A clover food plot provides great feed for deer, turkey and grouse.
As an old soils guy, my mind always wanders back to crops and dirt. I am always watching and observing the ground when the snow melts. I’m on the lookout for the crystals and small frozen chunks that mean the soils have started the freeze and thaw cycle. That means, it’s frost seeding time. Frost seeding is a lot like maple syrup making, you need frosty cold nights and warm days to cause the soil particles to lift up, heave and then settle down.
If you live in the Champlain Valley, and I mean down close to the lake where the snow is gone, it may be too late to frost seed. But then again, if it gets frosty one or more nights, you may have a chance, so stay with me for a while.
Frost seeding is spinning on clover seed during the freeze cycle when the soils expand and heave at night, allowing the seeds to get into the ground. Once the soil warms up above 32 degrees and thaws, it recedes and covers the seed. For food plots, find a sunny spot with soils that are moist, not droughty or saturated. There is a very short time window when this happens and you need to be prepared or you miss the golden hour of frost seeding. To be successful you need to have existing sod chewed right down to the dirt with bare spots for the clovers to grow in, or have the food plot area disked or dragged in advance, so earth is exposed. You need seed to soil contact. If the seed is spread on the surface but sits up on other grasses, you lose! No ifs ands or buts!
Ideally, you should have planned this last fall, like the grazing farmers do. They frost seed pastures very successfully. You would have lightly disked or dragged the area, had a soil test completed and had your seed and fertilizer all set to go. But we all know that sometimes we just shoot from the hip after reading an article by some whitetail group or grouse and turkey magazine and we just need to try it. So I am giving you the down and dirty, just get-r-done, quick method, with a tail light guarantee. The only thing you have to lose is some seed and time.
The benefit to frost seeding is the seed is in place very early. The seed is in contact with the soil and ready for the early spring rains to start growth. Clovers work excellent if you do it right.
The plan “B” option is the traditional planting method which is to wait until things dry out, then plow or disc a food plot site, then spread seed and rake it in and finally mulch it. Then wait for growth. But I know you have better things to do when things dry out - turkey hunting season and fly fishing of course. Someone out there thought I was going to say rake the yard and paint the house. Yea right!
Okay, you have the seed in the ground (double the seeding rate for frost seeding around 10 pounds per acre), so now what? You need to manage it. Red clover lasts about two years, and white clover a few years longer with management. For clovers to grow, they need sun and fertilizer. Once things start growing, you need to watch for the young clover plants. They need sun. If there are competing plants, like grasses, you need to mow them to allow the sun to reach the clovers. Mow the competing plants, not the clovers by keeping the mower, brush cutter or whatever, up above the young plants. This is important even for grazers. The cows need to get into the pasture and chew down the grasses to let the clovers get sun. A few light applications of fertilizer will help get things growing. Clovers are legumes so they don’t need much nitrogen so a mix lean on “N” will work and it won’t encourage grasses to grow. Periodic light applications of fertilizer and agricultural lime, and some wood ash should do the trick. Compost works great as well. Get a soil test if you can, so you can put on what the plant needs.
For you do-it-yourselfers that are in a yank to get r done, never ask for help, and don’t need maps — I say go for it. There is a trick to it. Sandy ground doesn’t heave like clay, so you may need to assist with some raking. You can scratch in the compost and seed with a rake during the thaw. Let the frost work it in during the cold night. This works for small plots. Very sandy soil is tricky due to low moisture. Sand dries easy and you can lose the plants if they dry out. Once again you have very little to lose and a lot to gain. If it’s done right you’ll have a great clover food plot for deer, grouse and turkeys.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.