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Food Plots in the Forest

Posted: March 16, 2015

Many forest landowners have thought about establishing food plots to benefit wildlife. As a person who enjoys his forest very much, I decided to embark on the journey of establishing food plots five years ago and want to share my experiences with other landowners.

The first step to consider is: what is the goal of the food plot? Is it to increase deer herd health or simply to increase wildlife sightings? What species should the food plot attract? If the goal is to provide food throughout the year including winter, it must be large to provide adequate forage. In my experience, deer will quickly devour what you plant on small plots and may not receive the full benefit you hoped. In my case, the goal was to simply increase wildlife sightings during my favorite time of the year - October through December - so I established two food plots that total about 1.5 acres.

Finding the best location for establishing food plots is the next step. Existing fields or open areas in the forest are the best places to start looking. My land was 100% forested, which created a lot more work to develop the food plots. Finding the best soils is important to locating food plots as well. I used Penn State’s Soil Map website to locate the best soils on my property. I quickly discovered I have very few locations suitable for any kind of ag-related activities; fortunately one of the locations was an old log landing established during a prior timber harvest. The location was also very close to an area that provides thick bedding cover for deer and is close to a watering area as well. I began there. 

The log landing wasn’t large enough for the food plot I wanted, so we brought in a dozer and pushed out trees. Pushing out the trees reduced the amount of roots I had to deal with while preparing the site. The trees were cut for firewood and the tops created three very large brush piles for wildlife.

The next step is to do a soil test. I want to emphasize how valuable a soil test is when establishing a food plot. The soil test provides both lime and fertilizer recommendations to maximize crop production. I was not planning to sell an oat crop at the end of the season; however, it is important to make sure the soil can grow the crop chosen for the site. The soil test results for my food plot revealed I had a soil pH of 4.7 and I needed to apply 9000 lbs/acre of lime to raise the pH to grow turnips or clover. Had I not done the soil test I would have been left frustrated, not knowing why my clover and turnips did not grow. 

After lime and fertilizer were applied, the area was plowed, disked, and the larger rocks and roots were removed. Finally, it was time to plant.

There are several key points to remember if you are thinking about taking on this kind of project. First, it can get expensive if you have to pay somebody to remove trees for you. You will also need other equipment that does not come cheap, such as a plow and/or disk, tractor or ATV to pull the disk, lime, fertilizer, sprayer for herbicides, etc. All of these costs add up in a hurry. Second, it takes a lot more time than a person realizes to care for a food plot. As an absentee landowner time on my property is always too short.

It may sound as if I regret the decision to establish these food plots. That is certainly not the case. While deer were the main target, other wildlife have benefited. Now, I regularly see rabbits in the food plots. Turkey use the areas extensively and fox are often seen hunting mice as well. Of course, deer absolutely love the food plots. I have hundreds of pictures of these animals on my trail camera. And yes, there have been several deer harvested while they grazed there as well.