First, you have to find the right location. Where you plant a fall food plot for deer will determine success as much as any other factor. The most important ingredient is sunlight. Most food plot plants need at least four hours of direct sunlight. Any less and plants won't reach their full potential. In fact, lack of sunlight is the primary reason food plots planted in deep woods and along narrow logging roads fail.
The soil type is also critical. Heavy, moist soil is best for plants like clover, while dry, sandy soil will grow healthy, vibrant turnips and alfalfa. That's not to say you can't grow a variety of plants in different soils, but what you plant might not fully develop if it's not suited for the soil type.
If you haven't conducted a soil test, do it now. There's no better way to save money and grow high quality food for wildlife than by amending your soil with the right amounts of fertilizer and lime. A soil test will tell you exactly what you need. However, if you delay a soil test, you might not have enough time to properly amend the soil. Lime can take several months to fully affect the soil, so the sooner you spread it, the better.
Don't spread any fertilizer, though. It can break down in a matter of a few weeks, even less, so wait until you plant before spreading any nutrients.
Proper site preparation is critical, and it starts well before you disk the ground and spread fall seeds. The sooner you kill off the existing vegetation, the better your site will be when it’s time to plant. Start by hitting your field with a dose of non-selective herbicide like Roundup, which kills every plant it comes in contact with. Wait about two weeks and then hit it again if some plants are still growing. A Moultrie ATV sprayer is the perfect tool for weed control.
Perennial plots like clover, chicory and alfalfa also need to be maintained, which includes weed control. The best food plots are weed-free and well-fed. Wait until all the plants in your food plot, including the weeds, are actively growing and then spray them with a dose of selective herbicide. Some, which typically contain sethoxydim, are grass-specific and will not kill broad-leaf plants like clover or chicory. Others like 2,4-D will kill only broad-leaf plants and are good choices for wheat and oats, while a few will kill broad-leafs except clover and alfalfa.
Mowing is another way to knock back weeds, but it won't kill the most troublesome plants like perennial broad-leaf weeds and grasses like Bermuda and fescue. You'll need to rely on herbicides for those.
Once the existing vegetation is dead, pull a disk across the ground to break up the soil and turn the dead plants back into the ground. Don't worry about turning all the dead plants under. You only need to run across the plot enough to expose the dirt. Fall seeds generally don't need to be buried. Instead, they just need good soil contact and some moisture to help them sprout.
A dose of rain will likely produce another round of weed sprouts that you can hit with a second dose of herbicide. Disk the soil again and then spread your seeds with an ATV-mounted spreader, which also works great for spreading fertilizer and pelleted lime.
Large seeds like peas and beans do need to be covered, and a light disking can do that fairly well. Small seeds like clover and turnips are best left on top of the soil. A hard rain will push the seeds into the soil, where they will sprout and set roots. Pulling a disk over them can bury the seeds too deep.
Nobody said planting food plots was easy, and it certainly isn't cheap, but if you want to improve your whitetail deer hunting, you'll need to spend some money on fertilizer and high-quality seed. Local farm-supply stores sell a wide variety of seeds like clover, wheat, oats and turnips, but if you want the most bang for your buck, buy seeds designed and engineered specifically for whitetail food plots. All plants are not the same. Those marketed for food plots are generally more palatable to deer and stand up to heavy grazing, which means there will be plenty of high-quality food for your local deer herd when hunting season opens.