Before You Spread a Seed, There Is Much You Can Do to Enhance the Productivity and Effectiveness of Your Food Plots.
Testing, One, Two, Three…
This first action should go without saying, but it doesn’t. You need to 1) take a soil sample, 2) send it in for testing, describing your plots history the previous 2 years and your intended crop and 3) follow the recommendations for applying lime and other minerals. The first two steps should take less than an hour and cost under $20. But they could save you dozens of hours and potentially hundreds of dollars. Follow the recommendations and your crops will thrive. Don’t, and you take your chances.
It’s also fairly important that you have some idea what you intend to plant, as that will influence specific recommendations. Will you be planting an annual or perennial? Do you want a specialized blend designed for birds and deer like Heartland Wildlife Institute’s Annual Wildlife Mix, or a “can’t fail” late season hunting attractant like Rack Maker Extreme? Product packaging lists specific plant species. Include these on the form in your soil test kit so the analyst can fine tune recommendations to whatever mix you select.
The next step is to decide whether you want, or need to apply herbicide. How “clean” do you want to make your plot? Heartland Wildlife recommends a Till-Kill-Till solution for a “cleaner” plot. After your first tillage you will notice a “green up” of weeds and grasses. You will see weeds and grasses you’ve never seen before. Annual weed seeds can lay dormant in your soil for many years and are “jarred” to life when you till or disturb the soil. Foxtail is a common culprit.
Wait about two weeks after first tillage or until the re-growth is about 6-8 inches tall. At this point you can till a second time, or you can spray the “green up” using a glyphosate (like Round Up or other green vegetation killer). If you have a serious crop of perennial weeds, this is your solution. If you’re not as concerned about weeds and grasses, till once more and apply seed. The purposes of tilling / spraying, is to eliminate anything growing in your plot that is not palatable to deer, turkeys or other game, and to expose soil for better seed – soil contact which produces better germination for your food plot seed. Plus, weeds and grasses compete with preferred plant species for valuable soil nutrients and water.
Fertilizer also costs money and unless you eliminate undesirable plants, you’re paying to feed them, and short-changing your food crop. The use of chemicals is an option used to eliminate “tillage”. And you will retain a lot more soil moisture for your seed bed. Be sure to check the planting instructions of your blend or mix. Heartland puts this information on the back of their bags. Check the company web site for additional information.
Several things will influence what physical site preparation is required, including intended use and existing conditions. Unless you’re planning on a simple throw-and-grow plot, which we’ll cover in a future installment, you want to begin with bare soil. That requires some type of discing or tilling or other type of equipment. If carving a new plot out of the “jungle”, using a bulldozer or skid steer to push brush and stumps out of the way, be careful not to push the topsoil away with the stumps. If tilling or discing in an existing opening, cut deep enough to turn over the top layer of soil, but not too deep, particularly in areas with shallow topsoil. Because topsoil has more organics or “humus” in it, it will have a deeper, darker color than the subsoil. If you are using a plow, or a tiller, set the depth no deeper than the thickness of your topsoil. Do not set your equipment too deep so you are mixing topsoil with subsoil. You want to “turn over” or till up your topsoil. No more!
How deep you till may also depend on what you’re planting. You want seed to drop in to cracks and crevices in the soil. As a general rule, the larger the seed, the deeper you want it planted, and vice versa. A good rule of thumb is, “the seed diameter times three”, gives you your planting depth. If you are planting a ¼ inch thick pea or bean seed, it needs to get about an inch into the ground. Tiny seeds like clovers are designed to lay on or near the surface.
If the area was densely vegetated, had thick roots or a heavy seed bed – like an old pasture – you may want to wait a week or two, then re-treat with herbicide. Wait another two weeks, apply your fertilizer according to the recommendations in Step 1, then sow your seed.
Good seed-to-soil contact will promote better germination. That’s why it’s a good idea to treat the site with a cultipacker when done. Then you simply pray for rain and let nature take its course.