Food Plot Failures: Common Mistakes To Avoid

By Tom Peplinski

The world of deer hunting has changed drastically in the last decade, not so much in the way we harvest deer, but more specifically all the work and effort that goes into harvesting a deer. A prime example of this movement is planting food plots for purpose of deer management practices. When I first started deer hunting in Iowa some 20 years ago the last thing on my mind was planting food plots in conjunction with deer hunting. Now fast forward to the present and one thing that has at least entered the mind of every deer hunter is whether or not to have a food plot on his or her land for the purpose of deer management.

Its no secret that food plots are the rage these days, and rightfully so. A properly planted and well-maintained food plot can have some great residual benefits to your deer management practices. However the problem with food plots is that 90% of them fail and rarely reach full potential. The main culprit of these failures is the lack of knowledge on how to properly plant and maintain a food plot.
If you have the mindset that you can go out and buy a bag of seed and throw it on some dirt and have Mother Nature do the rest, well then you are probably part of that 90% I mentioned above. No matter if it is a huge plot or a little half-acre honey hole there are certain things that everyone who plants, or wants to plant food plots should be aware of.

Take a look below at the five most common factors that play a role in a bad food plot and keep them in mind next time your get ready to turn some dirt, you will most certainly save yourself time and money if you do a little work up front.

Wrong Location

A top reason for poor food plots is planting in the wrong location in the first place. The number one step when implementing a food plot is to locate an area on your property that will provide ideal growing conditions for the plot.

The problem that comes into play with location is a lot of hunters are limited from the get go based on the size or the accessibility of the land in which they hunt. However to simply put a plot on a piece of your property because that is the only place it can go more times than not will relinquish terrible results. Not only will you be out time and money, but you will also be out a food plot. The fact of the matter is that some places simply were not meant to grow thick lush food plots. If you find a spot that isn’t food plot worthy you are better off leaving it alone and focusing on finding another piece of the property that is more food plot hospitable.

Lets say you do have a place that you believe a food plot will grow, before you even think about anything else take note of the type and quality of soils, sunlight access, and how well the area drains excess water. All of these mentioned factors will play a dramatic role in what can grow in a location as well provide information in what seed mixture to plant when the time comes.

Test Your Soil

Having your soil tested is an extremely vital part of having a quality food plot yet it is often the most overlooked process. A soil test tells us basically what needs to be added to the soil in order to have maximum production for whatever will be planted there. Some soils will require very little enhancements, while others will provide so much it might not be worth even planting at this location.

The best thing about soil tests is they are easy to do and are relatively inexpensive. Most areas of Iowa will have a cooperative that provides soil tests readings. Wile the actual process might differ from coop to coop, in essence all you have to do is gather some dirt from several locations of the area you wish to plant a food plot, mix it together, let it dry, and get it out to a cooperative for testing. Depending on the workload at the cooperative you should have results of the test back in a few weeks. The test itself will tell all sorts of information about the soil in that area as well what fertilizers or lime dosages, if any, will be needed to promote growth.

That is really all there is to it. That is why I am always amazed at the number of people who forego getting a soil test. You will never truly know what your soil needs to yield good growth until you get a soil test, so save yourself the headache and get your soil tested.

Make sure you call your cooperative and ask them their process for soil testing. Once you get the results back it is always a good idea to go over it with an agronomist, who can explain the results to you.

Don’t Plant That

Another common reason for poor food plots is planting the wrong seed mix. Every seed species or mix of seeds has particular conditions which they will perform the best. What you need to pay particular attention to is do the requirements of your seed mix match the conditions of your food plot. When you are picking out a mix or a seed forgo the name on the bag and the big monstrous buck staring at you. Instead read the fine print and try and find out what conditions a particular mixture performs the best under.
What you are trying to do is match the seed requirements to what your land can provide. Ask yourself these questions: Does the sunlight at my location match the requirement of the seed? How does this seed mixture react in different soil moisture levels? What soil level does this seed grow best in? How much lime or fertilizer will be needed in order to sustain proper growth? All of these questions need to be answered which will help you find the best seed based on your lands requirements.

Get Down To The Dirt

A main culprit of unsuccessful food plots is poor germination; most likely do to improper seedbed preparation. More specifically the seed is not getting into contact with the dirt, which is required to promote proper growth.

While the topic of proper seedbed preparation can fill the halls of the Library of Congress, what you need to grasp is that you need to get down to the dirt. More importantly you need a seedbed that is well cultivated, weed free, no clods, slightly settled, and firm. This usually means a dosage or two of herbicide treatments, followed by disking and tilling the area until you have a smooth clean seedbed. Take note that this process takes time and needs to be done well ahead of planting.

The problem most of us face is we don’t have the proper equipment to make quick work of this all-important step. In return what happens is the seedbed is prepared in a less than desirable fashion and growth is stunted because apt germination couldn’t take place.

The last thing you want to do is go through all the planning, only to have your food plot fail because of this step. If you are lacking the big expensive equipment this isn’t an excuse to forego this step, unless of course you want to throw all your efforts and hard earned money to the wind. You are going to have to suck it up and grease the elbows some more and work your soil until it is worthy of planting a food plot. Do the necessary work up front and reap the rewards later.

Maintain Your Investment

So you have taken the steps above and done your homework. You have picked an ideal location that for the most part will allow a food plot to flourish, you conducted a soil test, your seed mixture matches your lands requirements, and you have the best looking seed bed this side of the Mississippi. That’s it right? You will most certainly see a prosperous food plot in a short amount of time…correct? Not so fast, there is one more crucial element to having a good food plot and it comes in the form of the dreaded word, maintenance.

Once your food plot has taken hold and starts to grow the biggest problem, which you can control, is competition from WEEDS. Weeds are to food plots what Kryptonite is to Superman. What was once a great food plot can quickly turn into a choked out weed patch if left unattended, taking with it your money, time, and sanity!

So with a little more of that all important time and effort I keep eluding too you have to control the weeds in your food plot. This is typically done in one of two different fashions. Depending on the seed that you are using you can either do an application of herbicide or an occasional mowing.

Mowing is recommended for clover, alfalfa, or most other legume seeds. This will do one of two things for your plot. A) It will help control the weed population and B) it will promote new growth, which thickens the legumes of the plant and makes for higher protein levels in the food plot. Please note that you shouldn’t mow a field in hot, dry weather patterns and when you do a mowing never go below 5 inches.

On the other side of weed control is, herbicides. The first thing you need to do is know if your seed mixture can tolerate a dosage of herbicide, what kind of herbicide to use, and lastly how much to use. Most of the time a quality seed manufacturer will put this type of information on the seed bag itself or list it on a website. If the bag of seed you planted doesn’t have these recommendations then make sure and call manufacturer and get their recommendations for weed control. Always perform due diligence when working with herbicide, the last thing you want to do when controlling weeds is completely eradicating the entire food plot with improper application.

Remember that once the food plot takes hold it isn’t over yet and without maintenance you can see your lush green food plot turn into a jungle of useless weeds.

Nothing in life is more disappointing than seeing something you worked hard for result in a failure. This holds true for planting food plots, you work your tail off for several weekends and spend a good chunk of change trying to put in an excellent food plot only to be disappointed with the results. While there is always risks in food plots and factors we can’t control most of the time the failure of a food plot can be attributed to the five factors I listed above, which are all controllable. So next time you get ready to plant a food plot make sure you take care of what I discussed above and you will be on your way to harvesting a big mature whitetail over a lush green food plot next fall.