Small Plot Plans for Big Results

By Scott Bestul

 It was one of those hunts where I just wasn’t getting the vibe. An outing where my head tells me I’m making the right choice, but my gut carries on a nagging argument that knee-caps my confidence. On a late October afternoon, the debate went something like this: Head: Cool little ladder stand, tucked sweetly against a leafy white oak. Gut: It’s 12 feet high, idiot.
No cover between you and the food plot. You’ll never draw a bow without spooking deer. Head: But I like the food plot. Strip of oats, a swath of brassicas, and even a few beans for variety. Gut: Yes, and you could shoot an arrow into your neighbor’s barn from here. Listen to all that banging, clanking and mooing. And do you recall that a nice buck has already been shot from this spot this fall? How many times do you think you can go to the well, anyway? 

You get the picture. This is why I carry a book in my backpack; to provide distraction from the mental wars and keep my butt in the seat. Some of those hunts live up to my worst expectations. But this one surprised me. Within an hour, I’d seen a handful of does and a small buck, and in the last minutes of prime time a 3-1/2-year-old 10-point fed within 16 yards of that little ladder. I decided to pass on the shot, but the hunt was one of my most exciting of the fall. Such is the power of small food plots, planted close to security cover. The plot I hunted that evening is a perfect example of these tight-cover plots, and though it’s only a few years old, has always fascinated me. As described, it’s located within a stone’s throw of my neighbor’s dairy barn, which is always a busy and noisy place. Yet because of the adjacent cover — an old pasture that Dave has allowed to grow up into dense brush and young trees — the deer feel safe there. This plot sucks in not only a lot of deer, but mature bucks as well. In fact, close to a month before my evening hunt, Dave shot a gorgeous 10-point buck that grossed in the high 150s — not a bad reward for a plot not much bigger than a couple of full-sized pickup trucks. My hunting buddies and I have been experimenting with these types of plots for several seasons now, and have made enough mistakes to feel like we’re finally learning something. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned. 

No. 1: Plot Location 

Small plots — which I define as anything less than one-half acre — are best situated somewhere close to dense cover. The reason for this is simple. Because a small plot is never going to feed a lot of deer for a long period of time, their main purpose is to lure deer in for a shot. And to coax any deer into an open area during daylight, you need to make deer feel safe. Situate a small plot close to cover and deer don’t have to travel far to reach the food. Plus, the presence of nearby cover affords a feeding whitetail with a sense of security. This is particularly critical when you’re trying to lure in mature bucks. While there are many areas suitable to these small kill plots, the three best I’ve helped create were all in or near naturally occurring openings. The first is just off a small clearcut close to my home. My neighbor and I made the clearcut over several winter weekends spent with a chainsaw in hand; and just off the edge of the clearcut was a small area — about one-eighth of an acre, to be exact — grown up to sumac, honeysuckle and grass. It was a small matter to clear the brush and grass and establish a plot, which I’ve maintained for several years now. The plot described in the beginning of this story is another excellent example. Though close to buildings and other human activity, the plot (actually several small ones linked together) lies tight to cover so dense it’s barely penetrable. The thick morass of briers, saplings and weeds keeps deer feeling secure; an illusion maintained because those areas are never penetrated by humans and the plots are hunted sparingly (and then only under perfect wind conditions). Finally, I’ve helped a friend establish and maintain a pair of plots on his small property for many years now. Those plots are located adjacent to the headwaters of a tiny trout stream, which flows through an old brushy pasture choked by box elder, cedar and cottonwood trees, with a smattering of switchgrass and other native prairie species. These plots attract deer throughout the year and have allowed my friend to tag many deer. While our plantings offer deer a nutritional boost, I’m convinced their true effectiveness lies in location; even mature bucks (my friend missed a legitimate Booner there last fall) feel safe grabbing a bite because safety is only a leap away. 

