10 Reasons Food Plots Fail

By Brad Herndon

Don’t quit!
Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of
And you never can tell how close
you are,
It may be near when it seems so far.
So stick to the fight when you’re
hardest hit,
It’s when things seem worse, that
you must not quit.

This simple poem written by an anonymous author has been around for years, and it has special meaning for me because every time I read this poem which is hanging on my office wall, its words encourage me to never quit, to never give up. And to me it means to never give up in all aspects of life; attitude, ethics, morality, hunting, fishing, and, yes, even when working with food plots for wildlife.

There are few, if any, deer food plot managers who have not, at some time, had a food plot failure. I know I have. Sometimes when one looks at the money and effort it takes to put in a plot, a failure may implant some negative thoughts in a person’s mind. In fact, all the effort might not seem worthwhile, and the wildlife manager may consider chucking away the whole quality deer management plan.

This is where those “don’t quit” words enter into play. Actually, while disappointing, a food plot failure is a short-term setback and by simply studying what caused the failure this same mistake can most likely be avoided in the future. And by studying what has caused the failure of food plots among a quantity of deer hunters nationwide, many mistakes can be avoided and luscious, nutritious food plots will be the norm for you in years to come.

In the rest of this article, I will list 10 reasons why food plots either have poor production, or completely fail. Some of what I list may seem repetitious to you old-timers who have put in food plots for many years, but keep in mind there are thousands of deer hunters who are putting in food plots for wildlife for the first time and this is new and important information to them. And even us old timers can benefit from a refresher course. Let’s get started.


Reason # 1 — The food plots don’t get put in.

I thought long and hard before listing this as the number one reason food plots fail, and I believe in my area this ranking is correct. While the plots fail for reasons such as ones I will list later on, the simple fact remains that no food was available in food plots for the whitetails in the area. The failure to get the seeds in the ground is caused by two primary factors: Lack of equipment and lack of money. Let’s see what the possibilities are in this area.

With enough ambition and time, you can take a weed eater and a rake and put in some kind of little plot. The location can be trimmed by hand, and then Roundup applied to kill down remaining vegetation. Pelletized lime and fertilizer can be applied by hand, the ground worked up to some degree with the rake, and the seeds planted. Cost is minimal for this plot, but believe me, putting in a food plot this way gets old in a hurry, and the size of the plot is limited due to the amount of labor required to do the job.

The next step up, equipment-wise, is the ATV/UTV. Big ATV/UTV’s can do a pretty good job of pulling the various kinds of equipment built for them that are now on the market, such as sprayers, seeders, mowers, plows, discs, etc. However, if you add it all up, quite a bit of money has been invested, possibly more than $10,000. That’s quite a chunk in our down economy, and you still don’t have the best equipment to handle the job.

In addition, if your lease is some distance away, a trailer will have to be purchased to haul the ATV/UTV. Hitches and possibly a bigger vehicle may also need to be purchased. The best option for working up food plots is a tractor, complete with all the equipment. Some great small tractors now are on the market that can be purchased, complete with all accessories needed for food plot work, for under $30,000. Still, to the average Joe, that’s a lot of money, so buying an old used tractor and implements usually is considered. By going this way, initial cost is reduced substantially, but repairs can be substantial from time to time.

Many years ago Carol and I started leasing ground in an adjoining county about 40 minutes away from our home. For the first three years, I considered all of the ways of planting food plots I have listed above and I ended up taking no action at all. Therefore, I had three years of food plot failures because they were never planted. 

At that time a friend of ours who lived near our lease bought a medium-sized tractor with all the implements to work his 60-acre farm, and I talked to him about putting in our food plots. He was more than willing to help us out, so today we pay him $50 per hour to do our food plot work — mowing, spraying, plowing, disking, cultivating — whatever is needed. Counting our payments to him as well as seed, fertilizer and lime costs, we spend about $750 per year on our three plots, which we can well afford. 

Each of you starting out in quality deer management will have to make some decisions in regard to equipment. If you can’t work up the ground and plant the seeds, you will not have a food plot. It’s that simple. 

Certainly if you have a great income, you can go with the best equipment. If money is tight, then perhaps used equipment would work best. Borrowing a friend’s equipment is always a possibility, of course, but from my conversation with others, this isn’t always the most dependable, timely method of getting seeds in the soil.
Or perhaps our hiring-it-out method might work for you.

Reason # 2 — Too many deer.

My home state of Indiana just had another record whitetail harvest, for the third year in a row. For most states, record harvests are the norm because the deer herd continues to increase in size. There are exceptions, of course, usually due to some disease killing off a large portion of the deer herd, but they are rare. 

With an overpopulation of deer you can do everything perfectly as far as working up, planting and maintaining your food plot and still have a crop failure. Here is a personal example. 

One year we planted oats in a plot that had been carefully prepared. The rain was timely and the oats came up in abundance. However, due to other hunters in the region refusing to shoot doe, our property had far too many whitetails regardless of our efforts to shoot more doe. Deer from neighboring properties simply replaced what we shot.

From the time the oats came up the deer hit them hard, and several weeks later the oats were still at ground level. I actually watched whitetails carefully smell the ground and then pull out an oat stem from among the grass in the plot. Obviously this wasn’t a complete crop failure, but it was close to one because of extreme over-browsing. Certainly the tonnage on this plot was dismal and the hunting results were not nearly as good as they should have been.

The solution? Shoot doe and the deer population down to or under the herd’s carrying capacity.

Reason # 3 — No soil test is taken.

You read this in almost every issue of Whitetail News: Take a soil test. Regardless of this good advice, many deer hunters still do not take a soil test to monitor the condition of their soil. Or, they may take a soil test one year and then not take another one for several years. 

