Revitalize Food Plots with Frost-Seeding

By Scott Bestul

My dad likes to tell me stories from his boyhood, and my favorites almost always involve some aspect of farm life. One in particular involved an uncle known for odd behavior and antics that made most of the family think him mildly, if not completely, “touched.” Dad recalled this uncle, walking around in snow-covered fields and pastures, working a hand crank seeder. Naturally, planting seeds in the snow only fueled the poor uncle’s already suspect reputation and elevated his potential as a candidate for one of the state institutions nearby.

Of course, many years later, it has become clear that crazy Uncle Milt was simply frost-seeding those fields. He might still have been a poster boy for the loony bin in other areas of his life, but the man had no screw loose when it came to successful farming. Like almost everything food-plot related, hunters learned the technique of frost-seeding from farmers. As a practice, it’s been around for decades (or longer) and has been used to recharge and regenerate fields and pastures by those who make their living in agriculture. For those of us who simply want to grow better food plots for deer, it can be an effective and inexpensive way to not only recharge a food plot but add years to its life.

Frost-Seeding: What the Heck is It?

As noted, frost-seeding is an agricultural practice with a long history, and it’s as simple as its name implies. Seeds are broadcast during late winter or early spring, when the ground is going through its normal cycle of daytime thawing and nighttime freezing. This process causes the ground to heave and contract, which creates cracks and fissures in the soil. Seeds lying on the surface are pulled into the dirt during this process, where they make contact with the soil and eventually germinate. Snowmelt and spring rains can help this process along, but they can also have a negative effect as well (more on that later). Frost-seeding is used by farmers to give an established field or pasture a boost. It is not an effective method for starting a food plot if maximum results are expected. But for an established plot that’s experienced winterkill, weed issues or simply has gotten thin for some reason, frost-seeding is a good way to make the plot better for the upcoming growing season. For advice on frost-seeding, I turned to a pair of experts well known to Whitetail News readers: Charlie Alsheimer and Matt Harper.


Harper has boyhood memories of his grandpa frost-seeding in that limbo season of late winter/early spring that Midwesterners know so well. “He’d frost-seed entire fields,” Harper said. “He’d take a bean field and seed it to clover and orchard grass, or frost-seed an old hayfield that had gotten thin. It’s a practice that farmers have been using for a long time.” According to Harper, the ideal conditions for frost-seeding are easy to describe, yet tough to take advantage of. “You want to be out there in the last few days or weeks of winter or early spring,” he said. “You want that freeze/thaw cycle to really be working and heaving the soil. It works well here in the Midwest when there’s three to four inches of snow on the ground but not much more than that. The snow actually helps the process, because it helps create those cracks and fissures that allow the seed to penetrate the soil and, eventually, germinate.” Harper stressed that frost-seeding is far from an exact science. “It can be an excellent way to give a plot a boost but it can also go wrong in a real hurry,” he said. “There are lots of variables that you can’t control. For example, the weather might be perfect for frost-seeding, and you throw down seed and get a snowstorm. Or it can rain really hard or melt really quickly, and all of a sudden your seed is washed off the plot instead of being where you need it to be. I guess it’s like so much of food plotting; if conditions go bad on you, it can really affect your success.” The ideal use of frost-seeding is, as mentioned, to give established plots a boost for the upcoming season. “You want to use hard seeds, like clover or alfalfa,” Harper said. “So it’s a great way to get an older stand — or one that’s got thin spots — of clover to go another couple of years. I like to increase the recommended seeding rate when I frost-seed because there are so many variables that you can’t control. I simply count on a lower germination rate, and sometimes I’ll nearly double the recommended amount of seed. I never get concerned about overseeding with a small seed like clover.” If you’re planting in a region that typically doesn’t get much snowfall, it will be simple to identify thin patches in the plot and spread more seed in those areas. But if your plot is snow-covered, remembering where those band-aid spots are might be a challenge. “If you don’t have a lot of plots to work, you can probably commit them to memory,” Harper said. “But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to flag the spots before the snow flies. Then when you come back to frost-seed you’ll know exactly the areas you need to concentrate on.” Harper said well-drained sites are the best candidates for frost-seeding. “Ridge top plots or those with only a slight slope are the best sites, because rain or melting snow aren’t as likely to wash seed off the plot," he said. "I wouldn’t waste time frost seeding any plot with a significant slope; and low places — such as a waterway — can be really bad. Any significant water coming through may just wash the seed right off the plot.”’ Although he’s clearly a proponent of the technique, Harper takes a matter-of-fact approach. “It’s got a long history and has been used with success by farmers for a long time,” he said. “But it’s no silver bullet. It’s not going to make a four-year-old clover plot look like a second-year stand, and you have to really watch the weather and time things right. But done properly, frost-seeding is an excellent tool that deserves a place in anyone’s arsenal.”

The East

The veteran of many food plot seasons in upstate New York, Alsheimer has experimented with almost every seed out there and every method of making those seeds grow. He sees two main benefits to frost-seeding. “First, it keeps a good food plot producing and breathes some new life into it. And the second is all about time and money. It takes a commitment of both time and money to establish a new clover plot. “With that kind of investment, I want that plot producing for as many seasons as possible. Frost-seeding is a perfect way to keep that investment paying off.” Alsheimer said this past year served as an excellent reminder of the benefits of frost seeding. “We had a big die-off in clover and alfalfa fields in this region,” he said. “There were long periods of the winter that were relatively snow-less, and those conditions are very hard on those plants. You can lose 25 to 30 percent of a stand, and in some cases, the damage can be more severe. Outside of completely digging up a plot and starting over, frost- seeding is the best method for regenerating the stand and getting more life out of a bad situation. If you don’t fill in the areas that have been killed, you’re going to have tremendous competition from weeds.”

Final Thoughts

Both men agree that the typical window for frost-seeding in the Midwest and the East occurs from late February through early April. Obviously, this timeframe is variable according to the year, so keep a close eye on the weather forecast — short and longterm — to determine the best time for frost-seeding. One of the best ways to ensure success with frost-seeding is to take a hard, critical look at your clover plots at the end of fall. It’s easy to ignore a clover plot during the busyness of hunting season, but taking the time to walk slowly through it and identify bare or brown spots will tell you if the plot needs a boost. As noted, flagging those problem areas can help you direct seed to the specific spots that need it most. Finally, one veteran food plotter I know prefers to do his frost seeding early in the morning or late in the evening, when the ground is cool and firm. He uses a hand-crank spreader and just finds the walking easier at that time of day. As we approach another exciting food plot season, consider frost-seeding as a method that can revitalize a plot and save you time and money in the process. Oh, and a final benefit; you get to look like a crazy man, tossing seeds out on the snow!