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Every year, more deer hunters are planting food plots to supplement the natural food sources used by whitetail deer. Food plots are generally rich in nutrients, making them highly attractive to whitetails — it’s no secret that deer hunting is improved dramatically once food plots are introduced into a property’s overall landscape. We have almost 60 acres of food plots and planted fields on our 500-acre property, and know first hand how effective they are at attracting and sustaining wildlife, especially when planted correctly.

Unfortunately, many food plotters start off on the wrong foot. They ignore the advice of every seed manufacturer and planting expert on the planet by skipping the most important step: Doing a soil test!

Test Before You Plant
Planting without testing your soil is a formula for failure. This easy test is often the difference between ending up with a one-acre plot which produces 2-3 tons of highly nutritious whitetail forage, and an unsuccessful plot which produces a handful of scraggly weeds and some tough grass that nothing will eat.

Commercial growers spend thousands of dollars analyzing and building their soils in an attempt to maximize production out of every acre. They perform an extensive soil analysis to determine the amount of lime (to balance soil acidity or pH) and the mixtures of fertilizer (nitrogen, potassium and potash) to add to the soil to grow a given crop. Believe me, they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t matter! Food plotters can accomplish the same thing at a fraction of the time and money.

When you look at the cost of planting an acre — say a clover and chicory blend ($300-500) — you can see how good an investment soil testing actually is. An acre bag of good quality seed will typically run you around $60; fertilizer will run about $150; and lime another $80. If you charge fairly for your equipment, fuel and labor, you’ll be adding another couple of hundred bucks per acre. Do you really want to risk that kind of money by skipping a $10 soil test? And what about the deer hunting next fall?

Testing is Simple
OK, now that you’re convinced, here’s how to test:

Get yourself a clean plastic pail, plastic bag or something that will hold dirt. Grab a small garden spade, putty knife or similar tool and head to where you want to plant your plot. Dig a few inches into the dirt (below the sod line) and deposit a ¼ cup or so of dirt into your pail. Do it a half dozen or more times as you walk around (and through) the plot until you have collected a decent sample of your food plot’s dirt. Mix it all together, scoop about a cup of the stuff into the soil sample bag and you’re all done. That is unless you are going to plant more than one plot! If so, then you will need to label each bag so as not to confuse one plot with another. I’ve forgotten to label bags a couple of times and it was a real mess.

You then send or drop off the bag at a soil analysis service. The results and soil improvement recommendations will be ready a few days later. Most soil testing centers will ask you what you are planting and then make lime and fertilizer recommendations based on that. Still others, like the Whitetail Institute, will match the recommendations exactly to the product you are planting. This makes all the sense in the world as most commercial food plot blends are comprised of multiple plants. And who knows better than the guys who researched which seeds to include in the mix?

A good analysis will make specific recommendations as to what mixture and how much fertilizer you should apply. Take your analysis to a fertilizer supplier and ask him or her to fix you up with a custom mix. If they can’t exactly produce your recommended blend, they should come pretty close if they are any good. If they try to “double you up” on the wrong blend instead of matching your recommended mix, head for the door and find someone else.

A Special Deal for Outdoor Life Readers
To get you off on the right foot, I spoke to the folks at the Whitetail Institute last week and they agreed to offer a special soil test price of $9.99 (reg.$12.45) for Outdoor Life readers for the entire month of April. To take advantage of this special offer, call them directly at (800) 688-3030 and ask for the “Outdoor Life” special price, or tell them Craig sent you. They will send you a preaddressed test bag and gathering instructions; the rest is up to you. Their in-house consultants will be happy to answer any and all of your food plot questions. They are extremely friendly and helpful.

My dentist is a deer hunter who plants food plots. He takes X-rays before he drills and soil tests before he plants. I have yet to feel a thing and he has yet to have a failed planting. He and his buddies kill a whole bunch of nice deer on those plots.