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Bringing your soil alive on a new food plot

So often we see the question of what to plant on new food plots and the answers can be simple, “plant clover.” We hear people recommend a soil sample. Some people are even into the buckwheat craze. I come with a different perspective as I have been an agronomist, ruminant nutritionist and forage researcher for my whole career. Many soils that have been in pasture or fallow ground are not fully alive.

Here are the steps in the process of bringing a new plot into production. You might have extreme soil compaction issues, whether it be from heavy equipment that has cleared the area or even compaction from animals, poor soil drainage or just driving over the area with repetition. Soil compaction is on almost every property I am on, even with sand ground, believe it or not. We need to open up these soils and get soil oxygen levels up. Even if one plans to go no-till, this is not the time to do that. We have to get that soil loosened up and this would be the deepest we will ever want to work the soil. We want to encourage weed seeds to germinate. Many of these weed seeds could have been lying dormant in the soil profile for years and even decades. I call this “flushing weeds.” Once the weeds germinate, we will spray them off. We would ideally wait until the weeds die off and then lightly work the soil about 1-2” deep. This will encourage another “flush” of weeds. That will then effectively reduce future weed growth.

I am a strong advocate for using only glyphosate for emergency measures or the first time or two on new soils. Glyphosate is anti-microbial and affects the soil biology. What we want to consider is becoming “worm farmers.” We want to reduce the need for herbicides and learn how to practice natural weed management. Our goal the first year or two is to start bringing back the worms and soil organisms and to increase water infiltration and moisture holding capacity on those soils.

We want to plant a diverse blend of forages that builds soil surface residue. We want to naturally smother weeds. We want to fixate nitrogen, reducing future fertilizer expenses. We want to loosen the soil naturally and open those pores. We want to plant forages that grow rapidly and handle a diverse set of weather conditions as we never know what mother nature will throw at us. Lastly, we want to maintain living roots. Roots contribute almost ½ of our soil organic matter. Roots help maintain healthy soil conditions. When we keep our plots as thick as possible, there is not as much of a chance for weeds to creep back into our plots.

What do I recommend for new plots? I have several canned options that my clients use but also based on soil textures, I help people cocktail blend off a few base mixes. A spring/fall blend that I use a lot contains oats, triticale, peas, buckwheat and annual clovers. A fall focus base blend includes winter rye, winter triticale, winter wheat, buckwheat, peas and 4 brassicas. I use a lot of alfalfa and medium red clover on all my research properties as a living root program. At times there might be 12-16 forages in some of these new areas. What there is with any blends is synergy and fore thought. The number of forages is not important as the way they work together. You do not benefit from adding non-competitive forages with competitive forages in new or regenerative food plots. Unfortunately, I see bad science all too often when people tag dress up blends and labels.

Every plot has it’s own challenges. Is there slope? Is there shade? Is there compaction? Is it hard to get equipment into the area? No one plot is the same. This is where I want people to get out of the mindset of the bag being the solution. The solution is to have a plan where whatever you plant this year will influence the following year or two. Think ahead and build up that base. Sometimes we sacrifice some now for long term success.

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