Soil testing and pH management
Getting your soil tested is a key first step in establishing a new deer food plots, or deciding between food plot locations. When you perform a test, you’ll learn about a few key measurements of soil quality. These measurements will tell you what crops you can plant and how you need to amend the soil to improve it for future plantings. We’ll cover the key outputs, and what you can do about them.
pH and lime for deer food plots
Soil pH is a measure of the acidity of the soil. A pH of 7 is neutral, and is the most desirable for most crops. However, most soil tends to be acidic, with a pH below 7. The measurement scale is logarithmic, so a pH of 5 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 6. Low pH soil has the effect of making nutrients inaccessible to plants. Even if a field is very nutrient rich, low pH can starve the crops of them. Certain crops, such as buckwheat, are able to manage low pH. Others, such as alfalfa, need a pH close to 7. A soil test will tell you not only your pH, but also how suitable certain crops are to that pH.
Soil pH is managed by applying lime, short for limestone. Limestone is a basic material and will raise your pH over time. Your soil test will recommend how much lime you need to apply per acre to raise the pH to certain levels. Ag lime is typically supplied in commercial quantities, and sold by farmers co-ops or similar providers. It is a powder material distributed by truckloads. Call your local co-op to find the provider nearest to you. If you are only creating a small food plot, you can also consider pelletized lime. This form comes in bags that are easily distributed using a seeder or fertilizer spreader. It is more expensive, but often more appropriate for small deer food plots.
The process of increasing pH does not happen overnight, but over years. We recommend applying lime early in your efforts on deer food plots. Fortunately, pH is also slow to drop. Once you get the pH where you want it, you will not need to re-apply for a few years at least.
If you’ve purchased fertilizer before, you’ve seen the three numbers on the bag, such as 10-10-10. These numbers represent the nutrients in the fertilizer, and stand for the contents of N-P-K, or nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. When you receive your soil test results, you will receive two things. First, you’ll get the level of nutrients in your soil. Second, you get recommend application rates of fertilizers to supply the right nutrients for various crops. Unlike pH and lime, fertilizer is effective immediately. However, it is also short lived. If you have low nutrient or sandy soil, you will likely need to apply moderate amounts of fertilizer each year to your deer food plots.
Soil type and organic matter
Finally, you’ll get a measure of the intrinsic quality of the soil in your deer food plots. This is measured in a couple ways. First, by the organic matter of your soil. Higher the organic matter generally indicates better soil. The second indicator is the soil ‘type’. This generally falls into clays, sands, or loams. They type of soil you have will dictate which types of crops will grow well on the soil. As you consider different varieties, check to make sure they’re compatible with your soil type. Unlike soil nutrients, soil type and organic matter is very difficult to change. To get a preliminary estimate of your soil type, see the USDA tool below.
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