Food Plots With Tools From Your Garage

Not everywhere has easy access to a tractor and implements. For these no-till small plots, only tools you likely already have are needed.

Jaryd Hurst | July 1, 2020

This is a multi-year process to creating the most fertile, environmentally friendly and successful food plots possible, and without needing a tractor.

Take a look in your garage. I bet you’ve got a lawnmower of some kind, probably a weed-eater, some rakes, a walk-behind spreader, a hand-held or backpack sprayer, a leaf blower and maybe even some type of hedge trimmers or a chainsaw.

All of these common items can easily and effectively create food plots on your property. The best part is, you don’t have to spend thousands on heavy tractor equipment. If you do have heavy tractor equipment, like myself, that equipment sometimes can’t go where you need it to.

This no-till food plot is about 1/8th of an acre in size. The author planted it in oats, and it has some clover still remaining. When this was taken the oats were about 8 to 10 inches high and starting to develops seed heads.

We recently began experimenting with what many are calling “no-till” or “poor man’s” food plots. With a few common items in your garage and an affordable trip to your local hardware or Ag Supply store, you can have a lush green food plot to hunt over this fall.

Like all good solutions, you have to have a problem first. The problem with food plots is that they can be expensive to install and maintain. That expense typically comes from the equipment needed in most cases, but many of the supplies can be costly, as well. We are going to discuss food plots on a budget and how, when and where you can cut costs without sacrificing on the results.

So you have an area you want to plant? There are some preliminary steps you’ll have to take prior to doing any physical labor. The first step is a soil test. This is a crucial, yet inexpensive step that many people forgo. I use the soil sample kit from Whitetail Institute ($13.95) because they include instructions, and it’s idiot proof. You will need one kit for every plot you want to plant. You can also get one from your county extension service office.

Next, you’ll need to know how large the area is. This doesn’t have to be an exact square footage per say, but you do need a fairly close estimate. A laser range finder works well, but in a pinch you can just step off the length and width. A quick Google search will tell you how many square feet are in an acre (43,560). Some simple mathematics gives you the correct fractional size. This will be important later on.

On the soil sample kit from Whitetail Institute, they provide a space for you to write in what you want to plant. They will provide you detailed information about what amendments need to be made to the soil to have a successful plot. I chose not to use any of the seed blends because I felt they were too expensive and wanted to try some cheaper options. However, if you have the budget for it, I have had success in the past using the Pure Attraction blend ($80 per acre). Leave the space they provide for seed selection blank if you are going to create your own mix, detailed later in the article.

One of the main issues I’ve noticed is that a lot of these blends don’t cover the acreage they advertise. I’ve had to double and in some cases triple the seeding rates to get ample coverage. The other problem is that they include too much fluff in the blend, and not enough desirable seeds. They often use Dwarf Essex rape and various clover species along with rye grass to take up a lot of the weight. Sure, clover is a great food plot choice, but Dwarf Essex rape is not a great choice, and rye grass is not even worth the effort. Rye grain, however, is a very good option and will be explained later on.

Once you’ve got your preliminary work out of the way with the soil test and the food plot size, now it’s time for some legwork. Review the soil report thoroughly. In most cases you need to add a large amount of lime. Lime will be the most expensive part of the whole process in many instances. Do not skimp on the lime. Lime helps to neutralize the soil acidity. An ideal pH is around 6.5, with 7.0 being neutral. Having a good soil pH allows plants to soak up the needed nutrients from the soil. If the soil is too acidic, the plants will not be able to draw nitrogen and phosphorous like they need to in order to grow. If you are on a shoe-string budget and have to choose between lime or fertilizer, choose lime every time.

Calculate how much lime you need for the size area you are planting. Pelletized lime comes in 50-lb.bags from most stores at about $4.50 per bag. You will likely need anywhere from 12 to 20 bags, depending on the acidity and the size of your plot.

Lime takes some time to break down and react with the soil. It can take up to six months to see the total effects, but within 30 days it’s already begun working. You will want to spread your lime as soon as possible, so that when it comes time to plant in late August or early September, it’s already working its magic. This can be done with a walk-behind spreader, the kind you see all the neighborhood Dad’s walking on their St. Augustine grass with. If you don’t have one in the garage, the local hardware store has them for about $60.

