This winter's brutal weather in the Shenandoah Valley has made things hard for food plot aficionados. There are not too many projects you can do when the temperature is 10 degrees and the wind chill is below zero and the ground is frozen like a block of cement.
But there are a few things you can do, and they're valuable projects.
Frost seeding is one option. If you have some plots that were thin with bare spots that needed filling out you can spread seed over them now. The freezing and thawing action of the soil will gradually work the seed in a quarter inch or so and in spring it will be ready to sprout.
Clearing rocks and debris from plots or places where you're planning to put one in is another good late winter-early spring project. Once the ground thaws you can also plant a few shrubs around the edges of your plots to make them more attractive to old, wary bucks that don't like to march into a "clean" plot in the open during shooting hours.
Alternately, you can cut a few low value trees bordering the plot and leave them on the ground to add some cover that will make bucks feel more comfortable using the plot in daylight.
Another extremely important project involves doing a soil test and applying lime and fertilizer. Lime takes several months to work down into the soil so it's good to get it applied now if your pH needs a boost.
Hiring local farm and agriculture companies to apply it is the most economical way. I recently added eight tons of lime to some of my plots, and I was pleasantly surprised at the bill from Valley Fertilizer and Chemical in Mount Jackson at a hair over $200, with a price of around $25 per ton applied. This of course will vary depending on the current price of lime. Not only was the price good, the driver did an excellent job making sure it was well spread.
If you have very small plots or can't get a truck in, you can buy pelletized lime at hardware or home stores and apply it by hand. Fifty-pound bags cost a couple of dollars.
Another vital step during these early months is to do a soil test. "When it comes to planting food plots, no other step offers the greatest potential to ensure optimum results and help save money as testing your soil through a qualified soil testing laboratory," says Jon Cooner, of the Whitetail Institute of North America (WINA.com; 800-688-3030).
"It's simple and inexpensive and it provides information that's critical to food plot success."
The Whitetail Institute offers soil test kits and will turn around your report quickly with specific recommendations for crucial fertilizers, or you can go to local farm co-ops and agricultural extension agents for the tests. Try to collect samples from each separate plot site, since soil needs can vary widely from plots just a few hundred yards apart.
To perform the test you'll need a test kit, a clean one-gallon bucket and small clean shovel or soil probe. The test will tell you how much fertilizer you need of each type and lime requirements (tons per acre). Of course the ground must be thawed, so some food plotters might have to wait a while to get their samples. Tell the lab what type of plants either grow in the plot or will be planted in it, so they can specify fertilizer needs for that particular seed.
"Not all forages need the same nutrients," says Cooner.
Follow the instructions step by step, and don't try to cut corners.
"Take as many plugs from as many areas of the plot as your common sense tells you is necessary for the sample to contain a good representation of the soils over the entire seedbed," says Cooner.
Having the right fertilizer added and tilled into your soil ahead of planting will ensure that the plants that emerge can extract the maximum amount of nutrients and minerals from the soil and transfer them to the deer and other wildlife that eat them. And that, in turn, will provide the healthiest herd of does and fawns and the maximum antler growth on bucks.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.