I couldn’t wait! After a several weeks of planning the day had finally arrived to take a walk with a conservation forester on our recently acquired property. The forester was nice to talk to and offered many useful insights on various aspects of habitat and timber management as we explored the sandy trails rimmed with a variety of trees and bushes, including various pines, spruce, soft maple, tamarack, cedar, birch, fir, and a smattering of young beech. During the “walk and talk” we were able to view several potential food plot locations that fit into the overall strategic property layout. I was extremely excited about the establishment of several future food plots and was interested in receiving constructive feedback from the forester. Well, that’s when the tour of the property began to turn from excitement, to disappointment. Although I can not recall the exact wording, the forester’s comments were something along the lines of, “No way, no how”, “Your soils are too bad”, and “You should plant rows of red pine instead of fields of clover”. Excitement had built over a year or more, quite a bit of reading, talking, and planning had taken place and to say these comments were a setback would have been an understatement. I was left to sulk and be defeated or seek more advice and stubbornly press forward. I’m not sure my admittedly familiar “stubbornness” would typically be considered one of my “qualities” by friends and family members, but looking back to that walk with the forester on that early spring day in 2000 that stubbornness was on my side. Now after six summers, fifty tons of lime, and over eight total acres of plantings on seventeen different food plots, experience with poor soils has shown me that one person’s “junk” can definitely be transformed into another person’s “treasure”.
Challenge in futility or hard work to be rewarded?
The initial setback with that particular forester was followed by a more positive meeting with the local Michigan State University agricultural extension agent. The extension agent assisted me in the process of collecting and obtaining the results from several soil tests and did a good job in explaining to me that although my potential food plot soils resembled great “blueberry land” (which I found was not a good thing!), the success of my plantings would boil down to three things: ph level, fertility, and moisture. First correct the soil ph, the plants could then use the appropriate fertilization levels, and if those plantings were completed at a time that would insure adequate moisture relative to the soil conditions and future germination and growth of the young plants, then success would be achieved. Also, to aid in the success crop rotations, if possible, would be highly recommended. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, there were just a few obstacles to overcome, including ph levels in the low 4’s to 5, fertility levels seemingly non-existent, various weed concerns, and primarily a sandy loam to sandy soil that went through water faster than my three year old son Jacob on a hot summer day.
Correcting the soil ph was labor intensive, initially high in cost, but fairly easy to complete. Over the years I’ve found that there are many ways to spread lime and they all work just fine. A couple tons with a shovel, a few tons with a hand-held broadcaster, over 10 tons by opening the bottom of a 50# bag and walking while waving your arms from side-to-side, and my favorite….a PTO mounted cone-shaped tractor spreader that can hold up to 1000#’s at a time. It all works; it just has to be done. Spreading lime is easy on the brain as well. As it states on the bags of lime I apply, “The time to lime, is anytime”, and that is so true. No worries on time of year, time of season, time of day, soil temperatures or weather patterns, just get it onto the soil and forget about it.
Improving the soil ph can take many months. My ultimate goal was to incorporate a crop rotation with clovers and possibly other perennials as a base, but initially clover was not appropriate. Low ph and poor fertility levels pointed towards seed varieties that were not as finicky. Also, weed problems would be a concern, so the use of chemicals to control potential weed growth was highly recommended to me by national QDMA board member, Ed Spinnazzola. While multiple herbicide treatments were recommended to significantly reduce future weed growth, there was still the task of attempting to improve soil fertility. Both eliminating weed growth and improving fertility levels would require patience, but I felt there was no reason I could not accomplish both at the same time. Sure, the perennial base was the ultimate goal, but I just can not stand to have nothing growing in a developing field while waiting for the perfect conditions to facilitate a more premium planting and I found improving both weed conditions and fertility can go “hand and hand”. Also, while developing your plot you and the local deer will be much happier if you limit the amount time your field is out of production.
With the use of less finicky annuals, coupled with herbicide treatments between plantings, weed control and soil fertility levels, not to mention plot utilization by the local deer herd, can all be completed at the same time. The two seed varieties that have worked best for me have been annual rye and buckwheat. Both seed varieties are extremely tolerant to poor soils, both are known as great soil builders, and both are competitive with weed growth. At the same time, both are attractive to deer and can be used at alternating times of the year. A soil building and weed control program utilizing annual rye and buckwheat can be carried out fairly easily as well when considering both seed types are easy to plant with limited equipment by simply broadcasting onto exposed soil before adequate rain is expected. Also, both require little moisture to germinate and are fairly drought tolerant for their respective “ideal” seasons of growth.
A typical new food plot I have installed has had very similar beginnings and has followed some pretty simple steps. Many new plots have started in May. In mid-May the local snow melt has just about completely dissipated and the fields are in acceptable working conditions. The site is cleared in some manner, either by the FEL on my tractor, light bulldozer work, or a combination of both. When the field is “level”, a minimum of 4 tons of lime per acre is then applied. Typically, the new field will sit until the first of June when our frosts and freezes have subsided and then buckwheat along with the recommended amount of fertilizer is broadcast onto the freshly exposed soil. After broadcasting, the field can be lightly disked or cultipacked, but if equipment is limited buckwheat has proven to germinate well with a simple broadcasting and adequate moisture. After six to eight weeks weeds are a common sight within the field and the new plot is sprayed for the first time to control weed growth. At the appropriate time for the region, annual rye is then broadcasted onto the field and can be planted as easily as the buckwheat. The new plot is then enjoyed by both deer and hunters for fall through early winter, and will stay green and productive through early spring. When the rye is reaching a foot or more in mid spring there begins a second round of various weeds, and in my region that typically includes bracken fern and sedge. Another shot of herbicide is used at this time, and the field again begins the buckwheat phase. By late summer the field can be sprayed a third time within a year, after three soil building crops of buckwheat and rye. Soil tests at this time have shown to be dramatically improved and it is at this time that the new food plot is ready for a “premium” planting, including a combination of annuals with a perennial base that will be maintained on a rotational basis with a life of two years or more if desired.
