Small Seeds + Small Plots = Big Bucks

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Don't have a farm tractor? Not even an ATV? You can do it!

Scene One - I'm optimistic as I slip into the dark woods, so much so that it feels like my API climber is good-naturedly bumping my back. I can't wait to hunt my little sugar pea plot. I direct my headlamp there as I near the climbing tree I've de-limbed, and my optimism evaporates like sour champagne bubbles. My food plot is dirt.

Like many hunters, I can be a slow learner. We know that hunting food plots will increase our chances to get a big buck, but our attempts to create them have failed.

Here are some things I have managed to learn: 1. Timing, location and preparation are everything when it comes to food plots and 2. Spray to kill weeds. Don't cut or pull out poison ivy or it will get even with you.

But how many of us have a farm tractor or ATV in the garage? Is it possible to make a killer (no pun intended) honey hole food plot with small equipment, even hand-held power tools? Yes!

The massive food plots draw and feed deer; the hideaways are for hunting and that objective is a big part of choosing the location.

If you ever hunt at Heartland Outfitters, a premier Illinois trophy deer hunting lodge, you'll notice that you drive by the sprawling, lush food plots and hunt the smaller, secluded plots.

"Before I do anything, I consider natural deer movement and wind direction, and also make sure there's a place for a stand," said James Woodley, who has been managing Heartland for ten years. "Here in Illinois we usually have a southwest or northwest wind, and by having a lot of small plots we have a choice of where to hunt according to wind direction."

Ed Spinazzola, author of Ultimate Deer Food Plots, a publication of the Mid-Michigan branch of the Quality Deer Management Association, farmed all his life and has researched food plots for several decades.

"In wooded areas, concentrate on the drainages and lower elevations, where the soil tends to be best," Spinazzola advised. "Improve your chances for success by selecting locations with better potential."

John Carpenter, product manager for forage and wildlife products for Pennington Seed, said that once a site is selected, the hunting plot should be positioned to give it the maximum amount of sunlight.

"Don't try to force something to grow in an unsuitable area," he advised. "If something is called Shade Tolerant that means it still needs four hours of direct sunlight."

First on your list is a soil test (see sidebar below). When you drop off your soil test at a county extension office, include a list of what you intend to plant and ask for recommendations. The Big Three of plant nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and they need to be replenished every year.

My friend Joe DeMarkis started with a soil sample.

"If the land was good for a crop, a crop would already be there," Carpenter said. "Usually woodland soil has a low pH, and seeds would struggle to get a start there."

Spinazzola said that plots grow best in soil with a pH adjusted to somewhere between 6 and 7. Carpenter likens proper pH to a plant buffet, with every nutrient a plant needs in easy reach of its eager little roots.

"If weeds are a problem a good chemical burn down is essential," Carpenter added. "Young plants can't compete with established weed competition."

Two people, one trip - and we had our food plots tools in the woods - tiller,
weedwacker, spade and bucket, sprayer, broadcast fertilizer or seeder.

So far, you've needed only minimal equipment, a spade for the soil test, a weed whacker, a sprayer for weed killer and a rake to remove dead weeds. Now you must work the plot so that the seed will come in contact with the soil. You can make a hideaway food plot using hand tools, but why would you, since small power tools are inexpensive and portable? For example, if your only previous experience with a tiller has been with a bulky, back-wrenching, butt-busting dinosaur, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Weed wack any brush that you want to get out of the way.

A number of companies make garden tillers light enough to be considered portable; the finest may be the Mantis. The little warrior tips the scales at twenty pounds, and with its unique reversing tines can be used both to clear weeds and till the soil. It can do a 20 by 40 garden in twenty minutes, and will run 40 minutes on a tank.

"Out of the box the Mantis will till ten inches deep and nine inches wide," said Linda Beattie, commercial public relations rep for Mantis. "In reverse, it becomes a cultivator down to three inches - the patented serpentine tines allow it to get through hard soil and tear out vegetative root systems."

Use a light-weight tiller to work the soil. Joe DeMarkis is using a 20-lb Mantis,
with reversible tines that can both till and cultivate (remove weeds and roots).

Earthway makes manually operated cultivators, each selling for less than $100. The tubular steel 6500 model weighs nine pounds and the oak-handled 6500W weighs 15 pounds. The company focuses on its broadcast spreaders, which greatly simplify fertilizing and seeding, and strap to you like backpacks.

"The beauty of manually-operated equipment is that you're not driving over a seed bed you've just prepared, compacting the soil," said Jeff Kendall, Earthway's vice-president of sales and marketing. "You can walk and crank, around trees, on steep side hills, through mushy areas - going places where you can't maneuver most equipment."

Work in fertilizer as you work the soil.

My pea plot failed for two reasons - my timing was bad and it was a monoculture. Sure, whitetails congregate in those sprawling corn or alfalfa fields, but if you're going to make a hideaway honey hole you're going to have to mix it up.

At Heartland, Woodley plants his hunting plots from mid-July into early fall. He likes a mix, usually some version of turnips, oats and clover.

"Turnips are cheap to plant. I like oats because they green up quick, giving deer something to eat, and also keeps the weeds down, helping the clover get started."

"If you fertilize every year, a clover and oats plot might last a couple years," Woodley said. "I like clover and turnips because although the deer eat the turnip tops, they don't eat the turnips until after a good frost, which ups their sugar content."

"That's good timing for our hunters in the fall," he added. "The deer will actually get in there after a frost and pull those turnips out of the ground; it'll look like hogs have been in it."

Carpenter said there's nothing worse than working to create a food plot, only to find it's been eaten to the ground before hunting season.

Yeah, tell me about it.

"We advise using mixtures for that reason, like our Rackmaster Deluxe, so that from summer until frost, you'll have staggered maturity of plants and deer will have something that draws them for months," he said. "For 15 years, Pennington has been researching and developing a clover called Durana, which lasts three times longer than other clovers because it has 40 percent more stolons (runners) - it's remarkable and the biggest talk of food plots."

Spinazzola is also in favor of mixes, naming clover, chicory, sugar beets, soybeans and grains (wheat, oats and rye). For creating a mix, don't overlook sneaking an attractant crop next to an existing farm crop field, such as alfalfa or soybeans, he added.

"These sites can be enhanced by putting in rows of field corn along a fence line or woods," he said. "Deer feel very comfortable in corn, and this also serves as a deer travel corridor."

Sidebar: The Soil Test
One acre of ground (visually, about the size of a football field) can contain a dozen different soil types. Carpenter advised taking eight to ten soil samples from various spots, and mixing the samples in a plastic bucket.

Spinazzola said use a spade and push it in six inches deep. Clear out the dirt, and then use the spade to take a slice of soil, about a half inch wide and six inches deep, from a side of the hole. Your goal should be to build the nutrients to a high level, and take tests yearly until that level is achieved. Strive for pH levels from 6 to 7.

For More Information:

Ultimate Deer Food Plots by Ed Spinazzola
Available through Quality Deer Management Association or 800-209-3337

Twenty-pound tiller/cultivator

Hand-crank seeders, wheeled seeders, manual cultivators

American Honda Power Equipment
Tillers, garden equipment

MTD International
Troy-Bilt tillers

Pennington Seeds
Rackmaster, seed products, tons of food plot info on website

Heartland Outfitters/James Woodley
480 South Meadowbrook Road
Springfield IL 62707
217-773-3003, 217-787-0050

Lisa Price is a freelance writer living in Barnesville, PA, with three spoiled yet talented German Shorthaired Pointers. She enjoys all types of hunting and fishing, but especially archery hunting for whitetails.