Elk Hunting in Colorado: Pursuing Majesty
December 7, 2023 •iSportsman Staff
Just about every sporting goods store has an isle dedicated to seed blends for food plots that are guaranteed to draw deer like flies to honey, or so they seem. The brand names cause the reader to envision herds of record-breaking bucks grazing like fat cattle and all you have to do is scatter their magic seeds.
In reality those fields of specialty clover take a great deal of work, farm implements, and money. Contrary to what they try to portray it’s not as easy as just “throwing and growing”.
Another consideration is what’s available in the surrounding area. If your neighbor has a 20-acre alfalfa or clover field and your other neighbor has 200 acres of corn and soybeans, the deer may only rarely visit your meager offering. To really bring in and hold wild game three things are needed: year-round food, lots of cover, and water.
This article isn’t going to cover creating a water source. We are going to go over providing natural native foods and cover, and how to do it cheap with the biggest investment being your labor. The goal is to have your hunting area be a blend of food and cover in a manner that gives wild game a comfort zone.
With rare exceptions most game animals prefer the protection of thick cover. In fact, some animals need it to survive. In nature “cover” usually means a lush young forest of saplings, brush, and grasses. It provides something to hide in, blend in with, as well as shelter from the elements.
Animals like rabbits and ruffed grouse depend heavily on blending in with their environment. Old growth forests of tall trees and deeply shaded, open understory provide no cover and only seasonal food for game animals.
If your land already has woods, good. The first thing to do is take a class on timber management or contact a timber buyer or timber management company and see if you have any valuable trees that are ready to harvest. If you do, there’s free money to build your food plot. If the trees are too small to harvest, find out which valuable trees to keep and which trash trees you can cut.
Let the timber management company know you want to manage for wildlife. Generally, trees that produce soft or hard masts such as oaks, walnuts, cherries, persimmons are valuable both as timber and for game. Trees such as beech, sassafras, elm, and other have no value for timber. While beech can produce good mast, they are very fast growing and can quickly choke out more valuable trees.
During the timber harvest and great deal of “slash” or “tops” will be left over. That’s good! While the tree remnants look undesirable they provide instant cover for new bedding grounds and nesting areas. As they rot away they draw insects or grow fungi that in turn provide more food for game animals.
Once you have timber harvested or know which trash trees you can cut down, pick an area that has good top soil and start clearing. The idea is to let as much sunlight as possible to the food plot. Open an area so that sunlight gets to the forest floor six hours or more per day.
In winter, smaller trees that are cut down will sprout right back the next year in lush stems and leaves perfect for deer browse. This is called coppicing and can be done every so often to provide plenty of tender stems for winter food.
Undesirable mature trees can block a great deal of sunlight but can be dangerous to cut down. In those situations it’s best to kill them by performing a double-ring cut. By cutting through the live wood all the way around the tree in two locations the tree will die and slowly rot away.
Once the tree is dead sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants will burst forth creating more food and cover. As the tree rots away branches will fall off and the tree may even fall, but it will do far less damage to other trees than if toppled alive.
If you have wild grapes, keep them under control. While wild grapes produce soft mast, they can also shade out valuable trees and kill them. Biologists advise to leave a grape vine if it is growing in a trash tree but kill it if it is on a valuable tree. Leave Virginia creeper vines and poison ivy as they have no effect on trees and actually provide valuable soft masts.
If there are oaks, walnuts, hickories, or other mast bearing trees, leave the straight healthy specimens but thin so there is at least ten feet between them so the roots aren’t competing. The more sunlight and nutrients a tree gets the more mast it will produce for deer, squirrels, and turkey. A healthy mature tree can provide hundreds of pounds of free food a year.
A food plot doesn’t need to be square. In fact it’s best to have it a varying width and shape like a natural meadow. If a deer can find food without breaking cover, such as going out into an open field, they will be more content and less edgy. This is your chance to make the perfect stand location or ambush point.
As trees and brush are cleared, pile them up at the edge of the food plot. Brush piles provide cover for nesting turkeys, grouse, rabbits, and other game animals. Brush piles can also be used to channel game into shooting lanes or past stands.
Cut the stumps and brush off at ground level as close as possible so that the food plot can be mowed as needed. With periodic bush-hogging the food plot will constantly be generating tender new growth.
Another way to make cover around the food plot is hinge-cutting small trees. In hinge cutting the tree is cut far enough to fall over but still leave enough uncut to keep the tree alive. By cutting multiple trees in an area a dense thicket can quickly be made.
The dense thickets create secure bedding areas for deer. As the downed trees start to grow they’ll send up copious amounts of new shoots that not only make a thick screen, they also are good browse for winter deer.
Some biologists recommend burning the litter debris from the food plot. The ash is good fertilizer and it removes generations of sticks and leaves that prohibit new plant growth. Just observe local laws and burn carefully.
Clover doesn’t do well with heavy competition so weed and grass control is required. That means mechanically removing them or spraying the area with expensive chemicals.
The ground will also need to be broke, plowed, disked, and smoothed. That means a tractor or ATV with expensive implements.
The ground needs to be tested check the soil ph. Why? Plants perform better if the PH is in a specific band. If it is out of that zone, the plants won’t be as healthy and robust. Soil test kits can be purchased in feed stores and online.
Most likely you will need to spread lime to get the correct ph balance. Lime is cheap if you have it hauled in by the truckload. But it can be back-breaking work to spread manually or require even more implements for the tractor. Do you really need it? If you want to plant a clover mix, yes. If you’re a cheapskate and want to attract game with native plants, no.
You will also want to apply fertilizer on the clover, which adds even more expense and bother. Since clover produces its own nitrogen, the best fertilizer for food plots doesn’t contain nitrogen. Why? Because nitrogen encourages weed growth.
Weeds have an annoying habit of growing six-times as fast in your food plots as clover and within a few weeks the clover is being shaded out but weeds tower several feet above them.
If you’ve decided to be a cheapskate your food plot is done except for letting nature do her thing. With sunlight hitting the forest floor all sorts of latent seeds will sprout. Grasses and native plants, (a polite name for weeds), will flourish. Berry vines and tree seedlings with sprout. All those trees that were cut in winter will send up tender new shoots.
Before you think that’s a bad thing think again. I’ve watched deer walk right past clover to eat every leaf off a wild blackberry vine or nibble on young sassafras and tulip poplar shoots. I didn’t just see it once, but over and over again.
Those same deer often bedded down right in the middle of the food plots. Why? Why not? They had enough food and cover to be comfortable without exposing themselves like deer that venture into large open farm fields. They felt safe enough to stay all hunting season and that’s something I never see in a by field of clover.
What did it take for a cheapskate to build food plots? The use of a chainsaw, pruning shears, a pair of gloves, and some labor.