Soil Tests Still the First Step to FOOD PLOT SUCCESS

By Hollis Ayres

All Whitetail Institute forage products come with planting dates and planting instructions on the package. Those are also available at The planting instructions are short and designed to be easy to follow. That means, though, that you should follow the instructions step-by-step and not cut corners if you expect to get the best results. Of all the factors that influence food plot success, other than using high-quality seed, none are more important than making sure soil pH is neutral (6.5 to 7.5) by adding lime to the soil if soil pH is low, and that any low levels of important nutrients in the soil, such as phosphorous and potassium, are brought up with fertilizer.

As you’ll see from the real-world example that follows, it pays to test your soil with a laboratory soil test kit any time you’re considering buying lime or fertilizer. The Whitetail Institute soil test kit offers the precision that only a qualified soil testing laboratory can provide, which lets you make sure your forage plants have access to all the nutrients they need to thrive — and make sure that you don’t waste money on excess lime and fertilizer purchases.

“Our family’s farm was purchased back in the late 1990s,” Charlie said. “About half the property is in timber, and the rest is open areas that had been leased for farming. After we got the property, we continued to lease some of the fields to a local farmer to bring in some income. A few years later, we also started taking an active approach in managing the timbered areas to help bring in some extra money and to sustain them.

“It wasn’t until about six or seven years ago, though, that we started experimenting with the idea of planting food plots. When I look back on where we started, I can tell you that our level of knowledge today is way beyond what it was in those early days. Back then, we really struggled because we didn’t understand some basic things that can make a huge difference — things that are so important that they can determine whether you will have a great food plot or not, and in some cases whether what you plant will even survive or not. The most important things we learned are how crucial it is to make sure your soil pH is in optimum range before you plant, and that the best way to make sure you do that is with a laboratory soil test kit.

“Before we started planting food plots, we noticed that folks who were hunting the farms around ours seemed to be harvesting more deer and bucks with bigger antlers. The only thing we could tell that they were doing that we weren’t was planting high-quality food plots specifically for the deer. So, we set aside a few spots for food plots near the woods in some of the hay fields and areas the farmer had been planting in crops such as corn, sorghum and beans. We disked up the ground, put down some fertilizer and planted. The results weren’t what we had hoped they’d be. The forage plants came up, but they didn’t seem to grow very quickly, and the plots never really got thick and lush. We did see a few more deer, but we had hoped for a better result all around than we got. “One day, I was telling one of our neighbors about the marginal results we’d gotten with our food plots, and he suggested that we call the Whitetail Institute for advice. He said the Whitetail Institute had consultants who really know their stuff and who will help folks over the phone for free. We called the Whitetail Institute’s consultants to figure out what might be going wrong. When I told the consultant how we’d planted and described the problems we’d seen, I was surprised that his first question was, ‘Did you do a laboratory soil test before you planted?’ I told him that we had not because we figured that since the farmer’s hay and crops had done fine in those areas, we assumed the forage we’d planted would too, especially since we’d fertilized before we planted. “The consultant said that when he helps customers diagnose food plot problems, he almost always starts with a laboratory soil test —by reviewing the report if the customer did do a soil test before planting, or by having them perform a laboratory soil test if they didn’t. He said, “That way, we can determine exactly what your soil pH and soil fertility levels are, and that will either eliminate those as causes or point the finger at them.”

To understand why that’s important, you need to know two things. First, plants can freely uptake nutrients from the soil only when soil pH is within a certain range. Otherwise, nutrients are bound up in the soil in a way that inhibits the plant from freely accessing them. Second, the soil pH range in which plants can freely uptake nutrients from the soil isn’t the same for all kinds of plants.

The optimum soil pH range for most high-quality forage plantings for deer is neutral soil pH, or a soil pH between 6.5 to 7.5. When such forages are planted in soils with soil pH below 6.5 (acidic soil), nutrients are bound up in the soil so the forage plants cannot freely access them, and the lower the soil pH is, the more the forage plants will struggle. Many farm crops, vegetables and other kinds of plants, though, are able to freely uptake nutrients even when soil pH is slightly acidic.

“That,” Charlie said, "was a real eye-opener. We followed the consultant’s advice and had the Whitetail Institute test our soil for us, and when we got the report back, I called the Whitetail Institute to go over it. Again, the consultant started with soil pH, which the reports showed was around 5.5 for all of our plots. He explained that just because crops and hay grass grow well in an area doesn’t mean that food plots automatically will too, and that our case was a perfect example. Soil pH of 5.5 is fine for hay grass and the crops the farmer had grown, but it is too low for high-quality forage plants. “The soil test report called for about two tons of lime per acre. We added the recommended amount of lime to each food plot and disked it in during the spring and then replanted the next fall. We also stuck to the laboratory’s fertilizer recommendations, and we found that we didn’t really need as much fertilizer as we had used the first year. That year, our food plots were way, way better. They looked great and were even greener than we expected. The forage plants grew quickly, and they stayed real thick even after the deer started grazing them hard. Some of our Imperial Whitetail Clover plots are now going on their fifth year since we last planted them, and they still look as good and are still attracting deer as much as ever.”

Why Have a Qualified Soil Testing Lab Test Your Soil?

That can be answered generally with one word: precision. First, only a qualified soil testing laboratory can accurately determine what soil pH and soil fertility (levels of crucial nutrients in your soil) are. Second, soils differ widely in capacity to hold lime activity and fertilizer, and only a lab can scientifically analyze your soil’s characteristics accurately enough to develop very precise recommendations concerning lime and/or fertilizer that you’ll need to add to the soil if levels are low. Most cheap probes, slurries and other such do-it-yourself soil test kits simply cannot provide the level of accuracy necessary to precisely tell you those things.

And precision isn’t just important for making sure you buy the lime and/or fertilizer that is needed to bring the soil into optimum growing conditions. The precision of laboratory soil testing also lets you make sure that you don’t waste money buying lime and/or fertilizer you really don’t need. All Whitetail Institute forage products come with de-fault lime and fertilizer recommendations on the back of the product bags for situations in which a laboratory soil test isn’t available. Frankly, though, that’s rarely if ever the case, because high-quality laboratory soil tests are widely available. You can get them online at, through many of the retailers that carry Whitetail Institute products, and from most major agricultural universities.

Also, consider that the default recommendations are designed to cover as many planting situations as possible. That being the case, the default recommendations will rarely be exactly what’s actually needed, and if they are spot on, it is only by pure chance. In most situations, the default recommendations might be too much lime and/or fertilizer or too little.

The bottom line is that only a laboratory soil test will allow you to make sure your forage plants have access to all the nutrients they need to grow vigorously and provide you with a lush, healthy, highly attractive and nutritious forage stand — and save you money at the same time.

The Whitetail Institute soil test kit is designed with food plotters in mind. It provides all the precision of a laboratory soil test, and the report is designed to be easy to understand. It even provides suggestions for commonly available bagged fertilizers that will meet the report’s recommendations. If you have your soil tested through Whitetail Institute or a lab other than the Whitetail Institute’s and have trouble understanding the report, call the Whitetail Institute for assistance. As Charlie says, “The phone call I made to the Whitetail Institute and the advice they gave me about soil testing is the best advice I’ve ever received about food plotting, and our hunting continues to improve because of it.”