If you believe the news, the American economy is in recovery mode. Unemployment is down, housing starts are up and the stock market is booming. Don’t tell that to middle America, though. Many blue-collar workers are still struggling to make ends meet. Plenty more are getting by, but money for non-essential and luxury items like food plots and other deer management efforts just isn’t there.

That doesn’t mean you have to choose between doing something for your deer and doing nothing. There’s a difference between cutting corners and cutting costs. It is possible to plant food plots and create better habitat without going broke. Here’s how.

Get A Soil Test

One of the most budget-conscious things any deer manager can do involves a simple step. A $12 soil test can save you hundreds of dollars, says Whitetail Institute of North America vice-president Steve Scott.

“Instead of guessing and throwing down 500 pounds of 13-13-13, a soil test might show that you need half that amount, or no nitrogen, or something similar,” says Scott. “It will also help you determine how much lime you’ll need.”

You can buy home test kits, but they are terribly inaccurate and they don’t provide a detailed description of your soil and the nutrient requirements for specific plant species. Instead, get one from Whitetail Institute or your local Farm Services Administration or Natural Resources Conservation Service office. They sell soil test kits that are sent to a laboratory, which, in turn, mails you specific recommendations for each type of nutrient you need. It also includes a lime application rate.

If You Must Cut, Cut Fertilizer

Have you priced fertilizer lately? Like everything else, it’s more expensive than it was a year or two ago. So is lime. But a ton of lime is exponentially less expensive than an equal amount of fertilizer, and it is an essential ingredient to food plots in most regions.

Lime neutralizes soil acidity, which is a direct factor in plant growth. In short, acidic soil makes it more difficult for plants to absorb nutrients. That means without proper pH, your food plot plants won’t get the full benefit from the fertilizer you put down or from the nutrients already in the soil.

Even better, the effect of lime on soil lasts longer than fertilizer, which either gets absorbed by the plants or dissipates on its own. A plot can stay viable longer with a lime treatment than it can with a dose of 10-10-10. That’s not to say you should cut out fertilizer completely. Some soils are so poor they must be amended to grow high-quality food plots.

Scale Down

If you can’t afford to put down the right amount of fertilizer or lime, consider decreasing the size of your food plots. Scott says deer will avoid plots that don’t have healthy plants in them, so instead of making a large plot deer won’t use, why not cut it in half?

How small you can go depends on a number of factors. Some plants produce more forage and can support more deer for a longer time. Others can be gobbled up in a matter of a few weeks, especially if you have lots of deer.

An easy solution is to shoot more deer. Fewer deer means your plots will last longer. It also means there’s more natural food to go around. That will lead to bigger, healthier deer overall. 

Annuals Or Perennials?

There’s a running debate in the food plot world about the long-term costs of different types of seed. Perennials such as Whitetail Institute’s Imperial Whitetail clover and Alfa Rack Plus only have to be planted once every couple of years, but they generally require more maintenance than annuals such as soybeans, brassicas or oats. In some cases, annuals, particularly widely available annuals like wheat and oats, tend to be much less expensive than perennial seed like clover and chicory. And they require almost no post-planting maintenance.

So which one is better? Scott opts for perennial seeds, mostly because they provide more food over a longer period. Annuals like brassicas don’t regenerate after they’ve been browsed. Clover, alfalfa and chicory actually thrive with browsing pressure. 

“Annual seed isn’t necessarily cheaper, unless you are talking about something like wheat or oats. Acre for acre, though, clover that lasts three to five years is going to be less expensive than most food plot annuals, even if the clover costs more up front,” he says.

Hire A Logger

Thinning mature trees is beneficial to your deer herd, but it could be beneficial to your bank account as well. Trees are a valuable commodity and plenty of people are willing to pay good money for them. Of course, the tree species you have will depend on how much money you can expect. Mature oaks, for example, are more valuable than such trees as sweet gums, sycamores and maples. However, those oaks produce acorns. The more acorns you have, the more deer you can feed.  

Before you turn your property over to a timber company, first hire a consulting forester, preferably one who specializes in wildlife. They’ll provide advice on which trees to cut, and in some cases, they’ll oversee the logging operation from start to finish. You’ll have to pay for their services, but you’ll make that up in the timber value. Your deer herd will also benefit. Thinning a mature forest creates more browse at ground level, and it also increases available bedding cover.  

