The terms “no-till” or “no-plow” can be very misleading when it comes to food plot products. I believe when companies use these terms it gives “newbies” a false sense of hope – it tells them that it’s acceptable to cut out an important step in the planting process and everything will be OK. The problem being that these types of products are often sold to first-timers or food plot farmers don’t have the equipment necessary to complete all the planting steps according to the book. The truth is: If you do follow a few key steps these smaller, “honey-hole”-type plots can be created, and they can be very effective at attracting mature bucks during legal shooting light.
The more steps you skip in the planting process, the more you will sacrifice in attraction, yield and palatability until you get to a point where you have a total failure. Is it possible to plant a food plot without working/turning the soil? Absolutely; however, if you’re going to skip this very important action, some of the remaining steps become much more essential and must be completed correctly.
To begin, choosing a crop that will do well in often less-than-desirable planting conditions is crucial. These small hidey-hole-type plots are often located within and/or very close to timber. Will it get full sun … partial sun …? Not all crops may be suited for one area or another. Areas off the beaten track that haven’t been farmed before will almost certainly have acidic soil in our region. Pelletized lime spread on the surface may help, but without the ability to incorporate lime into the soil to reduce the acidity, you should choose a crop that will do well in a lower pH.
The size of the seeds must also be taken into consideration. For the most part, you’ll need to use small seeds with a planting depth of half an inch or less. If you aren’t working the soil to prepare a deeper seedbed, you’ll have to utilize what Mother Nature left you. So that means large seeds such as corn, beans and peas with a planting depth of an inch or more will likely need to be passed on unless you do have an implement to bury the seeds the appropriate depth, or an awful lot of “elbow grease.” Instead, small seeds such as clovers, brassicas, chicory and some cereal grains will need to be your choices.
For late summer/fall planting (North or South) there are numerous choices – products with cereal grains or brassica blends with plants such as rape and turnips should produce good stands in a no-till situation. Deer Radish would be my favorite – besides being probably the best overall hunting time attraction I’ve ever planted; these plants are super beneficial to the soil. There are many other blends that will turn out, pending you follow the necessary steps.
These remote areas often provide the best opportunities for coming in contact with mature bucks, but the worst location for a food plot. A blend such as Hot Spot has been scientifically designed specifically for this no-till situation. The plants in this blend will grow on concrete! Well … I may exaggerate a bit, but the buckwheat, two varieties of rape, daikon radish and rye grass are fast-germinating, extremely attractive to deer and incredibly easy to plant.
Along with other details, there are three vital steps to ensuring success: 1) You must make sure to choose a suitable location. 2) Next, eliminate the existing vegetation (competition). You don’t want your crop competing with native plants for sunlight, moisture and soil nutrients. 3) Finally, make sure your seeds make contact with the soil. For good germination, the seeds must be planted the appropriate depth. For most of these small seeds, just pressing them into the soil should suffice, but, at the very least, a rake and some elbow grease.
A good rule of thumb in choosing a location is: If significant vegetation grew on the site during the prior growing season, it normally indicates there should be enough sunlight hitting the spot, it should be receiving adequate moisture and the soil should be suitable to sustain plant life.
Some people think they’re going to plant a no-till plot back in the “boonies” near their tree stand where there’s only a bunch of matted-down leaves or pine needles. If there’s not something currently growing in the spot, what makes you think your food plot would grow any better? In this case, I would make sure to remove some canopy trees before ever attempting to plant the site.
A soil test would be a good idea for several reasons. Obviously, just like any plot, we need to know what we’re dealing with, so we know what to add for success. However, in the case of a no-till plot, since we cannot turn the soil, adding lime to reduce the soil’s acidity will be much less effective.
It will be important that you pay attention to your soil test results and make sure you apply the NPK fertilizer it recommends. Since, in these situations, let’s be honest, most don’t do a soil test. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still add fertilizer.
In a no-till situation, a water-soluble fertilizer such as M.E.E.N. Green can be just the ticket. Water-soluble phosphorous will stimulate root development and increased plant growth. The main advantage in this no-till situation, however, is the fact that the nutrients are absorbed through the plants’ leaves and stems (in addition to the roots), so even in acidic conditions the plants will be able to utilize these important nutrients more effectively. This unique formula makes plants healthier and noticeably more attractive to whitetails. This approach works best when applied shortly after germination – I like about two weeks.
A granular fertilizer can also be applied at planting time. This is a good approach if you won’t be able to get back to the plot after the plants have germinated. In absence of a soil test, about 400 lbs. of 10-10-10 per acre (or the equivalent) should suffice.
It is vital you remove all competing vegetation. Glyphosate (Roundup) is usually the best, easiest and least expensive choice for this job. There were ideal conditions at the spot for whatever native plant was growing there before, now you need to remove those plants and create ideal conditions for your new proposed crop. If there is a lot of plant mass to kill and remove, some managers may plan a no-till plot a year in advance and begin killing weeds the year prior.
If there is a mat of vegetation, dead or alive, it must be removed. All dead plant matter should be raked out of the plot and/or worked into the soil and allowed to break down before planting. The process of the soil breaking down the decaying plant matter will rob your soil of nitrogen (among other things). If you’re planning on planting right away, I would suggest that you remove as much of the dead plant residue as possible. For fall planting, there will often be tall, green plants or grass growing. You may need to mow before you spray your herbicide. Regardless, the dead plant residue needs to go. Here we go again with the rake and elbow grease, but in small areas it can be done, otherwise an ATV with a harrow-type drag will cover ground much faster.
These types of “kill-plots” work very well when combined with a water source, mast crop trees of some kind (acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts or soft mast such as apples, pears, persimmon, berries and fruits such as crabapples, blueberries and serviceberries, etc.), a mineral site or fresh-cut browse. A convenient, “one stop shop” for your whitetails – give them multiple reasons to want/need to be there. These spots will work best when adjacent to thick escape cover.
The ultimate no-till planting method would be a no-till drill, but, even without one, food plot farmers can still produce a decent stand without turning the soil. Since we’re cutting out a major action in the normal planting process, we must ensure the other steps are executed adequately. No-till planting is a great method to produce a plot in a spot where the ground cannot be worked due to excessive rocks, stumps or other debris, a site where you cannot get equipment to or for first-time farmers who don’t have the necessary equipment. Creating a proper seedbed will usually produce better results, but this is a technique ordinarily used when customary planting approaches are out of the question. A no-till plot may not look as pretty as a well-prepared seedbed, but it doesn’t need to look good to be effective.