No. 2: Plot Establishment and Weed Control

Small plots can be deadly, but some of them are just plain difficult to start. Ideally, I like to work with natural openings which require less brush and woody vegetation removal and already enjoy a good dose of sunlight. But sometimes I’m forced to get stubborn. One of my friend’s plots next to the creek (mentioned above) was basically hacked out of a gnarly little stand of box elder trees. For that task I hired a buddy who owns a skid loader and a bucket. Mark ripped trees out of the ground by their roots in an hour’s worth of labor, and the $100 I paid him was chicken feed compared to the labor of cutting trees and digging out stumps by hand. Of course, your time/labor investment will be much smaller if you focus your efforts on natural openings. Here, the main concern is usually eliminating grass and weed competition, a job that’s usually a snap for a sprayer loaded with a quality herbicide. In most scenarios, I like to spray the plot and let it sit for a week or two, which allows stubborn broadleaf weeds and grasses a chance to absorb the chemical in their roots and get a great kill. When the plot has “browned up” nicely, tillage is much simpler and more effective. One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about starting food plots like these is, “Can I use an ATV to do the job?” I confess I’m torn and spoiled on this issue. As far as being spoiled, I’m blessed to have friends, neighbors and hunting buds who possess — and know how to run — some serious equipment. This means I can turn to them, point to a brush-choked thicket and say, “Hey, do you think it’s possible to get a tractor in there and work that up for me?” I’m devious this way, as I’ve learned my buddies take these tasks as a personal challenge; a test of their farming skills, as it were. The next thing I know, there’s a John Deere in a place where it shouldn’t be, turning Back to the “torn” half of the equation. I know some guys who have good ATVs and top-of-the-line accessories. In most areas — I’m stressing the word “most” — they can till up a small plot just fine, assuming they let the herbicide do its work and aren’t battling a root system quagmire. The process just takes a little longer than it would with heavy equipment. This, of course, is fine. But every once in a while there’s a nasty, brushy, rocky patch where an ATV is just not a big enough gun for the game. In such cases, seek out someone who’ll bring in the artillery you need and you won’t regret the cash it takes to get the job done right. One surprising thing I’ve learned about small plots is the amount of continuing weed control required. When I first started planting these mini-plots, I figured that when the initial weed-war was fought my headaches would be over. Wrong. In fact, I feel that small-plot farmers face even stiffer weed competition, not because of what we spray or till in the plot itself, but the stuff we ignore on its borders. A classic example is a plot I planted a few years back that was infested with burdock. I sprayed those nasty, sprawling broadleaves like I was hosing down a house fire … and they just kept coming back. I was mystified, until I took my eyes off the plot itself. On its fringes, and growing in a sweeping arc under neighboring trees and shrubs, were hundreds of burdock plants that were casting seeds into my plot on a continual basis. When I expanded the burdock war to a broader front, I was able to nearly eliminate the competition. These days when I plant a small plot, the first thing I do is look around the perimeter and identify potential enemies that will spread their seed into the perfect growing conditions I’m about to create. 

No. 3: The Planting Question 

Deciding what to plant in a mini-plot is a thorny issue. If I had my druthers, I’d plant Imperial Whitetail Clover in almost every one I could. Clover is just such a year-round whitetail attractant that it’s tough to beat, and I’ve tested enough brand names to feel that Imperial is the best stuff going. Also, I’m a passionate turkey hunter, and clover sucks in spring birds like no other food source around. Finally, getting a great clover patch established means that, with a little yearly maintenance, you’ll have a great plot going for several years. That said, weed control often forces me to consider other options for the first couple years of a small plot. One tactic that has worked well is to work up the plot in spring or early summer and plant something like a Roundup ready soybean. As noted above, mini-plots are grass- and broadleaf-magnets, and in my experience Roundup whacks weeds like nothing else. After a season or two of Roundup ready beans, I usually have weed competition defeated and I can get my clover going. Yet even beans aren’t a magic bullet. The curse of beans in a small plot is that deer can wipe them out; sometimes before they can even throw a pod or reach the hunting season. Here’s the solution to that problem; monitor your plot into the late summer months. If it looks like deer will have the thing destroyed before it can do you any good, simply till the plot up and plant a late-season annual. Two of my favorite nominees are Tall Tine Tubers, or Winter-Greens. In addition to producing amazing food mass, these offerings typically aren’t attractive to deer until the first frost. This timing can help a small plot produce well into the hunting season. Last year, I experienced a final, and highly exciting, option for small plot success. My hunting partner and I were looking for something to plant in a pair of plots that had been brassica fields for three seasons. Deer had so adored these plots that it was tough to walk away from Winter-Greens, but the experts at Whitetail Institute told me doing so was following the good agricultural practice of rotation. When I asked for a substitute they suggested Whitetail Oats Plus. We’d never planted oats before, but after last fall they’re going to be a staple on our food plot menu. I’ve come to love Whitetail Oats for a variety of reasons, but the short list goes like this: 1. They’re simple to plant; 2. they’re a late-summer, early-fall planting (which means weed competition is minimal); 3. they’re low maintenance and, finally; 4. whitetails just hammer them. We were thrilled with the whitetail response to Whitetail oats and impressed by their ability to take heavy grazing and still rebound to grow even more. 


Small plots will never accomplish the management goals of their larger counterparts — feeding great numbers of deer and improving herd health and survival. But I’m convinced they’re an integral part of any serious deer manager’s plans. Micro plots placed close to dense security cover allow us to add more variety and tonnage to our food plot plans, and they provide excellent spots for killing does and mature bucks. And finally, I view small plots as the perfect stepping stone into the fascinating world of food plotting. With a small investment of time, money and materials, small plots provide the ideal laboratory for learning.