With more and more sportsmen and women making the transition from deer hunter to deer manager, the interest in planting food plots has never been higher. Unfortunately, many would-be deer managers simply buy a bag of seed, work up an opening, scatter some seed and hope for the best. While this may occasionally work out, more times than not it is going to lead to wasted money and disappointment.
Some causes of food plot failure – like weather factors – are beyond our control. However, many can be avoided with proper planting, planting technique and maintenance. Let’s take a look at five causes of food plot failure and how you can avoid these common pitfalls with your next wildlife planting.
Reason # 1 – Planting in the Wrong Place
One of the first decisions that has to be made when planning a food plot is where the planting will be located. For many of us, our choices are limited based on the amount of open land available. Even with limited options, however, careful consideration should be taken regarding the type and quality of the soils, the amount of sunlight that the area receives daily, as well as how well (or poorly) the soil drains. All these factors will weigh heavily on what, if anything, you should plant in your potential food plot. The fact is that some areas weren’t meant to grow lush, green food plots. In those cases, you’d be better off to spend your time and money enhancing the native vegetation or working on other aspects of your deer hunting property.
I was reminded of this very fact recently, when I was laying out the dove fields on a property that I manage. One field in particular – regardless of how much lime and fertilizer gets applied – never produces acceptable results. The plants are always stunted. The soil is rocky and lies so that it drains quickly – holding little moisture. It was decided that the field would be better suited to a native warm-season grass planting to provide small game cover, as well as travel lanes and bedding areas for deer.
Reason #2 – Lack of a Soil Test
I almost hate to even mention this one because it gets discussed so often in food plot articles. However, it seems this simple and inexpensive step still gets overlooked often enough to make it one of the primary culprits for food plot failure. Without the test, it is impossible to know exactly what your food plot needs in terms of lime or fertilizer.
This was a lesson learned the hard way, starting with my first few food plots. I didn’t see the need for a soil test since I was applying an ample amount of 10-10-10 fertilizer to my food plots. What I didn’t understand, however, was that the soils were too acidic for the fertilizer to do its job effectively. What I really needed was a good application of lime to bring up the pH level. A simple soil test would have saved me a lot of wasted time and money.
Most states have cooperative extension service offered through a state university that offers the service for a very modest fee – typically less than $10. I’m not going to go into great detail about how to take a soil sample, as there are plenty of articles available on the subject. In a nutshell, though, you simply dig up some soil from various locations in the field that you hope to plant. The soil is then mixed together and laid out to dry. Once the soil has dried, you can place some into the envelope provided by your local cooperative extension service and return it for testing. Within a few weeks, you should receive the results in the mail summarizing the amount of lime, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium needed for maximum production.
Reason #3 – Planting the Wrong Thing
Another common reason for food plot failure is choosing the wrong seed mix to plant. This is a key decision in the planting process and should not be based on the size of the buck on the seed bag or what was on sale at the local sporting goods store. Every seed species and blend has specific conditions under which it will perform best, therefore you have to make sure that your soils meet those conditions in order to have a successful food plot. Some things to consider include: Does the amount of sunlight at your planting location match the requirements of the seed mix? Do the soils have the necessary drainage? How much lime and fertilizer will I need? All of these factors must be considered before laying down your hard earned money for seed.
One of the more common mistakes made in this area is planting seed mixes that are not shade tolerant in small forest openings that don’t get the necessary sunlight. Another is when seed mixes that need well-drained soils are planted in a wet, low-lying area. Both of these mistakes can easily be avoided by making sure your seed mix requirements match the conditions of your food plot. Don’t let the wrong seed mix be the cause of your food plot failure.
Choosing the right species, varieties and blends can seem overwhelming when you are just starting out. A helpful guide is NDA’s Quality Food Plots book, which includes detailed profiles of more than 30 food plot species, including their use and management.
Reason #4 – Improper Planting Technique
While many food plot pitfalls can be avoided in the planning phase, sometimes even the best laid plans still result in disappointing results. This is often due to improper planting technique.
One of the biggest challenges facing the average land manager, when trying to establish a food plot, is lack of the necessary equipment. The fact is that many of us don’t own a tractor and all the key implements necessary for farming. This leaves us faced with the options of renting, borrowing, or improvising on equipment. It seems the latter often wins out, and we end up with a poorly prepared seedbed. The result is less than ideal germination, or intense weed competition that eventually chokes out our plot.
While the topic of proper seedbed preparation could fill an article by itself, I simply want to make the point here that a good, clean seedbed is key to a successful food plot. That typically means one or more herbicide treatments, followed by thoroughly disking or tilling the area. If you have access to a no-till drill, then you can eliminate the disking/tilling step and drill your seed directly into the herbicide-treated field.
Whichever method you choose, chances are that you are going to need to do some maintenance work to get the most from your food plot.
Reason #5 – Lack of Maintenance
Once a food plot is established, the biggest threat quickly becomes competition from weeds. Weeds can be extremely aggressive and quickly take over an otherwise great planting. The two main ways to keep control of these intruders is with occasional mowing or by herbicide application, depending on the seed mix you are using.
Mowing can be an effective way to control weeds in clover and alfalfa plantings. Just be sure not to cut it below four to six inches, and don’t mow it during periods of hot, dry weather.
Applying the proper herbicides can also be key to controlling unwanted weeds and maintaining a healthy deer food plot. Whether you are planting Roundup Ready Soybeans, brassicas, or a white clover mix, there are specific herbicides that will target the undesirable weeds in your plot. It is critical to know exactly what herbicide and how much BEFORE you ever sow the first seed.
Just as with the planting process, maintaining a food plot requires additional equipment, time and money, which is why this step often gets skipped. Without some maintenance, your results will always be less than optimal.
There is little more rewarding in the whitetail world than harvesting a deer from your well planned and executed food plot. On the flip side, nothing is more frustrating than spending your valuable time and hard earned money to plant a food plot only to watch it turn into a field of weeds. While there is always a risk involved in wildlife planting, by avoiding these five common reasons for food plot failure, you can tip the odds in your favor for producing that lush green food plot that you have always dreamed about.