NEVER A DULL MOMENT Nine things to do when you think you're caught up with your habitat work

By Gerald Almy

The fields are tilled. The seedbeds are smoothed. Tiny green seedlings are starting to pop up. Now it’s time to just sit back and wait for the food plots to grow and hunting seasons to arrive.
Not really. You might think you’ve done all you need to. But chances are there are lots of little tasks, chores and projects you can do to improve your food plots even further and enhance the deer habitat. Fortunately, most of these tasks can be taken care of now before hunting seasons arrive. For the land manager focusing on deer and other wildlife, there should never be a dull moment throughout the year. Here are nine projects you can do during the next few months before fall plots are ready to be planted and tree stands need to be hung. Some are quick, easy chores that are great for when you have a spare half hour on your hands. Those can be good projects to have a youngster help out with. Others are a bit more time-consuming and need a full Saturday off or longer to complete. Juggle them to fit your schedule and you’ll see that the wildlife manager should never lack for something productive to do.
Deer have specific mineral and vitamin needs that are rarely met completely in the wild. Sure there are natural licks in some areas and they get other elements from the soil and plants. But to meet a whitetail’s mineral and vitamin needs fully you need several licks on your property. And you need them to be made with deer-specific ingredients like those in the Whitetail Institute’s 30-06 mineral/vitamin supplement and just the right amount of salt. Yes, a small amount of salt is important. “During spring and early summer, deer operate at a sodium deficiency due to the high potassium and water content of the forage,” Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association, said. “This interferes with efficient sodium conversion in the body and increases the need for sodium intake. Almost all soils more than 25 to 50 miles from a seacoast are low in sodium.” This is why you may have noticed mineral licks or salt licks are used the heaviest in the spring and summer. Although small amounts of salt are important, other minerals and vitamins are what’s vital for growing big racks. Bucks can actually store phosphorous and calcium obtained from a lick in their skeletons and then draw it back out, transferring it into antler growth during summer. A good rule of thumb is a lick for every 40 to 50 acres. They should be in locations deer use regularly, with some cover around for security and not in an area that sees a lot of human activity. Dig up the ground 3 to 6 inches deep in a 2- to 3-foot oval area, pour in 5 to 20 pounds and mix it up with the dirt. Not every lick will get used regularly. That’s why you need to try a number of locations. The deer will tell you which spots they like best. If you already have licks, now is the time to reactivate them with additional minerals. I also like to break them up again with a pick axe or shovel and work the minerals several inches into the soil. Sprinkle some more on top. These are great spots to place a trail camera, but avoid too much human traffic near the site.
No matter how well you think you’ve killed the weeds in a spot before you start a food plot, there are still some left. And others will invade over the years, along with grasses. I know this battle well, because most of the open land on the property I bought here in Virginia 22 years ago was fescue pasture mixed with other grasses and weeds. Fescue is one of the hardest plants to remove. But through persistence, I’ve eliminated most of it on the land, and in some areas with food plots, it’s eradicated. But there are lots of other grasses and weeds that keep cropping up and gradually competing with my Imperial Whitetail Clover and Chicory Plus plots. That’s why I spray with Arrest virtually every spring. “The earlier you can spray the grasses the better after they come up and are growing good. Ideally you should spray grasses such as fescue before they reach six inches tall,” said Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute of North America. But don’t be impatient after you spray. It takes a week before you’ll see much effect, and 10-14 days or more for serious damage to the grasses to occur. The first thing that will happen is they will stop growing. That’s a big plus in itself, allowing the Imperial Clover to get the upper hand competing against it. Soon enough most of the grasses and weeds should die back, though don’t expect a 100 percent kill. If for some reason you can’t spray or choose not to, mow the tops of weeds and grasses above the clover or chicory. This will help keep them from going to seed and reduce their strength in competing against the plants you’re trying to grow.
Nothing is more important for a successful food plot that the right pH and right balance of fertilizers that the forage you are growing requires. The only way to be certain you can get this right is with a soil test. The Whitetail Institute offers inexpensive, professional soil tests hits or most local farm coops can do them for you. Without the right levels of fertilizer and at least an adequate pH level, even the best seeds from the Whitetail Institute won’t grow plants as healthy and nutritious as they otherwise could be. The roots won’t grow as deep and strong and the forage won’t be as thick. Take lots of smaller samples from around the plot before mixing them well to obtain the sample you send in. And be sure to specify what type of plant you intend to grow on the plot such as clover, alfalfa or other options.
