A number of years ago, I started hosting wildlife food plot seminars. One year I hosted about 30 seminars from smaller to the larger deer show circuit. During these early years, I always asked people in the audience what was the most important component of food plots. Always the answer was soil pH. This is still the most common belief as we see on the many online forums. After seeing the hands go up and hearing the standard answer, I shared a real-life story. Here is the story I always shared. Out on the G.R.O. farm, one year I grew 5-foot-tall forage brassicas. The soil on that food plot block was 5.5. How is this possible?
Depending on if people has heard me speak or had read any of my works, there might be answers like, did you use ammonium sulfate? Another common answer was you foliar fed this area, right? Or at times people would simply say you fertilized right. While there are always many facts to successful food plots, only one guy ever raised his hand and gave me the answer I was looking for at the time. He said the soil was really high in organic matter and as a result, soil pH. isn’t as important on those soils. When I asked him what he did for a living, he smiled and told me that he was an agronomist and certified crop advisor.
Over the years that answer wouldn’t be sufficient for me. I always knew the importance of microbes in the rumen of deer and other ruminants. I always knew about healthy soil because of my exposure to composting during my early days out on the farm. I didn’t know the importance to the level I do now. Now, I tell people the most important element of a successful food plot is soil life and soil microbial activity. No matter the soil pH or how high the soil cec levels are, if the soil is dead or dying, then you’re never going to achieve above average food plots. I now rank soil microbial activity number 1 on importance. I rank soil cec levels as number 2 and that is where the higher organic matter soils and heavy clay soils come into play. The 3rd most important element in my consulting world is soil Ph. All three matter. It is really easy to kill soils and it can take up to three years to bring those soils back to an intended level. The soil cec levels are pretty hard to change but still we can change them some with some creativity. The soil ph.’s are relatively easy to change but too many people think that once your soil pH. is in the 6.0-7.0 range, that your balanced and ready to roll.
For those of you who are not familiar with the term cec, here is the definition. Cation exchange capacity (CEC) is a measure of the total negative charges within the soil that adsorb plant nutrient cations such as calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+) and potassium (K+). As such, the CEC is a property of a soil that describes its capacity to supply nutrient cations to the soil solution for plant uptake.
An example of this is a sandy soil with a cec level of 2 and with pH. of 6.5. Most think that if you get that lime down and you have the soil phosphorous and potassium levels balanced, your plots should grow and thrive. It is not that simple. Those soils will not hold nutrients very well. How many of you split applications of your fertilizers? How many people do 2-3 applications? How many of us see both periods of drought and at times heavy rains that may leach nutrients from the root zone? Mother nature can wield a cruel hand.
Let’s say your soil is 6.5 pH. and it is also a clay soil with a decent cec level. You might still have pretty decent plots, but most have no idea where they are for soil health. How many of you dig holes and see how fast water drains from the water holes your shovel dug? How many of you check for earth worms are in your fields? Do you see a worm every shovel? Do you have a hard time finding worms at all?
Healthy soils need all 3 elements to be ideal but for those of you who have sandy soils, you know of the challenges of that. I will cover that in next weeks blog.