The Science of Planning the Perfect Plot

The Science of Planning the Perfect Plot

The food plot is one of the most utilized, yet perilous, land management techniques used by landowners and land managers alike. At its pinnacle, it's a multi-species food source beneficial to the resident animals, but can simultaneously be used as a strategic chess move by the hunter. At its very worst, it is a bare patch of dirt.

Creating the perfect food plot for your property is often a complex and time-consuming chore, where research and extensive planning are often overlooked. In this article, I hope to help you set up a new train of thought when deciding whether or not to add a food plot to your property. And I will say, each parcel of land is extremely unique, and you need to use this thought process to do what's most beneficial for your goals and your specific piece of land. There is no cookie-cutter formula.

Size-Up Your Property (And Your Neighbor’s)

The very first thing I ask myself when looking to add a food plot to a property is, “Is this area lacking food sources?” When taking this into consideration, I often take a bird’s eye view of the property and the surrounding area and also use previous knowledge of the land. Some areas, like large rolling agriculture plains, might not be as desperate for an additional food source as a piece of land nestled into the big north woods.

I’ll also ask myself, “Is a food plot really the best option?” Consider that common forestry practices can add large amounts of forage and bedding to your property, but can also be tricky to thread an arrow through.

Moreover, in smaller parcel areas, it seems that planting food plots can turn into an arms race when doing the exact opposite can be more effective. If you know your neighbors are all cultivating their land and basing their land management strategy on increasing food sources, you could reach your property's potential by providing bedding areas. Both of these management practices work well concurrently, but not every parcel has the ability or size to provide both. I’m definitely not advocating against putting in a new food plot, but I just want you to know that there are other options and strategies.

Feed Plot or Kill Plot?

The second thing I think about when aspiring to add a food plot to a particular piece of land is, “What is the specific goal for this plot?” I categorize my food plots into two types, feed plots and kill plots. Both are similar but have different priorities.

A feed plot prioritizes adding a large amount of food to an area, usually a track larger than five acres, with strategic hunting as its secondary focus. I’m not saying these can’t be hunted, but just the sheer volume of land these plots hold makes them a bit trickier to hunt. I’ll often hunt the major transition trails between these plots and the bedding areas, usually around 50 to 100 yards off the field's edge. Generally speaking, only a few trails lead out of the major bedding areas toward the food sources and tend to branch out the closer they get to the plot. So by hunting a distance from the plot, it increases your chances of success, not to mention earlier movement, which can be crucial in sending an arrow before the shooting light closes.

The kill plot prioritizes hunting strategy rather than sheer tonnage of food provided. Smaller in size but often more lethal, the inferior size makes it more advantageous for bow hunters. Timing on these plots is extremely crucial. If and when the deer in your area prioritize this as a primary food source, all forage could be devoured in a matter of a week.

You can also use both of these types of plots in tandem if your land allows. Using the kill plot as a funnel on the way to a feed plot or a neighbor's agricultural field can be an extremely deadly combination.


Now that you have an idea of the type of plot you'd like to add to your land, you need to start thinking about location. During this step, I often go back to the bird's eye view of the property to help map out my thoughts. I like to print an 11x17 page and use a marker to draw out my thinking, but I know many of you would rather use a digital app. Both work great.

Where on your property does a food plot make sense? Many factors come into determining the location, and you need to contemplate all of them. How many points of access does your property have? What is the entrance and exit strategy? What's the dominant wind? Does this area have ideal conditions for the style of hunting you want to do? Are there multiple stand locations? Where are the other food sources? Where are the nearest bedding areas? Are you able to get equipment into this area to plant?

Reflecting on all these questions while using your map and labeling all known areas, such as parking, trails, bedding areas, oak stands, and water sources, can help bring life to your plot. You need to be able to access this plot without disturbance to the animals you’re intending to hunt, so designating these areas to be as “huntable” as possible is the best, most elementary plan.

Some landowners can get lucky and have a beautiful, sunny open field with great access that is easily recreated into a plot, while the less fortunate landowners might have to hire a logging company to create one, but most are somewhere in between. I’m not going to try and elaborate on the best cookie-cutter food plot setup because, like I have preached, every parcel is different but there are a few common components to successful plots: sunlight, well-drained soil, and sunlight.

Now that your location is picked out, you need to take a deep dive into your soil. By using the USGS website, you can get an approximate soil type of a chosen area of interest (your land). Doing a soil test isn’t needed but is extremely beneficial. The soil test will break down your soil health by showing you your soil’s acidity (pH), nutrient levels (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), and the amount of organic material found in the soil.

