When all else fails, read the instructions. That’s a motto of too many people. Some think they’re too clever to need instructions. Others are simply too lazy and some are in too big of a hurry to wade through the advice most companies give about their products.

I often fall into this camp, I hate to admit. Then when I sit in the middle of the floor surrounded by parts and bolts from some item I’m trying to put together, not knowing what to do next, I relent and read the words or look at the diagrams. I was that way with food plots, too, when I first started putting seeds in the ground to grow food for whitetails. I’d read a lot and figured I knew what I was doing. And who knows, maybe experimenting would lead to even better results or at least interesting ones. In fact, virtually every experiment in “improvising” and ignoring instructions just led to failure.

A typical example is an experience I had with Tall Tine Tubers. I was talking on the phone with Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute, saying how I needed to get some of these great turnips in the ground quickly, even though it was only late May. Scott balked. Gently, he asked, “Isn’t that a little early?” “No,” I replied. “I want to be sure to get lots of growth on the leaves before fall.” “You might find it gets too hot for the plants,” he said. “The turnips could go to seed.” Well, to make a long story short, I ignored his advice. Not that I think I’m so smart. I guess I’m just stubborn. I had this idea in my head that I’d get a jump on things and grow bigger plants by getting them in earlier. But his words echoed in the back of my head as I sowed the seed. And by early August, those words rang all too true. The Tall Tine Tubers grew quickly at first in May. But with my Imperial Clover plots thriving, the deer ignored the turnips during this early stage and fed on the lush green Imperial Whitetail Clover.

And then, in short order, the brassica plants went to seed and died in the 100-degree summer sun. This was a hard lesson, but one I took to heart. It wasn’t the first time I’d had a food plot failure or poor results from trying to do it my own way. But it was one of the most dramatic ones. The combination of those flops and mediocre plots has turned me into a stickler for following instructions on Whitetail Institute of North America (WINA) seed bags, on its how-to video and its website. I’ve become a fanatic about not skipping steps. If you want to save a lot of headaches, you should be, too. In fact, the step I ignored in that particular case was so important it’s listed on the WINA bags as the second piece of advice. It’s given right after the initial statement (step 1) that you should, “Follow all instructions stepby- step.” Under “Planting Recommendations,” the bag says, “Step 2. Stay within the planting times for your state.” And right next to that advice on the left side of the bag are clear maps and time tables for fall and spring plantings, or just one time if two planting seasons are not possible.

Some states are even divided into several regions if the climate can vary widely within the state. My state of Virginia, for example, has three regions: Mountain Valleys, South Piedmont and Coastal. So there’s no excuse for not putting seeds in during the four- to eight-week time frames typically given for a particular product. Scientists at WINA go through stringent experimenting over many years before releasing products. And they test them throughout North America in different regions to see when they grow best. Trying to wing it and put the seeds in at a different time than the one recommended can certainly lead to failure. In the case of my Tall Tine Tubers plot, failure could have resulted from going the opposite direction, too — by planting the seed too late. In that case, the seeds wouldn’t have had time to grow large enough to offer substantial leaves for deer to feed on or develop large turnips that they could dig up and eat during winter. This would have been less dramatic of a failure, but it still wouldn’t have allowed the product to produce the maximum amount of forage possible.

There are so many Whitetail Institute products that can be planted at different periods that simply being anxious to put in a plot when you have some free time is no excuse for ignoring the time frame instructions. Brassicas prefer cooler weather and in my location needed to be planted later in summer. If I simply wanted to be out in the fields working, there were other plants that could have gone in then. PowerPlant would have thrived if it was planted at that time of year in my area. Ignoring or altering other steps on the planting guides is also asking for trouble. Let’s go through them one by one and see exactly why skipping them can lead to poorer quality plots, or in some cases, total failure. We’ll begin with Step 3. Step 3 says to select an area with appropriate soils. This instruction will vary in details depending on the type of seed you’re planting. That makes it especially important to pay attention to this advice. On Imperial Whitetail Clover, for example, the step says, “Select an area with heavy soil that holds moisture. If possible, avoid sandy soils, hilltops and hillsides that drain quickly.”

Obviously with this step, you simply have to work within the constraints of what’s available on your land. But doing so as closely as possible can pay big dividends in a more attractive, thicker, taller crop that provides the maximum nutrients and thrives even in difficult weather conditions. If you didn’t have the type of soil recommended for Imperial Clover but have hillier, lighter upland soils, Alfa-Rack Plus might be a better selection. A good idea here, if you’re unsure what to plant, is to call the experts at WINA and talk it over. They’ll have specific recommendations for the soil conditions you describe to them. This is another step I’ve overlooked when planting Imperial Clover in the past. The Imperial Whitetail Clover plots I’ve put in on upland, drier soils live and grow, but they never do as well as my plots in the moisture holding bottomlands suggested in the instructions. Step 4. Do a soil test. This step might be as specific as do a “soil test for a Giant White Clover.” You need to find out what type of fertilizer combination is required for each particular seed or seed mixture and you need to find out the pH of the soil to determine how much lime should be added. Skipping this step and just putting in a generalized fertilizer mixture or an average amount of lime is a big mistake. Every plot site has a different type of soil, different nutrient needs and different pH levels. Taking the time to do a soil test, through the Whitetail Institute or your local farm co-op, is worth the small investment in time and money.

