Gerald Almy: More tips on getting started with food plots

Gerald Almy

In Part I –  http://tiny.cc/pbsdcy –  of this series we covered the basics of buying equipment, choosing food plot locations, and laying out the sites, with consideration given to natural contours, prevailing wind direction, sun angle, and nearby cover. We stressed selecting locations not visible from roads and located along natural deer travel corridors, so the animals will find them and feel comfortable using them.

Now let’s get started putting in the plot.

Clear the site. First off, you’ll probably need to clear some brush, rocks, and maybe a few stumps or logs. Hopefully the site isn’t too rough or covered with trees. If it is, you may need to hire a dozer operator for this work. If not you can simply use the equipment you have to clear the site of all logs, branches, stones, and bushes.

Kill unwanted vegetation. Next you’ll need to spray weeds and grasses that are likely growing on the site. Glyphosate is the best non-selective herbicide for this and will kill most vegetation. Spray on a calm day with no rain predicted for a few hours, or hire your local farm co-op to spray it for you.

Wait 7-10 days until the vegetation dies and spray a second time if a significant amount of green is still visible. Then wait again until all the unwanted plants are dead. Now mow the dead vegetation down if it’s particularly tall or thick.

Test the soil. At this point you should pause in your preparation to do a soil test. Dig up a few dirt samples from several areas down to about 6-10 inches and mix them up. Collect separate samples for each plot site, unless they’re located close together. Send them off using places like your local farm cooperative, which often work with agricultural colleges, or mail-in kits from the Whitetailinstitute.com.

Fertilizer, lime needs

You’ll get results back in a few days that will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphate and potash you need according to the N-P-K readings. The test will also tell you whether you need sulfur, or perhaps small amounts of micronutrients such as boron, manganese, or zinc. A fertilizer company or farm co-op can mix up bags to suit your specific soil needs or you can buy general purpose fertilizers with the right ratios such as 5-10-10 and then add micronutrients separately if needed.

The test will also tell you how much (if any) lime you need based on the pH reading. Try to get this up in the 6-7 range. Apply lime as dictated by the soil test or have a fertilizer company do it when they apply needed nutrients.

Having a good pH reading and the proper levels of fertilizers is vital for obtaining the best food plot possible. Without them, crucial nutrients will remain chemically “bound” in the soil and not be available to the plants you are growing.

If you decide to skip the soil test (bad decision), at least add lime at about 1-2 tons per acre and apply a 5-10-10 or similar fertilizer to the soil.

Work the Earth

Once you’ve cleared the site, thoroughly killed the weeds and grasses present, and added needed lime and fertilizer, it’s time to till the soil. This will loosen it, mix in the lime and fertilizer, and kill most remaining weed seeds starting to pop up.

You can use a plow, disk, or tiller for this. Work the soil, wait a few days, and then work it again until you get a firm smooth seedbed with no large clumps. Remove any rocks you encounter. If the soil is wet and gums up, stop tilling. Wait for it to dry out until it’s easily worked and falls loosely through the hands when you crumple it.

Prepare the seed bed. For small seeds, cultipacking is good before planting. These include seeds such as clover, alfalfa, chicory, and brassicas. For larger seeds such as soybeans and lablab, this step isn’t necessary. Use a drag harrow, cultipacker, or drive over the plot with the ATV or tractor to firm the bed before planting. You can cultipack again after planting for even better soil-seed contact, but this isn’t mandatory.

Sow the seed

Pay careful instructions to each seed label to get the seeds planted at just the proper depth. This means 1/8-1/4 inch for small seeds mentioned above, ½ to 1 inch for larger seeds like cowpeas, lablab, and soybeans.

Also be sure to follow recommended seed amounts for the size food plot you have. These will usually be given as pounds per acre. This may be as little as 4-6 pounds for small seeds such as clover or brassicas to as much as 50-75 pounds per acre for large seeds such as soybeans or lablab.

What to plant

What exactly you should plant varies with the time of year. In spring, you can plant perennials such as alfalfa, clover and chicory. (These can also be planted successfully in fall.)

During late spring and summer, warm season annuals are the best bet. These include lablab, cowpeas, soybeans, and Sunn hemp.

In late summer and early fall, cereal grains and brassicas need to go in the ground. These can include wheat, oats, triticale, and rye in the grains and brassicas such as rape, kale, turnips, beets, and radishes.

Mixtures made by the major wildlife seed companies are often your best bet. The variety of plants included makes it likely that at least a few will do very well in your soils. It also ensures that some plants will always be at prime nutrition and palatability stage as they mature at different speeds.

With this step-by-step guide, you should be well on your way to successfully growing food plots that will not only help the deer and other wildlife on lands you own or manage, but also improve the quality of your hunting.

That’s a win-win proposition if you ask me.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.