I’ll bet you realized a passion for land management when you planted a small food plot for the first time. Whether you are just starting to learn about food plots or have been planting for years, small food plots can play a major role in your property layout, hunting strategy and success. Here are a few ideas for designing and planting small food plots that will help lead to more venison in your freezer this fall.
Hunting Plot Size & Shape
Size of small hunting plots often is determined by the size of an existing opening, but shooting for a quarter- to half-acre is a good starting point. I have had success on plots closer to a tenth of an acre, but it can be difficult to establish plots this small in areas with moderate to high deer density.
Hunters put a lot of thought into the shape of hunting plots, but I tend to simplify plot design into two categories: bow- or gun-hunting plots. For bow plots, keeping most of the plot within shooting range and/or using a pinch in the plot to funnel deer past can work well. Narrow, linear openings work great for gun hunting to allow for longer shooting opportunities. The exact design you choose will probably depend on several factors, but keep in mind having an attractive forage in a good location is more important than planting the plot a particular shape.
Hunting Plot Location
Locating hunting plots correctly is a major key to success, and placing hunting plots in locations you already expect deer to be using is the best approach. For example, creating a small plot relatively close to where you expect deer to bed can work great, especially if the plot is located between thick cover and a major food source. Small plots also can be placed in major travel corridors to either increase attraction or slow deer down for a shot opportunity.
Hunting plots lack the tonnage to attract and feed deer from a long distance and should be viewed as a place for deer to stop and get a quick bite to eat along their normal travel routes. Additional consideration should be given to wind direction and access when creating these plots, as they quickly become avoided by deer if you are detected.
Being creative with locations can open up quite a few planting opportunities, as roads, firebreaks, and logging decks can all be turned into food plots if they have sufficient sunlight. New openings also can be created in the woods where necessary, and partial openings can be expanded to allow more sunlight to the ground. Either task can be completed with equipment ranging from bulldozers to chainsaws depending on the size of the plot and amount of work you’re willing to do.
How To Clear New Food Plots
Creating or expanding an opening by hand can seem like a major task, but it can be a manageable process on small acreage. In situations where you aren’t dealing with numerous large trees, a chainsaw and a few buddies can clear a surprising amount of ground quickly. Trees should be cut flush to the ground and treated with an herbicide to prevent resprouting. Of course, planting without tillage will be necessary for several years until the stumps have rotted sufficiently. Having a front-end loader on a tractor or skid-steer can make the job easier to push trees out of the plot or into piles after felling.
Larger equipment such as bulldozers or excavators can make clearing a plot easier. Hiring equipment operators may seem cost-prohibitive, but often the work can be done for a reasonable cost. Be sure to have the plot leveled after stumps are removed, and make a plan for dealing with debris before you begin.
Although it may seem tempting to use brush to bottleneck deer, it is important not to close off too much of the plot edge with debris. The best approach for dealing with debris is making a pile in the center of the plot to burn, but be sure to follow regulations associated with burning and to use common sense. If you cannot burn the debris, it should be well-distributed around the plot where it doesn’t block off the plot edges too much. Either way, make sure you instruct the equipment operator not to leave soil on stumps or in the burn piles! Not only does leaving soil on the stumps remove valuable topsoil from the plot, but it also makes piles very difficult to burn.
Mulching heads on skid-steers often are promoted to clear food plots. They can work on areas with relatively few, small trees in an opening, but in those cases it is often easy enough to cut the trees and remove them by hand or with a front-end loader. Mulching heads are not ideal in situations with dense trees, as the thick layer of mulch they produce may prevent good seed-to-soil contact for several years.
Ensure Enough Sunlight
Sunlight often is the most limiting factor for a small food plot, and I cannot overstress how important sufficient light is to plot success. If an opening isn’t currently growing herbaceous plants, it is probably sunlight-limited. This can be remedied when you clear the plot, but don’t fall into the temptation of leaving trees standing in the middle of a small food plot. Whether these trees are left for scrapes or mast production, they rob moisture, nutrients, and sunlight from your planted crop. Additionally, they can prevent harvest opportunities when a big buck steps out behind the tree you left in the plot!
Aside from felling trees in the plot, consideration should be given to killing trees along the edge of the plot. Simply girdling-and-spraying most trees along the edge of a plot can make a real difference in the amount of sunlight hitting the ground. Killing trees around food plots also promotes native forage and cover right along the edge of an opening, further increasing the attraction to deer.
Special attention should be given to trees on the southern side of an opening, as the sun stays lower in southern sky during the fall and winter months. Orienting linear openings to the north and south ensures cool-season plantings receive sufficient sunlight. East to west openings may receive sufficient sunlight in summer, but trees on the southern portion of the plot often block the fall and winter sun. This is especially true for openings within pine forests, as plots surrounded by hardwood forest benefit from additional sunlight after leaf drop.
Prepare the Soil
Once you’ve gotten an opening cleared, the process of planting a small hunting plot comes down to following sound agronomic practices. Weed control with a broad-spectrum herbicide (such as glyphosate) prior to planting is generally necessary unless the plot was recently cleared with heavy equipment. Soil testing and amendment with fertilizer and lime can be even more important in hunting plots, as you are trying to produce adequate tonnage on a smaller area.
Seedbed preparation is helpful, but it may or may not be needed or possible in some cases. In plots cleared with equipment, using conventional tillage during the first year of planting can help prevent problems associated with dried and crusted soil. If you cleared the plot by hand, burning dead vegetation off the plot after spraying can be helpful if there is dense thatch preventing seed-to-soil contact.
What to Plant in Small Hunting Plots
Forage species selection for small hunting plots often comes down to selecting plants which are grazing tolerant. Cereal grains, especially wheat and cereal rye, as well as annual and perennial clovers tend to do well in small plots. As a bonus, mixtures of cereal grains and clovers establish well via no-till top-sowing.
Planting just before rain and increasing the seeding rate by approximately 25% are both good practices to follow when planting with no-till top-sowing. A simple mixture of wheat and crimson clover is a great option. Alternatively, wheat could be mixed with white and/or red clover to establish a perennial plot which can be maintained for several years.
If you are in the mid-South or below, a warm-season jointvetch planting is also an option to consider for early season bowhunting opportunities. Jointvetch is relatively grazing tolerant and can also be established via top-sowing. I’ve listed a few options here, but it’s important not to overthink species selection on small food plots. Instead, focus on establishing forages that are attractive to deer during the season you prefer to hunt.
Small hunting plots can be a great tool for providing harvest opportunities. Even if you have limited space or equipment, placing the plot in the right spot and following normal agronomic practices can ensure you have a successful hunting plot this fall!