Recently I had a chance to talk to Jon Cooner from the Whitetail Institute about how to get started installing food plots and turning your property into a wildlife Mecca.
Ralph Scherder: When planting a food plot, is it realistic to expect extreme antler growth in the local deer herd?
Jon Cooner: Every situation is different, but if you look at the B&C and P&Y bucks since 1988, the average annual number of record book whitetails has increased 500%. There’s a reason for that. It’s not all food plots, of course. It’s having the unified discipline of quality deer management, and one aspect of that is nutrition. Food plots give them the resources that allow them to get the most out of their genetic blueprints.
When we think about antler growth we think of spring and summer. That’s a span of about 200 days for antler development, but there are a lot of other things happening, too. Does are in their third trimester of pregnancy, and later on they’re making milk for the newborn fawns. Nutrition plays a part in that, too. Research shows that if does are having bigger fawns, then those buck fawns will most likely have bigger racks. It’s logical. Doe milk is extremely nutrient dense, much more so than cow’s milk, and supplementing can help them produce more.
RS: How complicated is planting a food plot?
JC: Not very. The best way to learn is to just go plant a plot. Many products out there are designed to plant with minimal ground tillage or preparation. Whitetails Institute’s No-Plow and Secret Spot are just two examples.
Even the bigger, more involved food plots are easy. The last thing a manufacturer wants is for a guy to read the instructions on a bag and think “this is too hard” and then not buy it. We like to keep things simple. There’s just a certain order of things that produce best results.
RS: What’s the first step of the process?
JC: The first step is site selection. Basically, you don’t want a bunch of little plots scattered all around your property. Know what happens?
RS: You create competition for yourself.
JC: Exactly! You’ve just given the deer too many choices. You can’t hunt them effectively. So we like to pick out one or two sites in the best possible locations on the property. We take into account abutting properties, bedding areas, existing food sources, etc.
Once you’ve chosen a site, determine how big that plot will be. Most folks will plant three to five percent of their property if they’re using it just for hunting.
The next step is deciding what to plant. Generally speaking, we prefer people put 60 to 75% of their total plot acreage in perennial forages, which are forages designed to last more than a calendar year. Then plant the rest in spring and summer or fall and winter annuals, so that deer will have a food source constantly available to them at all times of the year.
After you’ve selected a site, get a soil pH test. It costs about $10 to have it done by a laboratory, but it’s worth it. The lab results will tell you exactly how much, if any, lime you need to add to the soil, and exactly how much fertilizer and what blend you need to put on for that particular forage.
The optimum range for most high quality deer forages is 6.5 to 7.5, which is a measure of the acidity of the soil. But if your number comes back lower than 6.5, the lab will probably recommend adding lime.
Several months in advance of planting, disc the lime into the ground thoroughly to get it to work quickly and efficiently. Lime works in particle to particle contact, which means a piece of lime must touch a piece of dirt to neutralize it. Like mixing pancake batter.
You should have the soil tests back and have disced in the lime by May or June.
After that, set a planting date. For hunting plots, that date should be around September 1st in most parts of the country. So between now and then you’re going to have a lot of weed seeds build up in the ground. The best advice I can give is to disc or till the ground at two week intervals until planting time to keep those weeds from taking root. Till it at the same depth that you tilled the lime. After three or four times, you’ll notice that the plot is not greening up with weeds like it was. That means all of the junk is out of the seed bed.
RS: Should it ever be sprayed with an herbicide?
JC: Before planting, a general herbicide can be used. They kill everything and should only be used if you have extreme weed and grass problems before planting.
Once you have perennial forage growing, use a selective herbicide. Selective herbicides kill only the unwanted plants and let the good stuff keep growing. Check the label to make sure or consult a farm supply store.
RS: Is there maintenance involved in all of this?
JC: It really doesn’t require much maintenance. For a perennial forage, which lasts more than a year, you have to do a little maintenance, but it’s like your car, where you’ve got to change the oil once in awhile. Other than that, get ready to hunt that food plot knowing you’re also providing year round nutrition for the local deer herd. •