Food plots can benefit wildlife and their habitats. Bowhunters love them, too. So, what are they? Are they important? Can you create one? We’ve got the answers.
Travis Sumner, the National Wild Turkey Federation’s hunting heritage and habitat manager, has over 25 years of land-management experience. He currently manages 20 acres of food plots on the 707-acre Hunting Heritage Center at NWTF headquarters in Edgefield, South Carolina.
Food plots, also called feed plots or wildlife openings, are planted to provide supplementary food and nutrition for wildlife. People also plant them to attract deer or turkeys to their property, especially during hunting season.
Although food plots are effective for hunting, Sumner said responsible hunters put wildlife first. He believes good hunter-conservationists take care of wildlife year-round, not just during hunting season. “I recommend people plant and maintain food plots when possible to provide extra nutrition and add a good habitat component to their property,” he said.
Food plots are typically planted at two times during the year. Food plots that provide food in spring and summer – the warm season – provide nutrition for nursing does and their fawns, and to boost bucks’ growth and antler development. Food plots that provide food in fall – the cool season – attract deer for hunting and to provide nutrition to help prepare them for winter.
To add food plots to your land-management plans, start with these five steps.
1. Find a good location. To plant a food plot, find a flat, open area with good sunlight that’s at least a quarter-acre in size. Avoid areas that are rocky, sloped or shaded most of the day. Sumner recommends natural woodland openings, old logging roads, areas under powerlines, and fallow or overgrown fields,. Don’t worry if the plot’s shape isn’t square or rectangular. In fact, Sumner said irregular shapes are best because they offer more edge habitat and help make wildlife feel secure.
Hunters should also consider wind direction, shooting distances, and stand or ground-blind placement when selecting a site. Sumner suggests choosing locations near water or bedding areas if possible. Give them an extra reason to visit, and you might see them from your well-positioned stand. “Like humans, deer like to eat and drink when they wake up,” he said.
2. Test your soil. After finding the ideal location, test its soil. You don’t want to spend time and money planting a food plot, only to have it fail. A soil test identifies what nutrients you might need to add, such as lime, sulfur or nitrogen, for ideal crop growth. Many farm cooperatives or agricultural extension agencies offer test kits for a small fee. You can also get prepaid mail-in kits from the Whitetail Institute or Mossy Oak BioLogic. Then, collect soil samples from across your food plot, mix them together in the collection envelope, and send it in. The test reveals which nutrients your soil has and which ones it needs to give your plants proper nutrition.
3. Create a good seedbed. A seedbed is where a seed takes root and starts growing. Good seedbeds provide consistent seed-to-soil contact and they’re free of weeds or brush, which obstruct growth and steal nutrients. Sumner recommends chopping down and removing brush, breaking up the ground with a hoe or disk, spraying a herbicide to kill the weeds, and then waiting a week before planting so the dirt can settle.
4. Choose your crop. Selecting food-plot plants depends on your soil type, which wildlife you want to attract, and how much time and money you want to invest. You must also choose between annuals, which grow once; or perennials, which regrow each year. Sumner said clover is a safe bet for those on a budget. It’s a perennial and requires little maintenance. Clover also grows across the country, so it’s easy to find varieties that flourish in your area.
5. Follow the planting directions. Read the planting instructions on the seed bag to determine when and how deeply to plant the seeds. Sumner said to plow or break up the ground just before planting so the seeds settle into the soil and don’t lay atop it. He suggests using a hand spreader or a tractor implement to disperse the seed. Then, review your soil-test results and fertilize accordingly.
Before you rush out the door to start, make sure you’re planting foods that benefit you and your target species. “When you have money involved, it’s smart to seek professional help to protect your investment,” Sumner said.
He suggests reading online articles, learning what local farmers do to prepare and plant, or consult a biologist or land manager for recommendations. The NWTF and Quality Deer Management Association also have biologists who can help.
One last thought: If you don’t have the necessary equipment to create and plant a food plot, ask a farmer to disk or plant it for you. Discuss a fee or pay for their gas. You can also borrow equipment from a friend, or rent it from a hardware store or rental business. If you’re not sure where to start, always remember that your local archery store can help.