Managing Soil Fertility in Wildlife Food Plots

Over the last several years there has been a steady increase in the number of soil samples being submitted to the laboratory requesting recommendations for wildlife food plots. This increase has been driven by changes in deer baiting laws in some of the states in our region. As a result, many of our agricultural retail and cooperative customers have been tasked with servicing this new customer segment. While the fundamentals of soil fertility management in food plots is no different than in production agriculture, the application of the management practices can be more challenging. The goal of this article is to provide some tips to better advise customers in this situation.

To begin, what recommendations do you request from the lab? If the food plot is going to only be one type of plant, such as corn, soybeans, or clover, request recommendations for that specific crop, but with a low yield goal. There is no reason to fertilize a food plot for 250-bushel corn or 75-bushel soybeans if the crop is not going to be harvested for grain. More commonly, food plots are established with a mix of plants containing legumes, brassicas, rape, radishes, and small grains. For this type of food plot, we have developed a “wildlife forage” recommendation set. These recommendations target a higher pH to accommodate the legumes and a relatively low rate of nitrogen to help establish the non-legume plants and not to inhibit the legume establishment.

One of the challenges with food plots is that they are generally established on forest soils that are naturally low in soil fertility. Often fertility recommendations will call for very high rates of phosphorus and potassium to build the soil test to a more desirable level. Do not try to do this in a single application. Split the recommended fertilizer rates into 2 or 3 applications throughout the growing season to avoid loss of the nutrients and to avoid potential salt injury to the seeds.

Another property of forest soils is that they often have an acidic pH. It is not uncommon for our recommendations to call for 4 or more tons of ag lime per acre. The challenge here is that most food plots are not accessible to spreading equipment capable of handling that volume of material. Utilizing pelletized lime in these situations is the best option. Pelletized lime provides 2 benefits as compared to traditional ag lime. First, you can use much less and second, it can be spread with a small conical fertilizer spreader. Since pelletized lime reacts much faster than ag lime, it should only be spread at rates up to 500 pounds per acre. However, pelletized lime will have to be spread more frequently. For soils with a very low pH, it may take annual applications of pelletized lime for 4 or 5 years to get the pH to the desired level.

If you have questions about adjusting fertilizer and lime rates based on the products and equipment that you have available, contact your ALGL agronomist. Happy Hunting!

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