Go Generic

Herbicides are one of the most important tools in food plotting and wildlife management, but they are also one of the most expensive. A 2 ½-gallon jug of RoundUp concentrate, for example, can set you back as much as $150. The same amount of a generic non-selective herbicide can sell for less than half. Generic products are just as good but cost far less than brand-name products. Just make sure you are buying the same chemical and the same concentrate percentage. The active ingredient in RoundUp is glyphosate. It’s also the active ingredient in a number of less expensive generic brands.

Buy Bulk

The more herbicide you buy, the less expensive it will be. A big jug of glyphosate will cost more up front, but it’s considerably cheaper than buying a quart at a time. Just make sure you store it somewhere it is not subject to freezing. “That can ruin many herbicides,” says Scott.

Bulk fertilizer is considerably less expensive than bagged, too. Bulk fertilizer from your local farmer’s cooperative can also be mixed to the exact ratio you need. Instead of buying 10-10-10, you can custom-blend nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to suit your soil’s needs. Depending on the amount required, you can either rent a spreader cart from the farm store and tow it behind your own truck or tractor, or you can have the fertilizer dumped into the bed of your truck. Either way, it’s considerably less than bagged. Also, custom-blended fertilizer purchased in bulk actually weighs less than bagged fertilizer. That’s because it’s pure fertilizer. Bagged products contain unnecessary filler that adds to the cost.

Follow Directions

Herbicide is expensive. Food plot-specific seed can be just as costly. Thankfully, both come with detailed instructions on seeding or application rates, but many hunters don’t bother to follow those directions. Instead, they pour a random amount of herbicide into their sprayer under the assumption that more is better than less. More herbicide might kill your unwanted plants more quickly, but it’s a waste of money. So is seeding above the recommended rates.

“Over-crowded food plots tend to result in lower production because there is only so much moisture to go around. If the plants are competing for a limited resource, they will all suffer,” says Scott.

One of the most common mistakes is not calibrating your seed spreader. Most bags are marked with the amount of coverage, but it’s not uncommon to run out of seed before you’ve covered that recommended area.  

“It’s certainly better to go too light at first. You can always make a second pass, but you’ll have to buy more seed if you run out before you’ve covered the plot,” adds Scott.

Save Gas

Gas prices might bounce up and down, but don’t expect them to drop below $3 a gallon any time soon. Fuel will likely remain one of the largest expenses in food plotting. There’s not much you can do to reduce your gas bill, but every little bit helps. Consider making one less pass with your disk. As long as your seed is laying on soil instead of dead plant matter, it will germinate and grow just fine.

Adding a fuel stabilizer to your gas tank can also save you money. Ethanol-blend fuel will deteriorate over time and will devour plastic and rubber — and it can ultimately ruin your engine if it sits in the system too long. A fuel stabilizer can prevent that breakdown and will keep the fuel fresh for the next time you fire up your equipment.

Tune Your Tractor Or ATV

A tuned tractor is a happy one. Fresh oil, new plugs and a full radiator will keep your tractor running longer and smoother, and that will save you money in the long run. The same is true with your ATV. Preventative maintenance might cost you up front, but it’s certainly less expensive than a major repair due to neglect.

Check the air filter frequently and change as needed. Tighten bolts, check tire pressure, and oil and grease moving parts as recommended by the manufacturer. If you aren’t comfortable doing a complete checkup yourself, pay a professional. It will be worth it in the end.

Do Nothing

There’s something about a large overgrown field that compels some landowners to hop on their tractor and mow the field golf course-short. It might look better, but a close-cropped field of grass is essentially useless to your local deer herd. Mowing also eats up lots of gas. Sure, there might be some forage in a mowed field, but there will be more if it’s left alone. Allowing a field to grow will create more food, and the tall grass and the volunteer shrubs that likely spring up will provide additional bedding cover for whitetails. You’d be surprised at how many deer can hide in a field of tall grass and shrubs.

A second option is to spray a grass-specific herbicide. Killing the grass has several benefits. Bermuda grass and fescue offer nothing for deer and other wildlife. Removing the grass allows other plants that are beneficial to grow. Plants like pokeweed, blackberry and beggarweed offer food, cover or both for a variety of wildlife.

It might take two doses of grass-specific herbicide, but once you kill the grass, there’s little else you have to do except hunt the deer that will start using the field more frequently.

Alone, those steps might not save you a sizable amount of money, but by following three or four or more, you’ll see a significant increase in savings to your management budget. You might even save enough for that new rifle you’ve got your eye on.