What to do When Summer Food Plots Fail

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Food Plots Fail

We’ve all been there.  We put in a lot of effort preparing the soil, spend a lot of money on seed and soil amendments, plant our seeds and…nothing, your food plots fail.  The lush plot full of nutritious forage you envisioned looks like a patch of weeds and bare dirt.  When it comes to growing food plots in small areas of forested land, many things can go wrong.  Too much rain, not enough rain, too much browse pressure, turkeys eat the seeds, soils are sand and stones, the ground was full of weed seeds.

I once had a hunting club client run me off when their plots ended up with nothing but giant thistle plants.  I put a lot of N on the patch and planted brassica.  They forgot to tell me that they had for years put round bales of hay in the fields in winter.  When I tilled I created the perfect setting for the weed seeds that were laying dormant in the soil to germinate.  Deer ate the forage as fast at it came up and the weeds thrived on the fertilizer I put down.

Now I have a client who I convinced to put in plots and to buy equipment to keep them in good shape.  Due to late planting, too much deer pressure and some really poor soil, the plots I planted are looking pretty sad.  I put 5 bags of soybeans down and I don’t even have one full sized bean plant.

Back to the Drawing Board

When this happens, we just have to take our lumps and regroup and start over.  Too often, when food plots fail, the landowner gives up.  Especially in club situations where you have some neighbobs who give the food plotter the “I told you so” routine.   there is always that guy who didn’t want to spend the money on food plots and take great pleasure in your failure.  But, when you have failure, you just have to learn from it and adapt.  If beans arent going to work because of overbrowsing plant something else that’s also attractive forage.  Maybe oats would thrive in this situation.

In the case of the client whos summer food plot has failed to grow, I have determined that the soil is so darn rocky that the seed drill could not handle it.  There was very uneven seed depth and alot of seeds were sitting on or near the surface.  Every time I drove by there were turkeys feeding – probably eating much of the seed I put down.  The beans that germinated got nipped off before they could put out a good sized leaf.  Weeds moved into the open space.  So, if I want beans, I will have to get rid of stones and put up an electric fence to keep deer off of it until it develops.

To get rid of stones, one can run a spring toothed harrow and hand-pick them, throwing them into your tractor bucket and dumping them to the side.  this works but you never run out of rocks to pick.  Another method is to run a wind rower and pick up the stones with a sifting bucket or a rock picker.  Again, this gets a lot of rocks but not all.  On this piece of land, we will run an FAE rock grinder.  This machine will make sand out of the surface stones down to several inches deep.  Its expensive, but the stones problem will be solved.

Replanting Failed Food Plots

To start over, spray any weeds that have come up and do it before they go to seed.  Prep the soil if needed but I prefer that everyone start using no-till methods.  Then plant something that will surely grow into forage.  In this case, I am waiting until the end of summer and go ahead with my winter planting.  I am using awnless winter wheat and forage oats at 30lbs each and 10lbs of brassicas (kale, radish, traptor.)

Hind Sight

When results are bad, use it as a learning experience and don’t give up on it.  Food Plot failures are common, especially when they are new.  There is a reason why woodland is not a farm – the early settlers knew it wasn’t good land to grow anything on.  If you’re lucky enough to have old farm fields to work with all you have to do is terminate what is growing there, apply soil amendments and plant.  When clearing woods to plant, you will be dealing with acidic soils, stones, stumps and thin topsoil.

Replanting Failed Food Plots

To start over, spray any weeds that have come up and do it before they go to seed.  Prep the soil if needed but I prefer that everyone start using no-till methods.  Then plant something that will surely grow into forage.  In this case, I am waiting until the end of summer and go ahead with my winter planting.  I am using awnless winter wheat and forage oats at 30lbs , 10lbs of brassicas (kale, radish, traptor) and crimson clover.

Try Different Plants and do More of What Works

In the failed food plot mentioned above, I planted tillage radish immediately after the land was cleared.  It started slow but turned into a fantastic looking plot which the deer demolished in short order.  So, obviously, brassicas will be a big part of my seed application this fall.  I also want to introduce winter wheat.  I know this will grow here because wheat can handle some harsh environments.  Since we didn’t get a crop of beans to bring N from the air into the soil, I will probably have to apply some at planting time.  If one of the plants I put in doesn’t make it, we will eliminate it and try something else.

Once we have a very successful plot, and there is a good cover crop established, it will be easier to control weeds and the soil will greatly improve.

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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