A soil test should be taken every year in order to determine what your soil might need, and to determine what type of fertilizer, and how much, should be applied for the particular type of seed you are planting. In soil terms, pH means “potential of hydrogen.” It measures the acidity (sourness) or alkalinity (sweetness) of the soil. While it may seem you can just pour fertilizer on your plot and it will do well, this isn’t the case. If a soil is too acidic, and most of it is, the fertilizer can’t all be utilized because the nutrients of the soil are bound up against individual soil particles and can’t get into a plant’s system. Take a soil test every year.

Reason # 4 — No lime is applied to the plot.
As mentioned above, a soil test should be taken every year. Almost always a soil test recommends that lime be added to the soil. In some areas, such as mine, bulk agricultural lime is cheap. In other regions, however, bulk ag lime is expensive. Pelletized lime is also available in bags, and its cost is even higher. Despite the soil test, the high cost of lime often discourages the manager from adding this much-needed product and the food plot production suffers significantly because of this lack of action.

You must add the recommended amount of lime to your plot, and you should monitor it yearly in order to have outstanding food plots for your deer and other wildlife.

Reason # 5 — No weed control is carried out.
You never entirely get rid of weeds, regardless of whether you spray or burn the plot, because thousands of weed seeds lie deep within the soil. That being said, you can control weeds to a big degree. For example, if you have a perennial plot and grass starts to be a problem, a grass herbicide especially formulated can be used to kill out the unwanted grass. Arrest is a herbicide for grass that works well with Imperial Whitetail Clover, Alfa-Rack, and most other perennial products. Slay, meanwhile, kills out unwanted broadleaf plants while not harming Imperial Whitetail Clover, and many other food plot plantings.

Also, simply mowing a plot that may be planted in clover, alfalfa, and some other perennial products, will usually result in the weeds being subdued due to the new food plot product growth.

Reason # 6 — Improper planting of seeds.
Most of us who have been in the quality deer management business for a while have learned this lesson the hard way. When planting, mistakes can be made two ways: The seeds are planted too deep, and the seeds are planted too shallow.

With clover, alfalfa, turnips, and several other plant types, the seeds are tiny and need to be planted basically on top of the ground and certainly no deeper than 1/4-inch. Typically, those new to food plots want to make sure the seeds are deep enough and they may disc the seeds in to make sure they get a good stand. This usually results in a large quantity of the seeds being buried too deep and they never come up.

Conversely, larger seeds like oat need to be 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep. Put them on the surface, or very shallow, and you will get a sparse stand. And if no rain comes for several days, the turkeys and other birds in the area may eat all of your seed and you will get no stand at all. Plant all seeds exactly as per the instructions on the bag, regardless of how much work it is.

Reason # 7 — Lack of rain.
From 2001 until 2009 we had three droughts here in southern Indiana and our food plots actually did fairly well in each of them. Last fall, though, we had one rain immediately after planting our plots, then no rain for roughly three months. We had close to a complete food plot failure. Drought is beyond our control.

Reason # 8 — Soil is too wet.
While a drought can cause food plots failures, planting in areas too wet can likewise prove disastrous. Low-lying river and stream regions that flood yearly are always a risk, especially for perennial products, and I’ve seen many hunters who gamble planting these wet, mucky regions and have lost entire crops.

If you must take a risk on these regions, be sure to plant appropriate products there. Moreover, lean toward products such as Imperial Whitetail Clover since clover loves poorly drained soils, and avoid products like alfalfa that thrive in drier, well-drained soils.

Reason # 9 — Incorrect fertilizer.
Different plants require different fertilizers. Clovers produce their own nitrogen, so they do not need a fertilizer with nitrogen in it. Extreme, Tall Tine Tubers and other brassica products meanwhile, require a lot of nitrogen, so fertilizer containing nitrogen is essential to their success. By all means use the fertilizer ratio recommended from your soil test or follow the general recommendations on the bag of the product you are planting. This is critical to high forage production in your plots.

I recommend purchasing your fertilizer early in order to get the exact blend that you need. I’ve seen several hunters wait until the last minute to get their fertilizer, only to find out what they need is sold out. Almost always these hunters take whatever fertilizer is available and their results are not as good as they should have

It’s also worth mentioning that fertilizer has gone up considerably over the past few years and several hunters have told me they put on just half as much as recommended in order to save money. Again, this results in a considerably lesser amount of forage production in the plots. Put on the recommended amount of fertilizer,
regardless of the cost or plant fewer plots.

Reason # 10 — Crop is not rotated.
Clover and is a perennial, meaning it grows for several years without replanting. When properly cared for, a good clover plot will last three to five years and sometimes longer. In these cases, the crop generally does not have to be rotated. There are other types of food plot products, however, that do need to be rotated. Brassica is a good example.

If a plot is planted in brassicas for several years in a row, problems will begin to show up such as clubroot, leaf spot, white rust, turnip mosaic virus, root rot, etc. Over time, these diseases and insects may cause a complete crop failure. Brassicas should be rotated every year and certainly at least every two years. Regardless of what product you plant, you should carefully research how often the crop needs to be rotated in order to stay healthy.

So there you have 10 different problems you may encounter that can cause a diminished food plot crop, or complete failure. Consider what I have said, do more research, and get back out there and work in the dirt. And always remember, no matter what happens, don’t quit!

A good way to monitor if the deer are excessively browsing your food plot is to install a small exclusion cage in each plot. Without question, money is a factor in many decisions made concerning quality deer management. If you have four food plots you want to put in but because of a limited amount of money decide to save by skipping on lime, or putting a lesser amount of fertilizer on the plots, please reconsider. Instead, do just two or three plots, and do them right, and you will have better hunting results in the long run.