If you believe everything you read, then you might think you need to take out a second mortgage to break in to food plotting. Add the cost of a seed drill, culti-packer, broadcast spreader, mower, rake, drag and disk and you’re looking at thousands of dollars. And that’s on top of a tractor or high-quality ATV. But do you really need all that equipment? The answer depends on how you define “need.” In order to plant and grow a food plot worthy of a magazine cover, then yes, you do need lots of high-quality implements. But if your choice is getting by with the bare minimum or abandoning your plans to grow some deer food completely, then answer is a resounding “no.” You only need a few tools to get the job done. Here’s a look at what you really need:
The One Must-Have
Nothing is more important than dropping your food plot seed on bare dirt, so you’ll need something to cut through the surface vegetation and expose some soil. A disk is perfect for that. It’s a simple, relatively inexpensive tool that can do a variety of jobs, says Mark Prudhomme, land manager for a 10,000-acre private hunting club. He relies on his disk more than any other implement.
“You can cut through the soil’s surface to turn it a few inches deep and then change the angles of the disk blades so they are straight and use it to cover the seed,” he notes. “When I do that, I set the height of the disk so it just barely skims the top of the soil, otherwise you might end up burying your seed too deep.”
Prudhomme says disking over top-sown seed is best for larger seed like chufa, corn and peas. It’s perfectly acceptable and effective to top-sow smaller seeds such as clover and brassicas, especially if the soil is light and “fluffy” after disking. A good rain will pound the seed into the soil, burying it just deep enough to allow it to germinate and flourish.
Disks aren’t cheap. A new 5-foot-wide disk made for a tractor with a three-point hitch will run at least $600. The good news is that it will last for years. Disks made for ATVs are only slightly less expensive, but they won’t turn the soil nearly as well as a larger disk made for a tractor.
“ATV disks typically aren’t heavy enough to cut through existing vegetation and compacted soil, at least not without making many, many trips through the food plot or adding a lot of extra weight to it,” says Prudhomme. “An ATV disk works best when the soil has already been loosened by a larger implement.”
If the cost of a new disk gives you sticker shock, consider looking for a used one. The sour economy has forced many hunters and farmers to sell equipment they no longer use. A used disk can cost half as much as a new one. Call around to farm equipment dealers or look for farm auctions. You’d be surprised at the bargains you can get. Even craigslist.com and eBay have used farm equipment.
A “Should Have”
Along with the ability to turn dirt, you’ll also need something to help control weeds. No matter how much disking you do, unwanted vegetation will eventually swallow your clover or alfalfa. One option is an adjustable-height mower to cut weeds before they get tall enough to produce a seed head. In fact, mowing is a standard maintenance practice that can reduce weed growth. However, it won’t stop it. Grasses like fescue and Bermuda grass in particular will continue to spread even after they’ve been mowed. That’s why a sprayer is a much better choice. A semi-annual dose of a selective herbicide can keep weeds at bay much better than routine mowing.
ATV sprayers are relatively inexpensive, costing as little as $100. Three-point hitch sprayers are somewhat pricier, starting at around $500, but they’ll hold 50 gallons or more and typically cover a wider area than an ATV sprayer.
No matter what you get, Prudhomme recommends buying a sprayer that has a boom, which allows you to control the direction of the herbicide better than you can with a nozzle sprayer. High-quality models also have a wand sprayer that you can use to spot-spray small areas or specific plants.
Convenient But Not Critical
You’ll need to scatter seed, fertilizer and lime, and if your plots cover more than a quarter-acre, you’ll probably want a broadcast spreader that attaches to your tractor or ATV. A typical three-point hitch spreader that fits on a tractor will cost upwards of $400 for one that holds up to 250 pounds. That’s plenty big enough to do all the food plots you could plant. Even smaller ones that attach to the back of an ATV will work just fine.
A much more affordable option is to use a lawn spreader, typically pulled behind a riding mower. They usually have a capacity of 100 pounds, but they are far less expensive than a farm-type spreader. If money’s real tight, consider using a shoulder-mounted or hand-held spreader to put down the seed and even fertilizer and lime.
“I know some guys who use a hand spreader to do everything. It can take a lot of time and be hard on the shoulders and back, but if you want to save money, that’s a great way to do it,” says Prudhomme. “I certainly wouldn’t recommend it if you have a lot of food plots, but if money is tight, that’s a good option.”
Money is certainly tight for just about every deer hunter right now, but that doesn’t mean planting a few food plots won’t work into the annual budget. Spend smart by buying only the bare essentials. The deer won’t know the difference.