Gerald Almy: How to avoid four common food plot mistakes

Gerald Almy

As food plot planting season arrives, there’s one step that can help your results probably more than any other: avoid making mistakes. I’m something of an expert on this topic. I have probably committed every flub-up in the book over the years when it comes to planting forages for deer.

Fortunately, I’ve learned from these mistakes and can help you avoid these potholes in the road to food plot success. Here are four common flub-ups you should try to avoid.

One. Not following soil test recommendations. Doing a soil test before planting food plots is crucial. Every parcel of soil has different composition, and almost all soil needs some help. A professionally done 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, 6.3-7.0.

Weeds and grasses thrive in acidic soils. With a low pH not only will your crops grow poorly, weeds will grow tall and outcompete them. A too low or (rarely) too high pH can also cause other problems such as making nutrients unavailable to the plants you’re growing. That reduces the value of adding fertilizer.

Soil tests also tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium you need as well as micronutrients such as manganese and boron.

Amazing as it may sound, many people get the test done and then fail to implement the recommendations. Why waste your time and money on a test if you’re not going to act on it to improve the health of the forages you grow?

Soil tests are available for a small cost from farm co-ops, agricultural colleges, and by mail through the whitetailinstitute.com. After first applying lime to bring the soil pH up into the 6-7 range, add the fertilizers the test recommends in the amount required per acre as shown on the report.

Two. Not spraying for weeds during the growing season. Hopefully you started with a prepared, weed-free or nearly weed-free site. The way to do that is to spray with an herbicide such as Roundup or generic glyphosate. Wait at least 10-14 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.

But far too many people neglect weeds as the growing season unfolds. Your tilling probably unearthed more weed seeds that will sprout, and wind and birds will blow and carry in others. Even the best prepared site won’t be weed free all season long unless you work on it.

Even with a weed-free site at planting time, you’ll still get noxious plants and competing grasses appearing during summer. Seeds will blow in and others that were in the soil’s seed bank will germinate. This is especially true with low-growing perennials such as clover and alfalfa.

Spraying with selective herbicides is the best way to control weeds. 2-4-D Butyrac, Pursuit, and Slay can be effective on broadleaf weeds. But grasses are often even more of a problem. Herbicides such as Arrest Max, Weedreaper, Select, and Poast will control those grasses to some degree. Following up with periodic mowing can also help. Spray the herbicides on when grasses and weeds reach 3-5 inch heights and again later in summer as they grow back and other varieties emerge. Use utmost care when handling these chemicals.

Taller-growing summer food plot plantings such as lablab, Powerplant, or Biolgic Biomass All Legume often grow fast and tall enough to choke out weeds. Eagle Seed soybeans such as Big Fellow and Large Lad also offer an excellent summer deer forage that is Roundup and glyphosate-tolerant, solving the summer weed control problem.

Three. Starting too early. After hunting seasons close it’s easy to get chomping at the bit to start plots. The truth is, doing much food plot work in early spring is usually a mistake. Sure, you can clear sites, remove rocks, test soil, add lime and fertilizer, and get things ready. But you shouldn’t go much further than that.

Soil is often too wet or semi-frozen in spring and working the ground only compacts it and makes it lose its airy porousness that is vital for proper plant growth. Only by waiting until the ground dries up and warms a bit can you get the fine-textured, smooth seed bed you need.

Weed growth is also often a problem too if you plant too early. Many of the weeds won’t emerge until after your crop is in. Then you immediately have strong competition from them for nutrients, moisture, and sunlight.

Wait until a fistful of soil breaks up easily in your hand and won’t gum up in a tiller. Also wait until the year’s first flush of weeds has emerged and you’ve killed it. Then get started. Or simply wait and plant now in fall to grow crops that will draw in deer during hunting season.

Four. Not deciding on the purpose of the plot. You need to decide with each plot why you’re growing it. Is it to help nourish the deer, or to provide a great hunting site? Try to designate food plots for different purposes. If there’s a great spot for a plot on your land but it’s a challenging one for a hunting setup, simply make it a “nutrition” plot designed to keep deer on your property and improve their health.

Many of my plots fit in this category. I knew when I put them in they weren’t practical to hunt. But I knew they’d help does raising fawns and bucks growing antlers and thus were worth the investment of time and energy. Hunting plots, on the other hand, need easy hidden access, good winds, and generally should be long and narrow in shape, with an hour glass design often best.

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