JACKSON, Miss. — It won't be long before the annual pilgrimage begins. Pickups and flatbed trailers loaded with ATVs, fertilizer and bags of seed will be common sights on the highways as hunters travel to deer camps for work days.
Hunters will become farmers for a weekend as they disc, plant and fertilize food plots in hopes of luring that buck of their dreams into green fields. Unfortunately, many of those food plots will never produce their full potential.
"I see this all the time," Bronson Strickland, Mississippi State University Extension Wildlife Specialist, said. "I go to a food plot and over the years someone has thrown out some seed and some 13-13-13 (fertilizer).
"Nine times out of 10, you're going to have a low pH then you're adding phosphorous that you don't need to. You get to a point that it's counterproductive."
Low pH, or acidic soil, is common in Mississippi. Strickland said other than some areas of the Delta the average pH level is about 4.7. For a food plot to produce best, the soil needs a pH closer to 7.
"A pH of 6 is acceptable," Strickland said. "If you get to 6.5, you're golden."
Strickland said a simple soil test will show exactly what is needed to maximize the biomass produced in a food plot. Kits are available through county extension offices and soil samples are sent to MSU for analysis and recommendations.
The cost? A whopping $6.
"It's the best money you can possibly spend on a food plot," Strickland said. It can also be a money-saver.
Strickland said tests have shown in soil with a pH level of 4.5, 70 percent of the fertilizer applied is not absorbed by the plants. With a pH of 5, 50 percent is unused. In soil with a pH level of 6.5, only about 10 percent of the fertilizer is unused.
Given the price of agriculture lime used to raise the pH level in soil versus the cost of fertilizer, getting the soil right means less waste.
"People allocate money to the wrong resource," Strickland said. "Lime is a heck of a lot cheaper than fertilizer."
"13-13-13 is what most people use," said Nancy McCardle of Copiah County Co-op. "The recommended rate is 200 pounds per acre, so you're looking at around $60 for 200 pounds." If 50 percent is wasted, that's a loss of $30 per acre.
Lime is similar in cost per acre.
"Without a soil sample, (lime) is recommended a ton per acre," McCardle said. "You're looking at $55 a ton."
While lime does increase the cost initially, Strickland said a food plot may not need to be limed again for 3-4 years and subsequent applications will not be as heavy as the first. So, over a four-year period, a $55 investment in lime could reduce waste of fertilizer by $96, assuming the pH level remains around 6.5.
While fuel, time and varying application rates may negate any real savings, in the end, it's about results.
Strickland said not only will proper soil preparation increase the nutrition quality of the forage, the biomass production increases substantially.
"I would not be surprised if you get double the yield from a plot that has been limed and fertilized according to the recommendations."
Jeffrey Wood, of Stringer, is a guy who doesn't necessarily believe everything he's told when it comes to deer hunting. He likes to put things to the test.
"At first, we just fertilized," Wood said. "Here in the last 10 years, I started doing soil samples and I learned about pH and all that."
While Wood said he immediately saw thicker, greener plots, he wanted to know if the deer on his land were equally as impressed with the results. His experiment involved two plots planted side-by-side in game mixes.
"We went old school on one plot — we went the cheapest we could go," Wood said. "We just put 13-13-13 on it was all we did."
On the other, he went with the soil sample recommendations.
"We limed it and did everything ideal and it did a lot better," Wood said. "It was a whole lot darker green and lush."
Not wanting to leave much to interpretation, Wood set out game cameras to record the deer's reactions.
"I was just amazing how deer would walk right through that old school plot to get to the other one," Wood said. "The deer would just come in there and mow it down.
"When you plant something side-by-side, you can really tell the difference."
And so can the deer.
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com