Building A Food Plot: Cheap and Easy

Backwoods Food Plot
My backwoods food plot from start to finish.

I’ll be honest, when I first entertained the idea of building a food plot on my property I was intimidated. Many of you reading this probably feel the same way. When I first thought of “food plots” I imagined the giant, lush, multi-acre plots I see on TV. They are beautiful, always full of deer and seemingly “perfect.” Not to mention the equipment used to construct them is worth more than my house. Couple all of this with the fact there are a million different seeds and seed mixes on the market, food plots can appear overwhelming and expensive.

Well, I’m here to tell you they can be exactly the opposite: CHEAP AND EASY. In this article we’re going to focus on creating a small, inexpensive food plot that will be dynamite for attracting deer and other game to your stand.

Feeding Deer vs Attracting Deer

First and foremost, the main goal of a small food plot is to attract deer, not necessarily feed deer. This is important to remember. Where I hunt in SW Michigan, farms feed the deer in the area. Nothing I do on my property will ever compete with the neighboring corn fields and bean fields and their ability to feed deer. I know that, and that’s okay.

To make this concept of “feeding” vs “attracting” easier to understand, think of it like Costco vs Starbucks for people. Costco feeds people. It’s where people go to buy the food necessary to live. Starbucks attracts people. It’s a destination people go for a treat, a snack or a quick coffee on the way to work. The attraction of people to a Starbucks is the same attraction as deer to a small food plot: A quick stop for a treat in-between normal day-to-day activities. That is the goal.

Location

Now that we’ve established the main goal of our food plot, we need to select a location. In order to select the proper location, you need to be able to accomplish 3 things:

#1   You must be able to enter and exit the food plot without spooking deer.

#2   Create the plot in an area that deer actually use.

#3   Find an area that is easy to clear and easy to hunt.

Seems simple, right? For some it may be. For others, finding an area that suites all these areas can be a little tricky. Let’s take a closer look and use my property as an example for all 3 items.

#1 is critical. If you can’t access your food plot without constantly spooking deer, your results will be poor. This goes for when you are traveling to the plot, hunting the plot and after you’ve left the plot. To put things in very basic terms, do your best to hunt and walk through areas where deer won’t see you or smell you. Regardless of the scent control you use assume every step you take is leaving scent behind.

#2 Try to put your food plot in an area that deer already use. Look for tracks, trails and droppings within the vicinity of your desired food plot. These are good indicators there are deer actively using the area. You don’t have to build your plot directly on a deer trail, but you also don’t want deer to have to travel too far out of their way to get to your plot. Remember…”Starbucks.” Convenience is key.

#3 This item is simple. Once you have items #1 and #2 figured out, item #3 is simply finding the easiest spot to clear. Your goal is bare dirt and at least 4 hours of sunlight. You may have to clear some brush, tall grass or even cut down a few trees.

You also want to consider where you’re going to hang your treestand or setup a ground blind. If you’re a treestand hunter, locate a sizeable tree with a good backdrop to provide you the necessary camouflage you need while hunting. If you can’t find a suitable tree or prefer to hunt from the ground, a pop-up blind just off the edge of the plot is a great choice.

Here’s how I accomplished items #1-#3:

My food plot strategy.

The area just off of my backyard is flooded timber. It’s wet and nasty, but it’s a great entry/exit route as deer rarely travel through it. I built my food plot right where the flooded timber meets higher, dry land. Wind direction is almost always from the west (the arrow in the diagram) so this keeps my scent out of the plot and out of the deer’s normal travel routes. I have a brush-covered popup blind  at the edge of the plot/flooded timber for both bow and gun hunting.

It’s okay if your setup isn’t perfect. Hunting is rarely perfect. However, if you take the items above into consideration before you even start your food plot, you’re chances for success during the season will be significantly better.

Clear The Area

Alright, you’ve picked a spot. Time to clear it! Depending on your particular spot, you’re going to need the following:

  • Chainsaw and/or handsaws
  • Brush clippers
  • Weedwacker
  • Rakes
  • Backpack or handheld weed sprayer

This is where the word “easy” takes on a different meaning depending on the spot you’ve chosen. For some, the work required to clear the area may be as simple as raking leaves. For others, well, a little more sweat and effort may be involved. Just remember your goal is bare ground and at least 4 hours of direct sunlight. Do whatever you have to do to achieve that. The size of your plot is also up to you at this point. Make it whatever is feasible for you (and maybe a few buddies) to clear.

For me, my main task was tree removal. The area I chose didn’t contain much brush or grass due to lack of sunlight from the surrounding trees. My main objective was to open a hole in the canopy for sunlight. And that’s exactly what I did.

My location and initial tree clearing.

I removed approximately 30 trees, most of them small and manageable with a couple large trees that made up the majority of the canopy. I left the stumps in the ground and used the tops of the trees to create thick, brushy zones around the food plot.

My location after tree removal.
Raking and burning.

