By: Ed Spinazzola
This article outlines a frost seeding technique for establishing high-quality food plots in small areas. It is the result of numerous trial and error experiments dating back to 1982. My results have shown that, with the proper equipment and techniques, high-quality "mini food plots" can
be established with inexpensive hand held equipment.
Frost Seeding Basics
Basic frost seeding is a technique where a cool-season forage, such as red clover, is broadcast over an existing pasture or food plot where quality forage has been depleted. Like the name implies, frost seeding is done while the soil is still freezing and thawing. Late February through early March is an ideal time in most areas.
In Michigan where I live, I wait for most of the snow to melt and after a good freeze before broadcasting the seed. This also is a great time to conduct a browse survey, look for shed antlers, and scout for deer. Basic frost seeding over existing pastures works best if it has been extensively grazed or mowed the previous fall. This exposes the soil for the most important ingredient for successful frost seeding - good seed to soil contact. The freezing and thawing action helps ensure good seed contact with the soil. Early spring rains make a slurry of the soil surface, which further enhances seed to soil contact. The existing sod helps prevent water and seed run off.
I have never been completely satisfied with the results of frost seeding into existing sod fields. Almost always, the sod provided too much competition for adequate germination and growth, especially in the upland areas where the soil quality or soil moisture was inadequate. Since the lower soil elevations were usually the better soil types and had better vegetative growth, it was obvious I should concentrate my efforts there.
Through the years I have tried several variations of frost seedings and sometimes the results would encourage further experimentation. In the past few years, I have concentrated my experiments to develop food plots for secluded hunting sites. This has led me to the following type of food plot, which I think will work well for those of you in the northern states.
These are the hand tools you will need: A backpack sprayer (3-gal. minimum) with a hand pump which delivers pressure on demand. It works better with a 20-inch extension, which allows you to spray a 10-foot wide swath. I would recommend removing the existing plastic flat spray nozzle and replacing it with a stainless steel nozzle, which can be purchased at most farm supply stores. This stainless steel nozzle should last many years and has a larger spray volume and wider spray path than the plastic nozzle. You also will need a hand operated, over the shoulder broadcast spreader. This type of spreader is used for both seed and fertilizer. It will broadcast up to a 12-foot swath and can hold up to 35 pounds of seed. Lastly, you will need a small to medium sized chainsaw.
Site Selection and Management
When considering potential sites, consider access, adjacent habitat types, and soil quality. For your bow sites, clear an area 1/8- to 1/4-acre (75- to 105-foot diameter) in size. Another option is to create travel lanes leading to your bow site. These open lanes need to be from 15- to 30-feet wide depending on overstory. Your planting should receive a minimum of 50 percent of the available sunlight. These cleared areas and lanes can be created with your chainsaw. At this point, do not be too concerned where the trees fall or about removing them. This clutter can be helpful because it creates a sense of security for the deer. An ideal spot for lanes are along drainages or other existing natural travel corridors.
For your firearm sites, your shooting lanes can be longer and straighter. If you decide to make the length of your shooting lanes about the same as your maximum shooting range, you can clear an opening at the far end as a feeding site. The size of this food plot clearing can be from 1/8- to 1/4-acre or larger. For these sites, you would need to have most of the trees removed from the shooting lanes to minimize trimming required for clear observation.
In many areas the necessary clearing for a "mini plot" already exists. Patches of bracken fern can be converted to high-quality food plots if sufficient lime is added to the soil to raise the pH above 5.5. I wait until about the third week of May (until the top leaf of the bracken fern begins to unfold) and spray with a non-selective herbicide such as Roundup. I recommend buying Roundup in concentrate form, which saves considerable expense when compared to pre-mixed concentrations. Typically, at 1/4-cup of Roundup per gallon of water, you should spray at least 2 2/3 acres per gallon. This works out to around $20 per treated acre. Around the end of June, you will have to spray again. A final spot spraying around the middle of September will be necessary for a complete kill. When applying the herbicide (whatever you use) follow the label instructions carefully. It's always a good idea to walk with the wind at your back or walk backwards to avoid being doused in herbicide. You should always wear latex gloves, a face mask, and change your clothes after spraying. Also keep a gallon of clean water handy in case of accidental spills.