One of the most common mistakes beginning food plotters make is to not consider where their food plots are in relation to deer bedding areas. If there isn’t any cover bordering the plot, chances are does and yearling bucks are the only animals that will use it during shooting hours. Try to plan your plot locations so they’re accessible via a transition corridor from bedding areas with some low shrubs, saplings and other cover. A good route would be paralleling a brushy stream, maybe following an overgrown ditch or down a hollow. The idea is to have a route the deer can approach the plot from while feeling secure. It’s also important to have some cover around the edges of the plot so older bucks will feel comfortable as they approach it and enter it during daylight. The best way to accomplish this is to plant a few rows of bushes along the edges. Good choices include Chickasaw plum, American honeysuckle, lespedeza, raspberry, blackberry, indigo bush, Allegheny chinquapin and red osier dogwood, as well as a few white pines. You can also hinge-cut a few trees along the edge or cut cedars and other trash trees nearby and drag them over to provide additional security cover as deer approach the edge of the plots. This work is best done well before hunting seasons. Deer will soon forget the commotion and welcome the new more natural feel and extra cover around the plot. Keeping the plots themselves immaculate, neat and attractive is fine. You just need things a little rough and brushy along the edges for the best results. Tony Fulton of Mississippi will vouch for that. He killed one of the biggest free-range bucks ever — a deer that scored 295-6/8 net, when it burst out into a food plot chasing a doe. It came right out of a thicket bordering the plot consisting of young pines that he had planted and purposefully allowed to become overrun with thick brush and weeds. “The area next to the plot had grown up like a jungle,” Tony said. Just the kind of security cover a near 300-inch buck requires.
No matter how good your food plots are, if you don’t have a source of water, deer are going to leave your property to find one. That’s fine if all of your neighboring landowners have similar attitudes about deer management and are willing to let that promising 2-1/2 year-old buck walk. But a safer bet is to provide that deer and others on the property with water on your own land. It’s not hard and doesn’t have to be expensive. If you have a stream running through that runs occasionally, you might be able to just use rocks and logs and make a little dam that allows it to hold a small pool during dry spells. Another option is to dig out a hole in a low area and place in a stock tank or children’s pool to collect water or simply dig down to clay and pack that firmly. The best bet of all is to hire an experienced pond builder with a dozer and have him put in one or more small ponds on the property. If you have a low drainage area you don’t even need a stream feeding it. You can get a small pond built for less than $1,000 in many cases. Spend a little more for a bigger one and you can also wind up with a nice fishing hole.
Yes, I know. There’s a lot of pride in creating a good food plot. You might want to show it off to neighboring landowners who might drive past. But for many reasons having a plot visible from the road is a bad decision. If you’re forced to because that’s where the best location is, consider planting a screen to hide the plot from public view. (If you want to show it off, invite neighbors over specifically to have a look.) Unfortunately, poaching is a problem throughout the whitetail’s range. Even if it’s not common in your area, if a mature buck was feeding in your plot and the wrong person drove by and saw it, that buck might be history. And even if poaching is not likely, simply the extra traffic of people slowing down and gawking at the deer in your plot will make the animals nervous and make it less likely older bucks will use it during daylight. Avoid tempting those with itchy trigger fingers and creating traffic jams by putting up a screen of vegetation blocking the view from roads. I’ve used white pines, which can be purchased inexpensively from most forestry departments. If you’re in a hurry to create the screen, buy larger ones from nurseries five to six feet tall. Another option is a strip of warm-season grasses such as switchgrass, bluestem and Indian grass. These will grow six feet and taller, blocking out the view from the road. These will also make deer feel more secure using your plots.
Sometimes the seed doesn’t go on as evenly as we planned or some washes away in a rain. Other times, maybe the soil isn’t as good in a certain spot or it gets more drying sunlight. Whatever the reason, you probably have a few areas in your plots that aren’t as lush and thick as you’d like. Now is the time to fix that. Either hand toss or use a crank spreader to over-seed bare or thin spots. You can rake them in lightly or simply drive over them with the ATV and spring rains should do the rest. There’s no use wasting a part of a field when a small amount of effort could make the plot lush from border to border. 
As far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to have too many food plots. Any time I find I seem to be caught up with my habitat work, I start looking hard at new areas where I might put another plot in. And if the truth be known, sometimes I do this to replace spots that for some reason just never worked too well. Either the soil was poor or too rocky or the deer just didn’t like using that area. Whatever the reason, now is the time to start thoroughly preparing new spots for plots. You might simply have to clear sticks, debris and rocks, and then brush hog and apply Roundup to get an area ready for planting. In other locations you might have to hire a dozer to clear stumps, trees and large rocks to prepare a spot. Put in whatever effort it takes, but don’t take any shortcuts. The more you smooth the dirt, repeatedly kill weeds and grasses and clear rocks and debris, the better your final product will be. After you get this new area ready, consider planting annuals such as Power Plant, No-Plow, Secret Spot, BowStand, Whitetail Oats, Winter- Greens, Pure Attraction, No-Plow or Tall Tine Tubers for at least a 12-month cycle. This will help further shade out weeds and grasses and get the soil ready for a longer-lasting perennial planting.

If I find myself with just a small amount of time to spare, one of my favorite chores is simply to spruce up my plots. This can mean lots of things. It seems there are always rocks in some of the fields no matter how many times I’ve cleared it. Pick these up so they don’t cover plants or hinder growth and won’t damage tractor equipment. Sticks, leaves and branches might blow onto the plot after windstorms. They need to be removed or the plot won’t reach its full potential. In small plots hand-pulling certain weeds is also practical such as bothersome pigweed. Other times I walk or ride in my ATV with a hand-sprayer filled with glyphosate and spray thistles and other weeds individually in a plot. All of these are good chores to get a youngster to help with to nurture their interest in wildlife land management. Deer habitat managers should never get bored. There’s always a project beckoning — some big, some small. They provide good exercise, make for better deer habitat and food plots, and are often great activities to get the family involved with. What are you waiting for? Let’s get to work!