With fertilizer costs on the rise, it is tempting for landowners to skip fertilizing their food plots this fall and assume that soil nutrients are adequate. As long as the soil has ample residual nutrients for the next planting, skipping fertilizer won't hurt. But testing the soil in food plots is the only way to know if soil pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potash levels are OK or need adjustment with fertilizer and lime. Planting without a soil test could hurt yields, waste your time, effort and money in planting, and set soil health back for years to come.
Farmers have known for more than a century that soils are alive with what we know as microflora. These are all of the microorganisms that must be present for soil to function and allow plants to grow. Bacteria, algae, and yes, even nematodes (microscopic worms), are present and necessary for healthy and productive soils. Certain strains of microflora are required to convert specific nutrients into usable forms for plant uptake. The growth and activities of these bacteria are also the only source for oxygen in the soil. Without oxygen, the soil will become compact, tight, hard and dry.
There are products out there that improve this aspect of food plots. They are designed to feed the soil microflora and accelerate the breakdown, or composting, of post-harvest crop residue. This is done by stimulating the growth and efficiency of bacteria and introducing specific enzymes to enhance bacterial activity on the breakdown of crop residue. In other words, these products feed bacteria. Many soil products on the market apply more bacteria to soil. Others simply feed and enhance microflora that are adapted to your food plot. Enhancing bacterial activity improves the overall health of food plots. More bacterial activity means more oxygen, more nutrient availability, more water-holding capacity and better yields.
Incorporate such products into the soil using a disk. In no-till situations, apply at a rate of 30 to 40 ounces per acre, specific product depending. Increase effectiveness of them by applying just prior to rain. Fall application is preferred over spring because the composting process needs time to improve soil health. Some field tests have shown as much as a 35 percent increase in stubble digestion over a four-month period, including winter months. Soil tests on treated plots have shown increased levels of phosphate and potash over time with no additional applications.
This is one advanced tactic you can use that will enhance the soil. This will lead to healthier food plots and more forage for the local deer population.
Editor's Note: This was originally published October 29, 2008.