How to Grow Great Food Plots with Less Herbicide and Fertilizer
As more food-plotters look to scale back on herbicides, a handful of experts are perfecting ways to do it while still growing killer plots. Here's how
In honor of Earth Month—and Earth Day later this week—we’re celebrating the best way we know how: with a series of stories that are all about getting outside and getting your hands dirty to benefit wild places and wildlife. Every day this week, we’ll share articles about habitat projects, gear-repair tips, and conservation calls-to-action. Welcome to Dirt Week.
Remember when you put in your first food plot? You probably had little more in mind than maybe seeing a few more deer in the fall, right? But something happens to food-plotters. Almost inevitably, we come to see ourselves as land stewards and habitat managers, first for deer specifically and then for wildlife more generally. This sort of thing has been happening for decades and not just on an individual basis; as a community of hunter-conservationists, we want to do as much as possible to enhance habitat for wildlife—and as little as possible to harm it.
It explains why more and more food-plotters these days are looking to cut back on chemical herbicides. “We’ve been noticing this trend for some time now,” says Lindsay Thomas Jr., Chief Communications Officer for the National Deer Association. “The phone has always rung with general food-plot questions, but now it’s, How do I make a food plot without herbicides?” It’s part of an ongoing trend, he notes. “The food plot revolution came along and led naturally to a more holistic habitat approach—to timber work and no-till plotting and now to providing habitat with minimal negative impact on the land.”
High-profile court cases suggesting that glyphosate is connected to cancer have no doubt played a role. But so have concerns over herbicides killing unintended targets, like pollinators and the bugs that naturally enhance the soil. “The science is pretty clear that if you use glyphosate strictly according to the label, it is safe,” says Thomas. “Still, it makes perfect sense to minimize its use.”
For a lot of us, it simply boils down to this: If you can have great plots either way, why not use less?
Do You Need a Food Plot, and How Pretty Does It Have to Be?
The surest way to reduce the use of herbicides in foot plots is to not grow food plots. In fact, you can significantly boost the amount of deer forage on your ground without ever planting a seed. Forest thinning and burning bring sunlight to seeds that are already present and promote the growth of forbs and other understory plants that produce deer forage on a similar level to food plots with a lot less work.
Thomas points to a study by Craig Harper with the University of Tennessee in which a typical woodlot with 2 to 3 percent available sunlight produced 100 to 125 pounds of quality deer forage. By getting that sunlight up to 30 percent, the forage production increased to 750 pounds. At 50 percent, it jumped to 1,250. “In addition to the native plants that pop up, there will be some weeds and invasives in the seed bank,” Thomas says. “So you may need to control some of those by spot-spraying. But that’s a far cry from spraying a whole field.”
But if it’s a food plot you’re after, the simplest way to start one with a minimum, or perhaps even no, herbicide is to find a spot with no recent history of agricultural use, because it will have many fewer weeds to begin with, says Thomas. A recent log landing, an opening in a cutover or thinned-out woods, or a woods road is perfect. In many cases, you can simply clear debris and leaf litter, amend the soil if necessary, and simply plant ahead of a good rain.
If you don’t have a place like this and you still want food plots, then you’ll probably need to use some herbicide to get started. Everyone I’ve talked to for this article uses herbicides at least occasionally, as do I. They’re incredibly effective. But again, if your goal is to use less of it, then once the plot is established, you can you any follow any of the procedures below.
And you can simply accept that your plot is going to have some weeds. It may not even be a problem, says Thomas. “It’s really important to learn the weeds you’re seeing. In many cases, either they aren’t numerous enough to be an issue, or they might be something deer eat. If it’s ragweed, pokeweed, or wild lettuce, for example, you can just leave them alone. You plot doesn’t have to look like a putting green. The deer don’t care.”
The Herbicide-Free Discing Method
One effective way to control weeds without herbicides is to simply till them under. The downside to that, if you ask any no-till food-plotter, is that disrupting and exposing the top layer leads to erosion and results in poorer soil. But Dave Richmond of Whitetail Obsession Outdoors has developed a program that has not only eliminated the need for herbicides in many of his plots, but also addresses many of the concerns some managers have about tilling. So, if your current program involves tilling or discing, Richmond has a few tweaks that’ll help you use fewer herbicides—and eventually less synthetic fertilizer, to boot.
“If I’m starting out with brand-new ground that’s never been touched, I always do a soil test,” he says. “A lot of people skip this step, but you shouldn’t. Weeds thrive in acidic soil. So, if you bring up the pH, you’ll have fewer weeds right off the bat.”
