At their essence, food plots for wildlife involve the planting and promoting of a desirable group of plant species at the exclusion of others. This requires removal or management of those undesirable species, commonly referred to as “weeds.” The problem is that weed management in food plots has historically been done in ways that are potentially damaging to the very environment hunters are trying to help, often using chemical herbicides or mechanical tillage.
It’s a classic “one step forward, two steps back” conundrum and one I’ve personally been searching for a solution to.
Downsides to Conventional Weed Management According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “misuse of herbicides can result in unintended consequences including herbicide resistance, impacts on non-target organisms, soil and water contamination, and risks to human health.”
Gabe Brown, author of “Dirt to Soil,” goes further by explaining that “synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides sprayed on most agricultural acreage dramatically reduces nearly every life form in the soil, including fungi, nematodes, protozoa, algae, mites, and microarthropods, as well as earthworms, ants, and other beneficial insects.”
Brown sees excessive disking and tilling as similarly dangerous. “It is constantly tearing apart the 'house' that nature builds to protect the living organisms in the soil that create natural soil fertility,” he said.
So is there a more eco-friendly way? Here are the four options I’ve explored while managing this issue over the past few years.
Leave Those “Weeds” Alone The simplest solution to the weed problem is understanding that sometimes weeds aren’t an issue at all. Despite what you see on TV, food plots do not need to be perfectly manicured fields of green to attract deer or other wildlife. In many cases the weeds that land managers are spraying to clean up their food plots are actually highly desired food sources that are just as attractive and nutritious as anything we could plant ourselves.
“Everyone wants to know how to get rid of weeds in their food plots,” Dr. Craig Harper said. “But few are able to identify the plants present, and most people do not realize the wildlife value of many of these plants.”
The first step then is learning to identify common natural food sources and keeping an eye out for them in and around your plots. By letting some of these weeds live and embracing a more diverse food plot, you’ll save time and money while still having just as beneficial of a forage source. For a beginner’s guide to some of those “weeds” you might leave standing, check out 10 Natural Food Sources Whitetail Hunters Should Know.
Cultural Weed Control Cultural weed control involves the use of certain agriculture practices that reduce the potential for weeds to show up in the first place. One simple way to do this is by reducing mechanical disturbance to the soil when preparing and planting your plots. When you till or disc an area you are bringing all sorts of weed seeds up into the topsoil and into position to grow. This is a recipe for rampant weed growth. The preferred alternative is to use a no-till drill, which completely eliminates the need to disc and greatly reduces the ability for new weeds to get a foothold.
Another means of managing weed growth is to plan a crop rotation that eliminates the open space that weeds need to get growing. Many food plotters plant fall annual plots in August that die off over the winter and leave the ground bare in the spring and available for weeds to spring forth. These weeds take over the plot until the next time the manager gets around to spraying and planting something new.
In contrast to this, some food plotters are now taking a page from the regenerative agriculture world and planting and rotating a diverse mix of annual and perennial crops that ensure that there’s a base crop growing at all times of year, keeping desirable vegetation on the ground during all seasons and smothering out potential weed competition.
Mechanical Weed Control If a weed-smothering rotation is not in the cards, the next option to consider is mechanical management. Historically this means using some kind of tillage equipment to break up the soil and weeds or a mower to cut them back. My exploration of environmentally friendly food plots has pointed to disking or tilling being a clear non-starter. While tillage will eliminate some weed growth, it also destroys soil fertility, releases moisture from the ground, increases erosion, and as already mentioned, can bring more weed seeds up to the top. For this reason, tillage is not a recommended option unless absolutely necessary. Mowing, on the other hand, can be more useful.
In most scenarios mowing back weeds will not kill them, so it is a temporary solution. But sometimes that’s all you need. The goal is to cut back weed growth enough so that it does not out-compete your desired food plot forage and hopefully gives those plants enough new sunlight and space to achieve dominance in the planting.
W. Carroll Johnson III, author of “Quality Food Plots” believes that timing is critical in cutting back weed growth, “Mowing too early allows some weeds to produce suckers, increasing the number of flowers and seeds produced, while mowing too late may unintentionally help disperse the viable seeds.”
Chemical Weed Control While there is an increasing movement to get away from herbicides in food plotting, it can’t be denied that this tool is effective and sometimes necessary. The key is to use these herbicides only as directed by the label, only at the appropriate times, and as minimally as absolutely necessary.
Dr. Grant Woods, a noted proponent of a regenerative agriculture approach to food plotting, believes that herbicides are still better than some alternatives. “I’d always rather use an herbicide like glyphosate than disc, as it does way less damage to the soil,” he said on the Wired To Hunt Podcast.
While there’s no single silver-bullet solution to eco-friendly weed management, it’s encouraging that land managers do now have other options beyond the conventional. If used thoughtfully and appropriately the above management approaches can help you grow food plots that are beneficial to wildlife while also keeping the environment around them just as healthy. And that is a simple yet important step forward.
Feature image via Captured Creative.