Spend a Nickel to Save a Dime … and Time

By Bill Marchel

My initial attempt at planting food plots to attract deer and other wildlife to my 70 acres located in central Minnesota was futile. Looking back, I now realize I wasted money — and more importantly valuable time — by trying to take shortcuts during my early planting efforts.

Managing private lands for wildlife, especially whitetails, has become very popular in recent years. Properly implemented food plots and other habitat projects will dramatically increase deer numbers and herd health on your property, especially when combined with a deer harvest plan.

But food plots don’t just happen. A lot of money and many hours of labor are required, and proper planting procedures must be followed or most of your efforts will be wasted. I know. I learned all this the hard way – by trial and error, with an emphasis on the error.

The following paragraphs summarize my successes and failures, with information you can use in the future to save you money and time when implementing your food plots. On my first attempt at planting a food plot, I simply took a handful of seeds and tossed them onto the ground in a likely location. “With all that seed on the ground, the resulting clover plants will out-compete even this waist-high native vegetation,” I reasoned. Well, I was wrong, and deep down I guess I knew it wouldn’t work. When the archery deer season arrived, not a clover plant was to be found, nor a deer. The following summer, a bit more determined, I mowed the native vegetation prior to planting the clover seed. This time, instead of tossing the seed on the ground, I spread it in nice and evenly with a hand-held seed spreader. A few weeks later, I had to look hard to find any clover plants among the native vegetation, which by then had grown a foot high. There was still too much competition for the clover. That winter I carefully read whatever information I could find about planting food plots. One common denominator I noticed among the various articles was that good results could not be expected without proper soil preparation. So, armed with this accumulated knowledge, the following summer I rented a backpack sprayer and used it to apply herbicide to the native vegetation. A few weeks later I raked away as much dead vegetation as I could and planted rows of corn in my food plot, which measured a measly 30 feet by 50 feet. The corn grew, but without the proper fertilizer the cobs reached only about four inches in length. By the time the archery deer season arrived in mid-September, the cobs were gone, consumed by hungry raccoons and squirrels.

Well, plans A, B and C didn’t work, so it was time to devise plan D. I knew from my past failures that plan D would have to be dramatically more involved than my previous attempts. It was obvious I would either need to hire someone with the proper equipment to clear land, prepare the soil and plant my food plots, or I would need to purchase the equipment myself. After some thought and research, I elected to buy the equipment and do the work myself, even though I had no previous farming or gardening experience. From a purely economic standpoint, I probably would have been better off to hire someone to do the work. But I looked forward to working my land and applying all the new techniques I had read about.

Also, the work is good exercise. As it turned out, managing my land for wildlife has evolved into far more than a hobby; it has become an obsession. Even though I enjoy working on my food plots, I realized during my unsuccessful attempts at planting that cutting corners only wasted money, and each task took additional time – time that could have been spent working on additional projects, or even fishing. So when it came time to purchase my equipment, I bought the best and most versatile I could afford. Since most of my property is lowland, I knew buying a farm tractor was not the answer because getting stuck on the way to and from my remote food plots was going to be a problem. So I bought an ATV and equipped it with a three-point hitch and farming implements. A few other helpful accessories included a winch, a cultipacker, a utility trailer, a fertilizer and seed spreader and an herbicide sprayer. I’m amazed at the work I can accomplish using my ATV equipped with the proper attachments. In most cases, an ATV outfitted with the necessary accessories can do nearly all the work of a farm tractor; it just takes a bit longer. I also bought a chainsaw and a powerful hand-held brush mower. Both are used for clearing land for future food plots, trail maintenance and for forest management. My initial equipment investment was substantial, but I’ve never looked back. Plain and simple, any hobby costs money. Also, I now use my ATV for all sorts of chores other than planting food plots such as plowing snow, yard work and landscape projects. Heck, I even use the winch to remove the hide from deer I’ve harvested.

Using the proper equipment has helped me to prepare and plant 10 food plots, which range in size from 1/4 acre to one acre. It was a lot of work. I battled countless rocks, tree roots and head-high reed canary grass in soils ranging from gooey peat to baked rock-hard clay. But I knew from my previous failures that the work would pay off in future food plot production. My next money-saving strategy was to get a soil test for each plot.

The results were real eye-openers. My lowland plots had a pH of 6.5 and needed no lime to grow Imperial Whitetail Clover. But one of my food plots located on a piece of high ground had been previously farmed and the soil had a pH of only 5.6. I needed to apply about 1 1/2 tons of lime per acre to bring the pH up to 6.5. During my food plot research, I heard the saying many times, “Lime doesn’t cost, it pays.” So for several weeks, each time I went to town I purchased 1,000 pounds of lime in 50-pound bags and hauled it home. When I had stockpiled enough lime to “sweeten” all my food plots, I transported the bags to the plots via a utility trailer pulled behind my ATV. Then, I spread the lime 100 pounds at a time using a spreader attached to the rear rack on my ATV. It was a lot of work, but it took only one afternoon to complete. The soil tests also proved the soil in all my plots was very deficient of potassium. In fact I needed to apply about three times as much potassium as phosphorus. Had I just applied a standard 10-10-10 fertilizer, I would have wasted money, and the quality of my food plots would have suffered. The one variable affecting our food plots that we cannot control is the weather. Drought, extended periods of cold or hot weather, untimely frosts and other weather extremes will reduce plant production in even the best food plots. But, healthy vigorous plants, which result from proper planting practices, will be affected less and recover more quickly following those weather extremes. 

The results of my food plot planting efforts have been dramatic. My lush green plots are deer magnets, and other wildlife such as rabbits and ruffed grouse also feed in my plots. I have given numerous tours of my property to other hunters and have yet to have anyone say their food plots are in better condition. One hunter, while gazing at one of my Imperial Whitetail Clover plots made a comment “It looks good enough to eat. I wish I would have brought a fork and some salad dressing.”