So You Want To Put In A Food Plot?

Establishing food plots on your land is not a difficult process and can usually be accomplished in a few weekends with a relatively small investment. When establishing food plots a basic understanding of the wild game food preferences and soil conditions will help make your food plots much more successful. If done correctly, food plots will allow you to attract more game to your hunting area, view more wildlife and develop a healthier wild game populations. The information on this page is meant to be a basic guide to help you get started.  There are almost as many opinions on how, what and where to plant food plots as there are types of plants.  The information in this guide is based on the authors personal experience over the last few years.  Most of the information in this article deals specifically with creating food plots for deer but the general information also applies to food plots for turkey and pheasant as well as other wild game.  We want to hear from you.  Use the comments box at the bottom of the page to tell us about your food plot experiences.  -  Matthew Eastman

Determining Food Plot Locations

Mark potential food plot locations on a mapFood plot locations are often determined by a variety of factors including: 

  • Soil types
  • Existing deer traffic patterns
  • Ease of Access To The Location
  • Deer Stand Locations

Start by looking at overhead maps of your property and marking locations you think may be a good candidates for food plots on the map.  Once you have marked a few prime locations go out and visit those areas on your land.   

When we look at putting in new food plots we typically look for small open areas or existing trails on our wooded property that get a good amount of sunlight, can be accessed by ATV and have areas near them that we can hang tree stands during hunting season.   The closer that a food plot is to good dense cover, the more use it will receive by deer and other wildlife. 

The food plots on our property that get the most day time visits are usually small 1/4 acer plots or old logging roads that are surrounded by heavy timber or thick cover.   The deer seem to feel more comfortable in these areas during daylight (Hunting Hours) then they do in our bigger more open food plots. (Once your plots are established they make a excellent place to position a trail camera)

If the food plot itself is in a area that can't be easily hunted we will try and locate the food plot towards the center of the property and then hunt the trails leading into the food plot.

Establishing food plots can be a great activity for a family my kids enjoy spreading seed with the hand spreader and look forward to our yearly food plot planting trips.

Soil Testing Your Food Plot

Sample food plot soil test resultsThe key to planting a successful food plot is dependent on getting the right pH.   So before you even break ground or purchase seed test your soil.

With the price of specialty seeds for food plots and the amount of time it takes to prepare the ground and plant a food plot it is critical to measure the pH of the soil.  If your food plot pH is incorrect your food plot will be sparse or may not grow at all.  Proper pH is critical for food plots to grow.  Soil with a ballanced pH allows the maximum soil nutrients to reach the plants you are planting for forage.  pH is simply the measurement of the alkalinity and acidity of the soil. 

There are several different ways to determine pH in your food plot.  Several companies make food plot testers that have a probe on them that can be stuck into the ground to measure pH.  These meters give you a reading that you can then take to your local farm supply store or county ag agent to help determine the amount of lime and fertilizer your particular plot needs.  Many feed or farm supply stores as well as university ag extensions also offer professional lab analysis of your soil.  Typically you dig up soil for different parts of your land and send it in.  They then send you back the results along with recommendations on what is needed to improve your soil for proper forage plant production. 

Killing The Weeds In Your Food Plot

Weed Sprayers Mounted On A ATV Are Ideal For Killing Weeds In a Food Plot.  These sprayers can be purchased or rentedNow that you have determined the correct pH and you know how much fertilizer and lime to use it's time to get to work. Most experts recommend that you apply a Round Up type grass killer to the are that is going to be converted into a food plot. Using a broad spectrum herbicide like Round Up will help you establish a healthier more productive food plot as the desired food plot plants will not have to compete with the weeds and grass for nutrients and water. 

Herbicide can be applied from a ATV sprayer or even a little garden pump type sprayer depending on the size of the food plot to be planted. Apply the Herbicide following the specific directions on the label for what every herbicide you choose. Most herbicides on the market require you to spray the food plot a few days or weeks before you do any further work on the site. This gives the herbicide time to kill all the unwanted vegetation at the food plot site.

Breaking Ground For Your New Food Plot

This disc machine was built from scratch for around $500 in parts and is ideal for breaking ground in a food plotThere are many options when it comes to breaking the ground up to prepare for your new food plot.  For smaller plots a Roto Tiller or even hand tools works just fine.   One hand tool I like for very small areas is the garden weasel.  This tool seems to break the ground up with out a lot of effort for small areas or trails.  Small Roto tillers are also effective for breaking ground before planting. 

