The equipment needed to plant and maintain food plots differs dramatically based on the size of the plot(s), how many plots, and where they are located. Small plots can be installed with very limited equipment, but as the size of plots and number of plots increase, so does the amount and size of equipment needed to effectively get the work done.
Before any work begins, evaluate what equipment is needed for the plot(s) to be installed and determine if owning equipment is necessary. You may be able to rent what you need cheaper than buying. Large pieces of new or used agricultural equipment can be expensive and may be prohibited by your budget. Some dealers and soil and water conservation districts have equipment rental programs that may fit your need. A neighbor in the area may also rent equipment to you or do the necessary work for a nominal fee. Checking out all options is worth a little time when you are first getting started.
Seedbed preparation is critical to successful food plot installation in most every case. No-till planting equipment can be used effectively where herbicides have been applied properly to reduce competition from other weeds and plants. Conventional tillage requires different equipment than no-till planting, but provides a clean, clear seedbed to enhance soil-to-seed contact when small seeds are being planted.
Small Food Plot Equipment
ATV—A medium- to large-scale ATV may be used in growing small-scale food plots if a tractor is not an option. This ATV should, however, be large enough to handle all of the necessary equipment you will be using. Most equipment manufacturers give a minimum engine size needed for their specific product. Remember, too, most ATVs are not designed to tow heavy ground tilling equipment so excessive wear and strain on the transmission or drive train may become a problem. Slowly pulling heavy loads can cause engines to overheat when operating for extended periods of time. Be sure to follow manufacturer’s recommendations. Some jobs may just need a tractor.
Disk—A disk is a handy tool for food plot installation. The disk may be used to provide a proper seedbed where soils are somewhat loose and have little thatch on the surface. Good seed-to-soil contact must be made if plants are expected to grow after seeding. Hard soils or sod generally cannot be broken up by a light disk that an ATV can pull. A plow may be necessary.
Plow—A small moldboard plow for lawn/garden tractors or ATVs is available and may fit small-scale food plot installation needs. Plows loosen hard soil, breaking up thatch, and may be used to turn sod over before disking. Small plows can be used to turn over 6-8 inches of soil, but deeper depths may require larger equipment.
Cultipacker—Prior to seeding clover and other small seed, cultipackers can be very helpful in firming the soil and obtaining maximum plant growth (first image, to the right). Small-scale models like the one pictured here are available for ATV use.
Sprayer—A sprayer is helpful to apply needed herbicides (set of two images). This can either be a backpack sprayer or a model that can be mounted on or pulled with your ATV. Brush and weed control may be accomplished using the correct herbicides. Always wear the proper personal protective equipment when applying pesticides. Remember—the label is the law!
Spreader—There are many different types of spreaders that are available for applying seed or fertilizer (image three). An over-the-shoulder broadcast spreader can be used for both fertilizer and seed. It is cheap and ideal for small food plots. Other models can be attached to an ATV or pushed by hand.
Mower—A mower is often necessary to help control weeds and manage overgrown plots. Perennial plots should be mown periodically to produce high quality forage. Pull-behind models for ATVs are available and easy to use. Also, before tilling the soil, tall weedy vegetation can be removed using a mower to make tilling with small equipment easier.
Combination Tool—Specialty equipment is also available for those installing food plots with ATVs (image four). This equipment is designed to carry out all steps necessary in preparing and planting seedbeds for food plots using various attachments designed for the tool.
Chainsaw—For the small woodland owner, a chainsaw may be the most important piece of equipment you can buy. When used properly to selectively cut or trim trees and brush, a chainsaw can promote new growth and provide tender lush food sources for wildlife. Opening areas in a woodland allows light to penetrate and new vegetative growth results. Always wear protective equipment when operating a chainsaw!
Large Food Plot Equipment
Tractor—A tractor is necessary for any large-scale food plot operation. The size, number, and accessibility of your plot(s) will determine the size of the tractor needed. They range from just a few horsepower to well over 100 horsepower. The terrain you will be working and workload you will be placing upon your tractor will determine whether or not you need four-wheel drive.
Disc—Many sizes and configurations of discs are available (first image, to the right). Three-point-hitch models exist or larger remote hydraulic types for larger tractors and bigger jobs may be used.
Plow—For deep tillage a moldboard plow may be necessary to turn the soil and to break up heavy thatch that has accumulated on the surface (image two).
