Better Food Plots by Building Healthy Soil

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Building Better Food Plots

I have seen lately that guys are thinking about what kind of seed they will plant in the spring.  They are looking for a magic bean that will grow bigger and better food plots.  I have learned over the years that I can achieve better food plots by building healthy soils.  If we take care of our soil, the soil will take care of growing quality forage.

Quality Soils Make Quality Deer

We all know that the biggest bucks come from the Midwest.  The soils there are of the order Mollisols.  They are grassland soils that have developed a nutrient-rich, deep topsoil layer full of necessary plant nutrient cations.  Thousands of years of grass growth with millions of buffalo grazing and moving created this soil which is the most productive in the world.  Grass with its fibrous root system and grazing animals kept this soil alive with microbial activity, building organic matter into the clay and preventing erosion.

Could we copy this system of soil building and compress thousands of years of improvement into a short time so that we can obtain the same soil health?  This is what I am experimenting with on one of my client’s plots.  We started with woodland in a very stony, very acidic and sandy soil.  The stones are so numerous I can’t push a fiberglass fence post into it.

But what if I were to remove stones, add organic material and neutralize the pH?  Could I create a place where I could produce the kind of growth possible in the Midwest?  And, in turn, provide the kind of nutrition needed to grow a big deer with huge antlers?

Food Plot Failure

If you follow along with this project on my youtube channel you can see that it has been quite a big project with lots of struggles.  I brought in heavy equipment to clear the area then used rotary rock crushing tillers to grind up some of the stones and used skid steer-mounted rakes and stone picking buckets to clear off rocks and debris.  I brought in several truckloads of compost from the local municipal sewage authority as well as leaf and food waste compost.  These were incorporated into the plot.  I planted straight brassicas the first fall and got a tremendous flush of growth which the deer relished.  They demolished 3 acres of it before hunting season.  The second year I started to plant a warm season mix to get good cover and start building soil microbial health.  It was a disaster with the soybeans never getting above 4 inches, clovers didn’t grow, sorghum grew to about 15 inches and never made seed, clover and brassicas dried up, sunflowers never made it.  Even the buckwheat I put in the mix failed.  I replanted early September with a fall cover crop mix with the same result.  Deer put a lot of pressure on it and it didn’t rain for 5 weeks.  The lack of rain didn’t help matters but I still have a plot that attracts deer with winter wheat and winter peas providing cold weather forage.

Lessons Learned

I’ve learned a couple of things after a two decades of food plotting.  One is that there is no magic bean out there in a shiny bag with big buck pictures on the front or some exotic new plant that will solve all of your deer forage problems. If the soil is bad, there are too many deer or if the weather doesn’t favor the plants you put in, you won’t get a productive food plot.  We also have some serious weed problems when there is a huge seed bank in the soil you didn’t know about just waiting for the right conditions to take over the world.  Add to that the invasives that have moving in like Stiltgrass, thistle or mile-a-minute weed and there is a lot that can go wrong with a food plot.  There is no perfect plant that can overcome all the things that go wrong.

Soil is Alive

The most important thing I have come to understand in my studies and paying attention is that soil is not just a growth medium.  It is a living thing with its own microscopic ecosystem.  For it to be healthy, this ecosystem must remain intact.  Plant roots feed the underground organisms and they in turn feed the plants by converting organic compounds to inorganic compounds and transferring them into the roots.  There is a food web going on down there that is complex.  There are more organisms by far in the microscopic underground world that there are on the surface.  When we till and plant monocultures, spray herbicides and pesticides, we disrupt the food web.  Microbes such as micorrhizal fungi take up nutrients and water and transport them to the roots.  Bacteria form a symbiotic relationship with plants to extract nitrogen from the air and provide the building blocks of plant proteins.  Worms and nematodes graze on bacteria, aerate the soil and provide the glues that hold the soil particles together to create soil structure, allowing water and carbon to penetrate and be stored.

Brassicas came in well the first fall. probably due to good weather for them and deer had never seen them before. These were gone by hunting season.

Although in my food plot example, I have a pH of 7, nutrients off the charts and organic matter very high, I still can’t grow a decent plant.  With the running of heavy machinery, heavy tillage to grind and sift stones the soil is not healthy and can’t grow plants.  The compost put too much carbon into the soil and the low population of bacteria are spending all their time feeding on it and breaking it down instead of providing Nitrogen to the plants.

The good news is that I have a client who, like some, would have run me off long ago, is patient and understanding.  He will be rewarded in years to come because I will continue to provide multi-species cover crops for warm season and for cold season.  The soil food web will rebuild itself with the base of organic matter available to it and the variety of roots I will give it.  We will no-till at least 7 different plants in both in spring and fall.  The weather will eventually cooperate and be perfect.  The soil will have an armor on it of dead plant material, protecting it from the hot sun.  The soil structure will improve and store water so it won’t be affected by drought.

I will be putting together a mix of crops, some which I have never tried before to plant in this field and already looking forward to seeing what happens this year.  One thing is for sure, it usually doesn’t turn out like you expect it and some plants wont grow or the deer won’t like.  Then we tweak the mix and try again.

For the youtube video on this food plot and for followup videos start here:

For questions or to share your own experiences go to my Facebook page at Stephen A Chilcote Land and Timber Consulting  Email: or call at 814-360-4510


About the Author:

Wildlife habitat manager and consulting forester from Central PA. Studied environmental Agriculture specializing in wildlife management and Forestry. B.S. Agriculture, Masters degree in Forestry. 30 years experience in land investment, forestry and wildlife habitat improvement. Currently working as a Farm Bill Forester for Pheasants Forever on Game Commission and Golden Winged Warbler Initiative.

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