If you have access to a brush hog or weed cutter it is always a good idea to mow down the tall grasses in the area you plan to plant before you break ground.  This will make it easier to till up the ground. 

For a bit larger projects there are many commercial ATV disk or plow type machines  that can be pulled along behind a ATV or small garden tractor.  These machines range in price from $800  to $4000 dollars but if you plan to plant a lot of food plots or replant your plots every year they can quickly pay for themselves.  In many areas these machines can be rented as well.   Another option is to contact your local wildlife organizations.  In some areas these organizations will have food plot machines available for use or rent if they are used to help improve wildlife habitat.

Once you have the equipment you plan to use to break up the ground in your food plot cover the entire area of the plot until you have turned over all of the ground you plan to plant. 

Lime & Fertilizer For Your Food Plot

Fertilizer headed for a food plot near Black River Falls WIWhen  fertilizers and lime are applied to a food plot, many chemical reactions take place instantly as well as over the course of several months. These chemical reactions determine how efficiently the lime and fertilizers are utilized by the plants growing in your food plot.  Let's face it most of us are deer hunters not farmers so it is pro bally best to speak to an Ag agent or agronomist about your specific food plot but the information below will help you understand lime and fertilizer a bit better.  You can easily spend a lot of money on lime and fertilizer but remember, your not growing food for human consumption and often your plants will still grow with out spending thousands of dollars on lime and fertilization of your food plots they just may not be as productive.

Lime On Your Food Plot

Once you have broken up the soil it is time to apply lime to your food plot based on the results of your soil testing.  Lime recommendations are based on many factors the most important factor being the pH of your soil.  Soil pH identifies the active alkalinity or acidity of your food plot.  The pH scale is from 1 to 14.  Food plot soil that is neutral has a value of 7.0 pH.  When the pH level of your food plot is below 7.0, the soil is said to be acidic; when above 7.0, your food plot is considered to be alkaline.  Having a high or low pH will effect your food plot plants ability to absorb nutrients needed for growth from the soil.  Some food plot seeds are designed to be low pH tolerant and some are designed for high pH levels. 

Food plot pH levels can be adjusted by applying lime to your food plot.  The length of time that it takes for lime to neutralize soil acidity depends upon the type of lime used. Liming materials differ widely in their neutralizing powers due to variations in the percentage of calcium and/or magnesium and impurities (silt, clay, etc.) contained in the limestone.  If your pH is very high or very low your soil test or Ag agent may recommend 1000's of pounds of lime for your food plot.  Although ideal this is not always easily accomplished in remote locations and purchasing bagged pelletized lime can be very expensive so in some cases it is better to choose to plant food plot crops that are better suited for your plots pH level.

Fertilizer and Your Food Plot

Now that you have the ground broken and your lime has been applied you are ready to apply fertilizer.  Many of the seed companies give specific recommendations for the amount and type of Fertilizer to use with their seed.    So what do those numbers mean?  10-20-10 or 10-10-10 or 18-46-0 represent the percentage (by weight) of the three major nutrients required for healthy plant growth.  These numbers are always in the same order: nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K).

Most food plot seed companies have the recommendations for fertilizer printed directly on the bag.   It will say something like apply 10-10-10 at 300 lbs per acre.  This means you need to apply 300 lbs of Fertilizer to your plot that contains 10% Nitrogen 10% phosphorus and 10% Potassium (10-10-10). 

When to Apply Lime and Fertilizer To Your Food Plot

Since I am like most hunters and farming isn't my full time job I usually apply the Lime and fertilizer to my newly disked food plot and then run back over the plot with the disk or roto tiller to lightly mix the lime and Fertilizer into ground.   Many Ag agents would tell you that Fertilizer can be applied in the spring and summer and lime is typically applied in the spring.  Check with your local Ag agent, farm center or food plot seed company for specifics based your your food plot.

