TOP TIPS: Decades of experience add up to great advice

By David Hart

Planting a food plot is as simple as turning some dirt and throwing down some seed, right? With some time and rainfall, you’ll have a field of clover, oats or a blend of deer candy in no time.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. In fact, turning a patch of ground into a lush, vibrant field of clover or brassicas can be a challenge. Don’t fret. I asked four of Whitetail Institute’s experienced product users to share their top tip for building a plot that deer — and you — will love.

Define the Mission

Before you buy a sack of seed and turn any dirt, and long before you send off a bag of soil for a test, figure out exactly why you are planting a food plot. “Is this going to be a hunting plot or a summer nutritional plot?” said Neil Dougherty, North Country Whitetails operations manager. “A lot of guys just grab a bag of seed without really knowing what they are planting or why they are planting it. First, define your mission. What are you trying to accomplish?” All food plots attract deer, to a degree. That’s why we plant them. However, what you plant will have a specific result, often for a specific season. Some Whitetail Institute products are aimed at attracting deer in early fall, for example, giving you a prime bowhunting spot. Some perennials are designed to last virtually all year. Others are designed to provide high-quality nutrition throughout spring, summer and early fall, and a few are meant to provide late-winter forage. “Decide what you want your food plot to do, and then buy your seed and build the plot,” Dougherty said. Defining your mission also includes determining your ability to carry out that mission. Can you invest the time and resources into something such as an alfalfa or clover plot? Both perennials require routine maintenance. If you can’t do what’s necessary to keep those perennial plots maintained, perhaps it’s best to plant annuals, Dougherty said. Whatever you settle on, there’s nothing more rewarding than when that mission falls into place and actually succeeds. In fact, Dougherty recalled the first time he watched a group of deer emerge from a wood line and step into the first food plot he planted 25 years ago. He would have been thrilled if those deer were does and fawns, but as luck would have it, Dougherty witnessed a group five bucks, including one that any hunter would be proud to tag. “I was just hiding behind some bushes on a hot August evening when I saw those deer feeding in the food plot I built,” he said. “I thought, ‘I made this happen.’ It was a very satisfying experience. It still is.”

Be Realistic

Something as simple as seeing deer can be part of your food plot mission, but make sure you set achievable goals. Food plots require lots of work. They also demand time and money. In other words, know your boundaries along with the habitat’s limitations. As a resident of southwestern Pennsylvania, Jeremy Flinn understands that he’ll never grow basketball-sized turnips, for example, no matter how much effort he puts into amending the soil. The thin, rocky soil where he lives just won’t produce that type of result. Further, because of the terrain, it’s all but impossible to use a tractor to plant larger plots, so he’s limited to an ATV and smaller plots. “I can’t put in a big food plot like some guys can,” said Flinn. “I don’t even use a disk. All that will do is bring up more rocks from below the surface. All I do is use prescribed fire to burn off the existing vegetation, and then I use a drag harrow to scratch up the surface of the soil.” Accepting your limitations goes beyond the landscape. Building high-quality food plots from scratch not only requires some general knowledge of horticulture but also time, money and effort. If any of those vital resources are limited, you’ll need to have more realistic goals. “A lot of guys want to plant as many acres as they possibly can, so they buy enough seed without allowing money for the other expenses, so they end up cutting costs at the wrong time,” Flinn said. “You need to plant only what you can afford to plant without cutting corners.” That’s why he recommends scaling back your plot sizes if your resources are limited. There’s nothing wrong with going big, but make sure you can handle the demands necessary to grow a high-quality food plot. As Flinn learned, it’s not so much the initial planting or even the soil-amending process. The biggest surprise he faced when he first started planting food plots was how difficult it is to control weeds in perennial plots. Although mowing can keep clover and other perennials vigorous, it really doesn’t always control weeds and grasses. “I’m now a huge proponent of herbicides like Arrest Max for grasses and Slay for broadleafs in my clover plots,” he said. “Mowing won’t control perennial grasses, and it doesn’t prevent perennial broadleaf weeds from getting established, so I don’t mow to control weeds anymore. I spray.”

