Tips for Building a Spring Food Plot

Before you know it, the hot summer sun will leave us begging for fall to usher in some relief. For now, we can relish the crisp mornings yet warm days of spring - the closest the weather comes to feeling perfect, if only for a few weeks. For us, our minds never stray too far from whitetails and we take advantage of the pleasurable conditions to plant a spring food plot. Now is the perfect time to do so.

Throughout the spring and continuing into the summer, biologists recommend that a deer’s diet should be 16 percent protein. This ensures they’ll grow at a healthy pace. The average whitetail consumes about six or seven pounds of food per day, which is almost 2,600 pounds per year. It’s hard to come by natural browse containing that much protein, no matter how many pounds of food deer eat in a day. That’s why food plots with high protein concentrations are important to keeping the herd healthy.

Prepare the Site

When scouting a location, stay away from mature forests with towering trees, which can block out sunlight your fledgling plants will need. It’ll also be a headache to clear. Look for lush fields or spaces that were farmland long ago. Areas with dense, thick vegetation are a good indicator of healthy soil, while a section of sparse woods can mean the soil is too dry or wet, and chances are it’s not ideal for your food plot.

Usually, the plants should receive a minimum of four hours of direct sunlight. Plan to shape it like an hourglass, creating a pinch point where you can hang a stand. Factor in the size of your whitetail population when figuring out how big you’ll want your plot to be. A small one will get decimated quickly by a sizeable herd.

You can never underestimate the value of a tractor when preparing a food plot. If possible, ensure your site is accessible by a vehicle to save yourself a ton of hard, manual labor. A tractor or four wheeler can aid in clearing the woods, and then with tilling and discing.

A tractor works wonders when making a spring food plot, from discing, tilling to clearing brush.
A tractor works wonders when making a spring food plot, from discing, tilling to clearing brush.

Use bright tape to mark trees and brush to outline the shape. With a chainsaw, cut trees as low to the ground as you can. Ideally, the section of woods you picked won’t have many large trees to fell. Use a weedeater to clear brush or grass, then spray Roundup to kill off the rest of the native vegetation. Create a pile of brush and burn it, instead of leaving them near the plot, which can block deer from entering.

You’ll want to test the pH level of the soil, which will provide answers about its acidity or alkalinity and determine how suitable the area is for planting. Highly acidic or basic soil will result in poor plant health, and can actually be toxic to them. Before plants can absorb any nutrients from the ground, it has to be dissolved, and typically nutrients are less soluble in acidic or basic soils. Most plants do well with slightly acidic soil of around 6 to a neutral reading of 7. Microorganisms and worms, which positively impact plant health, also thrive in slightly acidic conditions.

You can use a DIY pH tester, available from the Whitetail Institute of North America, or collect dirt and bring it to your local Ag store - they’ll provide results within a few days. If the results show the soil is acidic, you’ll want to add a recommended amount of lime, a mineral high in calcium. With a basic reading, you’ll add sulfur to lower the pH. Then, you should disc or till the area, ensuring the compound you’ve added permeates beyond the top layer of soil. In a few weeks, the area will be ready for seeds.

Choose Your Plants

Plants that last more than two years, called perennials, are ideal as they’ll save you additional work each spring. Use cool-season legumes like alfalfa, clover and chicory. Alfalfa will last for at least five seasons when looked after properly, and is loaded with protein. Clover is also packed with protein and deer can easily digest it. Chicory holds up to 30 percent protein in its leaves. This hardy plant tolerates acidic soils well and withstands drought. The benefit of perennials is that they’ll go dormant during the winter and return by the next spring when temperatures warm. This gives the deer a food source at a critical time of year as they’re struggling through the lingering effects of winter.

It’s a good idea to plant a companion crop that will help to suppress weeds. Cereal grains like rye, oats and winter wheat work well, while offering shade to the cool-season legumes. However, don’t plant too many cereal grains so that they crowd out your other plants. With a balanced mix, the perennials will be protected from the summer sun as they develop.

Other good options are warm season annuals, such as buckwheat, lab-lab, peas, corn and soybeans. While these plants will die in the winter, they grow quickly and provide sufficient nutrition for the deer herd all summer. Use Roundup Ready varieties so that you can spray them with herbicides to limit damage from pests. Most seed bags come with fertilizer recommendations, but typically, most plants will benefit from nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Planting

A good seedbed is dirt that is devoid of living materials. This way, your seeds make direct contact with the soil. Read the planting directions carefully on the seed bag. It’ll tell you how much per acre to use and how deep they should be inserted into the soil. Use a cultipacker, which is an iron roller equipped with cleats to roll across disked soil before and after you broadcast seeds. The device presses the seeds down into the soil lightly, but doesn’t bury them, which can inhibit germination.

Then, Mother Nature will do the rest. As the spring rains come and the sun hangs in the sky longer each day, your plants will flourish, eventually providing the deer on your property with ample nutrition to last throughout the summer. In the early fall, you can plant again, ensuring you have a reliable location to hunt throughout the season.