Since this type of food plot construction includes clearing and spraying, do not plant during the year of spraying. The May spraying starts the decomposition of the vegetation (tops and roots) and the additional spraying assures minimal native vegetation competition. By next spring planting time, there will be plenty of exposed soil to ensure good seed-to-soil contact and just enough dead matter to help keep the soil cool and moist. This practice is similar to spreading straw over newly planted grass seed.
The following late winter or early spring < preferably the first half of March - broadcast your seed. You can also broadcast the first application of fertilizer at this time. Broadcast 200 lbs of 7-27-27 (or similar) per acre when seeding legumes. If not seeding legumes, broadcast 200 lbs of 16-16-16 per acre. You may have your own preferred seed type or you can. When in doubt contact your county extension agent for recommendations. But, whatever you do, plant a seed type that can germinate without being worked mechanically into the soil (legumes, brassicas like rape and turnips, and grasses).
Recommended Seed Mixes
My preferred legume mixture consists of 3 lbs of ladino clover, 3 lbs of red clover, 3 lbs of alsike clover, and 3 lbs of birdsfoot trefoil per acre. As with other legumes, you will need to inoculate the seeds prior to planting. You will need one type of inoculant for the clovers (ladino, red, and alsike) and a different one for the birdsfoot trefoil. Many of the common varieties of inoculants are available at most farm supply stores and some stores will even inoculate and mix the seed for you. My recommended legume mix works well in most lower-elevation soils and can tolerate somewhat acidic soils (5.5 pH or higher).
The ladino clover is the most sensitive to soil acidity, but the most preferred by deer. Ladino is also self-seeding. Ladino is nothing more than the common white clover in your lawn, which has been improved to a hybrid variety that produces better. Red clover is short-lived (2 years), but is a good first year producer and nurse crop. Alsike clover also is very hardy and palatable.
Birdsfoot trefoil is one of my favorites. It can take a long time to establish itself (3 to 4 years) but once established, it can compete with aggressive native grasses.
It is easily recognized by its yellow blooms that persist all summer. It resembles alfalfa in appearance but is not as sensitive to site selection. Birdsfoot trefoil is more than a substitute for alfalfa. It will grow in moderately acidic soils (5.5 pH), can get its feet wet, reseeds itself, grows during the summer and dry years, is non-bloating, less stemmy, and has similar nutritional value as alfalfa. If well established, birdsfoot trefoil is long lived. From my years of close observation, checking actual plants consumed, and watching deer graze it readily, it appears to be preferred.
Planting in the woods in the cluttered lanes does not allow for mowing and this will affect legume productivity and longevity. Likewise, heavy browsing by deer will affect longevity of the plot. However, there¹s a good chance deer will hit it hard during spring, ease up on it during the summer, and then hit it again in late summer and fall. That summer break is critical for the food plot to catch its breath and recharge itself. If the summer break does occur, it¹s a good sign that deer have access to other nutritious vegetation.
As with all food plots, fertilization is strongly encouraged. In addition to the initial fertilizer application at planting, I recommend another 200 lbs. of 0-27-27 applied around the first of August. The first application is for the deer. The second one is primarily for you. It improves your chances of seeing deer during the hunting season. If you apply fertilizer once, be prepared to broadcast at least 100 lbs per acre of 0-16-16 in an emergency dry period.
If you have the time and resources, I recommend five applications (this is more important in sandy soils). Apply 100 lbs of 0-27-27 on the first of April, May, June, July, and August for a total of 500 lbs of 0-27-27. Fertilizer encourages the plant's root system to make more efficient use of water. Your food plot will have a spurt of growth in spite of an apparent lack of moisture. The more burned out your food plot looks, the more it could use fertilizer. Liming for a minimum of 6.0 pH in these trashy food plot lanes is difficult and much more expensive. Lime is inexpensive ($40-$70 per acre) and easy to apply when done in an open field with a commercial spreader. This isnt the case if done manually with pelletized lime. Manually broadcasting 4,000 lbs. on your one-acre food plot is time and labor intensive and can cost $200 or more per ton of pelletized lime. Though lime can be expensive, having the proper soil pH is essential to the success of any food plot.
These techniques for "mini plots" were the result of my experiments here in Michigan over the course of nearly two decades. Your own experimention will help you fine-tune these techniques to the soils and plants that grow best in your area.
The results of your hard work and experimentation will be high-quality food plots that greatly benefit the whitetails on your land. They also provide great hunting opportunites when deer season rolls around.