For years, a movement in modern agriculture has been pushing more and more farmers to use no-till or low-till farming practices as a way of improving soil and saving on fertilizer and fuel costs, and for the last few years we’ve been intentionally avoiding tillage in some food plots at QDMA Headquarters to achieve the same benefits. We own a small tractor and disk harrows –– we’re just keeping them parked. At the Whitetail Weekend in April 2019, we gave a seminar to attendees about the technique, how it has worked out for us, and how you can do it, too. If you missed Whitetail Weekend, now you can attend the seminar through our YouTube video.
Healthy soil is naturally built from the top down: Remnants of dead plants break down on the surface into smaller and smaller particles over time, and those particles filter down into the soil and sift into layers based on size and state of decomposition. Earthworms, other animals, and microorganisms move in, help with decomposition, and convert the organic material to nutrients – which reduces your fertilizer bill. These natural layers are more resistant to erosion, and they absorb and hold rainfall better than tilled soil.
But all of these natural benefits are nullified when you disk, because disking disrupts the natural top-down decomposition process. Disking speeds moisture loss, causes topsoil to be lost in wind and rain, and can stimulate weed seed germination, so if you can avoid it, it’s a good idea. No-till planting equipment like seed drills can be very expensive, but it’s possible to do no-till food plots with very minimal, low-tech equipment.
As the video explains, QDMA has grown successful no-till food plots using only a mower, a backpack sprayer, an over-the-shoulder seed spreader, and an ATV cultipacker. Mowing reduces the residue of previous crops and existing weeds to heavy mulch. This is followed within a few days by a burndown spraying with glyphosate to kill all living weeds. When rain is in the forecast, seed is broadcast at the recommended seeding rate for the particular crop. Rolling the cultipacker over the field then helps settle larger seeds (like soybeans, cowpeas, or cereal grains) into the mulch layer. Rainfall does the rest.
Even more basic equipment will work on small plots. If you don’t have a food plot mower, and existing vegetation is too heavy for an effective herbicide treatment, then a lawnmower or even a sling blade or other hand tools will work. Herbicide can be applied to existing weeds with a hand-pump garden sprayer. Fertilizer, lime and seed can be broadcast with a small hand-crank spreader. If you don’t have access to a cultipacker, then simply driving an ATV around the plot will help settle the seed into the mulch layer (Objects or implements dragged behind the ATV are not recommended because these may drag and pile the mulch layer, exposing bare soil).
As with any method, we recommend applying lime and fertilizer based on the results of a soil test. Be sure to hang on to your soil-test results when you try no-till food plots. Compare your newer results each year: Chances are you’ll see less need to apply fertilizer as time goes on.