Deer hunter looking at food plot

Food Plotting for the Future

John O'Brion 7.28.2017

Most food plotters tend to focus on the now at the expense of the future. I want people to become more educated on how what they plant this current season, will affect their plots down the road.

For the most part, food plotters understand that they should take soil tests for their plots, but most do not truly understand the long-term importance of these tests. When you get your soil test results back, don’t just look at the soil pH, but look at organic matter, phosphorous, and potassium levels in the soil as well.

Collecting Soil Samples for Food PlotsRELATED: How To Conduct A Soil Test On Your Food Plots

If you are low on phosphorous and potassium, you want to plant species that mine (remove) less nutrients. You want to build your nutrient levels back up and this might require two to three years to get your soils rebalanced. Most of us have a budget and you can blow through it fast trying to get your soil back in balance all at once.

Naturally, the more your food plots grow, the more nutrients they remove. Seems like a simple concept, right? However, very few food plotters truly understand how much growth they are getting per acre, thus, how much they are removing.

The typical food plot will produce around two tons of forage dry matter per acre for clover and brassica blends. Basic clover blends will remove 13 lbs. of phosphorous per ton and 60 lbs. of potassium per ton of growth. If your clover plot averages two ton of consumption, 26 lbs. of phosphorous and 120 lbs. of potassium will be removed each year. For this instance, you would need to fertilize this plot by doing the following: In the spring, you could broadcast 100 lbs. of 6-24-24 and then broadcast 175 pounds of 0-0-60 in the fall to replenish what was taken from the plants.  Of course, you still want to take a soil test to be sure. Never assume.

Fertilizing a food plot with a shoulder spin spreader

Plant Cover Crops To Suppress Weeds and Build Organic Matter

A lot of food plotters focus only on fall plantings. If this is the case, give some thought to planting spring cover crops to help set yourself up for future success. If you plant annual clovers in the spring, they will provide good nutrition for does that are lactating as well as bucks that are going through their antler development phase. These annual clovers fixate nitrogen (put N back into the soil), which benefit subsequent crops. You can also plant species like buckwheat, which naturally helps suppress weed growth. This also is a perfect time to build up soil organic matter levels. Spring oats, triticale, barley and other grains can be a great cover crop to use as a plow down before you plant your fall plots.

Many farmers practice crop rotation. However, not enough food plotters do the same. Instead of planting corn or soybeans in the same fields year in and year out, plant corn one year and then rotate to soybeans. We also can plant warm season annuals one year and then come back on that same ground and plant soybeans. One other option would be to plant perennial clover or alfalfa plots and every three to four years take them out of production and plant corn on that ground. The corn will benefit from the nitrogen you have fixated and it also can be a terrific way to control weeds if they are becoming an issue in your plot.

Brassica winter wheat food plot

Weed Control in Food Plots

When anyone asks me what to plant in new food plots, I want them to focus on LONG TERM success instead of the NOW. One goal for year one on new plots should be to work on weed control. This is the perfect time to kill existing weeds as well as encouraging weeds to germinate that are in the top 6” of the soil. We may need to spray before planting and then once again after we work the ground a second time. I call this “flushing weeds”.

It is important to plant crops that fixate nitrogen as well as add organic matter in these new plots. Here are some of the species we use in new food plots during year one: Berseem clover, Crimson clover, Balansa clover, and peas.   These are preferred as they fixate nitrogen and provide fast growing highly nutritious forage. Forages like buckwheat, sorghum, oats, triticale, wheat, and rye all grow fast to help suppress weed growth as well as provide organic matter. Location and soil type will dictate which blends are best on your own plot of land.

Look at food plots and your own wildlife program as a journey. To have long term success we need to build a solid foundation. Soil health is the most essential element. No matter what you plant, you need to treat your soil well.  Understand that soil should be filled with living organisms. Be a soil manager and not a soil miner. Make it a learning process. Look at failures as learning experiences. Know that mother nature tends to come into play. Be flexible and make changes to your plans whenever the weather throws you some curveballs.


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