This article originally appeared in the May 2006 Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine.
By Tracy Breen
In the hunting industry, a new trend develops every few years and changes how hunters hunt forever. Recently, food plots have been that trend.
Increasingly popular, they have helped hunters to bag bigger bucks and helped deer to become bigger and healthier over the long winters in Michigan.
The problem now is that food plot seed has become very expensive, and large plots can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to put in. However, there is hope for blue-collar hunters, many of whom have only a few acres at most to work with.
A small plot planted in the right location can actually offer better hunting opportunities than a large one and does not require big, expensive equipment. I have seen guys use nothing more than a rake and a shovel to prepare a site for a food plot.
If you have an ATV, buy a couple of small plot machines or an all-in-one unit that can till the soil, sow seed and do everything in between can be a wise investment. A wide variety of plot machines are on the market today, from a disk that costs a couple of hundred dollars to the Plot Master or the Ground Buster that can cost a few thousand.
If you don’t have lots of extra cash or your property is somewhat off the beaten path where a plot machine is out of the question, a good rake, some Roundup to kill off weeds before you plant and some elbow grease will get the job done.
One of the most important aspects of food plots is their location. Try to plant your plot as far from your house or your cabin as possible. If your property is relatively open, planting various types of fast-growing trees can create an environment where the deer will feel safe and secure. If your property is extremely thick, clear a small area no bigger than the size of a bedroom. If a food plot is in the middle of thick brush, the deer will feel safe feeding there long before you would typically see them out and about.
It is not uncommon to see deer feeding in secluded plots in the middle of the day. If your plot isn’t in an area where deer will feel safe, the only time they will feed may be at night.
If you plan on hunting over the plot, think about the prevailing wind director in October and November. Put your stand in a tree that will keep deer from scenting you and provide a good shot opportunity most of the time.
To make sure this happens, you will need to have a few good treestand trees near your food plot. Many hunters plant a plot and realize they should have done something different two months later.
One way to ensure good shot opportunities is to create funnels to and from your plot and a bottleneck that forces deer along a narrow route through the plot.
By planning ahead, you can create a plot that will be enjoyable to hunt over and will allow you to hunt the deer on your terms without surprises. You will know where the deer will be coming from every time.
By creating a small plot, chances are you will have a shot opportunity once a deer reaches the edge of the plot. If you have a 20-acre plot, controlling the situation can be a little tougher.
The more tricks you have up your sleeve while hunting over a plot, the better chance you will have of filling a tag. Look at a food plot as a controlled environment. You have the controller. Create a plot where you eliminate as many of the variables as you can that stand between you and a buck.
When deciding what seed to plant, consider the weather conditions where your plot will be. Clover is by far the most popular seed planted today, but according to Steve Gruber of Frigid Forage Food Plots, not always the best choice.
“Clover is a good food source and deer like it, but at a certain time of the year they like other things better,” he said. “As the temperatures start to dip below freezing, deer enjoy sugar beets because they get extremely sweet.”
“When you are planning what to plant in your plot, instead of thinking of clover, think about things like sugar beets, carrots, or turnips. In the heat of the rut when the temperatures in Michigan can get extremely cold, an annual blend that contains sugar beets can be a far more effective plot for hunting than clover.”
However, if you want to plant a plot and forget about it for a few years, clover may be the right seed for you. Clover is a perennial, so with proper soil conditions, it comes up every year. Sugar beets are a brassica (an annual) that will need to be planted every year.
If you have very little time to put a plot in, most seed companies now offer a seed blend that needs only to be put on bare soil. Simply rake a small area so the soil is exposed and plant. In a few weeks, you will have a food plot. Another option is to offer numerous small feeding areas.
Gruber says deer are just like people; they don’t like to eat the same things all the time. “I like to eat steak, but not every day,” he said. “By planting a clover blend and brassicas, wheat, or winter rye, you are giving the deer options. In the end, the deer will be healthier.”
If you have only the acreage or the money to plant one thing, consider brassicas blend that has everything from turnips to carrots, which will give the deer a wide variety. If you plan to put a plot in an area that will receive very little water, many food plot companies today have blends that require very little water.
Regardless of where you plant a plot, pH– the acidity or alkalinity- of the soil is always very important. In fact, according to Gruber, proper pH is more important than water. When you plant your plot, make sure the pH of your soil is around 7. If it isn’t, you will probably need lots of lime to bring the acidity down.
Remember, lime can be very expensive and most large plots require tons of it- another good reason to build a small plot.
Once you have created a good food plot that the deer like to visit on a regular basis, you can do other things to increase your chances of bagging a buck. By creating fake scrapes on the outer edges of the plot and within the bow and gun range, you can create a perfect spot to take your shot.
You can place a scouting camera over the plot or over the scrape to help you know what time of day the big bruiser is coming to your plot. If you are not crazy about hunting from a treestand, putting out a pop-up blind before the season and leaving it there so the deer get accustomed to its presence is one option. Digging a pit blind is another. Pit blinds help contain your scent and break up the human outline. Realize that food plots require some care to thrive. Soil conditions are vital, so don’t cut corners. If your soil pH is 6.5 instead of 7 or if your plot doesn’t get enough sun, it will suffer. If you live in an area that has harsh winter and you plant a cheap seed that isn’t hardy, your plot will suffer.
The more research and preparation you do beforehand, the better chance you have of managing a plot that is lush and green. However, seed companies come out each year with hardier blends that will thrive under poor conditions.
Having very long and cold winters can be very hard on any plot, good soil or not. This is why some companies specialize in creating seed blends that are hardy and can make it through tough northern climates. Other companies have blends that thrive under drought conditions.
When researching the different seed companies, think about your individual circumstances. Find a company that offers a seed tailored to your type of soil and weather conditions. Just because a clover blend thrives in Texas doesn’t mean it will do the same in Michigan.
As the food plot industry continues to grow and as better and stronger blends are developed, hunters who want to grow on smaller parcels of land will benefit greatly. Gone are the days when you had to be a farmer to succeed. Now the most important aspect of planting food plots is planning it out properly.
If you go to the trouble of buying seed, raking or tilling the soil and putting lime down, make sure your plot is in the right location and set up in such a way that you can succeed. Food plot seminars also are becoming popular, and sports shops and sports shows now offer seminars to help take the guesswork out of growing a food plot.