While they seem complex, they are super cheap and easy to do and can help point you in the right direction of what type of plant to choose. You can get kits online or from your local seed supplier/co-op and usually get the results sent directly to your email. Using the results, you’ll be able to better address the needs of your soil by fertilization or adjusting your soil's pH.

Plan your Planting

Now you need to start thinking about how to get the seeds in the ground. And yes, I mean in the ground. The “throw it and grow it” slogans are crap. Can they work? Sure. Will I ever do it? No.

If you are already this far, you probably already have somewhat of a plan of how you plan to cultivate and plant your seed. Your setup can be an ATV with a couple of handy attachments, or a tractor with farming-specific implements. Both work great; it's really just what you have access to. The instructions I am about to give you are super generic, and I’ll go more extensive into this process in a future article.

I start my plots by mowing as low as I can without risking damaging the equipment and mowing down all woody brush, grass, and any other debris that might be in the way. I usually mow instead of spraying herbicide because I am not a huge fan of chemicals, but in areas with a high density of weeds, you might have to resort to spraying. I start the tillage process with a light disk, and for most plots, you really only have to go down a few inches. After a couple passes over the soil with a disk, I switch to a drag or harrow. The disk slices down into the soil bed and turns it over, and the harrow drags across to smooth and evenly distribute the topsoil. If you don’t have access to any piece of tillage equipment, a few extra passes with the harrow can suffice.

For most landowners, the use of a broadcast seeder is most practical and easy. Grain drills or no-till drills work great but require a tractor for use. Renting equipment from a dealer or local conservation district (or whatever your local conservation group is) is a great option as well. After I broadcast the seed, I’ll drag the harrow over the top soil again with the hopes to cover the seed with ¼- to ¾-inch of soil.

After planting, fence off a small area using chicken wire. This will show you the true growth of the plot without animal consumption or disturbance. Again, I know these instructions are super bland, but I wanted to simply paint a picture for you, and I'll get into a more precise planting process later. I really want you to look at the entire process rather than just throwing seeds at some bare ground.

What to Plant?

The burning questions I get asked all the time are, “What should I plant?” and “Should I plant annuals or perennials?” These questions can be tough to answer because every region is different. You can also ponder the results of your soil sample to help you choose what to plant.

For example, if your soil’s nitrogen levels are low, you can plant legumes that naturally fixate nitrogen. In Kansas and Missouri, I really liked to plant legumes and grains. Generally, great soil conditions and adequate rainfall made plots fairly simple.

An earlier spring usually allows for multiple plantings, so you can have a spring-to-summer plot, cultivate and replant, and have a fall-to-winter plot. I really liked the cowpea and buckwheat spring planting and the soybean and wheat fall planting. This works throughout the Midwest, but the planting seasons in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada can get wonky due to extended winters. In these northern regions, I usually advise just doing one planting to be safe. A late spring planting for feed plots and early fall plantings for kill plots.

Planting plots in the West is a completely different ballgame. Extreme heat, low humidity, and rainfall mixed with lesser soil quality, hamper the diversity of the seed selection. In Montana, primarily stick to drought-tolerant grains such as barley or wheat, with some legumes mixed in such as alfalfa or peas. Regardless of where you are, rotating crops can be super beneficial to long-term soil health.

When buying seed, I strongly urge you to buy from a local seed dealer or co-op. They supply the correct seed varieties for your region. Buying a mass-produced seed blend from your local sporting goods store can work, but it can often set you up for failure. The local agronomists and conservationists working at these dealers and co-ops can also help you dissect your soil sample results to help you create a plan to increase your property's soil health but advise you on choosing the right species and varieties to plant (as well as countless other tips and tricks).

Over the years, I’ve planted thousands of acres of food plots, and even with all that experience, I’ve still learned the hard way about what I did wrong. It’s definitely a challenging process that may take a couple of years to truly perfect. Take notes or make an Excel spreadsheet to help you keep your data organized so you can reflect after the season, and use the information to improve your plot the following season.

For example, if you planted at a rate of 80 pounds of wheat per acre and you noticed your plot was thin, the following year you would know to increase your seeding rate to 100 pounds per acre. Always retest soil and hold on to those results to see how your soil health increases or decreases over the years.

Never stop learning and improving your land management strategy. And remember, food plots not only play an enormous part in your land planning strategy by increasing the health and size of your herd but also in helping you close in the distance on that once-in-a-lifetime Booner!

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