With the right soil and forage species, a well-planned food plot will lift the carrying capacity of your property and lead to more frequent wildlife visits to your hunting spot or restoration project.
Sponsored by Kubota
By Josh Brewer
Hunters, wildlife observers, and those committed to land restoration understand the critical role of food plot installations as a part of holistic property management plans. Food plot installations not only increase the nutrient availability and therefore the carrying capacity for hunting species, such as deer, ducks, elk, turkey, and pheasant, they also attract those species to strategic locations on your property, which is useful when hunting pressure increases or when there’s a loss of habitat due to logging or agriculture.
While food plot management can be a fun and even an addicting practice, choices of location, timing, and forage species can overwhelm beginning and experienced property managers alike. However, once you identify the species that you’re hoping to support with food plots, you’re well on your way to building a food plot management plan.
Whether you’re aiming to support multiple species year-round, or a single species, such as whitetail deer, during the late fall, a single forage species or a blend of forages can deliver on those goals. The infographic below (available for download) is an excellent resource for understanding which forage options can meet your species and seasonal support goals.
Once you choose a forage species, you will want to select a species of that forage based on a number of factors, including performance in your USDA Growing Zone and whether a perennial or annual species will best fit your long-term property management plan. There’s a lot of information and conflicting opinions out there about perennial forage options, but, in general, it’s important to know that a perennial species will require mechanical weed control using a rotary mower and can take 1 to 2 years to fully mature. Due to maintenance requirements and the burst of available energy, many property managers lean toward annuals, but there’s no hard rule regarding forages, only that you should choose the best perennial-to-annual ratio for your property management goals.
With food plot installations, “location, location, location” could be replaced by “sunlight, sunlight, sunlight” because the vast majority of food plot forage options will require 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. If you plan to install a plot in a wooded hunting lot, be mindful of canopy shading as it regularly restricts light for floor forages and causes them to fail. Ideally, you can install your plots on northern side of a field, where it gets prolonged exposure to the southern sun during the fall, but you can get by with shade-tolerant forage options, such as clover.
In addition to sunlight, soil drainage, pH, and texture will affect the success of a particular forage species, just like any garden or agricultural installation. Do-it-yourself soil test kits are available at many garden and big-box home stores, but they can be unreliable. Instead, get a professional test kit from your local agricultural extension office or buy one from an online source. Soil tests that are conducted at a laboratory with specialized equipment are far more accurate and typically include fertilizer and lime recommendations for the exact plants you specify. Follow them.
Test your soil well in advance of planting, though. It can take several months for the lime to fully alter the soil’s pH, a critical ingredient in any successful food plot. There are a number of soil analysis options, from DIY tests to professional analyses, available to gardeners, which will help you determine the species for your soil and whether that soil should be amended. After a few years of experience with food plots on your property, you’ll have a good understanding of how to best pair forage to your soil. For example, you will likely develop a go-to clover species that thrives in the heavy soil in shady river bottoms, or a mix of deeper rooted annuals that you seed on a high-drainage, sandy hilltop.
1. To reduce completion from existing vegetation, use a tractor to disk your food plot site.
2. If you plan to amend your soil, this is the time to do it using implements, such as a manure spreader.
3. Use an overseeder or a spreader to apply your forage seed mix at a seeding rate and depth indicated by the seed source.
Food plots are a critical part of the overall wildlife system, but while you’re patiently waiting for them to mature, take time to observe the availability of wildlife shelters on your property for particular species and water levels in ponds, creeks, and streams during particular times of the year. Take note of the plant and animal indicator species on your property, and traffic of the species that you’re food plots support using trail cams, and a good old fashioned walk around the property.