Gerald Almy: Putting in food plots: How to get started
How beneficial are food plots? Consider this: a 1 acre food plot can offer deer more nutrition than 100 acres of mature woods.
To come close to producing this much nutrition from a small site, though, food plots must be done right. You don’t need expensive equipment and a college degree in agriculture. But you do need to know the proper steps to take and where and how to put plots in so they reach their full potential and produce the maximum amount of forage.
It takes a bit more than just buying a bag of seeds and tossing it out on a bare spot on the ground. In this week’s column and the next one we’ll look at how to get started in growing food plots.
Tools you use can range from a garden tiller and hoe at one end to a 40-50 horsepower tractor at the other extreme. ATVs fill in a strong spot between these two extremes, allowing you to work a much larger area than the tiller would, but not quite as well as with a tractor.
My personal choice is a small tractor in the 21-30 horsepower range. I’ve used 21- and 23-horsepower tractors for all of my food plotting. They have never seemed too “light” or lacked power for the tasks.
Of course if you’re going to be planting 10-20 acres of plots every year, moving up to a 40-50 horsepower machine is definitely a good idea. And by all means, whatever tractor you get it must be four wheel drive.
Implements you will need include a tiller or disc to work the soil and mower to control weeds and initiate fresh tender regrowth of clover and alfalfa. A cultipacker or drag harrow is also good to have, but not absolutely essential. These items are available for both small tractors and ATVs.
A pull-behind or mounted spreader is also a time-saver, but you can also just spread seeds by hand, either “throwing” them or using a hand-crank spreader. Finally, you’ll need a sprayer to apply herbicide and keep your plots as weed-free as possible. This can be a hand-held sprayer, pull-behind model, or power take off-driven version for a tractor.
Choosing the site
Once you’ve researched and settled on some basic food plot equipment, the next step is choosing the site for your plots. This is extremely important. Poor site selection can doom your food plot from the start.
Don’t choose ground that is extremely rocky, dry, or has lots of stumps, or trees (more than one or two) growing in it. Select open or partially open areas that receive at least six hours of sunlight a day, with 8-10 hours better still.
Old logging roads and landings in woods, overgrown fields, unused corners or edges on farms, and natural clearings in forests all offer possible sites.
Don’t be too concerned about the shape of the plot. It doesn’t have to be a perfect square or rectangle. Curved edges are fine. Deer tend to follow the natural contours of the land as they move anyway.
Besides these basics, consult your county’s agriculture maps to find areas with the best soil when possible. If you only have a few options, you’ll simply have to grow the plots where you can and skip this step.
Avoid areas near or visible from roads or the neighbor’s property. This may tempt people if they see good buck in the plots. And the vehicle activity and visibility will discourage most older bucks from using the plots except at night.
Where to locate them. Try to find areas to put plots in along a deer’s typical travel corridor. This will usually be a route from daytime bedding areas to larger evening feeding spots in agricultural fields, creek bottoms, or orchards.
Locate plots along this transition area, so the deer will be tempted to use them on their way to the evening and night feeding spots. But don’t put them too close to suspected bedding areas or you may not be able to approach the plots and hunt them without spooking the deer.
Keep in mind prevailing winds as you plan out your plots so you can get to your stand site without spooking the quarry or having your scent blow towards the site. Consider sun direction, too. The goal should be not to have to stare into a glaring sun during late afternoon hunts.
Also plant a few plots in more open areas strictly for nutrition. These should be spots you don’t intend to hunt. These are great locations for nourishing the herd and getting trail camera images. You can hunt trails back in the woods leading to these plots, but never hunt right over them or you’ll defeat their purpose.
Smaller hunting food plots closer to bedding areas should only be 1/8-1/2 acre in size and long and narrow in shape. That way a buck will feel comfortable knowing he can jump quickly into escape cover on either side with a few quick bounds. Nutrition plots can be larger — up to several acres — and shape isn’t as important.
Next week, Part II: Preparing the site, killing weeds, fertilizing and liming, working the soil, and planting.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.