Wildlife Food Plots 101 - First Steps

With spring just a few months away many of us are thinking about planting a food plot to attract deer, turkey, and other wildlife.

While there are many brands and types of food plot seed mixes, they all have one thing in common. If you read the fine print, they all recommend performing soil pH testing.

Soil is rated by its pH in a scale that runs from 1 to 14, with 7 considered neutral. Below 7 the soil is acidic, and above is alkaline. Here in Indiana, most of the soil is acidic and needs to have supplements added to bring it back to a neutral state.

So why is this important?

Deer biologist Jeremy Flinn explained it in a recent article.

“Acidic soils basically places “handcuffs” on a plant, preventing quality root development and a decrease in the overall health of the soil. More importantly, if you decide to fertilize your food plot, you end up wasting most of it!”

“How so? Well, as the acidity of the soil becomes stronger, the plant loses its ability to absorb the nutrients, particularly Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. For example if your soil pH is around 5.5, then you are wasting 1/3 of the N-P-K fertilizer you are using! And we all know that fertilizer isn’t cheap. No, it doesn’t evaporate, it gets “bound” up in the soil. Basically although it is sitting there, it is unavailable for plants to use”.

So what should be done?

Just like is noted in the instructions sold with any seed mix, soil testing should be performed.

There are many tools and “hacks” being used, but most of them are inaccurate at best, and may lead to improper supplements and exacerbating the soil pH at worst.

A common device found in just about any hardware store, garden shop, or department store is a pH meter. The device appears to be easy to use, however, in our testing, it proved highly inaccurate.

When used as instructed in proposed food plot, the pH meter gave a reading of 8.5 pH, indicating the soil was alkaline.

The next test we performed was using a “hack” found on the internet. The test involved mixing common vinegar in one soil sample and baking soda in another sample. If the vinegar and soil slurry foamed the sample is considered alkaline. If the baking soda and soil slurry foamed, the sample is considered acidic. In our testing, neither sample foamed up, indicating the soil was neutral.

The vinegar test failed to fizz.

The baking soda failed to fizz.

The last test we performed was to send a sample of the soil to a testing lab. The test was less than $10 and within a few days our soil sample results were sent to us.

Along with giving the pH, the soil test also tells how many pounds of fertilizer are required, and in what ratio and pounds per acre.

Along with many other bits of information the test results for our soil was a pH of 6.0, which is acidic.

By using proven scientific procedures the testing lab produced results that contradicted the previous dubious hacks and cheap tool testing.

Along with getting accurate results, the test lab also provided the amount of lime to add per acre to the soil. The report also gave the amount and percentage of fertilizer to use. This is very important. Flinn explains why.

“So how does lime or more specifically calcium “fix” the problem? Like I said earlier, Calcium (Ca) is what is what actually helps neutralize the soil. The calcium bumps off hydrogen that is bound to the soil, replacing them. The now floating hydrogen is formed into carbon dioxide and water. The calcium left behind not only has neutralized the soil, but made more calcium available to the plants which is actually the most required essential nutrient in the soil, even more than Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium!”

Lesson to be learned: Don’t waste time and money on cheap tools, Internet “hacks”, or supplementing your soil improperly. Have a soil pH sample completed by a professional lab and use the results to target exactly what needs to be done to get the most out of your food plot and your money.