Avoiding Food Plot Pitfalls

The following story is true. The man's name, however, has been changed. Last year Joe Arnold, a friend of mine, moved into a rustic house, one situated in a forest. Deer and turkeys were plentiful around his home, so he cleared out an area in the woods for a food plot. He worked the soil and planted white clover. Within 2 weeks Joe had the prettiest stand of clover he'd ever seen.

Knowing the plot needed fertilizer, Joe ventured to the local lawn and garden store. He wasn't there long before he saw what he needed—Miracle Grow fertilizer. He knew it was a great product because it had worked wonders for his wife's flowers. Rushing home, Joe applied the fertilizer to his plot and sat back to watch it grow. When he checked his plot a few days later, however, he was shocked to see his entire clover field was dead! Strangely though, the grass was growing well. Joe was crushed.

Puzzled, he found the fertilizer bag and read the instructions. He dropped his head in disgust. He'd used a great fertilizer, but one designed for fertilizing lawns. Listed on the bag was one of its strengths: killing unwanted white clover in grass!

Almost everyone who's planted food plots has had a "Joe experience." And for those of you reading this in anticipation of planting your first plot, I guarantee you, too, will make a few mistakes along the way. In the following five examples, I'll share some common food plot problems, what causes them and how you can avoid, or cure, each one.

Q: Although my crops are tall and lush during mid-summer, the deer don't eat them. Why?

A: My wife and I cut wild asparagus shoots during early spring and steam them in butter. They're delicious. When asparagus matures, however, it becomes tough and fibrous. The same thing happens to mature food plot plants. This is why it's important to mow clover, alfalfa and similar plants when they reach approximately 12 inches in height. Set the mower so it leaves plant stems approximately 7 inches high. In just a few days, you'll once again have tender shoots for the whitetails to feed on, and they'll immediately return.

Q: I planted a special clover blend in my first food plot. I worked the soil to perfection, applied plenty of fertilizer and quickly had a terrific stand of clover. Within weeks, however, plant growth in the plot came to a standstill. What did I do wrong?

A: In cases such as this, the all-important step of taking a soil test was skipped. It tells you the soil's pH, or "potential of hydrogen." It designates the acidity and alkalinity of the soil. A lower pH number means the soil is acidic, a higher number means it's alkaline. A pH number between 6.5 and 7 (neutral pH) is ideal. Because soils in most parts of our nation are too acidic, tons of lime need to be added to bring a soil's pH level up. Interestingly, a soil's nutrients are bound against the individual soil particles. The more acidic the soil is, the tighter the nutrients are bound. Therefore, in acidic soils the plants are unable to use the nutrients. They grow slowly, never reaching their full potential.

Having the proper pH is more important than applying fertilizer. Take a soil test and apply the correct amount of lime, then apply fertilizer.

Q: Why is it I can't grow grass in my yard, but it grows like crazy in my food plots?

A: Grass and weeds are a common food plot problem. Interestingly, when London, England, was first bombed during World War II, flowers that hadn't been seen within the city in centuries bloomed the following year. This occurred because the bombing unearthed seeds that had been buried deep within the earth for hundreds of years. Yes, flower seeds are durable, and so are grass and weed seeds. Here are the steps to take to keep grass and weeds to a minimum.

First, if any vegetation is present, mow the area to be planted. Leave the area alone for a couple days and then spray it with a herbicide such as Roundup or Ultra. This will kill the weeds and grasses. Seven to 10 days later, plow or disk to work the dead matter into the earth. Break up the clods, and work the soil down to a smooth seedbed. Plant your product according to the instructions, and you'll have a relatively weed- and grass-free food plot. As noted, weed and grass seeds are tough and do remain within the soil. When grass and weeds do appear, they must be treated.I talked to Steve Scott of the Whitetail Institute of North America about this problem.

"No one likes grass and weeds in their plots," Scott said. "First of all, a good mowing program should be carried out in all food plots, except during drought conditions. This allows the desired food plot plants to grow, and it tends to choke out unwanted weeds and grass."

Scott also points out that the use of selective herbicides can help combat weeds. "The White¬tail Institute has designed two special selective herbicides—Arrest and Slay—to target grass and weeds," he said. "They'll work with all of our perennial products. It's amazing how well they'll kill unwanted vegetation, and yet won't hurt our Imperial Whitetail Clover or our other products in any way. While applying herbicide might seem costly at first, it doesn't actually cost the deer manager much in the end because he'll probably get another year or two out of his perennial food plot."

Q: I don't have a lot of money to put into food plots. How can I best spend it?

A: A perennial product such as clover comes up year after year and will last 5-7 years if the plot is properly cared for. To get more bang for your buck, plant your plot in early fall, mixing an annual fall at¬tract¬ant with your perennial seed. In the North, for example, you could plant winter-hardy Buck Forage Oats with clover. The oats will come up and grow well and attract whitetails during November and December. Then the following spring the clover will take over and last for years. You might want to overseed the clover from time to time.

Q: I took a soil test, added lime and fertilizer, then worked my soil into a fine level field. I seeded my ground with an ATV mounted spreader, then disked the entire plot. My stand of alfalfa is spotty at best. Why?

A: Like my friend Joe at the beginning of this article, this hunter didn't read the instructions on the bag. Alfalfa, clovers and some other seeds should be planted only 1/4-inch deep. Disking pushes seeds such as this too deep, and many of them can't come up. Wheat, oats and rye, on the other hand, can be planted 1-11/2 inches deep. For shallow planting seeds, broadcasting them just before a rainfall actually works very well. Always read the seeding instructions before you plant.

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