Rotary Hoe—A rotary hoe (or rotovator) is similar to a large rototiller, but it operates from the power take-off and three-point hitch of a tractor (image three). These units are generally used where finely tilled seedbeds are desired, or where small plots are being installed. After tilling with a rotary hoe, use a cultipacker to firm the seedbed before planting. Test the area for correct firmness by walking in the plot. The soil should be firm underfoot leaving a footprint, but no more than an inch in depth.
Cultipacker—A cultipacker is a useful tool used to firm soil in a seedbed before drilling seed or broadcasting seed (image four). Some drills are designed to firm the soil at the time of planting with packer wheels so a cultipacker may not be necessary. Other drills have no capability to accomplish this, so a cultipacker should be used. This is especially true when very small seeds, such as ladino white clover, are to be planted. When broadcast seedings are made, cultipackers are excellent tools to pull over the area before and after seed is distributed to first firm the soil before seeding, and second to ensure good seed-to-soil contact after seeding. A cultipacker is a much better tool to use after broadcasting seed than dragging a piece of fence or another object over the area to cover seeds. Depth of seed coverage is critical and firming is much more uniform with the cultipacker.
Drills and Seeders—No-till drills or conventional seeders, when operated correctly, place the seed in the soil at the correct depth to promote high rates of plant survival after germination (image five). If seeds are planted too deeply, after germination the new plant may not have enough energy to push the emerging shoot to the surface where it can obtain sunlight to sustain growth. If seeds are planted too shallow, germination may take place then surface drying may cause the plant to die and a poor stand result. Drills and seeders have separate boxes so large and small seeds can be divided when planting. You can place them at different depths by making the proper adjustments on the drill.
Note: Large and small seeds in the same mix can be a problem. Many seed companies are putting out seed mixtures that are destined to be partial failures. When two or more very different size seeds are mixed together, part of the seeds may not be planted at the proper depth to allow each seed to exhibit good growth.
Sprayer—A sprayer is often necessary to maintain high quality, high yielding food plots (image six). Weeds need to be controlled before planting in no-till situations and in some conventionally tilled plots. Weeds, such as Canada thistle and Johnsongrass, are extremely competitive perennial plants that should be eradicated from the area to be planted before tillage or seeding begins.
Rotary Mower—To maintain perennial food plots in a lush vegetative state, mowing will be necessary during the growing season. Mowing alfalfa or clover plots once or twice a year helps reduce grass and weed competition in food plots (image seven).
Fertilizer spreader—Nutrients in the soil feed forage plants and are critical to maintain long lasting and high yielding food plots (set of two images, to the right). Soil samples should be taken and sent to a laboratory for analysis to determine the amount and blend of fertilizer to use.
Lime spreader—Spreading lime is important if you need to increase soil pH. Applications rates of 2-3 tons per acre are not uncommon in Ohio, so a large-capacity spreader may be necessary (image 9). Buggies may be rented from a local agricultural store or the Soil and Water Conservation District in your area, if you have a tractor large enough to pull them. Agriculture commodity stores also have lime spreader trucks many times. Their drivers will make the lime application for you if you purchase enough products from them. Your terrain must be suitable for this type of equipment use however.
Corn planter—No-till and conventional corn planters are available (image 10). Many times, these pieces of equipment may be rented from Soil and Water Conservation Districts for a relatively small fee. Most of these units require hydraulic hook-ups for proper use, but some three-point hitch models are also available.
Frost seeding—Frost seeding is a way to add more seed to an existing stand yet no tilling of the soil is required (image 11). If your food plot has bare spots and you can see the soil, frost seeding may work to thicken the stand. Apply clover seed in February or early March so several freeze and thaw cycles occur after planting. This aids in getting seed in contact with the soil.
When Using Equipment—Safety should always be considered when using and working with equipment. Be sure to keep shields and guards in place while the equipment is running. Wear protective gear when recommended and do not allow riders unless the machinery is designed for more than one operator.
Any equipment one chooses to use should only be operated when soil conditions are suitable. Compaction can become a problem if too much soil moisture is present while working in a food plot.
Preparing, planting, growing and maintaining successful food plots require specific skills. Learn by asking questions and observing others before you attempt to install your own food plot(s). You will increase your chances to have a successful and rewarding experience.