Before spreading your lime, it’s encouraged that you take a leaf blower or rake and remove any loose leaf litter or pine straw off the plot. While you are spreading your lime, take the time to remove any fallen limbs, rocks etc.

At this point you have to make some decisions based upon the current conditions of the plot. Do you see a lot of barren soil? How tall is the weed competition? Is it mostly grasses or forbes? For no-till to work, there has to be some kind of mulch layer on the plot that can be laid over the seeds at a future date. If you have a lot of barren soil, I would recommend spreading a bag of buckwheat ($45 per 50 pounds). You will need to spread this now so that it will have time to grow before planting your fall plots. Simply broadcast the buckwheat seeds into the existing vegetation or exposed dirt.

Buckwheat is a “crop” that deer will browse, but not heavily. It serves three primary purposes: 1. Shade out weed competition. 2. Acts like “green” fertilizer. 3. Helps hold moisture in the soil. If you have low soil fertility, buckwheat over time (multiple seasons of use) will absolutely help build soil fertility by adding organic matter, returning nutrients to the soil, and it helps prevent erosion. Plant at 100 pounds per acre. Allow six to eight weeks for growth before seeding your fall blends into the standing buckwheat. Buckwheat excels with a companion legume like cowpeas or clover to complement its soil-building ability.

It’s important to understand that good things take time. While this process does work on year one, it only gets better in following years. As the seasons come and go, you will need less herbicide and less fertilizer. The best measure of soil fertility is to find earth worms. If you can’t find earth worms in the dirt, that’s a fairly good indication of poor fertility. By using this method of food plot planting, over time you will build that fertility, and you will see a drastic increase in tonnage produced along with money saved on herbicide and fertilizer.

Areas that lack a mulch layer tend to be bare to thin at best. The author targets these areas with over seeding of buckwheat to help provide a cover crop. There also is more weed competition in areas with less of a mulch layer on top.

To this point we have not even touched the ground in any capacity. No plowing, no disking, no tilling. All we’ve done is taken a small sample and spread some lime and possibly buckwheat.

Fast forward to the end of August to early September. Bow season is just around the corner. It’s time to plant some cool-season crops.

Start checking the weather. You want to time your planting with a good  afternoon storm. It doesn’t have to rain the exact day you plant, but as long as there is a really good chance of rain in the following two to three days, you’ll be fine. My preferred planting dates have nothing to do with what is printed on the seed bags. My entire decision making process on planting dates is based upon the current conditions. This past fall, we did not plant our fall plots until nearly the end of September due to the severe summer drought much of the state experienced. Not only does there need to be rain in the forecast, but there also needs to be adequate ground moisture. I would never recommend planting in dry, dusty conditions even with a thunderstorm rolling in. Ideally I like to wait until some rainfall has occurred, so that there’s moisture in the soil, and then plant before another storm comes in.

You will need the following items:
• A 4-gallon back-pack sprayer or something similar.
• A 1/2-gallon jug of Glysophate concentrate (kills everything actively growing, doesn’t do well with broadleaf species.)
• A 1/2-gallon jug of 2-4D (specifically targets broadleaf species.)
• A hand-held seed spreader. I prefer the Earth Way spreader.
• A weedeater or mower of some kind that you can get to the plot site.
• Seed of choice.

For seeds, I like to make my own mix. Cowpeas, clover, oats, rape and cereal rye grain (not rye grass) are my usual go-to choices. The seeds I’ve listed range greatly in size, so you won’t be able to plant all of them together at the same exact time. It will require multiple passes to get the mix properly on the plot.

Tractor supply sells 50-lb. bags of “Whole Feed Oats” for $12. Plant at 100 pounds per acre.

Tractor Supply carries rye grain in 50-lb. bags, but not always. You may have to call around to find it. When you find it, get three 50-lb. bags (set one aside in a cool dry place for later use.)

The rest of the concoction can be purchased from nearly any feed & seed store fairly inexpensively.

Our objective here is to plant highly desirable, slower-growing foods mixed with less desirable, fast-growing foods. We want the clover, cowpeas, and rape to have a chance to get established without being over browsed by the deer. The only way to accomplish that is to over seed heavily with the oats and cereal rye grains. We want to provide as many stems per square foot as we can squeeze into the plot. If you have even a moderate deer density, they will help “thin” out your over seed in just a few short weeks.

