By Chase Furstenau, Wildlife Pursuit
As we reach the end of a long, brutal winter, a part of me can’t help but to start thinking about spring food plot preparations for my hunting grounds. This is the time of the year we should be ironing out all the wrinkles on what worked best and what didn’t last year. Ask ourselves, “What could we do to improve what we plant, and how we can conserve the soil for future plotting?”
I have been planting food plots for a number of years now, and by no means am I an expert, but I have come to find out what draws deer out of cover during the different times of the hunting season. You could call it a food plot buffet. It takes a variety of crops to suit a deer’s needs throughout the course of a season.
I prefer to hunt over and plant for an early season bow hunt. From observing deer in my surrounding areas in the late summer and early fall, I have come to find out that I must incorporate alfalfa in my plots. In my immediate area, from my experience, alfalfa is the best calling card for early season whitetails. There are a lot of clover/alfalfa seed mixes on the market today. I would recommend staying away from any clover mixes mainly because a pure alfalfa seed will grow in any soil condition and be much less susceptible to over grazing or mowing than any clover ever will.
Where to Plant
One of the nice things about alfalfa is that it doesn’t take a 5-10 acre area to plant to be able to get deer to feed on it. The ideal location would be a beautiful 1-5 acre meadow that is easily accessible, yet protected from outside disturbance. Not everyone, including myself has this luxury.
I like to plant alfalfa in small subdivisions amongst a larger food plot of a dry grain crop. These subdivisions can be as small as a quarter of an acre up to 5 acres, depending on land size, equipment, and budget. The most ideal location to plant, would be in an active travel corner of a field bordering a tree line or a strip along the tree line where deer would first enter a food plot. This is the perfect staging point to where deer are first going to make an appearance and feed briefly before going into open country to feed all night. Having an alfalfa plot will only entice them earlier when shooting light is still available.
The easiest part about an alfalfa plot, besides hunting, is planting it. Growing alfalfa gives you the option of being able to plant a Round-Up ready variety. This allows for optimal weed control to get the most tonnage out of the plot. I highly recommend investing the extra money on a Round-Up ready variety from your local co-op.
Now that you have your seed, it’s time to prep the soil. It’s best to wait to plant until you are pretty sure the last frost has come and gone. You can plant all the way up to mid-summer. As in any first planting you can do yourself a lot of benefit by spraying the area where sod will be broken with Round-Up the fall before you plant, or 10-14 days before you plan to break up with sod.
Once the sod is broken up into small enough chunks, or the existing plot is worked, exposing fresh dirt, I like to run a harrow over to make a slightly even soil bed. The best way to seed is by broadcast method. This can be done by hand, lawn push type, ATV pull type, or larger tractor pull type.
Any way works as long as you look for a 14-20 lbs/acre spread. Once you have it spread you can either harrow over the plot once or twice, run a cultipacker over it, or simply use your ATV, pickup, or tractor tires. What ever it takes to get the seed to make contact with the soil, that’s all it takes.
I said the easiest part is planting it and hunting it for a reason. If you want to be able to benefit 100 percent from your alfalfa plot, you need to maintain it, which means mowing it or cutting it for baling. If you don’t keep alfalfa controlled, it will get too mature, woody, and sour, and not even a starving cow will eat it. Now, I know not everyone has, or knows someone who has hay cutting and baling equipment. This isn’t a huge problem. Its time to invest in an ATV or tractor-size, pull-type mower. I prefer an ATV size, gas operated, pull-type mower simply because ripping around on a four wheeler makes it not seem like work, but more like playing around.
In the first year of growth, (assuming a Round-Up ready variety is used and proper weed control is done by spraying) you want to let the plant get well established before mowing the first time. That second growth will be more tender and sweeter than the first, making it an even better calling card.
During the second year of growth, it is important to do maintenance mowing 2-4 times a year right after the alfalfa flowers. Ideally the 3rd or 4th time, depending on location, should be done 2-3 weeks prior to hunting. This allows the most tender, and sweetest growth of all the cuttings to establish just in time to get that monster buck you’re after off his feet and into your set-up.