By J. Wayne Fears

You finally have a tract of land to manage for deer hunting, and you can’t wait to locate and plant food plots. However, you must wait because you don’t have the budget to buy a farm tractor and the needed implements.

Hold on. Don’t give up yet. If you have an ATV or side-by-side, chances are you can still do some of the same things on your property you could accomplish with a tractor. Plus, you can get the ATV into remote places a tractor can’t go. All you need to do is to shop for ATV farm implements that can turn your ATV or side-by-side into a workhorse. Many used models are available at reasonable prices.

The ATV as a Tractor

A new generation of deer hunters is discovering the year-round fun of managing habitat, including creating and planting food plots that will attract and nourish deer. Many of those hunters are buying or leasing land to manage for hunting, have inherited a farm or have family land to manage, or are joining hunting clubs that lease land they can manage. However, few of the new generation of hunters/deer managers have a farming background or have ever driven a tractor. Because of that lack of experience, there’s a lot of confusion about the steps to take in developing and planting a food plot using an ATV. Experts agree that for an ATV to be suitable for working a food plot, it must have at least a 450cc engine. Larger is better. It needs to be equipped with a low gear range, aggressive tire treads, four-wheel drive and a strong hitch mount. It requires a lot of horsepower to pull a long-tooth harrow or a set of discs through the soil while occasionally hitting roots or rocks. Also, ATV discs can weigh up to 300 pounds, and pulling that weight through the soil can require a lot of muscle. You want enough strength in your ATV so it can do the job without being strained — that usually requires being in four-wheel drive and running in low gear — and you do not want the ATV to overheat. I recently planted a half-acre remote food plot in Imperial No-Plow using a 4-by-4 that had an 812cc engine, a low-range transmission, aggressive tires and a strong hitch system. Using the appropriate implements, it performed like a small farm tractor. Here’s a brief guide to the steps necessary to develop and plant a food plot using an ATV as a tractor.

1. Select Good Plot Locations

Many deer management plans call for at least one percent of the total acreage to be planted in managed food plots. (three to five percent is even better) It’s preferable that the plots not be in one block or just one section of the property. In fact, the food plots should be as equally distributed throughout the property as possible. That offers food to a higher percentage of animals. The best way to locate food plot sites is to travel the property slowly on your ATV and view the area, looking for natural openings such as old fields, utility right-of-ways, log loading areas and small clearcuts. Study each potential site carefully. The more isolated the location, the better. Give a high priority to areas where the soil is rich and moisture is good, but not a wetland. Ideal food plot sites have an irregular tree line. Use a GPS and mark the locations on a topo map, and record the sites in your wildlife management plan.

2. Prepare to Till the Plot

After you’ve selected food plot sites, it’s time to clean the sites and prepare to till the soil. The first rule of tilling is to clean a new or existing food plot site as much as possible so you can better evaluate what type machinery will be required to break and prepare the seedbed. This needs to be done a couple of months before the planting season. Using your side-by-side or ATV with a trailer is a convenient way to remove ground litter by hand. The trailer or a side-by-side with a bed can be kept close to the workers, minimizing cleanup time. Pick up everything you can, including rocks, limbs and logs. You want to evaluate the bare ground. If weeds and other vegetation cover the plot, you can use the ATV with a herbicide sprayer attached to quickly kill the competing plants. When dead, they can be plowed under or removed by hand.

ATV vs. Tractor

After the food plot is cleared, it will be easy to see what you’re facing to get the plot tilled and the seedbed prepared. Can it be done with an ATV, or will it require a tractor? Ask these questions:
• Is the food plot site new?
• Is it in an old logging road or log landing?
• Is the site an old, overgrown field?
• Are there lots of stumps and roots in the plot?
• Are rocks as large as a grapefruit or larger present at the plot site?
• Is the soil a tight soil, such as red clay?
• Is the plot larger than three acres?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you had better plan to use a tractor with at least 30 horsepower and heavy discs, or contract with a local farmer to break the plot with a strong farm tractor and discs. Trying to use an ATV in most of those situations can be dangerous, frustrating and hard on equipment, resulting in a less than- desirable crop. It’s simply more than an ATV was designed to do. However, if the plot is established and has been broken annually and planted in annual crops, or is in an area free of roots, stumps and large rocks, and the ground is a loose soil, such as a sandy loam, and has not been compacted by heavy truck traffic, you can probably use your ATV. That assumes the ATV meets the requirements to pull a heavy set of ATV-designed discs to break the ground and a harrow to prepare the seedbed.

