You spent countless hours on your tractor. You sprayed off the existing plant growth, disked the soil into a nice, loose, fluffy texture and spread and buried your seeds. By the time you added all of the expenses together, you figured you had nearly a thousand dollars in your food plots.
Now look at them. What started out as blankets of lush, green clover, beans and other plot plants are now little more than weed-choked fields. Everything from annual and perennial grasses like fescue and Bermuda grass to a variety of broadleaf weeds are swallowing all that money and effort. Those weeds aren’t just taking up valuable space, they are robbing your plot plants of moisture, nutrients and sunlight.
Don’t fret. There is hope even for the most weed-ridden food plots.
Get a Jump on Weeds
You can have more success controlling unwanted plants if you take a few thoughtful steps before you plant the first seed. Proper site preparation is one of the most important steps in controlling future weeds, says Whitetail Institute Vice-President Steve Scott.
“Spray the area with a non-selective herbicide like Roundup at least two weeks before you plant,” he says. “If you can, start well before that and undergo a spray, disk, spray, disk routine to kill any new weeds that sprout after you’ve disked. The more you prepare in advance, the more weeds you can kill before you plant your food plot seeds.”
Starting a new plot well in advance also gives the roots of dead weeds time to loosen. That makes disking easier and produces a nicer seed bed. More importantly, multiple disking and spraying cycles will knock back a huge amount of weed growth before you plant by killing each new round of growth. Spray the area, let it die and then disk it. Wait until a rain or two generates new weeds and then spray them. Disk again, wait a few weeks and spray the next round of weeds. After a couple of cycles, you will have eliminated a large portion of the existing weed seeds.
Before you start preparing a plot site you should have given careful consideration to the site itself. Is it suitable for the seeds you want to plant? Some plants — clover, for instance — don’t do very well in soil that doesn’t hold moisture.
“If you use the wrong plant in the wrong location, you automatically give the weeds a head start,” Scott says. “They are opportunistic and will grow when other plants won’t. For that same reason, it’s also a great idea to conduct a soil test and properly amend the ground with the right pH and nutrient levels. Again, weeds will take over if the plot plants are struggling.”
Better Plots Through Chemicals
Weeds are inevitable, no matter how far in advance you prep the plot site. Some weed seeds can lay dormant in the soil for decades, sprouting only when they are subject to the ideal soil temperature and moisture level. Disking can bring those seeds up to the surface.
Even if you don’t disk, there will always be at least some weed seeds in your plots waiting to pounce. They can arrive on the wisp of a breeze, birds can carry them in or they might hitch a ride on your tractor or equipment. That’s why you’ll need to be prepared to jump on the weeds before they swallow your plots. Herbicides are a critical tool in the weed war. It’s virtually impossible to win without them.
Weed seeds will sprout about the same time your plot seeds sprout. Don’t worry — at least not yet. Although they will compete for nutrients and moisture, young weeds are not a major threat.
“You want to avoid spraying when plants are real young,” Scott says. “The chemicals could hurt the good plants.”
However, once your plot plants grow to about 3 or 4 inches, it’s time to treat them with a herbicide. Before you mix the first tank, make certain you read the label. It will not only tell you how much to use for specific plant varieties and plant ages, but it will also offer guidance on safe handling procedures and other precautionary items. Scott insists that whatever you do, don’t use the “glug” method.
“Two glugs per 50 gallons, that sort of thing,” he says. “It’s extremely important to use the proper amount. Too much and you could harm your plants. Too little and you won’t get the desired result. Using the right amount will also save you money. Herbicides aren’t cheap, so the less you waste, the better off you’ll be.”
Know thy Enemy
Enemies can be effective, though, as long as you use the right ones. Some herbicides are non-selective; they kill every plant they come in contact with. Others are selective and kill specific plants or plant families. Spraying random herbicides on your plots might actually cause more harm than good.
That’s why you have to know the enemy and the best methods for controlling them. For instance, do you know the difference between fall panic grass and nutsedge? Which herbicides kill one but not the other?
Equally important, do you know which plants in your plots are members of the grass family? Spray a grass-specific herbicide like Whitetail Institute’s Arrest Max on your wheat, corn or sorghum and you just killed it. All those are members of the grass family. So are rye and oats.
Some herbicides are designed to kill broadleafs, but a few kill only certain types of broadleafs. Ammonium salt of imazethapyr, the active ingredient in Pursuit herbicide, kills broadleafs but it is safe to use in clover and alfalfa. Other broadleaf killers are fatal to all types of broadleaf plants, but are safe to use on grasses.
“Read the label,” Scott says. “Always read the label before you mix and before you spray. It will tell you which plants it can kill and how much to use to control a variety of weed species.”
Herbicides certainly do the job asked of them if they are used properly, but not all weeds need a shot of chemicals. Some can be controlled with your rotary mower. That’s a good thing. Gas for your tractor is a lot cheaper than herbicides for your sprayer. Mechanical weed control only works in perennial plots, though. Annuals that are mowed are, for all practical purposes, killed. Additionally, there’s little point in controlling weeds in fall-planted annuals like brassicas and turnips. Most weeds go dormant that time of year, so they won’t have much of an impact on your plot plants.
“Mowing annual weeds that grow above your perennial food plot plants will prevent them from producing a seed head and giving you more trouble in future growing seasons,” Scott says. “Just make sure you mow before they flower and produce a seed. It won’t control all the weeds, but it will reduce competition from annual weeds that grow above your plot plants.”
Set your mower height to where it cuts the very top of your plot plants. That not only controls the taller weeds, but it also stimulates plants like clover and alfalfa to grow new leaves, which is exactly what the deer prefer.
Mowing, however, won’t control shorter weeds and it has virtually no effect on perennial weeds like fescue and Bermuda grass. In fact, it might actually stimulate them to grow even more aggressively. That’s where herbicides come into the picture.
Sometimes, even mowing and chemicals can’t beat the weeds. It’s a battle that can’t always be won. In the most extreme cases, it’s simply better to torch the entire plot and start from scratch.
“I know some people that want to kill everything and start over when five percent of the plot has weeds in it,” says Scott. “Other people don’t worry about how many weeds there are. They just want to know if the deer are still using it.”
No matter what your attitude is about weed growth, remember that all food plots, even perennials, are temporary. Killing everything and starting over is as simple as spraying the field, disking it and throwing down some new seed. Just don’t forget to stay on top of the weeds as soon as they show up. If you wait too long, you will have a hard time beating the weeds.