Gerald Almy: Tips for better food plots
Few things can improve both the health of your local deer herd and the success of your hunting more dramatically than putting in quality food plots. To help with that task, here are 20 quick tips that will help you grow the best food plots possible this year as prime fall planting dates approach for the Shenandoah Valley.
Do a soil test. This will tell you exactly how much fertilizer you need, including nitrogen, phosphate and potash. It will also tell you whether you may need sulfur and micronutrients such as zinc, manganese, or boron. Fertilizer companies can mix these lesser elements in when they sell you bags or apply it directly onto your plots.
Plant some nutrition plots and some hunting plots. Keep the hunting plots tucked in near good bedding cover where an old buck can slip in feeling secure using them in daylight. Make the nutrition ones larger and never hunt over them. Those are great spots for surveying the deer population with trail cameras.
Locate plots where they’re not visible from roads and property boundaries so you don’t tempt neighbors or poachers.
Pour on the lime. One to 2 tons of lime per acre applied every couple years will do wonders for almost all food plots or areas where you’re putting one in. If soils are too acidic (or too alkaline) key nutrients become chemically “bound” in the soil and are unavailable to the growing plants. Check the pH first to be even more precise. Raise it to 6.0-7.0.
If you only have a small amount of land for plots, mixtures are best with several varieties of plants deer might like. That way there will likely be one or two items that grow especially well in your soil. And the variety will guarantee there’s something that will appeal to every local deer’s taste buds. The different plants will also reach peak growth and nutrition levels at different times.
Follow the natural contours of the land. Those are the features deer follow. Plots don’t have to be rectangular or square.
If cover is lacking near your plot site, plant rows of Egyptian wheat, Sunn hemp, or native warm season grasses such as switchgrass, Indian grass and bluestem next to it or leading to it from nearby bedding cover. These will offer cover that will make older bucks feel more secure using the plot during shooting hours.
Be sure to rotate your crops. This is especially important for brassicas, which should not be grown on the same site more than two years in a row because of potential disease and pest problems.
Plant something different than the crops that are grown locally by farmers. They can probably do a better job with those crops. You need something special and unique to attract deer to your land — something they don’t find in large quantities all around them. Example: local farmers grow alfalfa. You should plant ladino and annual clovers.
Try to plant before a light rain, but not a downpour that could wash some of the seeds away and make for uneven plant growth.
Make sure you kill existing vegetation such as grasses and weeds thoroughly before planting. Spray several times if necessary, using herbicides such as glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup. Then disc or till several times to kill remaining vegetation. You can also flip the order and till first, then kill remaining and newly sprouted vegetation with herbicides.
Consider wind, sun direction, and surrounding cover when you plant so you can approach your plots without being detected. A plot won’t do you any good if you can’t get to it without spooking the quarry.
As a rule, unless you’re planting corn, or brassicas and cereal grains in fall, add very little or no nitrogen to food plots. This is especially true for clover and alfalfa, which produce their own nitrogen. Adding too much promotes weed growth.
Remove all rocks and debris before planting, then till repeatedly. You need a smooth, firm seedbed for the best crop. Then cultipack it so you get good soil-to-seed contact.
Don’t cover seeds too deep. You’ll smother them. Brassicas and clovers should only be planted 1/8- to ¼-inch deep. You can also just spread them on a smooth seed bed just before a rain and not cover them at all.
Make plots long and narrow rather than square when possible. Deer will feel more secure using them when cover is just a short jump away on either side of the long skinny plot.
Try to lay out plots facing south and west for late summer and fall plantings. This way they’ll get the maximum amount of afternoon sunlight.
Find spots that are level or only slight sloping. Too much slope will cause the seed to wash off after planting and the soil to erode during heavy rains.
Don’t skimp and buy cheap seeds. Buying a high quality seed ensures you’ll get the best results possible from the time and energy you put into growing your plots.
Keep a notebook or log of what you plant and where. Make note of how the plants fare and how well deer utilize them to learn what works best on your property.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.