Careful thought should be given to food plots prior to planting them. Things to consider before planting include potential weed problems, drainage, erosion potential and soil type/fertility. Before planting any food plot, it is recommended that you contact your local cooperative Extension agent for information on obtaining a soil test to determine the appropriate soil amendments* needed for the site.
Weeds are very beneficial as food and cover for wildlife. However, if weeds threaten production of the food plot some weed control may have to be dealt with before or after planting. This can be accomplished through herbicide treatments, prescribed burning* or plowing and disking.
Other factors also need to be considered. Avoid excessively wet or dry sites unless the selected planting is specifically adapted to those conditions. Consider the slope before doing any planting to eliminate erosion problems. If no-till seeding is not an option, you should not plant on areas with greater than a six-percent slope. Old fields or pastures may need to be mowed and sprayed with a herbicide prior to planting.
Planting can be accomplished through several methods depending on the type of vegetation and the site chosen. Seed can be drilled into the soil using no-till methods with a corn planter or grain drill. Alternatively, broadcast seeders that are attached to a tractor, pick-up truck bed, four-wheeler, or cranked by hand can be used to sow seed onto a prepared seedbed. If broadcast seeding is the planting method used, you will need to plow and disk (or till) the area to prepare a seedbed and use a disk or culti-packer to lightly cover the seed after planting.
In general, food plots should be managed just like any other crop. Grain crops will need broadleaf weed control through application of a selective herbicide and/or cultivation. However, as previously mentioned, perfectly clean rows are not necessary because the "weeds" also have value for wildlife. Smartweed, ragweed, foxtail, partridge pea and other native broadleaf plants considered weeds by most landowners provide food for wildlife and add diversity to your food plot. As a general rule you can allow 10-30 percent of your food plot to be taken over by weeds without concern. Management of legume plantings, such as clover, may require clipping early in spring and/or late summer to promote lush new growth as well as periodic reseeding every 3-5 years. You can also manage food plots with practices such as strip disking*, strip mowing* or brush piles* within and/or adjacent to the plot to provide added benefits to wildlife.
The best management technique for annual grain food plots and one that should be considered as part of regular food plot management rather than an option, is plot rotation. This simply means not planting the same sites in successive years, but instead allowing sections to sit fallow for several years in between plantings. For example, take the area you have set aside as a food plot and divide it into thirds. Initially you may plant the entire area in the plant(s) of your choice. In successive years you would plant a different third of the area while allowing the rest to remain idle. The idle sections will quickly grow up in native vegetation that will provide abundant seed and attract numerous insects that supply valuable protein to young pheasants, songbirds, grouse and turkey. If desired, a legume such as clover can be over seeded onto the idle sections early the following spring. The idle fields also provide protective cover. By using this method, you have three different levels of succession in close proximity, which is very beneficial to wildlife. Food plots can also be used as a smother crop to eliminate fescue before planting to a more permanent wildlife planting. Plant a field or section of a field to a food plot for a year or two. The food plot will smother out fescue allowing native grasses or other more permanent cover to be established. The following year do another field or section of the same field. You eliminate competition, while providing food, cover, and different levels of growth in close proximity.
Remember, with careful planning, hard work and attention to detail food plots can be a helpful piece of the habitat puzzle. But they cannot be expected to provide everything wildlife need and are the last piece you should think of in the overall management of your property.