Farm Out Your Hunt: A Look at Rookie Food Plot Mistakes

Lexie Peterson, my 13-year-old, granddaughter shifted in her ground blind chair. She settled quietly as a whitetail buck entered our food plot at the far end and slowly feed our way munching on Dutch clover, Ladino clover, brassicas and winter wheat.  As she had practiced so often, Lexie slowly placed the barrel of the Remington Youth Model .243 in the X of her shooting sticks. She calmly settled the crosshairs of her scope behind the young buck’s shoulder.

Plant it and they will come. Food plot mania has swept across the United States as hunters and wildlife viewers have quickly learned that lending a helping hand to Mother Nature pays big dividends.

Creating successful food plots for wildlife is relatively simple and cheap. One only needs a basic understanding of the available soil, the wildlife species you want to attract and the preferred foods of those species. Planting and maintaining food plots is a fun activity and great learning experience for family and friends.

The first step in starting a food plot is determining what goals you wish to accomplish. List your goals before investing time, labor and money in your new undertaking. What is your first priority – attracting more deer, turkey or other wildlife, producing bigger bucks, or do you simply want to view more wildlife?

Once your goals are clear, preparing your chosen site for the food plot is your first order of business. Good soil nutrient levels are paramount to the success of your plot. Soil sampling is a simple process of finding out the current nutrient levels of your soil and which nutrients need to be added. Your local Soil and Water Conservation District office can provide literature and advice. Your local University Extension office should be able to help, too.

After determining the needs of your soils, sizing the plot comes next. The plot can be any size, but it needs to be large enough to be of use to wildlife. Plots should be a minimum of 1,000 square feet. Plots of ¼ to ½ acre per 20 acres are a good rule of thumb to follow. For the best usage by wildlife, plant the plots near dense cover, which act as bedding for animals.

What to plant is often confusing.  Consider the animals you wish to attract and the foods they like to eat. Consider, too, the landscape around you. Planting soybeans and corn when lots of those crops already exist nearby will be an exercise in futility.  Believe it or not, deer crave variety because of their unique biological needs and will actively seek it out when living in an area with an overly-dominate food source.

Acquiring food plots seed and fertilizer is simple as well. An obvious choice is to check with suppliers who provide the commodities for famers. Check with local farmers whom you might know to find out where they acquire their seed. Food plot seed varieties abound. Check the sporting goods department of your favorite outdoor related retailer. Better yet, many organizations provide free food plot seed. Check with your state department of conservation, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Unlimited, Quality Deer Management, Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited.

Equipment is often the limiting factor and more often than not the culprit preventing many people from even trying to plant food plots. Equipment needs are basic. A small tractor and a disc are the basic tools. I have personally used my lawn tractor at times. However, I found an old 14-horse power tractor with a clutch, which is much more powerful than the standard lawn tractor. My disc is ancient as well, but cuts several inches deep. I drag the soil level and remove the lumps with old springs from a mattress. Not fancy, but it works like a charm.

Four wheelers are handy food plot machines. They come in all sizes and horsepowers these days.  An array of attachments are available to help with the establishment and maintenance of food plots, from small disks, tillers, drags, mowers, fertilizer spreaders and sprayers. Should you not be interested in purchasing equipment, check with your Soil and Water Conservation District office. They often rent equipment for food plots planting.

There are several common errors made by first time food plot planters. One of the most common is the error of thinking more is better. Exceeding the recommendations for seed, fertilizer and lime is a waste of your money. Not fertilizing a plot is another serious mistake. Plants cannot reach their full potential without nutrients. Using old seed is common as well. Check to make sure you see in writing that the seeds you buy are no older than the previous season. Germination rates will be much better than that of seed that is more than a year old. Planting seeds in areas which are too shady results in poor plant growth and a loss food potential. Not planting enough area is another common problem. Small areas are often decimated quickly as hungry wildlife finds the food sources. Planting food plots too early or late often contributes to failed food plots and a loss of hunting or viewing opportunities for the year.

The 4-point buck fed slowly across our food plot and paused to nibble a clump of clover.  Lexie took a deep breath, slipped her safety off on the .243, started exhaling slowly, like she had practiced and fired.  The fat little 4-pointer bounded back the way it had come, long white tail bobbing trough the woods as if to say “good-bye.”

Lexie made me promise that we would spend more time on the rifle range next year and less time on the food plot.

(Photo courtesy johnnyalive and Brad Trump Photography)