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UPDATED JUNE, 2022 / BY TRACKER OFF ROAD
All-terrain vehicles ATVs and side-by-sides are like off-road workhorses for hunters. ATVs can haul tree stands to the woods, bring out harvested game and get hunters from camp to hunt.
Did you ever think of ATVs or side-by-sides as an alternative for a farm tractor? Food plots are the reason, and the smaller size of these off-road vehicles provides more maneuverability in preparing and maintaining food plots. When rigged with proper implements, these versatile vehicles can get the job done with ease.
There are first steps you need to take before shopping for the tow-behind accessories needed to do the work. Food plot preparation begins with finding the best location on your lease or property. Next steps include preparing the soil, planting seed and maintaining the plot until the season begins.
Here’s how to do it, from start to finish.
Remember, it takes time and effort with field and soil prep before you even plant. Get started now so the entire process will have time to evolve. When opening day arrives, your food plot will be attracting more deer—maybe even from your neighbors—and you will enjoy the season even more.
Homes are built off a blueprint house plan, and you can apply the same idea to designing a food plot. Ideally, the potential area should be free of timber and brush. Look for a plot site that is between 1/2 to 2 acres. Anything smaller and the deer will consume or destroy the crops before they reach maturity. Anything larger and the bucks will be wary of feeding there during daylight. Square spaces are less preferred than long narrow plots, which provide more edge cover for the deer to retreat if startled. Old fields, utility rights-of-way, clear cuts and areas boxed in by timber are ideal locations to survey.
When you have narrowed the choices, take your food plot selection process to the next level. Sun angle, bedding areas and stand locations need to be considered. You increase your odds of attracting more and bigger bucks when factoring in those scenarios into your food plot blueprint. Flat sites are ideal. Choose slopes facing east or northwest if flat terrain is unavailable. The crops will benefit from the morning sun when the soil is cool, while protecting plants from hot afternoon sun in dry weather. Plots established near bedding areas and established stand locations sweeten the spot. For new plots, survey the tree line for prime stand locations.
If starting from scratch, you might need a farm tractor for the initial field prep. Use the tractor if discing, tilling or plowing are necessary to break up the soil hardpan. Ideally, this step should be taken in spring to lessen the work in the hot summer months. Before you begin, apply herbicide to eradicate all of the vegetation, grass included, or it will overcrowd the seedlings and prevent germination and growth. A general glyphosate herbicide will do the trick. Give the herbicide time to kill the vegetation, then take the next step. Be sure to check with your county extension agent about any regulations and recommendations regarding herbicides and application
Seedbed preparation is second to a soil test on the priority list of pre-planting routines. Make multiple passes with a cutting disc to break the surface, and do so when the soil is dry. Smooth the seedbed using a drag-type harrow, sometimes called a chain harrow, that can be attached to most full-size off-road vehicles. Drag it to break up small clods, and to remove any remaining weeds, rocks or other debris. The process will also level the plot and aerate the soil.
An easy step to forget—but the most important—is doing a soil analysis test to determine the level of nutrients in the plot space. The results will provide the recommended fertilization rates for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N, P, K) needed to make the soil suitable for planting. Get a soil test kit from a county or university agriculture department. Follow the directions on the kit and submit for testing. Do this annually before the season begins. Why is all this so important? Fertilizing replaces depleted nutrients that you must maintain to get maximum yield from the crops. Quality whitetail forage are good at taking up soil nutrients. Consider the process like feeding the soil. Equip the off-road vehicle with a pull-behind or mounted seeder and adjust the broadcast settings according to the recommended rate.
With the seedbed ready for planting, clean any fertilizer residue from the spreader. Calibrate it according to the seed brand’s recommended broadcast rate. Using a cultipacker, short-tooth harrow or drag harrow, cover the seed according to recommendations. Seed covered too deeply will not germinate; seed not covered enough will be eaten by birds and wildlife. Also follow any fertilizing recommendations for pre- and post-germination.
For the most part, all you need to do now is let the growing process do its thing. Shorter late summer and early fall days allow the soil to cool, while autumn rains keep soils moist. Just like your yard at home, weed control is a big part of growing successful crops during the warm season. Annual and perennial crops need selective herbicides that can be used to control undesirable grass or broadleaf weeds. Those can steal moisture and nutrients from your food plot. While you might have used glyphosate to kill all the grass and weeds for a new field, you must use selective herbicides later on in the growth stages. Your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a good knowledge resource for what weeds and grasses you might expect to encounter. The agents can recommend the best herbicide for any given application. If grass weeds are problematic, a grass-selective herbicide like sethoxydim will do the trick. For broadleaf weeds, choose a broadleaf-selective herbicide, like 2,4-DB. Use an ATV-mounted or pull-behind tank sprayer for the applications. Wear gloves, goggles, a facemask and follow all recommended safety precautions.
The list of available varieties of plants have grown exponentially as food plots have become mainstream with big game hunting. Legumes and clovers might not be ideal for some regions, while traditional grains could perform better elsewhere. Seek advice from NRCS agents or the seed companies about specific varieties that provide the most yield in your area.