No matter how expensive the seeds or how much fertilizer you pile on, your food plots are unlikely to produce a lush stand of forage if you don’t control unwanted weeds and grasses. Ask yourself, if you were a deer and you had a chance to chow down on a plot where every bite was chock-full of high-protein, energy-rich forage or one where half the bite was tasty and beneficial and half was tough, stemmy, and laced with stickers, which would you choose?
Along with reducing a plot’s ability to attract deer and its palatability, weeds and grasses compete directly with your planted forage for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients—the three building blocks of a successful food plot. Eradicating weeds in plots is not hard, but it requires a multi-pronged approach. Follow this game plan for weed-free plots and you’ll have lush green stands of clover, alfalfa, and chicory almost totally devoid of unwanted vegetation.
1. Plant Annuals Before Perennials in Your Food Plot
The best way to prevent weeds is to start out with a soil bed free of them. The most effective way to do that is to plant a fast-growing annual in a food plot the year before you put in a perennial. Annuals will choke out the weeds because they grow fast. Also, an annual’s secretion of glucosinolates is toxic to many weeds.
Warm-season legumes such as soybeans, cowpeas, and lablab are good annual choices for spring plantings. For fall, cereal grains are acceptable, but brassicas are best. They grow large and effectively shade out weeds. One Michigan study showed that planting radishes reduced weed biomass by two tons per acre compared to a field left fallow. Any spring or fall annuals grown in the plot before planting clover, alfalfa, or chicory will start you off with nearly weed-free soil.
2. Spray Weeds to Kill Them Off
If you can’t plant an annual before to choke out competitors, your food-plot site probably has a mixture of weeds and grasses growing in it. Tackle them before planting by applying a non-selective herbicide such as glyphosate. Add a surfactant for better absorption of the herbicide. Using an ATV or tractor, spray it on the plot liberally, applying the strongest dose recommended. Make sure you cover all areas thoroughly. It’s easy to just get a partial kill if you apply it lightly or haphazardly. I sometimes go over the plot twice for insurance.
You’ll see some die-off within a few days but it may take 7-14 days to get a complete kill. If you see more than a hint of green at that point, spray again. Wait another 5-7 days before the next step.
3. Balance the pH of Your Food Plot’s Soil
Weeds thrive in acidic soil in the 5-6 pH range. Don’t give it to them. Do a soil test and add lime as recommended to bring the pH up to 6.5-7. That range is bad for weeds but perfect for all major deer forages.
4. Till or Disk the Soil Thoroughly
Tilling kills any remaining weeds and grasses by unearthing and chopping the roots. You can also mix in the lime when you till to neutralize the soil. The drawback to tilling is that it can uncover weed seeds buried in the soil bank and allow them to sprout. Wait a week and till again if new green shoots appear.
7. Add Needed Nutrients to Your Food Plot
Before your final tilling, add the amount of fertilizer that the seed bag you’re using recommends, or preferably, add it based on a soil test. Crops that have the proper nutrients grow stronger and taller with deeper roots, allowing them to outcompete weeds. Along with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, don’t forget sulfur, boron, and micronutrient needs as detailed on the soil analysis. A farm co-op or fertilizer company can help you get the right mix for your plot.
At this point, you should be about as weed-free as you can get.
6. Spray for Emerging Grasses Early
Despite your efforts, once the plot is growing, grass seeds unearthed in the soil will sprout, and seeds will fall in from surrounding areas. In most plots, these grasses are more of a problem than actual weeds. They compete heavily with alfalfa, clover, and chicory. Keep checking the plot, and when they appear, try to eradicate them quickly before they start competing with the forage.
Hit them with Arrest Max, Weed Reaper, or similar grass-killers such as Arrow, Select, or Poast. The two main chemical bases for these herbicides are sethoxydim and clethodim. Most food plotters feel the clethodim products work slightly better, but both will significantly reduce your grass problems.
If the herbicide you’re using doesn’t come with a surfactant, be sure to add it so the plants absorb the herbicide more efficiently. Read the directions carefully and follow all safety guidelines. Spray when the grasses are just 3 to 6 inches high. If they’re much taller than that, it will be hard to get a complete kill and you may have to spray twice. If the grasses don’t show signs of dying in 2 to 3 weeks, spray again.
7. Knock Back The Weeds Again With Herbicides
If broadleaf weeds are a problem, kill them with Butyrac 200 (2, 4-DB) or the Whitetail Institute’s Slay. Your county extension agent or the local farm co-op can offer advice on what local weeds are most problematic and other herbicides area farmers might use to tackle them. Generally, separate applications are recommended for weeds and grasses.
8. Mow Your Food Plot
This is best used in conjunction with spraying herbicides. But if you just don’t want to fool with chemicals, mowing can go a long way to control unwanted weeds and grasses. Chances are, even if you do spray, some weeds and grasses will remain. Wait until they grow taller than the clover, alfalfa, or chicory and start to form seed heads.
Set the mower just higher than your crop but low enough to clip the weeds and grasses. If the forage you’re growing is flowering, set the blade height low enough to cut off most of those blossoms, too. That makes the plants produce more succulent forage and keeps them from wasting energy growing seed heads. Mowing can be done several times as needed.
9. Spot Spray Your Plot With an Herbicide
Sometimes weeds are so spread out that you don’t really need to spray an entire plot. This is where hand-sprayers come in. You can use a simple hand-held or a larger backpack sprayer.
In some cases, a selective herbicide might be useful for this task, but if you’re spraying a variety of single unwanted plants, glyphosate is best. Walk or slip slowly along in a golf cart or ATV, spraying one weed at a time. Using this tactic, I’ve eradicated thistles from all my plot sites and have cut back substantially on pigweed, horsenettle, and several other stubborn, troublesome weeds.
Backpack sprayers are also a good choice for preparing small, isolated kill plots in the woods or in rough areas that you can’t get an ATV or tractor to. Adjust the nozzle to a wide spray setting and you can cover a small bow hunting plot by hand in a short time, or spray selectively if weeds aren’t widespread.
10. Use Hand Tools to Get Weeds Out of Your Food Plot
Don’t laugh. I sometimes use weed-digging tools like a sharp hoe or simply pull weeds out by hand. It works. Don a pair of thick leather gloves, grab the base of the plant close to the ground, and pull steadily—but not if you have a bad back.
Sure, if you have ten-acre plots you can’t hand weed them. But for the small property landowner with one-quarter to two-acre plots and isolated weed problems, pulling them out by hand or killing the roots with a hoe is a viable option. It’s not a solution by itself, just one more weapon to have in your arsenal for winning the war against weeds.