Food Plots – Save Money by Eliminating Wasted Expenses

By Jon Cooner

There’s no doubt about it - money is tighter for most of us these days than ever before.  That doesn’t automatically mean, though, that we have to lose out on the benefits high-quality Imperial food plots provide.  Instead, many folks can cut costs without giving up anything!  

The key is to identify wasted expenses, eliminate them, and then use the necessary expenses in the most efficient way possible.  As I highlight some ways to do that, keep our goal in mind:  we are talking about ways to save money without giving up anything in the way of food plot quality or performance!

Choose the Correct Forage for Each Site
The first step in getting the most performance out of your forage plantings is make sure you select a forage that is designed to grow optimally in the conditions of each plot.  That means that you need to select a forage for one site at a time.  There are two groups of factors to consider for each site: (1) physical factors related to the site itself, and (2) what specific role you want the forage in that particular site to serve in your overall food-plot plan.  Physical factors include, for example, soil type, slope and accessibility of the site with equipment.  Forage-role factors include whether you want a forage to provide nutrition and attraction year around for several years from a single planting, or do something specific for part of a year, such as providing abundant, tall, nutritious growth in winter or massive high-protein tonnage during the spring and summer.  These factors should be considered in a specific order.  For information, see “How to Select the Right Forage,” which is available on-line here:

How Long You’ll Have the Property.  Imperial perennial blends are designed to last for up to 3-5 years without replanting, with Mother Nature’s cooperation of course.  Imperial annual blends are designed to last either from fall through early spring, or from late spring through early fall.  If you know you’ll be able to hunt the property for at least the next few years, Imperial perennials can be extremely cost effective over the life of the forage.  By not having to replant every year, you save money and time by only preparing the seedbed once for a forage that should last for several years.  If you are on a year-to-year lease and are not sure that you’ll be able to lease the property again next year, Imperial annuals may be more cost-effective, since the initial cost to purchase the seed is generally less than the cost of perennials.
Equipment Issues.  Some, but not all, Imperial annuals should be planted in a “prepared seedbed,” which generally requires the use of a disk or tiller, a drag or cultipacker, and in some cases a sprayer.  Imperial perennials should be planted in a prepared seedbed, and they should also be mowed a few times in the spring and summer and, if necessary and appropriate to the forage being maintained, sprayed with Arrest and/or Slay.  (For more information on using herbicides, see “Herbicides – Back to the Basics,” which is available on-line here:

If you don’t have the equipment necessary to perform these functions, you have three options: (1) plant forages that don’t require ground tillage to plant, (2) hire someone to do the work for you, or (3) buy your own equipment.

Obviously, the option that carries the least up-front expense is to select forages that do not require the use of tractor or ATV equipment to plant or maintain.  The Whitetail Institute offers two high quality forage blends for just such a situation, Imperial Whitetail No Plow and Secret Spot.  Without question, these are two of the Institute’s most popular annual forage products.  Like other Imperial forage blends, No Plow and Secret Spot can be planted in a prepared seedbed.  However, that’s not required for them to perform well.

Hiring someone to do the work for you can be an excellent option in many cases.  Doing so broadens your forage options substantially.  Plus, you don’t have the expense of buying tillage and maintenance equipment, storing it, and transporting it to and from the site.  This option can be especially attractive for folks whose schedules are very busy or who live away from their hunting properties.

If you plan to purchase equipment and do the work yourself, consider whether you need to invest in a tractor and related equipment, or an ATV set up.   An ATV and related equipment can be the better option if you either don’t have a lot of acreage in food plots or you have the time it takes to do the work with the lighter ATV equipment.  If you’ll be using an ATV to prepare fallow plot sites, it can be a great idea to spray the site with a Roundup-type glyphosate herbicide a few weeks before initial ground tillage.  Doing so kills the roots of the existing vegetation, allowing relatively light ATV tillage equipment to cut through the ground much easier. A tractor can be the better option for folks who have lots of acreage in food plots, since it has the strength and weight to work the soil more quickly and efficiently.