After amending the soil, if necessary, Richmond simply plows that initial green growth into the ground. “By discing, I don’t need to use a weed killer, but here’s the trick: I never disc unless I’m ready to plant.” This way, the soil is exposed for a minimal amount of time, and the plowed-under green matter helps it hold moisture, he says. “Then I’ll immediately plant a cover crop, like buckwheat, and if I time it ahead of a rain, which I always try to do, that buckwheat will pop up in a matter of days.”
When the buckwheat matures in summer, before it goes to seed, Richmond discs that under at the same time he plans to sow his fall seeds. “The quickest way I’ve found to improve the soil is to turn that green material back into the ground to create green manure and natural fertilizer. Buckwheat has a high-moisture content, too, which keeps the soil from drying out.” He mows the buckwheat first, so it won’t get hung up in the disc, turns it into the soil, and then plants immediately afterward.
With a clean slate, Richmond can plant whatever he wants at this point, but he especially like winter wheat. “It germinates very quickly, keeps weeds at bay, and improves the soil. Also, it stays green all the way into the late season. Then in early spring, it’s the very first thing to green up, and those deer are getting all that forage and tonnage.” Richmond says you can let that wheat mature through summer ahead of your fall planting if you want, but he prefers to disc it under when it’s green, holding moisture, and providing natural fertilizer.
“The proof is in the soil samples.” he says. “If you do this process for two or three years, you will see those samples improve, and you’ll need less synthetic fertilizer to have healthy, green plots.”
The Herbicide-Free No-Till Method
No-till food plots have become a huge deal in recent years for a bunch of reasons. Because they don’t involve breaking sod, they’re much easier to create with minimal equipment, which has allowed average deer hunters to take their food plotting to new levels. Just as important, no-till is generally thought of as better for the soil. As the no-tillers often say, “When you till it, you kill it.”
The problem with no-till, up till now at least, is that the typical program, even with established plots, has involved at least one or two applications of herbicide. It wasn’t long ago that if you said you were going to try no-till plotting without herbicides, you’d be giving folks a good laugh. But a few of today’s plotters are figuring it out, and one of them is Jared Van Hees, owner of the Habitat Podcast and Co-owner of Vitalize Seed Co. Van Hees, a passionate habitat manager, says he has nearly eliminated the need for herbicides in established plots.
Like his fellow plotters above, Van Hees uses a summer cover crop to keep weeds at bay. “I’ve had good luck sowing buckwheat in the spring,” he says. “I’ll let it grow to that ‘milk’ or ‘dough’ stage, when the plant is putting all its effort into growing seed and is easy to terminate, and then I’ll knock it down. Van Hees has rolled buckwheat with a Packer Maxx cultipacker by itself, as well as with a crimper attachment made by Lincoln at Packer Maxx . “You’ll have better results with a crimper, but the cultipacker does fine—though you may have to drive over it several times.”
He has experimented with sowing his fall seeds into the buckwheat before and after rolling. “I like to sow into the standing buckwheat, now, as most of the seeds drop down through the foliage to the soil level. It’s especially effective with smaller seeds like brassicas and annual/perennial clover. But you can sow bigger seeds, too, like beans and peas; you just need to up the seed rate by at least 50 percent, and more often 100.”
As effective as the buckwheat program has been, the smother crop Van Hees has come to prefer is cereal rye. “Rye is allelopathic; in the same way a walnut tree has a drip line inside of which nothing will grow, rye suppresses the growth of competing plants. So, it has the double benefit of producing a lot of deer forage and keeping weeds down all spring and summer.”
Van Hees broadcasts cereal rye at 100 pounds per acre right into his fall plantings, usually in September. As it matures in the spring and summer, it crowds out, shades, and naturally suppresses weeds. Then, when Van Hees is ready to do his fall planting, he sows into rye and then rolls and crimps it, just like with the buckwheat, creating a thatch that holds moisture, prevents erosion, and builds the soil.
Van Hees has not only vastly reduced the need for herbicides in his program, but he is gradually phasing out the need for synthetic fertilizers as well. “Summer crops like buckwheat and rye prevent weed growth and legumes pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and feed it into the soil. Meanwhile, the roots of all these plants mine nitrogen and other nutrients from the ground and bring it up to the top soil layer. Then when you knock that summer crop down, the thatch layer becomes a slow-release fertilizer, also retaining moisture and preventing erosion.” It’s not an overnight thing, he says. “You have to wean your way off of synthetic fertilizer, but in time, you can get to a place where you need very little herbicide or fertilizer to have fantastic plots.”