Every spring I spend a solid week preparing and planting five very different food plots on my Indiana farm.
Some are experimental and complete failures, but others are blooming successes, offering distinct oases of green in the middle of the woods.
Though I am not a farmer (by a long shot), I have learned a lot through trial and error about when, where and how to maximize food plots.
I also have learned to cut through the hype disseminated by seed and food plot product companies.
A food plot done correctly can really increase the odds of seeing both game and non-game species throughout the year. But they rarely are the big-buck, boss-gobbler magnets most magazines would have hunters believe.
Last year was a good example. 2005 was perhaps the best year in a decade for mast crop across the Midwestern United States. As a result, anywhere there was a mature hardwood forest, the earth was covered with oak, hickory, chestnut and beechnuts.
And a hardwood nut always trumps a food plot.
Despite lush, green patches of blended clover, brassicas, chickory and annual rye grasses, the wild animals on my farm consistently chose the food provided by Mother Nature.
After begrudgingly moving my stand midseason from a food plot to overlook a white oak tree in the middle of the woods, I finally started seeing deer again.
That pattern continued all year, and as of March, my food plots were rotted into the ground, almost untouched by the woodland residents. The acorn crop, however, is just now starting to dry up.
So why bother planting a food plot?
Because not every year will be a bumper year for mast crops, and food plots still provide some diversity in habitat and wild animals' diets.
The plot thickens
Create food plots next to cover, preferable in an area where there are few other planted options for the wildlife. Don't place them near a cornfield, because despite the claims of some seed companies, the corn will always win.
Make them long and narrow versus round, and don't make them too big. Only one of my plots is a full acre. All of the others are approximately 30 yards wide and 70 yards long. The ability to quickly slip in and out of the plot at any point is critical for mature bucks.
If a plot is in or near the woods, assume the soil is too acidic. Centuries of decaying leaves are to blame, and lime is necessary to bring the ground back to neutral.
For small plots, purchase pulverized lime in 50-pound bags at a garden store, and apply by hand after raking existing leaves from the surface.
To be accurate, the soil pH should be tested, but plan on applying at least 200 hundred pounds of lime for every 30-by-70-yard plot. Apply the lime with a hand spreader before rototilling the soil.
Unless the plot is a half-acre or bigger, a simple rototiller is a better option than any of the all-in-one disc, harrow, culti-packer and seeder contraptions available today.
I have found them to be too heavy to drag through the woods, and too time consuming to repair in the field. They also do not leave a smooth, planting surface like a rototiller. Five-horsepower garden rototillers work in small areas, while wider, pull-behind rototillers are better for larger plots.
Once the soil is prepared, a bag-type hand seeder is the best choice to distribute seed. Even on my 1-acre plot, a hand seeder is enough to seed the entire area in less than 15 minutes, and it is far more accurate than drag-behind seeders.
There is a lot less waste with hand seeders, an important consideration since most food plot seeds are outrageously expensive.
Consider planting clover versus all of the other specialized seed options. Clover doesn't need to be replanted for about five years, and is just as attractive to wildlife as anything else.
After bringing the pH as close to neutral as possible with lime, plant clover along with a 0-20-20 fertilizer. Apply fertilizer at about 400 pounds per acre, and don't forget to mow the clover once or twice throughout the growing season to stimulate growth.
For low cost seed and fertilizer, buy clover, lime and fertilizer in bulk from a county farm co-op. Though they are hard to find in major metropolitan areas, co-ops still exist in practically every rural county in the Midwest.
Though successful food plots aren't always big-buck and boss-gobbler magnets, they still represent money and time well spent. They never guarantee game but always provide a real sense of accomplishment and a little extra hope.