Sure, a crop will come up even if you don’t add exactly the right amount of fertilizer or lime. But it will never compare in tonnage or taste appeal or nutrients provided to the animals with a plot where you’ve carefully determined fertilizer and lime needs and applied these products appropriately. Step 5. Disk the ground thoroughly to prepare a good seed bed. After you’re selected a food plot site and killed existing vegetation, disking or tilling the ground repeatedly is a good practice. The amount of disking necessary will vary with the site and what it was used for previously. You need to break up the big clots of dirt and destroy any remaining vegetation. “If weedy or new ground,” the instructions say, “disk again in three to five days.” The point is to get the soil clumps thoroughly broken up for good seed-to-soil contact and even distribution of the seed. Step 6. Prepare a good, firm seed bed. For best results use a cultipacker or heavy roller to smooth and firm the soil. If no cultipacker is available, use a weighted fence-type drag. (You can see the Whitetail Institute’s DVD for details.) This is a step many people seem to skip. They figure they’ll cultipack or roll the seed after they plant. That’s a mistake with small seeds. If you don’t firm up the seed bed first, a lot of seed will slip down too deep to germinate and be smothered. And you also won’t get as good a seed-to-soil contact as necessary for a high percentage of germination.

The instructions make a special point of emphasizing this: “Notice: We are cultipacking before seeds are sewn.” Step 7. With a good seed bed prepared, broadcast the seed. The amount will vary with the particular product you’re planting. For Imperial Clover, 8 pounds per acre is recommended. Put in the amount suggested. If you err on the side of too much seed, you’ll have too many plants germinating. They’ll have to compete for available moisture and nutrients and may not grow to their fullest potential. If you use too little seed, the result is all too clear: lots of soil without plants growing on it. That’s an open invitation for weeds to take over and less food production for the deer than you could have had from the land. Step 8. After broadcasting the seed, use a cultipacker or some type of heavy roller to roll over the field. You might be tempted to skip this step because you did it already before you broadcasted the seed. Don’t do it. The instructions explain, “This presses seed into the ground and helps ensure better seed-to-soil contact and germination. If you don’t have a roller or cultipacker, you can pull a fence-type drag over it.” Another part of this instruction step stresses the importance of putting the seed in the ground at the appropriate depth. With small seeds such as clover, for instance, this means 1/4-inch or less. Products such as Whitetail Oats Plus and PowerPlant can be disked in deeper, but clover seeds will not germinate well if you bury them more than 1/4- inch. Step 9. Step 9 stresses that there are many factors that can influence the success or failure of a food plot and the quality of plant growth it offers deer. It says, “Imperial Whitetail Clover is a high-quality forage seed. Proper planting effort, favorable soil, weather conditions and good timing can contribute to the success of your planting and the ultimate impact on the quality of your deer and wildlife.” This step is really simply a reminder of and a justification for being a stickler for following instructions carefully and not skipping steps.

You can’t change the soil you have to work with and you can’t change the vagaries of the weather. So taking the time to do things exactly right with the steps of putting in a food plot at least gives you all the odds in your favor in the things you can control. Step 10. Step 10 suggests placing a wire basket over a portion of the crop so wildlife can’t graze that area. “Watch the difference inside and outside the basket.” Of all the steps of the instructions, this one would certainly be the least harmful to skip. But why would you want to? Who wouldn’t like to see the contrast between the plants inside and outside of the cage and see how much good nutrition you’re providing the whitetails using your land? Step 11. “Do not plant during hot, dry weather.” This final advice on the Imperial Whitetail Clover bag is one I try to follow as best I can, and you should, too. It’s clear why this step is listed. Dry weather can mean your seeds won’t have enough moisture to germinate. And if it’s extremely hot, those plants that do emerge might perish from the withering heat and lack of moisture. With some of the droughts we’ve been having in many parts of the country recently, this is a hard step to follow. But as with all the others, by ignoring it you’re gambling with the chance of failure, and wasting the time, money and physical effort on a project that might be doomed. Show patience. Wait for a predicted rain and cooling trend, and then get your crop in ahead of it. Like all the other instructions on WINA products, there’s a valid reason for this advice. Follow it, and you’ll be glad you did.