If you have good potential plot sites in these areas, it’s hard to resist not planting them. But there are two negatives to this. One, unscrupulous people might be tempted to poach a big buck they see in the plot. Two, mature animals will be wary of using these sites because of road traffic or activity on the neighbor’s land.
If you don’t have many other choices, shield these plots by planting strips of annual crops such as sorghum, Egyptian wheat, Sudan grass or Mossy Oak’s Blind Spot, which can grow 8 to 10 feet tall. For a long-term solution, consider planting native warm season grasses such as switchgrass, Indian grass, big and little bluestem, or fast-growing conifers such as white pine.
Food Plot Flub No. 7:
Not Planting Some Drought-Tolerant Crops
Much of the country experiences extended, dry periods every summer. Have some plots put in that will continue to produce at least some forage and not die-off in these conditions. This will take some of the pressure off of stressed crops such as clover that will usually survive through dry times, but not produce much palatable forage in the withering heat.
Top choices include lablab, sunn hemp and Eagle Seed Roundup-Ready soybeans. Chicory is also good and is often mixed with ladino clover by wildlife seed companies to take some of the pressure off that legume during the driest periods.
Food Plot Flub No. 8:
NotProtecting Vulnerable Plants When They are Young
Many food plot plants, such as clover, sunn hemp and cereal grains are fairly immune to early browsing pressure. Others, such as soybeans, lablab, cowpeas and sunflowers, can be destroyed if fed on heavily by deer as soon as they emerge. I’ve had whole fields of lablab and soybeans demolished in a few days before I learned ways to prevent this disaster.
Choose one or a combination of methods for protecting young vulnerable plots during their early growth stages, including electric fencing, Milorganite fertilizer, nurse crops and Plot Saver or P2 Plot Protector ribbon and deer repellent systems.
If you have enough land available, simply putting in more crops than the deer can destroy during their first four to five weeks when they are most vulnerable is a great approach. Overwhelm them with the amount you put in. Then many of the areas they have fed on will come back as the deer move on to other plants in a different section.
Food Plot Flub No. 9:
Not Considering the Security Needs of Mature Bucks
Too many people want picture-perfect, neatly manicured plots with neat open borders. The fact is a plot with brushy edges, a deadfall in the middle, a row of tall grass leading into it and a pile of cut cedars nearby is more likely to entice a mature buck out into the open during shooting light. A natural, shrubby look with some cover and brush or blowdowns will be more appealing to an old, wary animal than a neatly trimmed plot bordering an open crop field on one side and a mature forest on the other.
Add shrubs and a few fruit trees. Plant a row of conifers or warm season grasses bordering it and knock down or hinge-cut a couple of low-value trees on the edge. Pile some cedars to block an entry point you can’t cover and provide a feeling of security to nearby bucks. You want them to think this isn’t a man-made trap, but just an appealing, secure place that happens to have some really tasty food growing amid the security cover.
Food Plot Flub No. 10:
Not Getting the Kids and Family Involved
Perhaps even more than hunting,food plot work is fun for the whole family. Start them early. Bring your spouse, children, grandkids or a neighbor’s kids. You don’t have to be quiet and whispery like you do on a stand and can have a blast working the land, spreading seed and watching and tending your crops as they grow. Share it and appreciate the help you’re getting while also instilling an interest in land and wildlife management that will sustain them with a lifetime of rewards that come from being deeply involved with the outdoors, nature and white-tailed deer.
— Gerald Almy is an award-winning outdoor writer from Virginia who enjoys improving the habitat for whitetails on his farm as much as he enjoys hunting them.