How to Test Soil for Deer Food Plots

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These early summer days have most of us enjoying the heat but also looking forward to those first cool mornings in autumn … and bowhunting season! If you are planning out new food plots for deer — or merely getting ready to replant those from last year — take a couple of extra minutes right now and test your soil’s pH. A soil test will not only tell you EXACTLY what is right and wrong with your dirt, it will save you money in the long run.

I’m fresh off a trip to the Post Office, where I mailed my soil test for a new destination/hunting food plot. Like most folks, I winged it last year and guessed on how much lime and fertilizer I should apply. The plot came in great … for the two months leading up to bow season. However, by the time archery season arrived, the brassica, chicory and clover plants were somewhat stunted. What little food that did grow was immediately mowed off by hungry whitetails. So, this year I’m going to do things by the book — planting wise — pray for rain and hope for better results. 

I’m purposefully putting off my planting until late July or even the first week of August. I know that’s somewhat risky if we don’t get enough rain late in the summer. However, with the right soil and a little luck, I’m hoping for bigger and better things come September.

Testing soil for food plots is ridiculously easy. Several methods are available, including “instant” self tests you can buy at your local farm store. However, nothing beats a real-deal lab test, and you can obtain one for just over $13. I ordered mine online, and I chose to go with a proven name: Whitetail Institute. I’ve known the Scott family for years (the company was founded by Ray Scott in 1988), and they have never steered me wrong when it comes to advice on whitetail nutrition. 

A soil test kit tells you exactly how much lime and fertilizer is needed for optimum results and makes sure you don’t buy more than you need. 

  • Ensure the most attractive, nutritious and productive food plot possible.
  • Saves you money by avoiding unnecessary fertilizer and lime purchases.
  • Extremely easy to use.
  • Everything you need is included
  • Results by mail or email within one week.
  • Results and recommendations are easy to understand.
It only takes a few minutes to collect soil for a whitetail food plot. (photo by Dan Schmidt)

How to Test Your Soil

This is the easy part. You can use a boring tool, post hole digger or even an old-fashioned shovel (my choice on this hot, humid day when I was rushing to get to the office). First, remove the sod and “duff” (dead matter) from three to six spots in your proposed (or current) food plot area. Dig down a few inches until you get to pure soil. My problem is that my area is nearly all stones and rock. It took a bit of work to get pure ground with no pebbles in it. 

Place the three-to-six half shovels of soil into a bucket. Mix them up real good so there’s a good cross section of the food plot’s soil matter. 

Finally, scoop out a small amount of representative soil and pour it into the test kit’s bag. Fill precisely to the “fill” line shown on the bag. Follow the instructions to a tee. It’s not difficult.

Send in Your Soil Test

Again, this is ridiculously easy. Just seal up the bag, place it in a bubble mailer or equivalent, and get down to your post office. Shipping cost me like $10, so I’ve got less than $25 into this test. Important note: If you have more than one food plot, you are going to want to do separate tests for each plot. Example: My destination plot surely will have different needs than, say, some of the plots I hunt that are more “kill plots” located inside of forested areas. The soil needs will be different.

Finally, wait a few days for your results. That’s it. They will be detailed (and I will share them in a follow-up blog post), and they’ll list everything that’s in my soil and what it will take to make it optimum for certain food plot plants for deer. The WI test kit even allows you to select which types of forages you want to plant. With that information, the lab techs will customize their “prescription” for optimum soil health.

Save Money on Food Plots

I get it, some folks view soil tests as an inconvenience, especially when we’ve put off planting until the last minute. Most guys (and I have done this) just work the soil and hope for the best. That’s not the best approach. If anything, a soil test can save you money in the long run, especially with the rate of inflation on products these days. Example: fertilizer has gone WAY up this year. One 40-pound bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer that was only $10 last year is now $20.10 a bag at my local farm store. That can add up in a hurry.

Pelletized lime is holding at about $6 a bag right now. Not terrible, but again, why spend and additional $20, $30 or even more on lime you don’t need? If you aren’t new to the food plot game, you might also want to consider these liquid foliar products. They can really work wonders, I’m told. One example is the Impact from WI. It is basically a liquid calcium that’s designed to outperform other products on low-pH soils.


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