3. Tilling a Seedbed

I’ve written many times that one of the most common mistakes food plotters make is not preparing a good seedbed. I consider poor seedbed preparation the No. 2 reason food plots fail, right after not following the recommendations of a soil test. Tilling a food plot should not be rushed. It will take several passes with the cutting disc to establish a good seedbed, but with patience, you can do it properly. Remember to break the field when the soil is dry, and take your time. Using an ATV, you’ll typically have to go over the field several times. Good seed-to-soil contact is essential for a productive food plot, and you want a level, fine-textured seedbed. When the soil is broken up, the next step is to level and smooth the seedbed.

4. Smoothing the Seedbed

Using a drag-type harrow, sometimes called a chain harrow, attached to your ATV, drag the food plot several times with the longer tines down to break up small clods and remove weeds, rocks and other natural debris. This dragging will also help level the plot. Next, turn the harrow over, and use the short-tine or tine-less side, to drag the field several times to level it for seeding. It’s often necessary to make three to four passes in various directions to harrow a plot properly. Using a drag harrow takes time in a new food plot, as the tines will need to be cleaned of weeds, grass, rocks and sticks from time to time. However, when you have completed the seedbed preparation, you can look at a clean, level, fine-textured field and know your seed has the best bed possible. If you don’t have access to a drag harrow, a section of chain-link fence attached to a heavy wooden timber can make a homemade harrow, sometimes called a drag.

5. Always Soil Test

The next step in planting a food plot can be where the greatest errors occur. During the many years I’ve spent working with landowners and hunting clubs, I’ve seen many food plots where the seedbed was properly prepared, but when it came time to fertilize and plant seeds, folks took shortcuts that resulted in a poor crop. The result was low usage by deer. The best seeds and the best seedbed preparation will not create a quality food plot if you don’t lime and fertilize according to a soil test. Several months before you’re ready to plant your food plots, visit your cooperative extension service agent and get soil tests kits for your food plots or get professional soil test kits directly from the Whitetail Institute. Then, take your ATV and visit each food plot. Take a soil sample, following the instructions with the kit. Send the sample to the designated soils lab for analysis. The report you will receive from the lab will tell you exactly how much and what kind of fertilizer — and possibly lime — you will need on each food plot for the crop you intend to plant.

6. Lime and Fertilize According to Soil Test Results

After your seedbed is prepared, equip your ATV with a seeder/spreader mounted on the unit, or use a pull-behind seeder/spreader. These seeders can be used to not only spread seed but also to lime and fertilize the field. Lime, if necessary, and fertilize the plot following the soil test results and recommendations.

7. Plant According to the Recommended Rate

When a plot has been fertilized, wash out the seeder thoroughly, as lime and fertilizer residue can corrode a seeder quickly. Then, calibrate the seeder following the manufacturer’s instructions so it will distribute the seed at the company’s recommended rate. Too few or too many seeds per acre can result in a poor-quality food plot. Take your time to do it right.

8. Cover Seed Carefully

Using a cultipacker or homemade drag pulled behind your ATV, cover the seed according to the seed company’s recommendation. Small seeds covered too deeply may not come up. Seed not covered enough can be eaten by crows, turkeys and other critters. Good seed to- soil contact is essential for a high germination rate. If you’re using a cultipacker and planting small seed like clover or brassica, it’s usually best to cultipack before and after spreading the seeds. Finally, pray for rain. Remember, you do not have to be a farmer to have good food plots, and much of the work can be done with an ATV and some basic equipment.