Poor Man’s Food Plots

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aerating soil
Hand-held roto-tillers and rakes can help aerate soils and ensure better root growth for new plants.

A little sweat, the right seeds, a few hand tools, and some smart use of small openings can create food plots deer can’t resist.

Whether you own 20 acres or 200 acres, you might not have the time, money and equipment needed to develop and maintain large food plots on your hunting property. Let’s face it: Some of us just aren’t cut out to be leisure-time farmers, and we’re already getting enough shooting opportunities to keep us coming back to our favorite tree stands.

Even so, we wouldn’t mind dabbling in a food plot or two, as long as we can do it cheaply. Which brings us to the poor man’s food plot. This term doesn’t necessarily apply to hunters strapped for cash. It’s just that when we assess our interests and existing obligations, we concede we can’t commit to the long-term work required by large-scale food plots.

Although we might admire those who can talk intelligently about pH levels, a warehouse of seed varieties, and the intricacies of every farm implement, our interest in food plots can be satisfied by one or two magazine articles, not a library of in-depth books. If pressed to explain ourselves, we would say we just want a couple of food plots that might bring a deer or three past our tree stand this fall, and make them pause long enough for a good shot.

And we want to spend as little money as possible. What’s a little? Well, can you afford $50? If you can, you might produce just enough action to feel satisfied.

“If you have two or three small food plots that each cover about 4,500 square feet, and you buy two or three bags of quality seed for $10 each and throw down some fertilizer, you could plant your plots in one afternoon for about $50,” said Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute of North America.

What's Realistic

OK. But can we turn such modest plans into satisfying results? That depends on you. After all, you can lay out solid ideas for a poor man’s food plot, but only you can decide if the results are satisfying. Because its their nature, some deer hunters never stop seeking bigger and better in all aspects of life, and food plots are no exception. Scott said it’s common for hunters to “put their toe in the water” with a small food plot or two, and then get hooked on the feel of dirt under their fingernails.

But that’s another story. For now, let’s agree a poor man’s food plot will be small, which means it will have a short shelf life. Don’t be surprised if deer eat them into the ground within two weeks of drawing their interest. But if you plant these food plots in a secluded spot close to a bedding area, you choose plants and planting dates to ensure they won’t reach peak palatability until autumn, and your schedule allows you to hunt these sites when deer are most likely using them, you just might create a high-odds hotspot that outperforms every site now on your property.

Also realize that every food plot, no matter its size, requires sweat, sore muscles, and a few dollars for seed and fertilizer. After all, food plots don’t plant themselves, and all plants have basic needs. A productive food plot is like building a house: The soil is the foundation, the product you choose is the walls, and the maintenance you do along the way is the roof.

A poor man’s food plot usually covers a half-acre or less, which is 21,780 square feet. To better visualize that space, consider a rectangle that measures 100 by 220 feet, or about 33 by 75 yards. That’s not much turf, so let’s not kid ourselves: We’re not going to grow enough high-quality forage to pack every deer’s stomach with highly nutritious food from spring through late autumn.

“When you’re working with small food plots, you think of short-term attractants, not long-term nutrition,” said Grant Woods of Woods and Associates in Missouri. “You want your food plot to be just a little tastier than what deer can find elsewhere. You want to attract them to a certain spot that’s pretty much on their normal travel route. If you’re lucky, once they start feeding there, you’ll have a productive spot for two or three weeks, and that’s it. But if you plant several small food plots, vary what your plan, and stagger the time you plant them to maximize their attractive qualities, you could be hunting a different spot almost every time for several weeks.”

Possible Food Plot Shortcuts

lawn spreader
If your food plot requires lime, try using your lawn spreader. It’s a quick, easy way to spread lime without an ATV or larger equipment.

Making small food plots attractive doesn’t require the same planning that must go into large, long-term food plots. Woods, for instance, doesn’t bother with soil tests to determine pH, and doesn’t worry about spreading lime to correct shortcomings.

“When I’m planting these little plots, I’m usually back in the woods in places I can reach only by foot,” Woods said. “I’m planting sites that measure maybe 20 yards by 20 yards. I don’t want to be taking soil samples from every little plot I plant, and I don’t want to pack lime back in there, measuring everything and then applying it just right. I get a bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer and let it rip. Even if the pH is low, that will jack it up enough to help things grow.”

And what if you don’t want to mess with fertilizer? After all, if you don’t have a cart or ATV to carry 50-pound fertilizer bags close to where you’re going, you could quickly reach your point of diminishing returns. If that’s the case, consider this idea from Neil Dougherty, a wildlife consultant in western New York. Dougherty recommends looking for sites that grow thick with weeds. Chances are, such sites will also grow healthy deer attractants.

“When you find openings or trails that grow thick, aggressive weeds and grasses, that’s proof the site has enough nutrients and is getting enough moisture to grow a good food plot,” Dougherty said. “You might be able to get the site prepared with just a rake and work gloves, but I’d also recommend a small backpack-sprayer unit. Go in there, spray all that grass and weed with Roundup, let everything die, and then go back in a couple of weeks, rake it out and spread your seeds.”



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