Prep Now for Great Fall Food Plots

  Jackie Holbrook   FeaturedLifestyle   June 27, 2023

Deer need food, water and cover to thrive. By creating or improving suitable habitat, bowhunters can increase shot opportunities and help game populations flourish. But habitat improvement takes work. Many bowhunters plant food plots, which are specific areas planted with a supplementary food source. This is different from baiting, where food is grown elsewhere and then placed on the ground. Baiting is illegal in many parts of the country, but food plots are legal most places. However, even if you can’t plant a food plot, you can make habitat improvements to improve your odds of success. All of this work starts with the health of your soil.

“When people think of fall food plots, they think of fall but really the work needs to start now,” said Dwayne Jones, a habitat consultant and community manager at Shed Season, an online platform for antler lovers. “Right now I am taking soil samples and spraying (herbicide for weed control) anywhere I plan to plant fall food.”


Test Your Soil


Check your soil using a soil test kit, add anything it’s missing, and plant crops according to what will grow in your kind of soil. Photo Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica


Not all dirt is created equal. Jones says it’s important to understand what type of soil you’re working with. Analyzing the soil allows you to see what key ingredients are lacking. With that knowledge you can then add what’s missing, like the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium found in fertilizer, or lime, which is often needed to balance the pH levels of acidic soil.

There are a few ways to test the soil. Most gardening and ranching stores sell soil probes. You can also buy soil test kits from companies that make food plot mixtures, like Big Tine. According to Jones, another option is to dig down 6 to 8 inches and pull soil from several spots throughout the area you plan to plant. If the plot is about an acre or smaller, mix all the samples and then take the blended soil to a local agriculture cooperative for testing. If you’re planting a larger area, keep samples separate and be sure to label them to the corresponding area.


Understand What’s Missing

Without a test it’s impossible to understand the health of your soil. Many areas that have been farmed have been depleted of nutrients. “They’re often lacking in calcium, phosphate, and typically you’ll have a high acidity so you’ll want to add lime,” Jones said.

Testing the soil in early summer gives bowhunters enough time to add the right nutrients, and for the nutrients to take effect. For example, neutralizing the soil by adding lime can take a few weeks. So, it’s important to give the soil time before late July and August, when fall planting generally begins. Food plot companies sell a variety of additives that can be sprayed onto the soil to add nutrients. These need to be sprayed after herbicides are applied, but before planting begins.

“People try to shortcut soil testing,” Jones said. “So then you have several hundred dollars in food plot seed that doesn’t come up because you skipped a step.”

Luckily, once the soil is corrected, it should stay good for years. Jones says it’s important to test every year, but once amended, soil will typically stay productive for a long time with minimal maintenance.


There Are Options if You’re Short on Time

Cultivating food plots the right way takes time and effort. It’s also a financial investment. If you’re short on time or getting a late start, there are some potential shortcuts.

“If you don’t want to take the time or you get a late start, there are products out there that will get you by,” Jones said. “It won’t correct the soil but it will add enough nutrients temporarily for plants to grow.”

Jones says an example of this type of product would be PlotStart by Deer Grow.  There are also “throw and grow” seed mixtures. According to Jones, these take minimal effort and prep work to plant. While these mixtures are rarely ideal, they usually make enough of a plot to attract deer and produce shot opportunities.


Improve the Forest Floor


More diverse foliage can grow if the forest floor gets enough sunlight. Photo Credit: Bowhunters United


You don’t need food plots to draw in deer. In areas where food plots are impractical, many hunters conduct timber stand improvement (TSI). This is a term that foresters use to describe removing unwanted trees to improve the health of the forest floor.

“A lot of people think this is just to improve bedding areas, but (TSI) also stimulates new growth that is going to be highly desirable as far as browse goes,” Jones said. “If you put some of the less desirable hardwoods on the ground, those will start stump sprouts and get new growth going because of all the sunlight.” Deer love to feed on those sprouts and new growth.


Enjoy the Process

Habitat improvements are just another step that leads to releasing an arrow. Similar to practicing and scouting, taking the time to plant a food plot increases your knowledge and makes success even sweeter.

“I enjoy this part of it now as much or more than I do actually hunting,” Jones said. “Getting out there and doing work and seeing it make a difference and wildlife thrive.”

Jones says hunters will be amazed at the difference they can make. He recently started making improvements to his land and says that within a couple of years, he went from seeing a couple turkeys here and there to spotting turkeys daily.

“I love hunting and I’m a hunter to my core, but there’s a lot more to it than just that. You know, we’re in the Corn Belt. Everything is farmed,” Jones said. “To have the opportunity to do the opposite of that and take some of that ag land and put it back to wildlife habitat is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

So, if you’re looking to reap what you sow, get out there and get your hands in the dirt.



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