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Planting your own food plots
Overview – Reasons for planting food plots:
Landowners and wildlife enthusiasts plant food plots for a variety of reasons ranging from conservation to hunting. The purpose of planting a food plot is to provide a supplementary food source to wildlife, such as deer, pheasant, quail, turkey, and more. While hunting is one of the most popular reasons for planting food plots, there are several other reasons why landowners develop food plots on their property. For example, landowners may use the food plots as a source of revenue, leasing out the use of their ground to hunters and wildlife enthusiasts. Some landowners are simply looking to improve the appearance of their property, while others may have a focus on conservation by enhancing wildlife habitats and ecosystems. For instance, land that has been recently cleared of trees or brush may benefit from planting a food plot to cover the bare ground. This is vital in preventing erosion, as well as keeping unwanted trees and brush from re-establishing. Not only do food plots attract wildlife, but they also are a great way to manage land and build healthy, productive soils.
Follow Great Plains as we take a look at how we partnered with a local landowner to create a food plot and review our list of tips for preparing a successful one.
The first step in growing a successful food plot is to determine its purpose. If you are growing your food plot for animal forage or to provide animal habitats, it is important to match the plant species to the wildlife that you are interested in attracting. The plant species can be as diverse as the animal species around the property. For example, if deer are what you are hoping to attract, consider different legume and brassica species. These plants are high in energy and very palatable for deer. However, if you are wanting to attract birds, such as pheasant, quail, or turkey, or migratory birds (ducks, geese, or doves) to your property, consider grassy species, including grain sorghum or millets, for your food plot. The grain produced from grass species will be a food source for birds throughout the fall and winter and the plants, themselves, will provide beneficial cover and protection.
Another point of consideration is the time of year you would like the food plot to be either growing or providing forage. Will you want the food plot to be mature in time for summer or fall, or one that will last throughout the winter?
You will also need to determine how many food plots you want to plant and the best locations for them. You should avoid putting food plots near a public road; this discourages poaching and helps the wildlife feel more comfortable. In general, food plots should be centrally-located, taking into consideration things like water access, bedding areas, and thick cover.
Growing a food plot doesn’t have to be complicated. With proper planting and preparation, anyone – regardless of their experience level – can grow a successful food plot. However, before going out and scattering seed across the ground, consider the following:
Soil fertility – Being successful in growing a food plot and achieving the best results from your seed investment hinge upon knowing what nutrients are available within your soil. This is why it is highly recommended to take a representative soil sample before planting your food plot. If you are unfamiliar with soil sampling, no need to worry; there are numerous resources available to help you be successful in your soil sampling procedure, as well as deciding what soil nutrients and measurements you should test for, and how to interpret the soil test results. Local agricultural offices, such as a county extension office or a USDA-NRCS office, can provide assistance and resources.
Once the nutrient levels and pH balance of your soil are known, you can make educated decisions about soil management, including what type and amount of fertilizer may be needed; if a soil amendment, such as lime, is needed to neutralize low pH or acidic soils; and what plant species may grow best in your soil type.
Seedbed preparation and weed control – Seedbed preparation and weed control are critical to ensuring that your food plot gets off to a positive start. Weeds compete for water, nutrients, and sunlight and can greatly affect the productivity of a food plot if they are not kept in check. The use of chemical herbicides is a great tool to help control and eliminate weeds; however, it is important to know which types of weed species you have growing to make sure you apply the correct herbicide(s) to control them. Herbicides are an effective option for controlling weeds if you practice no-till and want to seed directly into your food plot without disturbing the soil through tillage. However, this method should be avoided or carefully monitored for those who are bee keepers or advocates of other sensitive species.
An alternative (and bee-friendly) method to controlling weeds is by mechanical means, using tillage. Tillage implements, such as disk harrows, cultivators, and rotary tillers, work great for preparing ground for food plots. These implements are made in a range of sizes, so no matter your tractor size, performing tillage is achievable. Using herbicides in combination with tillage is one of the best ways to maintain a weed-free food plot, although tillage alone will still do a great job at preparing a fertile seedbed and removing weeds.
Food plots can be seeded in several ways. One basic planting approach is broadcast spreading, or spreading seed across the ground using a broadcast spreader attached to a tractor or 4-wheeler. Broadcast spreading can also be done manually with a hand crank broadcast spreader; however, this approach is only practical for small food plot areas. If you plan to seed your food plot by broadcast spreading, it is recommended that the ground is tilled and somewhat loose prior to planting to give the seed the best opportunity to germinate. Lightly tilling by disturbing the soil surface with a cultivator or harrow after broadcast spreading will help mix the seed into the soil. Anything that can be done to improve seed-to-soil contact will help improve the germination rate of your seed and promote quicker, more uniform growth. Broadcast spreading is also most successful if it can be done just before a gentle rain to help seeds sprout.
A more precise method of seeding your food plot is to use a drill. Drills are commonly used in agriculture for seeding small grains and are built in a wide range of widths and configurations to accurately plant any seed size. Drills are offered in both no-till and conventional formats. While both types operate similarly, no-till drills are built heavier and are designed specifically to penetrate hard ground and residue that are common in no-till situations. Even though no-till drills are heavier built than conventional drills, they are still capable of handling soil that is tilled or soft. Because of their lighter build, conventional drills should only be operated in tilled soils. Additionally, conventional drills are much easier to move around and are less of a load for smaller tractors.
