Well-established food plots are utterly essential for quality wildlife management. Food plots provide a centralized source of proteins, minerals, and other nutrients for all types of wildlife. In many cases these plots can be formulated for deer, turkey, and many other game species. With a focus on deer, bucks need protein, protein, and more protein. Proteins are essential to build up worn down bodies after a harsh rut and winter. Bucks also need protein to initiate antler growth; hardened antlers are 40 to 50% protein. Initially, antler growth utilizes stores from the skeletal system, but these stores must be replenished. Therefore, a diet high in protein, phosphorus, and calcium is necessary for maximum antler growth. Button Bucks are especially impacted by nutrition. In order to grow large pedicels, superior nutrition is necessary. More often than not there is a direct correlation between pedicel size and future antler size of a buck. Thus it is beneficial to give button bucks all the nutrition they can get, benefiting your future deer herd. Does also require a protein rich diet; a fawn’s future potential is directly affected by the health of the doe while the fawn is still in the womb. With this being said, it is absolutely crucial to have sufficient food for your herd.
Now that we have established how important food resources are for the whitetail deer as well as other game animals, I would like to introduce one fundamental concept that I feel is overlooked. When planning a food plot, I cannot stress the importance of soil quality in the food plot equation. Soil is the foundation that supports the growth and development process in plants, and consequently in animals. Therefore, one must find a plant species that copes well with the site soil, or use methods to alter the soils composition.
The soil’s pH level is crucial when installing a food plot of any sort. Potential Hydrogen (pH) is essentially a logarithmic scale of the soils acidity or alkalinity, ranging respectfully from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Soil carries nutrients divided into three categories: primary, secondary and micronutrients. Nutrients such as Potassium, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen are primary nutrients that plants need in precise amounts to thrive. These nutrients can be altered compositionally if the soil is acidic or basic, which can alter their effects on plants. For example, in an acidic soil around 5.5, nitrogen is available to plants in the form of nitrate. If the acidity is between 6.0 and 7.0, Phosphorus is available. The pH scale is therefore important because it indicates the quality of the soil; in an extremely acidic soil the plants are more likely to absorb toxins such as aluminum and manganese instead of nutrients, with the end result of toxicity fatality.
Generally in whitetail inhabited areas, soils are acidic and require lime and other fertilizers to raise the pH and soil quality to a desirable level. In order to do this, one needs to obtain a material that contains calcium carbonate, such as ground agricultural limestone. There are four main types: pulverized, granular, pelletized and hydrated lime. Finer ground limestone, such as a pulverized sample will change the pH value faster. However, soil characteristics also play a role in the speed of pH alteration. Soils that are heavily clay based will take much longer to change than will fluffy loess soils. A soil test is necessary in planning. A soil test will tell you how much lime to add, and preferably the sooner lime is added the better. If lime is added approximately two months prior to planting, that is sufficient time for it to neutralize the soils acidity. How exactly does lime work? When the surface of lime comes into contact with moist acidic soil particles, a chemical reaction takes place that in essence consumes the acid, thus the acidity is lowered and the pH is raised, a transition from acidic to more basic. Lime is Calcium carbonate (CaCO3); it is a base so it neutralizes acid through a process introducing protons thus neutralizing hydroxyl ions, which acidic soils are high in. Overall if you add basic compounds, you make the soil less acidic, which is desirable. In the case that soil is basic, or higher than 7.0 in the alkaline range, the pH should be lowered for food plot success. In order to do this, aluminum sulfate or sulfur can be used, once again with a soil test and interpretation to provide a suggestive amount for application. The main point I want to stress is the overall importance of soil. It is relatively inexpensive to test your soil before planting, and the investment will be well worth your time.
Now that you have your soil conditions figured out, you should apply them when you are shopping around for seed. Since preferable seed will vary from state to state and soil type to soil type. It is in the consumer’s best interest to find a seed best matched for their location and soil type, most seed companies are more than willing to help you find the best seed for your project, all you have to do is some research and calling around. While in the planning phase, consider things such as sunlight, slope, water runoff, growing season, soil type, available equipment, and budget. One plant species that is very adaptable by nature and is highly sought after in food plots is red clover. Red clover is a legume and it grows well at a pH of 5.0 to 6.0. However, I feel that a pH closer to 6.0 or even higher is needed for maximum growth. Red clover is highly sensitive to Manganese and this becomes an issue when the pH level is below or around 5.5, being generous. Another popular food plot additive is a form of brassica. Brassica species generally enjoy a pH level between 6.0 and 7.0. Therefore if a person is to use a combination of clover and brassicas in their food plot, a pH desirable for both should be sought after. Personally, I lean towards satisfying the brassicas more than the clover, this being because clover can still grow at a higher pH successfully. In my opinion, Brassicas become more important in the food plot equation because they last longer in the season, therefore providing a food source later in the year than would clover. Clover is great for early spring forage while brassicas steal the spotlight later in the year. In the end it all comes down to your personal needs and goals, which is why I urge you to research the topic thoroughly before taking action.
The biggest mistake that I see people making when it comes to food plots is not being thorough enough. Advertisement can lead the consumer to focus more on lab test results and the big racks they will acquire out of the product, leading to quick buys. While most seeds on the market are very reliable, it is only with proper care and preparation that the project will be successful. I suggest that you establish food plots for your management practices, but be sure to focus on the foundation of the project, the soil and of course planning. It is relatively inexpensive to test your soil before planting, and I guarantee the investment will be better than an unsuccessful food plot. In the end food plots are a science, maybe not quite rocket science, but in order for success, devotion is necessary. I find the old saying, “If your going to do it, do it right the first time,” very fitting when it comes to food plots, let alone life. Take proper care of your land, and in turn the land will take care of your wildlife. Good luck with your upcoming projects.