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DIY: Getting Started with Food Plots

Sponsored by: Kubota
June 2018

Food Plot

Creating food plots can be an enjoyable pastime that allows you to plant a variety of forage or cover crops to attract not only animals but can also benefit pollinators. If you are new to food plots, or have never planted one yourself, it is important to understand the basics of getting your land prepared for planting. Here are some initial suggestions for getting your plot ready to plant.

Location

The old real estate mantra when purchasing a house, “location, location, location,” also applies to deciding where to put your food plot. Sometimes, we are limited in our choices for the plot location, but remember that it is crucial that your plot gets ample sunlight – at least six to eight hours a day at a minimum. Without adequate sunlight, no matter how well you prepare your plot site, your seeds will have a hard time germinating and even harder time growing.

It is very important to take into consideration the type of soil on your plot site. Whether the soil is clay, loam, sandy, silt, rocky, or – if you are lucky – good black soil will have an effect on the ability of the soil to either hold or drain moisture. Even if your soil has good drainage, planting your food plot in a low area that is susceptible to runoff from nearby hillsides or subject to flooding from sloughs or rivers can ruin a good looking food plot before it has a chance to mature.

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Soil Test

A soil test is a very inexpensive but absolutely necessary step in assuring a successful planting and assured growth of your food plot. Even though the area that you are planning to put your plot may be lush with foliage and grasses, it should never be assumed that it will be suitable to grow a cover crop or other forage without analyzing the soil.

Understanding the pH, or acidic level of the soil, is the first step in finding out if you need to amend the soil by adding lime. The pH is a measure of the acidity and alkalinity of the soil. If the soil is either too acidic or too alkaline, it will prohibit the soil from taking up the nutrients it needs. The range of the soil’s pH levels can be from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Anything below 7 is acidic and above 7, alkaline.

Soil tests are very easy to do and most local extension services provide the testing or will point you to a lab that will do the test for $10 to $25, depending on your location. Once you receive your soil test from the service, it will usually give you the necessary information on how much lime or other nutrients to add to the soil, depending on what type of crop you are going to plant.

Clearing the Site

Rotary Cutter

Once you have selected your food plot site, you will need to clear all the existing grasses or weeds from the area. There are two methods of clearing existing weeds and grasses from larger food plots; mowing the site with a brush mower or you can carefully burn the plot area.

If you decide to burn off the grasses and weeds on your food plot, make sure that you have the skills to keep the fire contained and have secured the necessary permits that may be required in many locations. Factors like wind and humidity can allow a small burn to spread to adjacent woods or even your neighbor’s property.

Mowing the plot with a tractor-mounted rotary mower is a great way to cut the existing grasses, brush, and even small saplings. Depending on the size of the plot, and if you don’t have access to a tractor-mounted mower, using a walk-behind brush mower will also do the job. Most rental centers have walk-behind rough-cut mowers available to rent, and they do a great job but can be physically demanding on a larger plot.

Weed Elimination

After you have cut down or burned the grasses and foliage on the plot, the next step is to spray a weed killer after the newly mowed or burned plot starts to grow back. Eliminating weeds that will compete with your plantings is very important. After spraying a weed killer such as glyphosate, wait at least seven to ten days before tilling the soil to make sure that you have a complete die off on the plot. If there are areas that are still green and growing, it’s best to spray them again and wait to make sure you have a weed- and grass-free plot.

Tillage

Tilling

The next step in preparing the plot is breaking up the ground so that you can add any lime, fertilizer, or other nutrients that were recommended by your soil test. There are many options available for tillage depending on the size of the plot. If the site is larger, or if the soil has never been turned over before, you may need to use a plow for the initial pass. If the site has been farmed before or is in sandy, loam, or other less dense soils, you may be able to use a disc pulled by a tractor or ATV.

Another great option for turning the soil is to use a tractor-mounted rotary tiller. Matched with the appropriately powered tractor in favorable soil conditions, a rotary tiller can quickly and efficiently prepare the soil for amending and planting without having to use a disc or plow beforehand.

Amending the Soil

After the soil has been turned, you can now apply any lime or nutrients recommended in the soil test. Lime plays a crucial role in balancing the pH level of your soil so that it can fully utilize the fertilizer that is recommended from the soil test. It is important to understand that lime may take from three months to a year for it to bring up the pH level of the soil. If you have prepared the plot in the spring and applied the lime, planting a late summer or early fall cover crop may give the lime time to be absorbed before you plant and fertilize.

If you need to add lime to the soil, you can broadcast it using a spreader pulled behind a tractor or ATV, or depending on the size of the plot, use a hand-pushed spreader. You will need to work the lime into the soil after applying. Going over the plot with a disc or tiller will greatly speed up the soil’s absorption of the lime and nutrients.

Ready to Plant

Female Rack

When your food plot is prepared, amended, and the lime has had a chance to be absorbed into the soil, you can spread fertilizer and plant a forage crop or food plot mix.

Deciding on what to plant in your plot is really determined by your location and the type of wildlife viewing or hunting you wish to pursue. There are even food plot mixes that attract and are beneficial to pollinators or songbirds, so your choices of what to plant are varied and can be beneficial to a wide variety of wildlife.

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