Food Plot Development on Mountain Hunting Ground

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Equipment and Tactics for Food Plot Site Preparation on Mountain Ground

Hybrid Brassicas Showing Heavy Summer Use

Here in Pennsylvania, I am often presented with the challenge of installing food plots on rough mountain ground with poor soil.  Our soils are mostly derived of limestone in the valleys, while shale and sandstone dominate the hills.  Limestone soils are very high quality and productive, while the acidic, sandy and rocky soils of the hills are very poor and not suitable for crops.  It is in these hills where most of out hunting land lies, so it is important to know how to turn these poor sites into land that can support high quality forage.  After years of food plot mistakes and successes, I have learned to scratch out successful food plots from these poor sites.  I would like to share with the readers some of my tactics.

Equipment for Land Clearing

Over the years I have had land cleared with all kinds of heavy equipment.  Let’s discuss the pros and cons of the various machinery available.


Bulldozers with fixed blades under the control of skilled operators can economically clear land for plots. The important consideration in choosing a dozer operator is the size of the machine. Evaluating what can be done with available equipment, finances, and personnel greatly will determine how efficiently land can be cleared. In small diameter timber (5″ or less) much can be accomplished with a medium sized bulldozer (D-6 or equivalent). As a general rule, when clearing large timber, bigger is better in terms of the amount of work that can be completed for the dollars spent.

You need to find a big enough machine to do the work quickly and effectively but not so big as to run the cost of the project above a practical level. Naturally, the bigger the machine, the more it costs. Using too small a machine is a waste of time and money, but using too big a machine is unnecessarily expensive. Depending on the size of the project, one may want to consider using different size bulldozers to maximize efficiency.

I feel it is important to find a contractor who has a root rake available to put on his dozer blade.  Using a rake can save your topsoil and get the larger unwanted debris off the site.  I then go over the area with my tractor and spring tooth harrow to further clear off rocks and roots.  A spring tooth harrow will flip the stones up to the surface where they can be picked up by hand.  Further stone removal can be done with a bobcat fixed with a yard stone rake that is capable of picking small stones

Larger bulldozers like the D-8 and D-9 class can be used for rough work and a D-5 or D-6 class used for the lighter finish work. It is important to note that the contractor should have an understanding of what it is you are trying to accomplish. I have seen many cases where a road construction contractor was hired to clear a food plot. All of the topsoil was piled up with the woody debris.

The topsoil was unrecoverable and the subsoil was so poor nothing could grow in it. Extra care must be taken by the operator to roll the stumps to shake off soil and to take care not to scrape off the very thin humus layer. There are only a couple of inches of organic rich soil on the surface of mountain land.  It is unrecoverable once it is mixed in with woody debris and moved off site.

In a real life example, I once tried to use a very small old dozer I bought at an auction to clear a food plot. I horsed around for hours trying to get small trees and big rocks moved. I finally went down to the local excavation contractor. Luckily, he had some free time and in two hours, I had a half-acre cleared. He used the right machine for the job and it cost me $200 dollars to get my plot cleared.

Big dozers can get a lot of work done fast, but it is difficult for them to get stumps and rocks off the site without pushing off the topsoil.

This Dozer with Root Rake

Track Hoes

Track hoes are most often used in highway construction to dig deep and load earth and rock. However, we often use them to rough in forest roads and to clear trees. A hoe of the proper size can push over trees and when equipped with a “thumb” attachment can pluck out a tree stump, roll it around to remove soil and set it aside. I once tried to use a combination of a hoe and medium sized dozer to clear an old pine plantation. It worked well and we got a good site prepared, but the cost of the hoe and the dozer combined ran up the cost and the time saved did not make this an efficient operation. A hoe big enough to remove trees will cost as much or more than a dozer that can do the same job.

Track Loaders

Track loaders are my favorite machines for clearing plots. The ideal size is a Cat 953 or 973 class. This machine has multiple capabilities. It is big enough to push over trees and has the ability to dig out stumps and big rocks and to push everything off the site. One of the best features is that it has long teeth on the bucket for digging. These can be used to “rake” through the ground, removing rocks and wood while leaving quite a bit of the topsoil in place. This machine and an operator costs about $75-$100 an hour. What can you get done in a day? In ideal conditions – ground with no rock and medium sized trees, I was able to get 5 food plots ranging is size from ½ to ¾ acre pushed off for around $3,000. The average cost to have woodland cleared is around $1,000 per acre.

