When you work hard and see the fruit of your labors, you savor it. That's the way the Weekend Warriors — a group of hunters who work at Game & Fish/Sportsman magazines — felt after our food plots thrived and attracted a doe herd, turkeys and occasional bucks. Sure it took a lot of sweat in the summer heat, but it was worth it to see wildlife foraging on the leaves and grasses right before hunting season.
"When you see the brassicas nibbled down to the stalk and hoof prints all over your plot, it makes you feel like you're already a success," said Ron Sinfelt, the magazines' photo editor and longtime whitetail fanatic. "We put in the sweat to make this happen, and we're seeing the results."
Before Sinfelt and several other hunters from the office broke any ground, the 205-acre lease land on a timber company pine plantation did not look hospitable to tender roots. Pines, hardwoods and understory covered more than 90 percent of the land. Tangles of blackberries dominated clearings wherever there was a break in the tree canopy. The acidic clay ground was dry and rocky. No one had tilled this earth, perhaps ever.
Thankfully, there were several areas cleared by timber crews where they had cut and loaded logs, probably about two years ago. We mowed these over, and removed small trees with chain saws to open up food plots. The network of old logging roads also gave us the option to plant ribbons of food plots all around the property.
There are all sorts of formulas out there to help hunters determine how many acres they should have in food plots. In the end, the Weekend Warriors fell short of our original goal of 5 percent. But we also know that the plots we planted were healthy, and did their job of keeping deer on the property, helping build antlers and healthy herds.
Before you turn any soil, collect soil samples from each area you intend to plant and get a soil analysis. You can get a sample kit at most garden stores or your local county cooperative extension (Heartland Wildlife Institute sells them for $20). If you're like the Weekend Warrior crew, you refer to directions when all else fails. But in this case, read the test instructions thoroughly so you get accurate results. We added lots of lime to our soil. We also laid down a general fertilizer (10-10-10) that we had on hand.
The Weekend Warrior crew, perhaps like you, also prefers to keep things simple. It's often only during weekends when we can make improvements to the land — and our weekend work days are sandwiched between family activities that we make a high priority. We also keep the expenses down whenever possible to demonstrate real-world scenarios in a real-world economy.
We spent about $300 to plant our food plots. We used equipment we had on hand — an Arctic Cat Prowler side-by-side and PlotMaster Hunter 300. We rented an OutBack 24-inch brush cutter for $86, purchased half-dozen bags of pelletized lime, 50-pound bag of seed, hand spreader, $90 water-transfer pump, 55-gallon drum, hose and rake.
First, we hooked up the PlotMaster to the Prowler to disc the areas we planted. We spread lime and fertilizer and disced again. Then we spread Harvest Evolved ProGraze Clover and Brassicas. (Directions call for a 8 pounds per acre, we used more than half of a 50-pound bag.) We pumped water from a nearby creek into a 55-gallon drum with a small pump. We sprayed it on the field to give it its first drink. Luckily the fields and roads got rain soon after.
When you get a few plots in cultivation, you'll find you'll want to get that food-to-cover ratio higher. To add plots without having to take out big trees (which is a problem for many of the timber companies that lease hunting land, as you could imagine), you can always look at creating small backwoods plot.
In its simplest form, find an area where the canopy allows sun to hit the grounds for a few hours a day. Trim out any smaller trees (check with leasor about the size tree you can remove). Rake away leaves. Scarify the dirt with an iron rake to accept the seed. You can use a hand spreader to lay down seed.
We didn't need to water these areas. They were generally moist because they were small drainages and hardwood leaf litter kept in the moisture.
Clover is a great forage here because it thrives with some shade, and trees will protect it from burning out in the summer.
Where it was once slim picking for deer seeking forage, we now had planted a food plot on the loading-dock clearing, road edges, and a half-acre deep in the woods where we could set up a tree stand and intercept a deer on opening day.
On the next weekend visit, we were patting ourselves on the backs. Tender shoots broke ground and started turning into broad serrated brassica leaves and round ladino clover.
Trail cams showed us doe groups visiting regularly, with an occasional young buck plowing his nose thought the verdant field and mowing down the edges of the logging roads.
We savored our initial success. So far, so good.
If you start planning now, you can do the same thing on your hunting property this year and, if necessary, on a surprisingly modest budget.