Plotting Wildlife Food Plots
Dr. John Woods 09.15.14
Creating supplemental wildlife food plots is a popular practice these days. Both hunters and wildlife observers are more interested than ever in growing mini-crops of plants that can not only provide additional nutritional benefits to all kinds of wildlife both consumptive and non-consumptive, but also create a man-made habitat where more wildlife can be seen, watched, or photographed for recreational enjoyment.
As I call them, hunter-farmers taking on new lands or desiring to enhance lands they already manage are jumping into the learning curve on how to create a wildlife food plot. Knowing the where and how to grow wildlife food plots is a big part of growing successful plots that wildlife will utilize.
Spending some time doing a property overview assessment is a wise idea when it comes to making decisions on where to put food plots. There is more to it than just picking an open piece of ground, plowing it up, and planting something.
The best way to get a bird’s eye view of your property is with an aerial photograph. These can be acquired on line at sites like www.mytopo.com. Another creative way to do this is to drop by a local airport to inquire about a pilot that might do a fly over for some gas. That is what I did for both owned land and leased property. I blew the photos up into wall charts so I could see all the details of the property features and layouts.
It is amazing the visual perspective an aerial photo can offer. All of a sudden you find little open landscapes maybe in the middle of the woods, or you find an isolated field of grass in the corner of a cut over, CRP, or along a streamside. The areas don’t have to be big nor do they have to be in the best location to work.
Best food plots should be relatively small in size and with as much habitat edge as possible. In fact, smaller plots are better than one or two huge ones. The edge effect will create a more secure feeling for wildlife, especially deer and turkey. They may venture out to feed, but still think they can easily escape back into the safety of the woods. Amazingly it has been determined by observational research that deer in particular do not use the center areas of big field plots for feeding. They like the edges.
Plots should also be irregular in shape rather than a square or rectangle. Odd shapes like a kidney or hour glass also creates additional security edge and also offers more options for hunting stand placements. Break up the layout so it looks more natural.
Try to keep plots away from the open view of any highway, camp roadway, or highly used camp ATV trails. Frequent traffic by any food plot always tends to keep deer shy of them. If possible, make food plots walk in only areas. You can also create little turn around spots where ATVs can be parked but not driven into the plot. The same care should be used in placing deer stands on any food plot. Be smart and hide them well.
Water drainage can be an issue to address, too. If the spot you pick has standing water on it at times, it may be too wet for a good plot or perhaps only the edges could be planted. Farming a wetlands food plot can be tricky. We have some of those on our place and quite often the fall plantings get flooded out with fall rains. Plots with fast drainage are best. Remember, farming food plots has a good measure of risk to it.
Before the final decision is made on food plot locations, take some soil samples and have them analyzed for pH value. If the pH is not right then the plot areas may need to be treated with lime for them to be really successful at growing food plot plantings. Call your local county agriculture extension agent or state wildlife biologist to get their advice.
I love the ads showing an ATV pulling a food plot disk or plow. Get real. The hard packed ground of a first time food plot is not going to yield to a plow towed by an ATV. Brand new food plots need to be cut down with full-sized farm tractors using agricultural grade heavy duty disks. Even then, have the driver go over the ground until the clods are pulverized into silt dirt. A good seed bed is a must to grow a good plot.
If the new plot area is grown up in head high weeds, then mow it first, let it sit a couple weeks to fully die off, then do the disking work. Some folks with deep pockets will spray these fields with herbicide, but I consider that too expensive for my budget.
Once the disking is done, finish off the area with a harrow if possible. I have seen guys use old fence gates, metal spring mattresses, or store bought dirt drags with steel spikes. Again this further breaks up the soil, creating fine dirt to readily accept the seed.
One other nice touch is to leave one side of the plot not disked about the width of an ATV. In time this will create a compacted trail road that can be used for ATV traffic when needed to move stands, do maintenance in the off season, or to load up a big buck taken on that new plot.
A big question that always remains is what to plant. If you are on a really tight, fixed budget, then go with wheat or oats. If you can afford a little more then add some clovers, peas, or beans. If you are really flush then plant some garden plants like rape and mustard or turnip greens to attract deer, too.
Follow up any planting with a good dose of fertilizer. Triple-13 will work and is probably the cheapest route to take now. Cover it all with a light disking or harrow work, and then pray for some rain a little bit at a time.
Managing food plots is just one more fun part of hunting and enhancing property for the benefit of wildlife. There is great satisfaction in seeing lots of deer browsing on your food plot, whether you ever pull a trigger or not.