How fast can bad soils improve?
Looking back to that spring day in 2000 and that walk with the forester I was especially excited about creating one very remote plot on the back of the property. However, the forester recommended planting rowed red pines instead and explained that this location was most likely the worst location for a food plot due to its slightly higher elevation and light soils. I initially headed the warning, but after two full years of contrary experience on the rest of the property, I stubbornly created, limed, fertilized, and planted the ¾ acre plot on a long weekend, finishing on August 3, 2002 . Although the initial recommendation was much higher, due to financial constraints I instead applied 200#’s of 19-19-19 fertilizer per acre hoping that this would still be enough for a successful crop of annual rye that was planted at a rate of 100#’s per acre. After the lime, fertilizer, and seed was broadcasted onto the exposed soil of the freshly cleared field that consisted of scattered young pine, mature pine stumps remaining from logging activities in the early 80’s, and a few young spruce, the new field was then rolled with a lawn roller and ATV…my most convenient method of “cultipacking” at the time. I was then left to pretend to be a farmer, pray for rain, and wait for the results.
That particular field became a huge success, but it was no different than the rest of the many plots now scattered throughout the property. By mid-September the plot was a carpet of green and due to the remote location it was no surprise that this plot became and instant “hit” with the local deer herd. The attractiveness of the field was certainly welcomed, but when I took a soil test the following May and compared them to the initial sampling, the results were outstanding. Only nine months had passed from the time of the initial creating and planting of the plot, but the ph had already improved from 5.0 to 6.5, and that wasn’t all. Phosphorus levels on the plot increased from 5ppm (parts per million) to 12ppm, Potassium levels from 10ppm to 42ppm, Calcium levels from 50ppm to 278ppm, and Magnesium levels from 5ppm to 110ppm! The results of the “back” plot after only nine months had shown dramatic improvement, but my biggest question was what the results of initially my worst plot would show, the “creek” plot, after three years.
Of all of the food plots on the property, the creek plot is one of my favorite locations and design. Over a six-year period this first plot on the property was expanded from a one hundred yard ½ acre plot, to a twisting, partially half-moon shaped plot from 20′ to 40 yards wide, covering 250 yards, and eventually containing 1.5 acres of premium plantings. The plot is rimmed with a solid representation of young conifer, including spruce, fir, and white pine, but also contains the scattered stately beauty of mature white pine, cedar, and spruce. Of course, there is a creek nearby that includes two beaver dams within earshot to provide the gentle sounds of flowing water to a hunter that may be relaxing in a nearby tree stand while watching a ¼ acre trail and harvest plot extension on the north side of the “creek plot”. Although this particular plot has provided some of the best mature buck encounters, either by hunter or camera, and is now the 2 nd most consistently frequented food source on the property, the beginning was not very promising and you can imagine how curious I was in 2003 to receive the results of the three year soil test.
In May of 2000, the indicated ph of 4.1 seemed initially prohibitive, but three years and five tons of lime per acre later, the ph had been built to a “perfect” 6.9! Frequent successful crop rotations on the creek plot had also contributed to the overall increase in fertility levels, including: Phosphorus from 4ppm to 46ppm, Potassium from 20ppm to 58ppm, Calcium from 50ppm to 555ppm, and Magnesium from 5ppm to 200ppm! Also, consistent with soil tests from many other plots located on the property the recommended fertilizer amounts were reduced from levels as high as over 600#’s per acre, to in some cases 200#’s per acre or less.
Both the “Back” and “Creek” plots showed significant improvements during their respective soil test time periods, but the success on those plots was also paralleled by the other fifteen plots scattered throughout the property. The success, however, has not only been evidenced with soil tests, but by the consistent growth of the various plantings within the food plots and the apparent improvement within the local deer herd. Thousands of game camera photos, as well as hunter observation has revealed a fawn recruitment rate of at least one fawn for every mature doe during the past four years, which is double the local average. Also, contrary to the region average of at least 50% of all yearling bucks carrying small spikes, the majority of the yearling bucks are now multi-tined, including the property’s first yearling 8-point photographed numerous times throughout the 2005 growing season. During the hunting months however, is when the sharpest contrast of yearling buck development is realized as multi-tined resident yearling bucks are often replaced with the pencil-thin short spikes of the dispersing yearling bucks that are typical representations of the surrounding area.
Turning “junk” into “treasure” and establishing food plots in sandy soil requires hard work and patience, but with persistent dedication success can be achieved. By correcting ph and fertility levels, taking advantage of regional moisture trends, planting tolerant annual seed varieties that can be rotationally planted during warm and cold weather growing seasons, while at the same time addressing weed concerns between plantings, poor soil has the potential to yield a high quality and productive food plot for the continuous enjoyment by both the persistent land manager, and the local deer herd. It may take a little good old fashioned stubbornness, but great results can be experienced quickly as “blueberry land” is transformed into a soil building seasonal attraction, and finally into a weed less perennial paradise.