Test the Dirt

Weeds will grow almost everywhere because they’ve adapted to the soil for generations. Food plot plants, however, usually need a helping hand in the form of additional nutrients and a pH correction to reach their full potential. That’s why veteran land manager and deer expert Charles Alsheimer said nothing is more important in food plotting than proper soil preparation. “If you don’t get the soil right, you may be wasting your money,” he said. “If the soil does not have the correct pH and the right nutrients for the specific plants you want to grow, those plants will not reach their full potential.” In the most extreme cases, the deer may not even eat them. As Alsheimer said, the plants are nothing more than the delivery device for the nutrients in the soil. If the plants aren’t healthy, they won’t provide the maximum nutritional quality whitetails seek, so animals may try to find better food. Nor will the plants provide the tonnage of forage that a healthy plot can produce. “It’s really pretty simple,” he said. “Amending the soil will result in healthy, attractive plants and a food plot that produces far more forage than an unhealthy food plot.” You can choose from various soil tests, including do-it-yourself kits at home and garden centers. They are cheap and nearly immediate, but are they any good? “They can give you an idea of your soil’s deficiencies, but they are in no way as accurate and reliable as a soil test conducted by a professional laboratory,” Alsheimer said. “If you are going to spend all that money on seed and gas and everything else, why wouldn’t you spend the 14 bucks on a professional soil test kit?” He recommended the Whitetail Institute’s soil test kit. “That will give you specific lime and fertilizer rates for a specific plant or product,” he said. Don’t wait until planting season, though. Not only is that the peak test season — everyone is sending in their kits at the same time — it won’t give you enough time to properly amend the soil’s pH. Lime can take time to fully affect the soil’s pH. The farther in advance you can start amending the ground with lime, the better your plots will be. As Alsheimer learned early, getting the soil right can mean the difference between a good deer season and a great one. However, he also learned that a healthy food plot in the wrong place can also make a huge difference. “One of my first surprises came after I planted my first greenfield in 1974,” he said. “I planted wheat right next to some woods that happened to be on my neighbor’s property. As it turned out, I was feeding the deer, and they were shooting them. I realized that you need to get food plots away from neighbors. I didn’t even think about that until after I planted that first one.” Since then, he puts as much thought into the food plot’s location as he puts into what goes into the soil. “Part of the fun of all this is laying out the food plots in relation to the rest of the landscape,” he said. “That’s a big part of your food plot’s success, not just from a hunter’s perspective, but from a manager’s perspective, too.”

Choose the Right Site

Food plot expert and frequent Whitetail News contributor Matt Harper agreed, which is why he said site selection is an equally important ingredient of the food plot equation. If you plant the wrong seed in the wrong location or choose the wrong place for a plot, you might be looking at a poor-performing food plot. “It’s critical to match the soil type to the plant before you put any seed down,” said Harper, of southern Iowa. “Alfa-Rack Plus, for example, just won’t do well in heavy, wet soil, and Imperial Whitetail Clover doesn’t do as well on loose, well-drained soil.” Any seed will sprout and grow in the wrong soil type, but long-term success will depend on matching the soil to the plant. Alfalfa, for example, originated in the arid Middle East and has deep roots to cope with the dry ground typical of its place of origin. That’s why hilltops, slopes and loose, thin soils are prime alfalfa spots. It fares poorly in damp, heavy soil, Harper said, but clover excels in heavy, damp soil typical of a creek or river bottom. The site is just as important as the soil. All food plot plants excel with at least four hours of direct sunlight, which is why plots planted deep in the woods sometimes fail. They simply aren’t getting enough light. “Secret Spot, BowStand and No-Plow don’t need quite as much light, but they do still need sunlight,” Harper said. “Just make sure you inspect the site when the trees are fully leafed to get an idea of exactly how much sun is reaching the ground during the growing season.” You’ll also be limiting your success if you plant a generic seed or one meant for cattle forage. Like many beginning food plotters, Harper thought seed sold to farmers was no different than products marketed to deer hunters when he planted his first Imperial Whitetail Clover plot 20 years ago. “I remember watching deer walk through a field of alfalfa and brome to get to the Imperial Whitetail Clover I planted,” he said. “There really is that much of a difference in the plants designed for deer and those designed for cattle forage. Deer aren’t cattle.”