Although producers should determine the best piece of equipment and method for their unique situation, there are some key advantages of using a drill vs. broadcast spreading to plant food plots.
Choosing the right food plot equipment
Once your food plot is growing, it must be maintained throughout the growing season. If weeds become an issue – particularly around the edge or borders of the food plot – it may be necessary to mow the plot with a rotary cutter. Mowing weedy areas helps knock back the weeds, which allows the food plot to re-establish and out-compete the weeds. This method works best in controlling broadleaf weeds, particularly if you have a grass species planted in your food plot.
Another maintenance tool for controlling weeds in an established food plot is using herbicides. If your food plot is only grass or only legume species, and not a combination of both, then selective herbicides can be applied to control certain weed species. For example, you can spray to kill grassy weeds that are growing in a legume or broadleaf food plot, or spray for broadleaf weeds in grass-based food plot, such as sorghum.
In late spring of 2018, Great Plains partnered with a local hunter and wildlife enthusiast to plant a food plot in Ottawa County, KS. There, we planted two wildlife food plots that grew throughout the summer and fall. One of the food plots contained a mix of forage and grain sorghum, planted to attract bird species, such as pheasant and quail. The second plot was a mix of legumes, including forage soybeans and peas, which are highly desired by white-tailed deer.
To create a successful food plot, we followed the steps below:
1. Determining the purpose of our food plot: The goal for our food plots was to create habitats and forage for pheasants, quail, and deer that would be used for hunting by the landowner.
2. Soil testing: Next, we collected soil samples and had them tested by a local soil testing laboratory.
3. Soil test interpretation: Once we received the results back from our soil test, they were reviewed by our agronomist, Blake Bergkamp, to determine which nutrients were needed and their application amounts. For our food plot locations, we needed to apply 65 lbs. of nitrogen for the sorghum mix food plot. Our soybean food plot did not require any additional nitrogen, as soybeans are a legume species and are able to fix their own nitrogen. We also tested for phosphorus, potassium, and zinc; these all had adequate levels on our soil test, so we did not apply these nutrients.
4. Seedbed preparation: In May, we began preparing the ground for planting the food plot. We used a combination of tillage and herbicides to control weeds and work the soil to optimum planting conditions. For the soybean food plot, no-till practices were used, while conventional tillage methods were used for the grain sorghum food plot.
Once the ideal seedbed was achieved through tillage, we sprayed a combination of three herbicides (glyphosate; 2,4-D; and dicamba) to kill any remaining weeds that were still alive and growing prior to planting the plot. (Note: it is important to follow herbicide label guidelines and rotational guidelines when planting after applying herbicides).
5. Fertilizer application: In this instance, our soils were well-balanced with nutrients and had a high pH, so the soil did not require any lime. In the food plot designed to attract birds with sorghum and other grasses, we applied nitrogen as recommended by our soil test. We chose to apply urea, a dry granular form of nitrogen, to enhance plant growth and development. We used a 3-point mounted broadcast spreader to uniformly apply the fertilizer to the plot. We applied the fertilizer and then performed our last tillage pass prior to planting to incorporate the fertilizer into the soil.
6. Planting the food plot: In early June, we planted both of our food plots with a Great Plains 606NT No-Till Drill. Before planting each plot, we calibrated the drill to ensure it was applying the seed rate as desired. Once the drill was properly calibrated and set to the appropriate planting depth, we were ready to begin planting. For these food plots, we set our drill to seed both the sorghum-based mix and the soybean mix at 8 lbs. per acre.
7. Food plot maintenance: Due to the lack of rainfall after planting, we experienced delayed and uneven emergence in our food plots. This allowed hardy weeds to become established and begin competing with the food plot. For this reason, we decided to spray our legume food plot to control areas that were being overtaken by grassy weeds.
As a result of careful planning and maintenance, the food plots were deemed successful by the landowner, despite the early drought and overly wet fall later on. The landowner reported several successful hunts and an abundance of wildlife in the area. He said, “The food plot looked great and created a healthy habitat for the animals. We were pleased with the results.” The landowner noted a 40-bird covey and several buck sightings, including a “monster” buck. He and his family were able to harvest a buck and several birds near these food plots.
From an agronomic standpoint, it was a challenging year due to the weather – specifically, a drought early on and an excess of moisture in the fall. Much like farming, the outcomes of food plots can be unpredictable, even if you do most everything correctly.
While we experienced success, we also have documented some improvements for the future.
Follow Great Plains as we take on another food plot adventure in 2019!
Blake Bergkamp grew up in south central Kansas on a small family farm. Growing up in this area provided Blake with a unique experience in agriculture, as continuous wheat and conventional tillage still dominate many of the acres. Blake attended Kansas State University where he completed a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics and an MS degree in Agronomy. During college, Blake gained valuable experience with crop production and physiology at the K-State Agronomy Lab. In 2018, Blake joined the Great Plains team as a Sales Agronomist. As Sales Agronomist, Blake’s responsibilities include writing agronomic and educational content for customers and producers; designing field tests and compiling data; planning and conducting events and field demonstrations; and working alongside the product development team to ensure positive agronomic outcomes.