Equipment Needed To Apply Lime & Fertilizer To Your Food Plot

A rack mounted broadcast spreader is ideal for spreading lime and fertilizer on smaller food plotsFor larger food plots that can be accessed by bigger equipment it is often cost effective to allow your local your local farm center to come out and spread lime and fertilizer for you or hire a farmer to do the job.  Especially if your food plot requires 1000's of pounds of lime or fertilizer  Farm centers have the equipment to spread bulk lime and Fertilizer as opposed to pelletized lime or bagged fertilizer which I typically use for smaller food plots.  Fertilizer and pelletized lime are readily available in 50 lb bags and can be applied through a spreader.  Lime and fertilizer should be applied evenly across your food plot.  You can purchase a spreader that pulls behind a ATV or small tractor or one that mounts to a rack on your ATV and is powered by a 12 volt motor.  Although labor intensive pelletized lime and fertilizer can also be spread by hand.  Fertilizer and lime are not good for your skin so wear gloves and wash your hands when ever handling these products.

Food Plot Seed

A simple Google search for "food plot seed" returns over 680,000 results.  With so many different companies marketing seed for food plots and so many different varieties of seed on the market how does the average hunter make sense of all the options?

A hand spreader is ideal for seading small food plotsThings to consider when choosing food plot seed:

  • The fist thing to consider is what type of game you are trying to attract to your food plot.  Most food plots are planted for deer but some hunters are starting to also plant food plots for turkey, quail and pheasant. 
  • What is the goal of your food plots?  Some hunters want to attract wild game during hunting season while others want to grow bigger deer or turkey on their property.   Different types of forage are utilized by game animals at different times through out the year.  Some food plot plants are not even attractive to deer until after a hard freeze.  It is important to understand how and when deer and other game animals will be visiting your food plot.
  • What will your soil allow you to grow.  Some food plot plants grow much better in slightly acidic soil while others grow better in alkaline soil.  If you aren't able to lime and fertilize consider plants that will thrive in your soil.
  • If your food plots are surrounded by lots of corn and soybeans, planting more of the same probably will not attract wildlife to your property. However, if you are in a area that doesn't have corn and soybeans a corn plot may be a good choice for your food plot.
  • Consider your geographical region.  Planting seed varieties that are meant for southern states is not a good idea because of climate differences.  Many seed varieties that may grow well in the southern United States are not well adapted to grow in the Midwest conditions. Use plants that have been proved to grow in in your area.  It's not a bad idea to talk to a local Ag expert before purchasing your seed.
  • What time of year are you planning to put in your food plots?  Some seeds need to be planted in the spring while others need to be planted in the fall. 
  • Do you plan to replant your food plots every year or do you want a plot that will last for a few years?   Some food plot seeds are annuals and some seeds are perennials.  Consider how often you want to replant your plots when selecting seed.

Crop Deer Turkey Pheasant Waterfowl Aprox. Planting Date Seeding Rate
Corn x x x   April 10 - May 10 3 to 4 lbs/acre
Soybeans x x x   April 30 - May 10 150,000 seeds/acre
Wheat x x   x September 30 - October 10 75 to 120 lbs/acre
Alfalfa x       April 1 - May 15 or
August 1 - August 30
10 to 15 lbs/acre
Sunflowers x       May 20 - June 15 20,000 plants/acre
Clovers x       April 1 - May 15 or
August 1 - August 20
6 to 8 lbs/acre
Sorghum x x x   April 20 - May 20 8 to 12 lbs/acre
Buckwheat x x x x May 1 - July 20 36 to 72 lbs/acre
Millet       x May 10 - July 10 15 to 20 lbs/acre
Annual Rye x x   x April 1 - May 1 or
August 1 - August 20
6 to 8 lbs/acre

Where to buy your food plot seed

Check with local wildlife organizations such as Quality Deer Management, Whitetails Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, Quail Unlimited,  or Ducks Unlimited some of these organizations have seed and equipment available for food plots.  Farm centers and sporting goods stores also offer both agricultural seed and prepackaged food plot seeds.  Food plot seed can also be purchased on the intranet.  Check out the Foremost Hunting list of Food Plot Seed Companies. 

Meet Matt Eastman Minimize

Pro Staff Member Matt EastmanMatt is a deer and turkey hunting expert. Growing up in a hunting family in Northern Wisconsin Matt was born and bred to hunt deer. Matt writes exclusively for Foremost Hunting and has a passion to educate others about the outdoors and specifically deer hunting.

Food Plot Tips
Fertilizer - Any combination of organic or commercially produce soil amendments that carry essential plant nutrients. Fertilizers are required by law to state the percentage of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium contained in the blend. 13-13-13 fertilizer is 13% Nitrogen, 13% Phosphorus, 13% Potassium.
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