Food Plots 101: An Introduction to Creating a Healthy Food Source for Your Deer
By: Lyle Gibbs
EvoOutdoors Team Member
Something that draws a lot of attention in the hunting world, especially in whitetail country, is food plots. You know those times as you are driving home right at sunset or on your way to work early in the morning and your headlights cross the corner of that field and all you see is sets of eyes look up at you? In this post I will walk you through some simple steps to help you better understand the science of food plots and what it takes to produce a healthy, quality stand that your deer and other wildlife will enjoy.
To begin, let’s start with site selection. This is probably one of the harder parts of creating a good food plot. A lot of times you are limited to an area between groves of trees or a small corner of a production field or maybe even in that back of your pasture at home. These locations can work great and be easy to get to but a lot of times you run into issues like poor drainage, lack of air movement (hard frost), or maybe a rock bar from an old stream. If possible, choose the best location possible by looking up your county soil maps, each soil type will be defined by a number or number and letter combination. These numbers will then be placed on a key that will have the name of the soil type and a description of what they are. For instance, a common soil type around here is 98 Waldo, a silty clay loam. A lot of times this is found in lower spots in fields, that are poorly drained, where the river or creek may wash out in the winter time and leave silt deposits when the water regresses back.
One of the biggest controlling agents for a healthy stand is soil pH and soil nutrients. This can be checked with a standard soil test than can be submitted to your local farm store, fertilizer/chemical dealer, or by checking online for a lab near you. The sample is usually pulled in a profile of 0-8 inches deep throughout multiple spots in the field. Let’s say you have a half acre you are looking to plant I would pull 3 or 4 samples and place them all in a clean bucket and mix them together. This sample can then be placed in a bag (usually provided by the lab) and sent in for testing. If possible I would have them send the results and a recommendation for lime requirements. For example, if your soil pH level comes back as a 5.8 and your crop requires a 6.5 you may need to spread 2 tons of lime to the acre (these numbers are just an example). These tests will normally give you levels for Phosphorus and Potassium as well. Besides Nitrogen, these two nutrients play a key role in overall crop establishment, health, and recovery. The lab should be able to inform you on what levels are adequate for your area.
Once you have established a location and built up your soil nutrient levels it is time to choose a crop. I like something with variety. A legume blend is a good option, high protein, quick recovery from grazing, low impute, heat and cold tolerant, and easy to maintain. A nice blend may contain alfalfa which we know deer love, a clover that will germinate and grow fast, another legume like birdsfoot trefoil that will fill in slowly but leave you a very hardy stand, and also something like chicory which will give you big leaves with lots of forage material. With these crops you are able to use selective products for grass control which leave you with only the forage crops that you want. A lot of times these aggressive growing legume crops will need to be mown off (not too short) throughout the year to prevent them from going to seed and maintain vigorous healthy new growth. Another added benefit of these legume crops is their ability to fixate nitrogen on their own which means less fertilizer requirements from you.
I will list the steps below of how the preparation is can be done to establish a healthy food plot.
- Site Selection
- Choose the best soil you can.
- Measure to know the size of area.
- Soil sample.
- Chemical Burndown
- Glyphosate products.
- Remove any grass or weeds growing.
- Field Prep.
- Plow or disk under dead plant material.
- Soil Amendments
- Lime to desired pH
- Fertilize to adequate P and K levels.
- Choose desired planting blend.
- Broadcast seed (after risk of frost).
- Drag/work seed into soil.
- After germination.
- Legumes (use low nitrogen blend ex. 6-24-24).
- Use a selective herbicide for grass control.
- Addition of an adjuvant may be beneficial.
- Always read the label before using any chemicals.
- Mowing may be necessary throughout late spring and summer.
- Enjoy watching your wildlife and prepare for hunting season!
There are many benefits to having a food plot in your hunting area. Giving deer a variety of food to choose from besides what nature provides will naturally attract deer to the area. Having a food plot with multiple crops in it will give them even more reason to come back throughout the entire year as different crops are available. Alfalfa, clover, and chicory all provide high levels of protein and nutrients to help promote not only antler growth but also overall herd health which in turn will lead to better breeding success, healthier fawns with quality milk production from the does, and most importantly you are being a steward of the land and doing your part in creating habitat for the wildlife in your area.
Please keep in mind that these are only general guidelines to help you get started and that every location is different than the others. Do your homework to create the best habitat possible with minimal disturbance to the natural landscape. There are always local agronomists and biologists willing to help as well so don’t be afraid to contact them with any questions that you have.