With green up right around the corner here in Michigan I have three things on my mind 24/7: Whitetail scouting, turkey hunting, and habitat improvement projects. Today I wanted to delve into the latter and take a look at what we as hunters can do to improve the beautiful whitetail habitat around us, specifically for folks like myself who are on a budget with limited to no access to equipment. You can effectively provide cover, food, and concealment for whitetail deer without all the fancy tractors, trucks, quads and sprayers. Today we’ll specifically talk about the food portion and starting small but effective “plots”. It just takes a little ingenuity, effort, and persistence. These plots may not be grand in comparison to what someone can accomplish with high dollar equipment, but they will get the job done and one thing is for sure… it’s better than doing absolutely nothing for these animals. Let me spare you the rest of the introduction and get right into what it’s going to take to make things happen.
This guide is going to be for the budget conscious hunter so every single one of these items can be found at a local hardware store for cheap prices, or even craigslist from someone right around your area locally. Some of these items I didn’t even need to purchase, but rather borrowed from friends, neighbors or family members. Regardless, all items are affordable and easily attained.
- A good rake (10-15 dollars)
- Food plot seed of choice (20-50 dollars)
- Seed Spreader (10-15 dollars)
- Section of wired fence (5 dollars)
- Fertilizer of choice (10-30 dollars)
- Hand saw (5-10 dollars)
- Sharp hatchet (15 dollars)
- Soil test kit (15 dolars)
- Wheel barrel (15-30 dollars)
- Shovel (10-15 dollars)
- Hand pump sprayer (10-15 dollars)
Using the high end of this spectrum the total calculated cost for a high quality food plot can be had at no more than 215 dollars. Compare that to the cost of any single piece of farm equipment. I’ll tell you too, I honestly gathered all of these things in preparation for making one of the plots via friends, craigslist, and deals I found at local harbor freight for 135 dollars. The most expensive items were the seed itself and the fertilizer. You can’t beat that price, you just can’t.
Food Plot Objective
Typically when we think of food sources for deer that we can make ourselves the first thing that fills our mind is lush green food plots, acres at a time. Rolling hills of dark green clover, soybeans, or alfalfa. Thick, heavy plots of peas or turnips. While these are definitely ideal, they come with a price. You have to have the land, the money, the time, and equipment. There is definitely more of an investment required to create such real estate. If this is possible for you, by all means do that. There isn’t anything better you could do for your deer health than provide them with excellent high quality nutrition available year round in abundance. However it is not essential. Deer in general are survivors, and can find adequate nutrition to thrive in most environments throughout the US. The object of these budget food plots isn’t necessarily to give the deer their only source of nutrition, it’s to supplement their current diet and give them a reason to come to your land over your neighbors who doesn’t put in the work for a food plot. While the deer are walking their regular trails it gives them a reason to stop and take in some extra nutrition. It gives them a reason to slow down. It gives them a reason to come back.
Preparing the Location
The first step to creating the food “plots” is to find the locations in which you can feasibly and effectively plant. In most scenarios with no access to a tiller to throw up dirt, you need to head for the dirt floor of the woods while the leaves are on the ground. The idea is to find portions of land that do not need to be tilled, but rather just raked. A tough steel rake can get a lot of work done even with some vegetation already grown. If necessary this is also where the weed killer comes into play. Spraying a weed killer that is recommended by the seed brand you are using is normally a good idea but not necessary. This will promote better growth of your forage because there is less competition for real estate for the roots. Raking an area out 100 foot by 100 foot can be done in just a couple of hours with a good quality rake. Exposed dirt is what we are looking for because soil to seed contact is going to be important in getting the seeds to effectively sprout and the roots to take hold. Once you have established an area with decent looking soil and you are able to uncover the ground, you are going to want to do a soil test. Soil test kits can be found at lots of garden or outdoor stores and even online for pretty cheap as well. The mail in options are normally the most accurate but do take a little extra time. Conducting the soil test is arguably the most important thing you are going to do when creating a food plot. A soil that is to far left or right on the spectrum is going to not produce and could end in an epic failure and waste of time. On the off chance it does produce the forage that grows will taste extremely bitter to the deer and attract little to no attention. Do this step, do not skip it. Once the results come back, you should be able to conclude how much lime your soil needs to balance out the PH levels. Some of the the mail in services, like the one through Whitetail Institute (Whitetailinstitute.com), will calculate this for you. From there lime is available through the same outdoor farm type stores for cheap prices and large quantities. Secondly, any kind of fertilizer can be used during this process as well. Manure, carp, etc. Because the soil we are seeking normally needs to be accessed with a rake, it means the soil isn’t always best equipped to support growth from certain kinds of plants. Adding fertilizer is going to add nutrients to the soil and help with this process. Both the lime and fertilizer are easily broadcasted with no equipment needed except the wheel barrel, shovel, and rake. Another couple of hours and you will have enough lime broadcasted to produce the proper PH levels and fertilizer to add some nutrients. Take your section of wired fence, place a couple of logs on top to weight it down and simply drag it back and forth in order to flatten out the soil so the seeds do not get buried to deep. It’s that simple. Now you’re ready to begin sewing the seed and reaping the benefits.
Tip: A friend can go a long way, and easily cut this work in half. All you need is an extra rake, and a buddy willing to help you out.
Planting the Seed
The hard part honestly is over. You’ve taken the 5-6 hours of man work and prepared the foundation for your seed to thrive. Now it’s time to plant. This part really consists of taking your seed and putting it right into the seed spreader, walking back and forth over the plot until your seed is gone. Your particular seed will have information about the amount of seed you want to spread for a specific area. For example: 8 pounds per acre. That is standard for a clover. From here you are finished with the actual planting process. No extra work is really necessary, just weather cooperation.
Tip: Planting before a light rain is a good idea. It will help get the seeds germinated and ready to sprout right away.
Because the area’s we are looking for are usually located in around areas with trees, sunlight sometimes can be limited by the canopy or cover of trees. This is where the handsaw and sharp hatchet come into play. You don’t need to chop down the entire forest, and in some cases on the edge of a field where the woods meet up, you may not need to do any chopping at all. But clearing out the small trees that produce the most leaves will help in getting some sunlight to the plot. Sunlight 12 hours a day is not necessary. There are even plenty of brands of seed out there that only really need just a few hours of sunlight to grow properly.
Maintaining Your Plots
At this point you should have done all you need to do to get a good decent quality plot going. You have put in a minimal investment of money, put in some hard work, and overall minimal time in the woods working on the plot. This entire process can be completed in usually just a couple of days. It’s finally time to watch the plot grow. This is also a crucial time for the success of your plot to survive and thrive. If you’ve found the area in the beginning that didn’t take much weed killing, but instead mostly raking, that means you started with an area where the soil wasn’t quite fit for a lot of vegetation. With the PH levels properly balanced however, a lot more vegetation is going to be able to grow here. This isn’t always something you want when they come in the form of weeds. Selective herbicides that can be used in your plots are able to target specific grasses and broadleaf plants will help aid in the survival and success of your plot. An application of fertilizer once or twice per year during Spring or Fall is also going to help in keeping the area nutrient rich.
The food plot game isn’t tough. Stop finding excuses to put it off or not do it. The days of “I don’t have enough equipment” or “I don’t have enough time” are over. While the process I have outlined here is clearly not end all be all, it is a basic outline of what you can do and how easy it is to create your own plot without tons of equipment. You just need a few days, less than 200 dollars, and no allergies to hard work. A half acre or even a quarter of an acre of a high quality food source is going to make a difference for your whitetail and your hunting experience. You reap what you sew.