You need not be a land baron to enjoy the benefits of food plots. Even that 2-acre patch of woods behind your house or the 5 acres owned by Cousin Bart on the other side of the county might qualify as sites for white-tailed deer food plots. The first time I heard the term "food plot" was during a hunt in Alabama more than 25 years ago. The term was then used interchangeably with "green field." Today, green field suggests large, open acreage of anything from soybeans, rye and wheat to smaller plots composed of specialized cultivars to suit the tastes and nutrition needs of deer and other game.
I enjoy deer hunting near food plots. On my visits to Dixie, I'd always spend the final hour or two of a day's hunt inside a shooting house on the edge of a 25- to 50-acre food plot where the chance for spotting a trophy buck grows as the light slips away.
A couple decades back, I lived on a 3-acre Pennsylvania woodlot, one-third of which was lawn and the remainder was deciduous woods of oak, maple, beech and tulip-poplar. Deer were seen regularly as they traipsed through my yard and woods on their way to surrounding corn, oat, wheat and soybean fields.
By the mid-1980s, commercial food plot popularity was just taking root, although not much more than a succulent whitetail clover and other farm crops were available. So I stopped by a farmer-friend's home one April morning and stocked up on a few samples of white clover, rye and oats. With a minimum of soil preparation I scattered the seeds in a sunny spot, and within 2 weeks things were turning green. Deer tracks and droppings were soon found on my narrow 30-yard-long micro plot, which survived only into early summer when the canopy's foliage blocked out the necessary sunlight and drought issued the coup de grace.
So marked the beginning of my love affair with small food plots, free of misconceptions that my meager offerings would yield bucks with bigger antlers or hold deer from neighboring properties on a permanent basis. My sole purpose was to draw deer 12 months a year for viewing, photographing and, eventually, harvesting.
Today, my wife and I tend plots and hunt on the 35 acres surrounding our home that was purchased in 1997. Our hunting success has improved, as have the regular sightings of both whitetails and turkeys on the farm-and-woodlot property.
Recipe For Success
In the past couple years several wildlife seed producing companies have taken notice of an interest in growing these miniature food plots in woodlots where sunlight and proper soil might be minimal. Some of them now market "no plow," "no till," "shade plot," "easy grow" and other cultivars for planting in semi-shaded woodlands or off the beaten path where ATVs or tractors might not be able to find ready access. The same plantings are also recommended for property owners or lessees who need only herbicide, lawn and leaf rakes, pruners and pole trimmers, and perhaps a string trimmer and garden tiller to do the job. In some sites a mere 250 square yards of woodland floor needs to be exposed to sunshine for the necessary 3-4 hours a day.
Creating micro plots is a relatively easy and inexpensive task, provided you take the right steps.
1. Select The Best Site. Step No. 1 in creating micro-plots on your hunting property is finding the right spot for a treestand or ground blind. This, of course, varies dramatically from one woodlot to another depending on the landscape. "My first choice would be a funnel area connecting two woodlots," advises Neil Dougherty of BioLogic's NorthCountry Whitetails research facility in south-central New York. "Second, check out the prevailing winds and place your treestand accordingly."
Another key to choosing a viable site is looking for native grass growth on the woodland floor. If grass can grow, it's a good bet clover, chicory or other deer attractants will also have sufficient sunlight to grow. Forget about bare earth sites that might at first seem appealing—the lack of growth indicates insufficient sunlight.
2. Take A Soil Test. Most soils are pH deficient and chances are you'll have to add lime to each small plot to bring up the pH readings to at least moderate acidity (6 to 6.5). Even though the woodland soil might seem dark, moist and rich, that doesn't necessarily mean it'll support a new type of planting. Soil samples can be sent or taken to most university agricultural extension services, and some seed producers also sell test kits, usually for $10-$12 or less. A soil analysis will reveal the soil's pH and recommend the amount of lime and fertilizer to apply for specific plants. No matter how small the tract, a soil test is mandatory.
3. Prepare The Soil. After one or more potential sites have been chosen and the soil tested, it's time for clearing grasses, weeds, saplings and intruding brush. Begin by raking dead leaves from the plot area, then get rid of the grass and weeds with a herbicide such as Roundup, which does the job in about a week. Using a herbicide is much more effective than cultivating, especially on small plots where ATVs or tractors are ineffective. After the vegetation has turned brown, hand-raking a smooth bed is recommended followed by the addition of lime and fertilizer.
The clearing operation is relatively simple compared to disking and cultivating and planting large tracts of field. It's made even more simple by "walking in" a garden tiller and string trimmer along with leaf and garden rakes, shovels, long-handled and short-handled tree pruners.
In addition, a tree or two with large canopies might need to be trimmed or chain-sawed to allow for the necessary 3-4 hours of daily sunlight. Problem is, spring plantings are often done before the greening up of a woodland and shading increases as foliage grows. From mid- to late summer and into early fall, heavily-shaded areas are obvious and shouldn't be planted.
4. Mow And Reseed. Ironically, thanks to the diminutive sizes of woodland food plots, success in attracting deer might create a problem if overgrazing occurs. "Not only will deer sometimes eat everything there," Dougherty said, "but just their walking across the plot while eating might hinder the plot's ability to survive. This doesn't matter on large plots, but it can seriously affect small plots that have high moisture content. Reseeding might be required in such places."
Dougherty also recommends mowing clovers and other cultivars as they mature, then reseeding and refreshing with more fertilizer. The reseeding should be done at the end of August, and no raking is necessary. A 35-40 percent germination rate can be expected.
5. Plan Your Ambush. Now that your micro plots are in place and growing, it's time to shift your attention to details that will carry your summer project to fruition. Placement or replacement of treestands or ground blinds is your next order of business. In the second year of residence on our 35-acre hunting grounds, my wife and I set both homemade wooden stands and portable commercial stands on our initial four plots. Except for one stand, the others were set within spitting distance of the clearings, which seemed reasonable at the time as the woods were in full foliage. By early November, however, leaves began to fall and it became obvious our setups were too close to the clearings. Deer were quick to detect anyone in a stand. Even though the woods were largely leafless by mid-November, deer could easily be seen using the same approach routes they used during the early ow season. Most deer were shot before they worked their ways into the clearing.
Our final project began the following spring when we took on the task of planting the edges of an ATV trail bordering our holding. A farmer-friend helped us by scraping the grassy and brushy trail sides wherever sunlight had encouraged plant growth. We planted much of the area in clover, which did quite well as it spread onto the trail on its own. No alterations or additional plantings were made in heavily shaded areas. Today, eight micro plots plus the openings exposed in clearing the ATV path total nearly 11/2 acres of clearings in our whitetail woods.
For "dessert" we also place 3 or 4 mineral blocks and granular licks in several easy-to-view sites—one only 50 yards from my office window. The licks serve to lure and briefly hold deer on their passages across my woodlot. In some places, such as my home state of Pennsylvania, the licks must be removed a month prior to the fall bow season opener. Check your state game agency's regulations.
6. Think Small. The bottom line is you don't need vast acreage to establish productive food plots in your woods. As deer became accustomed to traveling between my tasty and nutritious food plots, they lingered longer before moving off to soybean, corn and wheat fields on bordering lands. My land always was a staging area of sorts, but with the addition of scattered food plots, deer now spend more time sampling the "fast food" we offer them. They spend more quality time on our land than ever before.
Each year four to eight deer are taken from the property during the bow and gun seasons, and bucks not meeting our antler restriction limits are left to walk. The satisfaction of making a quick, clean harvest is enhanced by having played a role in the alteration of our deer woods, providing pleasures across the four seasons.
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