Rock Removal

Before one can till the ground and plant, the bigger stones must be removed from the surface. For big jobs there are hydraulic stone pickers used by farmers in stony regions. Since these things are big, expensive and take a lot of wear and tear (maintenance) and it takes a lot of tractor to run one, it is best to find a custom farm contractor who has one and schedule a day or two of running it on your field.

A stone picker has a set of raker teeth and a bin for the stones. There is a rotary wheel that has sets of teeth that rake up the tocks and flip them into the bin. When the bin is full, the operator can dump it out. The routine is to run a big spring tooth harrow that will tear out any roots and big rocks, bring them up to the surface. Then work the stone picker over the field and dump the rocks off to the side.

The process is repeated until most of the stones are removed. This can go on forever, so you will have to decide when the ground is good enough to plant without ruining your planting equipment.

It takes big tractors to run this equipment. If you don’t want to spend the money, or it is just not available in your region, there is nothing better than good old hand labor. Having done it both ways, I would say that the heavy rock picking equipment is no better than a group of strong men with pry bars and healthy backs. I have a small spring tooth harrow that I bought at an auction for $300. For the money, this thing is the best piece of equipment I own. It has several replaceable “sweeps” or blades mounted on curved arms. These are held by strong coil springs.

When I plow with it and encounter rocks or roots, the arms can individually lift up out of the ground and over the obstruction. It does a great job of flipping subsurface stones up to the top where I can get at them. I then load them into the front bucket of the tractor and take them off the plot. Bigger rocks have to be dug out by hand or left alone. Just mark them and work around them when planting.

If rocks run deep, just take them from the surface and avoid bringing up more. On some sites, it seemed that the stones never stop coming to the surface. Just get the top layer of soil clean enough so that a disk harrow can be used to site prep for planting. Big stones will ruin your tillage equipment and getting this stuff fixed is a real pain in the wallet.

Early settlers cleared and picked rocks from mountain land to grow crops. Judging by the size of some of the stone walls around northeast Pennsylvania and throughout the Northeast, I imagine they spent generations picking stone prior to planting every year. They did it the hard way and we can too, if you want to save money. But a combination of power equipment and hard labor is the best way to clear a woodland food plot. Take your time and do it right. Once done, you will have a place to feed and attract game for a long time.

Using the Spring Tooth Harrow

Finishing Touches

Any freshly cleared woodland will need some pH adjustment and fertilizer to prepare a site that will grow forage crops. Grab some soil and get it tested while the digging is going on and apply lime and fertilizer accordingly. If the soil is extremely poor, you may need to add organic matter. I sometimes use what I call my “secret sauce” to very poor sites. This is lime-stabilized manure from chicken farms.  Chicken bedding is in big demand as it is great stuff high in nitrogen and can save a farmer a bundle on commercial fertilizer. So, it may take some shmoozing, arm-twisting and some cash to get a truckload spread on your land.  If you have a modern sewage treatment plant in the area, human manure that has been mixed with sawdust and lime.  This treated sludge is used in coal mine reclamation.  If you live in a coal state, you should be able to locate a contractor and get the necessary permits from your state environmental protection agency.

We often use sludge on mine reclamation sites here in Pennsylvania. Some of these sites are more like crushed stone than soil and yet, there can be beautiful stands of grass grown there after treatment. Brassicas grow thigh-high in this stuff.  There are licensed contractors who specialize in getting rid of sludge by applying it on mine sites. You can find them by contacting the Environmental Protection folks in your state or on the Internet.  The great thing about sludge is that the contractor who hauls and disposes of it is getting paid by the municipality to get rid of it.  His biggest problem is to find a place to take it.  It needs to go to very poor land because of the high nitrogen content and if you have it, they will want to spread on it.  You may even get some money for the use of your property.

Liquid manure from a cow farm is also good stuff and can be spread with a pump truck and disked in. As with chicken manure, most of this stuff is spoken for by the dairy farmer in his nutrient management system so it is not often easy to get.

I also like to use “green manure” systems when starting a food plot. Plant a stand of forage oats in the fall (a good food plot strategy anyway) and disk it in come spring prior to planting your legumes and chicory or whatever you plan on having there. The organic matter will provide moisture holding capacity and nutrients.


Well, I hope that gives everyone some ideas on how to correctly start a food plot on forested ground. It is not easy, but it can be done. Keep in mind that patience is a virtue when doing this. As soon as you take a shortcut, you increase the chances of failure and frustration. It may take three years to get a good plot going. It could cost you $2,000 an acre to get it right and a lot of time and effort. But it will pay off in the enjoyment of your hunting land and increased property value.

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.