Jon Cooner is the Director of Special Projects for renowned food plot seed company Whitetail Institute. Outdoor Life recently interviewed Cooner to provide his 10 keys to growing more successful food plots. Here is what he had to say.
1. Don’t Procrastinate
While food-plotting isn’t difficult, the steps to a successful food plot should be followed in order and in a timely manner for the best results. Some processes start months in advance of the season to ensure optimum growing conditions and maximum plant yield once opening day rolls around.
2. Select The Best Location
If space and equipment are limited, then locate your food plots where you can or in existing openings. The best locations for plots include adjacent cover for deer traveling to the food plot and for escape cover (a thicket or sanctuary, or perceived cover such as a few rows of a tall screening crop) and low human traffic. Plots should never be visible to roads and neighbors.
3. Create Security to Increase Daytime Movement
Your goal is to attract deer into the plot during daylight hours. Long, skinny food plots often accomplish this better than wide, fat plots. Time tested food-plot designs that create an “L” or an hourglass shape work well too. Also, keep in mind that deer have exceptional senses of smell, hearing, and vision. Plan and prepare several hunting stands around your plot for varying wind conditions, and prepare your entry and exit trails to favor those winds. Consider planting thick screening plants in open areas so that you can access the stand without being visibly detected by deer. The Whitetail Institute’s CONCEAL seed blend is an example of a product that’s specifically designed to provide temporary screening until permanent screening can be established.
4. Minimize Human Traffic
Consider approaching the food plot only when hunting. Your goal is to provide a feeding location where deer feel they can come and go anytime and without being overly cautious. The more you frequent a food plot, the less chance deer will utilize it.
5. Select The Right Seed Blend
A thoroughly prepared seedbed is much more important to some crops than to others. If you don’t have access to a tractor with the proper equipment or can’t get equipment into an area, then select forages that are designed to flourish even without such seedbed preparation. Other forage-selection factors to consider include how well the soil holds moisture and how quickly it drains.
6. Don’t Skip The Soil Test
Only a laboratory soil test can tell you precisely whether you need lime and/or fertilizer and, if you do, then exactly how much of each to add to prepare an optimum growing environment. Also, because a soil laboratory’s recommendations are so precise, they help you save money by avoiding expenses for lime and fertilizer you really don’t need. Take samples and send them off to be tested in the early spring, and apply any lime recommended right away. Incorporate lime into the soil by disking or tilling for fastest results. Lime takes several months to work completely.
If you don’t perform a laboratory soil test, then add one to two tons of lime per acre. If you can’t access the site with lime and incorporate it, then consider using a product that can be sprayed before planting to provide a quick-acting short-term nutrient supplement to compensate for the effects of acidic-soil binding up important nutrients.
7. Follow Planting Dates
Most areas of the country have spring and fall planting seasons. Also, while some food-plot crops can be planted in either season, many are limited to either spring or fall planting depending where you live. Be sure to plant the forage you have selected, during the specified planting season. Otherwise, a failed or poor-performing plot can be expected.
8. Plant Seeds at The Right Depth
Seeds are usually discussed as being either “large seeds” or “small seeds”. Common large-seed food-plot crops include oats, beans, and corn. Common small-seed food-plot crops include clover, chicory and brassica. For best results, large seeds should be covered by a thin layer of loose soil. A drag type implement is ideal for this purpose. Small seeds should be left on top of a seedbed that has been tilled and then firmed with a drag or cultipacker before seeding. Always follow the instructions for the seed blend you choose.
9. Be Careful How You Hunt Plots
Identify likely bedding areas for deer. Then, instead of hunting directly on the plot, consider setting up your stand between the bedding areas and the food plot. Also locate and consider setting up where you can cover staging areas near the edge of the plot where deer may gather before dark and before entering the plot. Whatever you do, don’t hunt the plot or surrounding area if the wind will be blowing your scent into bedding areas or where deer will enter the plot.
10. Perennial Maintenance
Unlike “annuals”, which are plantings designed to last for less than one calendar year, “perennials” are designed to last for multiple years from a single planting. To get full quality and longevity from perennials, be sure to perform maintenance on them each spring and summer after planting. This includes maintaining optimum soil pH and fertility, periodic mowing, and when necessary, herbicides to control grasses and other weeds.