Your food plots are in and the clover is thriving, but don’t think your work is over. There’s work to be done. In order to maintain those plots and keep them at their full potential, it’s vital to feed the good plants, get rid of the bad ones and keep an constant vigil on the health of your plot plants.
Jack Hazel, a food plot management consultant from Warrenton, Virginia, says the first thing you should do is conduct a soil test. You may have done one when you put the plot in or maybe you had the soil tested last year. Plants, however, are almost always using nutrients, and the soil is in a constant state of change. Your dirt may have been perfectly balanced last year, but it’s probably not anymore.
“It’s the best way to save money in the long run,” says Hazel, owner of Virginia Monster Plots. “If you can determine the nutrient levels in your soil, you may not have to put much or even any fertilizer or lime down now.”
He tries to conduct that soil test early in the year so he can apply lime and fertilizer when the plants actually need it. Pelletized lime can take up to six months to fully affect the soil, but there are fast-acting limes available, and Hazel favors them so they can do their work immediately. Hazel notes that soil with poor pH is worse than soil with poor nutrient levels. Lime helps plants absorb nutrients, so if the pH isn’t balanced, plants won’t fully benefit from a fertilizer application. If he does need fertilizer, he splits the application, putting about 40 percent of the necessary application down in the spring and the rest in the fall. He will, however, put down the full amount of lime, if it is needed.
“You have to get the pH right,” he insists.
Even if a plot is growing well and soil is amended just right, you’ll likely have a new crop of unwanted plants growing among your annual food plot plants. Weeds not only rob your clover and other perennials of limited nutrients, they also steal water and root space from the good plants. Hazel starts controlling weeds by mowing his plots, typically in June. The best way to tell if it’s time to mow is to simply take a close look at the weeds. If they are actively growing and are taller than the clover, break out the bush hog.
Hazel sets his mower blade about 8 inches high-low enough to hit the weeds, but tall enough to avoid most of the clover-and makes a single pass across each plot. It’s okay to cut some clover this time of year; it will grow back.
“Mowing cuts off the seed head on taller weeds, which will prevent the addition of new weeds in the future and it can actually kill many of the annual weeds that come up,” he says. “Of course, some weeds are actually beneficial to deer and other wildlife, so don’t go overboard on the weed control.”
Hazel will mow again if necessary, usually in the early summer and once again in the fall. He warns that fawns will often bed down in taller plants, so he’ll pay close attention as he’s making his rounds on his tractor during the first mowing. Turkeys will also nest in taller grass and a number of songbirds nest in open fields, as well. Waiting until late June can help avoid any problems with ground-nesting birds.
Hazel says mowing won’t control perennial grasses like fescue or wire grass, so he’ll resort to a selective herbicide like Poast or Whitetail Institute’s Pursuit, which kill grasses but not clover and other broadleafs. He’ll spray when those grasses are actively growing, usually in the mid to late spring.
It’s a never-ending process, but that’s what it takes to grow healthy food plots. It’s also a lot of work, but when that big buck walks out for another bite of clover this fall you’ll be glad you stayed on top of your food plots.