Efficient Use of Fuel Costs.  When considering what forage to put in each plot, you may find that you have several options for each site.  In that case, one potential way to save costs is to is to plant perennials in larger sites that you can access more quickly and easily (but still out of site from public roads), and plant your more remote sites in annuals.  Since annuals don’t require maintenance after planting, you can save time and money by using more of your fuel cost for actually mowing and spraying rather than traveling from small plot to small plot.

Soil Test, Soil Test, Soil Test![/b]

Of all the tips in this article, none offers you a potentially greater chance to save money than performing a laboratory soil test any time you are considering buying lime or fertilizer.  Only a soil test performed through a qualified lab offers you the greatest potential savings.  That’s because a laboratory can tell you EXACTLY how much (if any) lime you need, and how much and what blend of fertilizer you need for optimum forage growth.  When preparing your soil sample to send in to the lab, be sure to let the laboratory know what forage you’ll be planting or maintaining.  That way the lab can precisely tailor its recommendations for the specific needs of the plot.  In most places, it only costs about $10 to do a soil test for a plot, and that $10 is an investment that offers a huge potential savings by eliminating ALL unnecessary lime and fertilizer expenses.

Follow the Laboratory’s Recommendations:  Once you get your soil-test results back, follow its recommendations.  That may sound obvious, but you might be tempted to add only part of the lime or fertilizer recommendation in an attempt to save money.  That’s not the way to go, at least if you want optimum forage performance.  The reason is that, as I said, a laboratory soil test will tell you EXACTLY what, if anything, you need to add to the soil, and if you do less than the soil-test report recommends, you will almost certainly see it show up as reduced forage performance.

Try to Perform Multiple Tasks Each Trip

There are lots of ways you can save money by doing more than one task each time you work on your food plots.  If you think about you’re own unique situation, you’ll probably think of lots of ways to do that.  Here’s an example.

Let’s say you have selected a fallow site for a new food plot, have selected the correct forage for that site, and are ready to start seedbed preparation.  Let’s also say that the site is currently covered with a thick layer of sod, and that you want to spray the site with a Roundup-type glyphosate herbicide a few weeks before tilling.  When you go to the site to take your soil samples for testing, spray the site while you’re there.  That way the herbicide can be working to kill the sod while you wait for your soil-test results to come back.

Maintain Perennial Forages in a Timely Manner

Maintaining Imperial perennials is easy.  It’s also very important if you want your forage planting to last as long as it was designed to last.  Just like your car, which requires regular oil changes at specific mileage intervals, your perennials need a little maintenance each spring if they are to last as long as they should, and that maintenance should be timely.

Start with grass control in the spring – as Dr. Wiley Johnson used to say, “Grass control is your number-one maintenance priority!”  And it’s not just important to control grass – it’s also important to do it in a timely manner, especially if you want to keep costs down.  Arrest works best at controlling grass that is still in seedling stage (that has not matured its root ball yet, which grasses generally do once they are old enough to be about 6-12” tall).  To reduce the chance that you’ll have to deal with mature grass in your Imperial perennial plots, try to spray Arrest during a specific window of time.  That window starts when grass starts to actively grow, and it ends when grass reaches a height of 6-12”.  It’s still possible to control grass after it matures, but in some situations it may require additional herbicide applications, stronger solution rates or both.  For information on how to set up a maintenance schedule for your perennials, see “Perennial Maintenance – Setting up a Schedule,” which is available on-line here:

Also, be sure to mow your Imperial perennial plots in the spring, and again do so in a timely manner.  They key is to mow the top off the plot any time it appears that the forage plants or any upright annual weeds are about to “flower” (make seeds).  If you can’t mow before flowering, still mow if possible because mowing also helps keep the forage plants even more lush, nutritious and attractive.  For best weed-control results, though, try to mow before anything growing in the plot flowers.  Just don’t mow when conditions are excessively hot or dry.

Remember, before you consider what you will have to give up to cut costs, look for ways to cut costs without giving up anything.  Most of us can find at least some wasted expense in our food-plot budgets, and think of ways to be more efficient with our time and money.  These are just some examples of areas to consider.  Everyone’s situation is unique, though, and I’ll bet you can come up with more of your own.