Curt Lytle had two primary concerns in the days after he settled on a 160-acre southeast Virginia farm: building a house and planting food plots. An avid traditional bow hunter, Lytle was eager to make his new oasis as wildlife-friendly as possible. That plan included food plots — lots of them. In all, he created nine at calculated locations in the pine forest that covered most of his ground.
Surprisingly, however, 50 acres of Lytle’s land consists of a field that is leased to a farmer who plants either peanuts, beans or corn. Why not carve out a few corners of that field and plant food plots there? Lytle did, of course, but he wanted more.
“I did a lot of research and learned that the ideal situation is to have a large feeding area and several smaller hunting plots that don’t get disturbed often,” he said. “It made perfect sense to build food plots back in the woods. I live in an area with lots of hunting pressure, so I wanted to give the deer food sources back in the woods where they feel more secure.”
Many hunters do not have the option of planting in existing fields. Their entire hunting property consists of planted pines or mature hardwoods. There is nothing wrong with hunting those woods, of course, but sometimes the deer prefer different habitat and food sources. A food plot — or several — within big woods will give the deer a variety of foods and can be the perfect antidote to a bad acor n crop.
MAKE A HOLE
Before you drop any seed, you will need one basic ingredient to establish a successful food plot back in deep woods: sunlight. Without it, your plants just will not grow, no matter how fertile the ground. In most cases, food plot plants need at least four hours of sunlight per day so you might need to knock down some trees. “I was fortunate that all my plots are in pines. They were pretty easy to knock over and push aside,” noted Lytle.
He owned a backhoe that he bought for the construction of his house, but he used it to build his plots, as well. He simply scooped the roots out and pushed the tree over. Lytle also was careful to knock the dirt off the root ball before pushing the trees to the sides. It was a smart move, he later determined.
“I’ve seen other plots back in the woods that were cleared by bulldozers. They pushed all the topsoil to the sides when they cleared the trees and the plots aren’t growing nearly as well as mine,” explained Lytle. “It’s real important to leave as much topsoil as you can.” Habitat and food plot consultant Neil Dougherty subcontracts an excavator who specializes in food plot clearings and says it can cost several thousand dollars to clear an acre. That may seem like a lot of money but he says it is no different from buying a house and then remodeling the kitchen.
“I think you have to look at it in terms of overall value. Putting some money into improvements will pay off in the long run, especially if you measure your return in terms of your deer herd and the hunting opportu nities,” Dougherty said.
|Scratching out a food plot in the woods by hand isn't|
impossible. However, you need to choose your spot
wisely and put in lots of serious labor to succeed.
One way to recoup at least some expense is to sell the timber. It is not always easy to find a logger who will buy a small amount of timber, but if you can, you might be able to recover upwards of $1,000 per acre in the trees you take out. The more land you clear, the more likely you can find a buyer for the timber. If you cannot, that is okay. Lytle made some phone calls to local foresters but learned that the trees just were not valuable enough to justify the labor so he ended up pushing the trees to the side.
Dougherty will push the felled trees to the sides, creating funnels that force whitetails into specific locations as they enter the food plots. He warns not to make the wall around the plot too confining because deer will be reluctant to spend much time in it if they do not have enough escape routes.
“Piling up the trees also creates good habitat for a variety of wildlife, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to leave the trees you knock over,” Lytle added. “I have foxes and woodchucks living in mine. It’s pretty cool knowing I have a diversity of wildlife on my property as a result of my work.”
HOW BIG, HOW MANY?
Dougherty says the height of your trees will dictate exactly how much space you need to clear in order to get that necessary sunlight. He typically recommends clearings of at least 3/4-acre. Smaller plots are also more likely to be overgrazed before the season ends in areas with high deer densities. All nine of Lytle’s plots are about a half-acre, but he does not have high deer numbers.
“The pines aren’t that tall and pines in general tend to let more sunlight filter through than hardwoods,” he said. “I’ve had very good success with the half-acre plots and they are the perfect size for me because I almost always hunt with traditional archery equipment. If they were bigger I might not be able to get a shot at a deer in front of me.”
Dougherty notes that a 3/4-acre plot will not equal the same area in plant growth. The shade from the surrounding trees will prevent proper growth along the edge of the plots. Dougherty says a good rule of thumb is that you will lose a distance equal to a third of the height of the surrounding trees. In other words, if the trees are 30 feet tall, expect to have 10 feet of “dead” space around the edges of your plot. Do not be too concerned, though; shade-tolerant native vegetation will fill in and create more food. Blackberries, honeysuckle and other beneficial plants will give deer and other wildlife even more food choices.
CHOOSE A SPOT
If you have unlimited resources, you can build and maintain a food plot almost anywhere you want. Naturally, you will be limited by steep terrain or perpetually wet ground, but with enough money, you can knock down a hole in a forest, clear boulders and even truck in prime topsoil if you need to. Most of us do not have that luxury, of course, so we have to choose our sites carefully.
Dougherty recommends planting hunting plots in strategic locations and a larger feeding plot nearer the center of the property. He prefers smaller hunting plots up to an acre within a few hundred yards of buildings and access points to minimize disturbance of the deer herd.
“You want to be able to get in and out of the hunting plots without blowing every deer out of the woods, so I recommend placing them near the property edge, but not so close that neighboring hunting pressure will spook them,” he said. “You should also consider bedding areas. I like to establish plots pretty close to bedding areas because deer will tend to use them during daylight hours more.”
Lytle built nine smaller plots on his land for a variety of reasons. First, it gave him the freedom to rotate hunting pressure to avoid burning out specific areas. He can also vary his locations based on wind and other environmental factors, and he considers deer usage as well.
“As the seasons change, the deer tend to shift their use of the different plots based on the foods in them,” he said.
More important, planting several plots in various locations can have unintended yet beneficial consequences. Lytle was reluctant to plant one food plot because it was poorly drained. Turned out, that was a blessing. His region suffered a major drought, but that plot stayed green and vibrant and he killed a couple of deer off it after other plots literally dried up.
|Sometimes you'll need to bring in heavy equipment to carve|
out a food plot in a forest. It can be expensive, but it can increase
the value of your land.
WHAT TO PLANT
Lytle has experimented with virtually every type of food plot plant available at one time or another. He has since settled on just a few. He is a big fan of Whitetail Institute’s Imperial Whitetail Clover. Dougherty also likes Whitetail Institute’s products and uses Imperial No-Plow and Secret Spot a lot because they require less labor overall.
“I also really like Tall Tine Tubers in northern regions and Imperial Clover is an excellent all-purpose plot because it can withstand heavy grazing pressure, which you’ll get in woods plots.”
Lytle can attest to that. He has noticed a distinct pattern as the season progresses.
“They’ll be in the big field early in the season, but as soon as they start getting bumped around during gun season, they start working my woods plots over pretty good,” he said. “It was definitely worth the effort to put them in.”
Is it possible to clear an area by hand and expect to grow a workable food plot? Possible, yes, said Dougherty, but it is going to take a large amount of manual labor. Ideally, look for an area that already has some plant growth, particularly grasses and vines. That is a good indication of decent sunlight penetration. However, you will still have to undergo a lot of work. First, you will have to fell any standing trees and cut them up and push them off to the side. Then you will have to clear the ground of leaves and other debris in order to get seed-to-soil contact. “I know a lot of people who have tried it and they ended up bringing in a dozer to clear the stumps. They just get tired of trying to run their disks and other equipment around those stumps,” Dougherty said. “I think it’s a whole lot better to do it right and spend the money up front.”