Believe it or not, you don’t need a food plot to kill whitetails. Hunters have been tagging deer for as long as the two have been sharing the landscape. However, successful hunters, including those who relied on weapons made from sticks and stones, know that nothing concentrates deer in a small area like a high-quality food source.
That’s why you need to build a food plot or two. They draw whitetails to a specific location and provide them with food when other high-quality forage might not be readily available. They keep deer close by, and food plots provide forage that can be higher in protein and carbohydrates than native food sources. They also give you the opportunity to see more deer, and they allow you to study individual animals before pulling the trigger.
Anyone with a tract of land and a few pieces of equipment can carve out a deer magnet. Building a food plot from scratch isn’t easy, but the time, effort and expense can pay dividends.
The first step, says wildlife and habitat management consultant Kent Kammermeyer, is to test the soil. It’s not out of the question to grow a decent enough food plot just about anywhere, but choosing the best site gives you a good foundation that will produce healthy plots for years.
“Putting a food plot in the right spot can also save you thousands of dollars over the course of a decade or so,” says Kammermeyer, who served as a Georgia Department of Natural Resource deer biologist for 29 years. “You won’t need nearly as much lime or fertilizer because the soil is so rich in nutrients. I always test a bunch of possible sites before I start building a food plot.”
In many cases, the best spots tend to be in low-lying areas that not only hold moisture in the soil, but are prone to periodic flooding, even if those floods only occur every hundred years. Each flood washes in a new layer of nutrient-rich soil and organic matter that helps build a healthy base for plant production.
That’s not always an option, of course, but Kammermeyer recommends finding the spot or spots on your land that contain the most fertile soil. A good rule of thumb before taking samples and sending them off to the lab is to examine the existing plant growth. A healthy stand of native vegetation is a good indication of adequate moisture and nutrients. Oaks and other hardwoods also tend to grow best in quality soil, while pines are usually found in poorer soils.
The location of a plot can dictate (and limit) your plant choices. Some, like alfalfa, turnips and other deep-rooted plants, can withstand dry, sandy soils and well-drained spots like hilltops and slopes, which don’t hold moisture well. Clover, on the other hand, tends to struggle in dry soils or where moisture runs off quickly.
“You don’t want to plant in areas that stay wet for a prolonged period, either. That will kill your plot plants,” adds Kammermeyer.
You’ll probably have to take out a bunch of trees if the best site (or your only option) is in a forest. Although smaller plots, a quarter-acre or so, can draw and hold deer, they might not last long in areas with high deer densities. Kammermeyer says the minimum size he recommends is an acre, although a plot of at least three acres is better in regions with lots of whitetails.
“The larger the plot, the longer it will last through the season,” he says. “You can get by with a smaller plot if you don’t have a lot of deer, but it will limit your options and it might not serve your intended goals.”
If you don’t have the option of a single large clover or turnip field, consider at least two or three smaller ones of at least a half-acre. That allows you to plant several types of plants, giving deer a variety of foods for the different seasons.
The Shade Factor
No matter the size or number, all food plots need at least four hours of direct sunlight. Carving one out deep in the woods means you’ll have to account for the shade from the trees surrounding your new opening. Although a few plants, white clover in particular, can tolerate a bit more shade, it’s critical to provide as much direct sunlight as possible. That means you’ll have to clear more trees than you need for the plot itself. A good rule of thumb, agrees Kammermeyer, is that you will lose one third of the height of the surrounding trees along the edge of your plot. In other words, if the trees are 60 feet tall, you’ll have a hard time growing anything within 20 feet of the base of those trees thanks to the shade they throw.
“Hardwoods cast a much deeper shade than pines, so that rule isn’t necessarily set in stone, but you do need to factor in the sun and its position as it travels across the sky in relation to the surrounding trees,” adds Kammermeyer.
Some sites don’t allow you the freedom to build a plot to suit your exact needs. Trees, topography or property boundaries can limit your choices. However, when you do have the option, consider some sort of shape that narrows down to a pinch-point. Kidney-shaped plots are ideal for bowhunters. As deer feed, they’ll invariably pass through the narrow section. Just make sure the distance from your stand to the opposite side of the narrow section falls within your shooting abilities.
“U-shaped or V-shaped plots achieve the same purpose,” notes Kammermeyer. “Locate your stand at the bottom or narrow end of the plot. There’s certainly no guarantee deer will walk where you want them to walk, but using some sort of pinch-point will increase the odds.”
Another popular shape, particularly for rifle hunting, is called the hub-and-spoke, which utilizes a larger central plot and several linear plots, or spokes, running out from the hub. It’s an ideal situation if the surrounding habitat consists of bedding cover. Most hunters place a tower or box blind in the hub, which allows shots down each spoke.
Don’t assume you have to map out a specific shape. There’s certainly nothing wrong with square, rectangular or oval plots, especially if your primary method of hunting is with a rifle.
Clear The Ground
No matter what shape you choose, you’ll need to clear the existing vegetation. Knocking over trees can be a monumental undertaking, but in many cases, those trees can be sold to a timber company. Of course, small plots might not be worth the effort for a logger, but the type of tree, the size of the plot and the current timber market can dictate the value. The money you make from the timber can be used to pay for an excavator to push the stumps and remaining branches to the side.
“You can actually use the leftover debris to create funnels in and out of the plot. Just be careful not to build walls all the way around the plot. You want deer to feel comfortable,” warns Kammermeyer. “Also, make sure the excavator doesn’t scrape all the topsoil away. That’s important.”
Fields are considerably easier to convert to food plots, but they still require careful planning and preparation. Although any area of a field can serve as a suitable location, Kammermeyer suggests avoiding areas with fescue or Bermuda grass. Both types of grasses are prolific and persistent. They’ll continue to grow from seed or rhizomes even after you spray off the existing grass with herbicide.
“You’ll be fighting them for years. There is usually such a large seed bank in the soil, it will just keep sprouting and growing. If it isn’t knocked back with a selective herbicide after the plots are established, it can produce even more seeds,” he says. “Other weed seeds that remain in the soil will sprout, too, but they usually aren’t as difficult to control as cool-season grasses.”
It depends on what’s currently growing and how tall it is, but a good first step is to treat the area with a nonselective herbicide like glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round-Up. It will kill all the plants. Spray the site, wait at least two weeks and then chop it up with a rotary mower as close to the ground as possible.
Taller plants and thick grass should be mowed before that first herbicide application, but wait a few weeks for new growth to push up through the thatch left behind from your mower before you hit it with herbicide. If you don’t wait, you’ll only kill what’s exposed.
Once the existing plants are dead, make a few passes over the plot with a disk. That will expose the soil and it will help incorporate the dead plant matter back into the soil. Disking will also help new weed seeds germinate. That’s actually a good thing, says Kammermeyer.
“The more weed seeds that sprout before you plant your food plot, the better. That allows you to kill them off now instead of dealing with them after your plot plants are growing,” he says. “There will always be weed seeds in your soil. Some seeds can stay in the soil for decades until they get the right combination of moisture, temperature and other ingredients to grow. However, if you can reduce the overall amount of weeds, your plots will do better.”
Once a new crop of weeds sprout, spray the plot with another dose of herbicide, wait a week or so and then disk it again. A second disking will also chop up and bury the dead plant matter even more and will help create a consistent and smooth surface. The goal is to create a loose, weed-free seed bed. If time allows, repeat the spray-disk routine at least one more time.
A properly prepared bed can take months, which is exactly why you need to start working on food plots now, even if you don’t plan to plant anything until the fall. The more work you do now, the less you’ll have to do after you put your seeds in the ground.