Once the trees were clear I sprayed any grass and undergrowth with RoundUp and let the area set for 2 weeks. The remaining dead grass, leaves and brush were raked into small piles and (very carefully) burned. Once ALL the piles were extinguished and cool, I spread the ashes throughout the area as an added fertilizer.

My cleared area, ready for planting.
Pop-up blind setup.

The result was a 40 yard by 30 yard area ready to plant!

Soil Test

Every food plot article, blog or story you read is going to have one common theme: DO A SOIL TEST! Just as everyone says, this is important. Knowing the capability of your soil (and what is required to improve it) is a critical step in order to understand what will grow best on your land. Specifically, you want to know the PH level of your soil, and there are a couple ways to do this.

If you REALLY want to know EXACTLY what is in your soil, you can send a soil sample to a laboratory. For $80 or so you can literally get everything your soil has in it, as well as lime and fertilizer recommendations. I’m cheap, so I went a different route.

Soil test kit, purchased at Lowes.
Soil test kit, purchased at Lowes.

For $10 at Lowes you can pickup the soil test kit shown above. This kit is easy, instant and has enough materials for several soil tests. All you do is:

  1. Take a small sample of soil from a couple inches below the ground.
  2. Add a little distilled water.
  3. Add the powder from one of the test capsules provided in the kit.
  4. Shake everything up.
PH Chart: http://heartlandoutdoors.com/images/soil_ph_nutrient_availability.jpg
PH Chart: http://heartlandoutdoors.com/images/soil_ph_nutrient_availability.jpg

Your mixture will instantly turn a color. Match that color to the provided color chart and BOOM! You know the PH range of your soil (notes the colors in your soil kit may differ from the chart above). Ideally, your PH level is somewhere between 6-7. You can adjust your soil’s PH level by:

  • Add lime to raise PH (make the soil more alkaline)
  • Add acidic matter or fertilizers to lower PH (make the soil more acidic)

You can do a soil test and obtain your soil’s PH level at any time (i.e. you may want to check the PH of an area BEFORE you select a spot). For me personally, I did it while I was clearing the area. Why? Because do to the nature of my property (which is mostly thick, wet and swampy) the area chose was really the only area I had to work with. And lucky for me, my PH level came back as 6.5-7.0.

Pick A Plant To Match Your Soil

Deciding what to plant may be the hardest decision when building a food plot, simply because there are SO many things (or combinations of things) you can plant. And, there are a million different companies selling food plot seed. It’s a tough choice, believe me I know. Your best shot at success is matching a seed (or combination of seeds) to your soil. To do that you need to consider the following:

  1. Soil PH (which you should now know)
  2. Your “soil type” (Is your soil wet or dry? Is it sandy or mucky? Or is it somewhere in between?)
  3. Estimate daily sunlight
  4. Do want an annual food plot (must be planted every year) or a perennial food plot (re-grows every year)
  5. Planting depth (how deep does the seed need to be when planted) *If you’re using hand tools, look for something that doesn’t require much planting depth.*
  6. What time of year do you want deer to use your plot (Spring/Summer? Fall? Winter? Or a combination?)

I know, this seem like a lot of variables again. However, these are important factors to make sure all your hard works pays off. Once you establish this, Google is your best friend. Check multiple sites, brands of seeds, hunting forums, all that stuff. Take your time, do you due diligence and you’ll find something that works for you.

For my property and desired results, I answered items 1-6 as follows:

  1. 6.5-7.0 (per the soil test kit I showed you earlier)
  2. Wet with occasional standing water
  3. 4-5 hours
  4. Perennial
  5. 0-2″ (that’s what I can accomplish with a rake)
  6. Fall/winter

The winning seeds for me: Clover and cereal grain rye. Clover is a great attractant during the summer/fall months (and its without a doubt the #1 food plot seed planted) and cereal rye is an easy-growing, sought after sidekick during the winter months. Both are resistant to flooding and require very little to zero seed depth to grow.

After I purchased my seed (I bought mine from a local farm bureau, a great low-cost option if you have that available), I roughed up the soil with a rake and spread the seed using a handheld spreader. I also spread a little fertilizer to help speed things up. To finish up, I walked around the plot to press as much of the seed and fertilizer into the ground as I could. After that, my work was done. The rest was all up to Mother Nature.

The End Result

Luck was on my side and Mother nature did her part. My end result was a beautiful, lush, green food plot that immediately started attracting deer and turkeys. All-in, I did my plot for about $50. Not bad, huh? Below are a few trail cam pictures showing the instant success and impact of my new food plot.

Finished food plot #1
Finished food plot #1
Finished food plot #1

Conclusion

A small, effective food plot doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It can truly be CHEAP AND EASY! A few handle tools, a little time and a lot of sweat is all you need to create beautiful, sustainable food source that will attract multiple game animals to your property.

I’m by no means a “food plot expert,” in fact I’m far from it. However, I’m confident that if you select the appropriate location, do your homework and select a plant that is compatible with your property you too can create a successful food plot on your first attempt! Give it a try and feel free to share with us your own food plot tips, strategies and stories!

-Matt

 

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