I will start with the rye and oats. The seeds are similar in size, so I mix them 50/50 in a 5-gallon bucket, and then dump the mix into my Earth Way spreader. I want to thoroughly cover the entire plot with these seeds. Do not be shy. You quite literally cannot mess this up. Keep mixing 50/50 batches until you feel you have the entire plot covered heavily.

Next, were going to sew the small seeds, clover and rape. Again I use a 50/50 mix of clover and rape at a rate of about 6 to 7 pounds per acre each. One batch of this mix should be sufficient to cover most plots, but if you feel you need a second batch, by all means.

Finally, were going to spread the cowpeas in the plot at rate of 50 pounds an acre.

While reading this, keep in mind that most “no-till” plots are going to be much smaller than an acre. When you see pound-per-acre applications, divide that by the actual size of your plot.

At this point your seeds are sewn directly into the standing preexisting vegetation. Now we need to knock all that down and terminate their growth. This effectively creates our mulch layer and begins the decaying process that will be the basis of building a more fertile soil.

In your sprayer, add three gallons of water, 1 quart of Glysophate and 1 quart of 2-4D. Spray the entire plot until you are out of juice. The spray will not harm the seeds because the chemicals only work on actively growing plants. As always, wear gloves and eye protection when handling chemicals. If your food plot has heavy grasses in it, such as fescue or bluestem, a chemical called Clethodim will likely need to be added. Grasses can be extremely tough to kill off and will out-compete the seeds in your food plot.

If the grasses are very thick, mowing them is an option to help set them back. When mowing heavy grasses, it will create “wind rows” with the trimmings. We want to have all the dead and decaying vegetation evenly spread across the plot to help begin establishing that natural mulch layer. Depending on the situation, a weed-eater maybe a better tool for the job. Whatever tools you use, the effect you are trying to accomplish is to spray all the vegetation with herbicide, and then have it laid over the seed and soil.

The author likes to establish a mineral site at a plot. He says mineral sites are great for getting pictures on a food plot, as they help funnel movement to a specific locations within the plot.

When you come back to hunt it in the coming weeks, grab a bag of 36-0-0 fertilizer, and spread about 10 pounds on the plot. Tractor Supply sells liquid 10-10-10 in 1-gallon jugs for about $25 per jug that mix perfectly with three gallons of water in a backpack sprayer. I just started using this recently instead of the 36-0-0, and so far the results have been positive. This will give the young plants an added boost. Also, recall that bag of cereal rye grain you set aside? Go ahead and spread half that bag on the plot, focusing on any bare patches or over-browsed areas.

These practices can also be used on larger food plots that are accessible with a tractor. Just substitute the hand-held equipment for the PTO driven versions. A hopper spreader, a PTO driven sprayer and even a roller crimper can all be used just as effectively. These practices are environmentally friendly because over time there will be less chemicals used and synthetic fertilizers spread. Also, with no tilling or disking, you’re limiting the possibility of erosion and runoff and without disturbing the seed bank, you’re limiting the weed growth over time. Even on a 1/8-acre food plot, every little bit helps.

The establishment of the food plot is key. If you do it the correct way now, it will save you in the long run and you will see a better outcome in the future.

Quick Tips & Tricks

• If you use feeders, be sure to fill all of them at the time of planting to help alleviate some of the feeding pressure from the plots.

• A mock scrape on a food plot edge is a great place to put a camera. This will help consolidate traffic in the plot and allow you high quality pictures of deer in the area

• A Trophy Rock is also a great option for a camera on a food plot edge

Economics Of Food Plots

In my area, the average price per 50-lb. bag of corn is $9. If I have one acre of planted food plots producing 3,000 pounds of forage annually, that’s the same as spending $540 on 60 bags of corn. My goal is 1.5 tons per acre in forage. I have no real way of knowing for sure if I am producing that, as it’s purely theoretical. That seems lofty, but that’s only 250 pounds per month of forage. Think about how large one acre is… it’s very reasonable to have 250 pounds of growth per month.

This fall I challenge you to document how many bags of corn you put in your feeders, and compare that to the cost of your food plots. Hunting doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, but if you don’t have the numbers readily available, you aren’t able to make educated decisions on where and how to save money.

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