By Jason Snavely
Creative food-plot strategies have undoubtedly allowed those of us who bowhunt small properties to attract and hold deer like the big boys.
The commercial food-plotting industry has evolved quite a bit in the last 40-50 years. Following big agriculture, food-plot products are sourced from growers who genetically select for the most “desirable” traits.
As a result, I’ll ask, “Where is this going?” The pressure to grow even the greatest micro plots has forced the average food plotter to rely far too heavily on “premium” seed, genetically modified crops, synthetic fertilizers and herbicides made to match the program. Even with all this technology and research, we never seem satisfied with our results. What gives? It seems we always find ourselves on the defensive when managing our food plots: invasive weeds, low pH, too little fertilizer, too wet or too dry to plant and the list goes on. They tell me, “That’s just farming!” Is it? Does it really have to be this way?
I say, “No, it doesn’t!” I’m here to tell you a little bit of fall planning and planting will allow you to finally get ahead and win the battles associated with weeds, fertility and moisture management, all while attracting and nourishing more whitetails.
Plan for Success
Every year, as winter releases its grip and spring greenup occurs, my phone rings like crazy. It seems blooming dogwoods and gobbling turkeys awakens the green thumb in all us food plotters. Unfortunately, if you’re just beginning to think about your food-plot plan at that time, you’re already behind. You will find yourself reaching for the quick-kill chemicals and expensive fertilizer because your hands are tied by your lack of planning. You don’t have a weed problem; you have a management problem! At this point in the season, the roots of wild plants, aka “weeds,” have been active for months, just waiting to rear their ugly heads above your premium deer clover! However, with a quick mindset shift and a commitment to better planning in the fall, you’re right back in the game.
Far too many food plotters plant fall food plots to merely attract and harvest deer. While I agree this is a major objective, it’s only half the equation. In later summer, the average food plotter is not thinking about the following spring; he’s thinking about killing deer! As a result, you see commercial food-plot blends that are dominant in crops that die once the deep freeze sets in, only to leave your food plot naked and starving. Many of these species, such as turnips and radishes, remain in the ground as an attractant until they are either gone or no longer palatable. The result is a barren field that lacks any root life going into late winter/early spring. This is the biggest mistake I see food plotters make! Change your program to involve fall-planted species such as cereal rye, wheat, hairy vetch, crimson clover and peas, and you enter late winter/early spring with these species instead of unwanted weeds. Strategies such as this have allowed us to slowly wean ourselves off expensive synthetic fertilizer and chemical herbicides.
Since nature dislikes bare ground (think erosion), her first line of defense is to grow aggressive annual weeds to scab over the “wound” known as your food plot. It doesn’t matter what rapidly growing, cool-season annual you throw at it in the spring; you’ll never catch up with and outcompete the weeds without chemical warfare. For far too long, we’ve viewed weeds as a bad thing. The fact is, they are a sign of mismanagement. The roots of these wild plants are highly effective at scavenging deep for nutrients and moisture and, following death, leaving them in the soil where they can be used for future plant growth. In fact, most domestic crops benefit from the deep-diving roots of weeds, and very few domestic crops, regardless of how genetically “improved” they are, can compete with the soil-building characteristics of weeds.
Cover Crops as Smother Crops
I’m often asked how I’ve been able to kick the habit of relying on herbicides to gain control over weeds. A major management strategy behind this is my preference for starting every planting year in the fall. For my Pennsylvania farm, that’s August through November! As I developed a custom seed blend called Fall Reload, I placed as much importance on biennial plant species that will offer late winter/early spring growth as I did on the cool-season species used to attract deer during the fall hunting season. These biennials establish root systems when I plant them in the fall, and that allows them to get an early jump on the weeds when spring rolls around.
While it’s true deer relish brassicas such as radishes, turnips and collards, these species do not promote soil health and fertility. In fact, they’re very demanding on the soil, resulting in a poor start to spring. While I still ensure my fall plots include the brassicas, I’m not planting brassica-dominant plots. Including the right biennial plant species will allow you to get ahead of the spring weeds and smother weed seeds. Most annual weeds have small seeds, so building residue from plants you desire will act as a smother crop moving forward. You don’t need to “get rid of” weeds. Instead, simply eliminate the resource they need to grow and thrive: sunlight!
Sound familiar? Aren’t we really just beating them at their own game by flipping the script? After all, think about how many times have you heard a food plotter grumble, “This grass is smothering my food plot!”
Fertility & Soil Structure
Maintaining year-round growing roots and plants in your soil (yes, even during the cold winter months) is key to developing in-field nutrients that will benefit your future plantings. Fall food plots that naturally regenerate in the spring can be supplemented late spring with diverse, warm-season seed blends to keep the plants and soil biology actively working for you all summer long. Coming back in with your next fall food-plot blend will complete that cycle and launch you into yet another spring growing season. Continual plant and root growth improves soil structure, allowing you to capture and store more of the rainfall you get so your soils experience less severe fluctuations from soggy to dry.
Let’s face it: A fall food plot that only seeks to restore soil health would never sell. This fact is exactly what has led us to find that delicate balance between having the right proportion of heavily attractive species and those that are there to feed the soil and keep your weeds at bay after hunting season is long gone. The third aspect to the equation is including the species that complement one another for in-field nutrient cycling, a situation that allows us to become less dependent on expensive, added fertilizers.
Many bowhunters only think about hunting during September, October and November. So, they don’t want to be planting and disturbing the deer. But tractors don’t bother deer; I’ve actually found the opposite to be true! We can combine our fall-planted plots with blends of cover crops and biological primers to ensure we have successful hunts while at the same time actively growing plants and roots to set the stage for the following growing season.
Failing to plan is planning to fail. Don’t find yourself behind the 8-ball yet again by allowing weeds to reveal your flawed food-plot management practices.