How to Plant a Food Plot on a Budget

How to Plant a Food Plot on a Budget

Like so many things in hunting (and life for that matter), the process of creating a killer food plot has been made far too complicated and much more expensive than it needs to be. The truth is that there is nothing complex about creating a terrific plot that will draw deer.

You don’t need any expensive equipment. You don’t need any special skills. You need a degree in agronomy. All you need is three ingredients: soil, seeds, and water.

When to Plant

Let’s kick this off by debunking one of the common misconceptions that have dominated food plots for some time. Spring is not the time to plant them. Unless you have substantial acreage (20 acres at a minimum) to dedicate specifically to grains or hay, you are wasting time, effort, and resources by planting a food plant you intend to employ during deer season if you plant it much before mid-August.

Why? The entire point of a plot is to draw deer that will chow down on the plants you’ve grown. It doesn’t take long for deer to mow through a few acres. Planting in the spring means you’re going to be left with a barren chunk of dirt come fall. Now, if you’re planting clover, that’s a bit different. But I still highly recommend planting clover in late summer. And you should plant it as part of a blend. But we’ll get to that shortly.

So you should be thinking about planting your plots now. Living in Michigan, I target Labor Day weekend as the optimal time for plot planting.

The Equipment

So what will you need for the task? Not much. A hand-held or backpack sprayer is required. If you’re really fancy, you can get a battery-operated sprayer for your ATV. But it’s a luxury, not a necessity. You’ll need a good, stout metal rake. A hand-held spreader is useful but not mandatory. And a lighter can come in handy as well.

Preraping to Plant

I much prefer smaller plots of about a ½- to ¼-acre in size over plots of an acre or more. I suppose that’s mostly because I’ve never really had the land available to plant big plots, but it’s also because I look at food plots not as a way to enhance deer nutrition but as a tool to put deer in range when hunting.

I live in prime farm country. There is not much that I can do to enhance deer nutrition here in any meaningful way and I’d wager that’s the cost for a super-majority of deer hunters in America.

Natural openings in a wooded setting or areas of fallow ground are my go-to plot locations. Any time there is a few days of dry weather in the forecast in early to mid-August is when I’ll start my plots. The first step is to grab the sprayer filled with glyphosate. I’ll hit the plots with the herbicide to start the process. About a week later, I’ll check the plots and see if there are any areas I missed. It’s easy to tell, the plants that were impacted will be withered and starting to dry down and brown up. Bright green grasses and weeds somehow escaped the first application and I’ll spot-treat those areas. A week later, the entire plot should be dead or obviously dying. That’s what we want.

Now it’s time to clear the plot of the undesirable cover. This can be done simply by raking off the dead material. If you have access to an ATV, you can make quick work of things by simply driving over the dead weeds and grass. This will knock them down and mulch them into beneficial chaff. In fact, I like to leave some of that dead foliage on the plot as a means to keep more moisture in the soil and protect the seeds from foraging birds.

If you can do so safely, burning the plot is a great way to clear the ground quickly in areas of dense weed cover is the only viable solution. Obviously, make sure you do this on a day with little to no wind and have a reliable source of water nearby to make sure the burn stays under control. A visit from the local fire department is both embarrassing and costly…don’t ask me how I know. With the weeds cleared, it’s time to plant.

What to Plant

I don’t get too crazy with the forage I plant. I like mix of oats, radishes, turnips, and clover. I get my seed at a local seed store from their bulk bins. It won’t have a fancy photo of a well-known hunter on the label, but it will grow the exact same plants as pricier options. I usually do about ¼ pound of each forage per acre.

The clover is an optional additive, but I add it to every plot because I can choose to allow the clover to become fully established the following spring (it will pop after winter ends). It draws deer year-round and turkeys love to hang out in it as well. Then, should I decide I do want to plant the oats, turnips, and radishes again, I can simply rake under the clover which adds nitrogen to the soil.

How to Plant

Planting is also a simple (and cheap) affair. I use a hand-held spreader I picked up from Amazon for about $10, but you also can use any 5-gallon bucket you have handy and spread the seed by hand.

I fertilize when I plant. You can (and should) do a soil test to correct any soil issues. Where I live, I know the soil pH is usually within an acceptable range for my purposes, and basic 10-10-10 fertilizer will work just fine. Sure, you can get much more complex with your fertilizer program or keep it simple and still have a terrific plot. The choice is yours.

I like to mix the fertilizer and seed together then use the handheld spreader to broadcast the seed/fertilizer mix.

Once it’s on the ground, I hit the area rigorously with the steel rake to shake the seed and fertilizer through any remaining dead foliage and to work it into the soil. If possible, I time my planting to take place just before a substantial rain. The pounding of the rain will ensure great seed-to-soil contact, and that moisture will help activate the fertilizer and get things off on the right foot.

That’s it. That’s all it takes. Your plot is planted and fertilized.

If you get some timely rain, you should start to see those seeds sprouting in just a few days. Within a week or so, you’ll see a carpet of new growth. Don’t be alarmed if you see a few weeds mixed in with your preferred forage. We’re deer hunters, not farmers, and the deer will hit the plot regardless.

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