How to ... test soil in wildlife food plots

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: May 1, 2014 - 3:02 PM

Soil samples should be gathered from numerous locations in a single plot. Complete instructions come with each testing kit.

Photo: Bill Marchel Special to the Star Tribune,

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For almost two decades I’ve been planting food plots on land I own near Brainerd. This has always been my attempt to attract deer and other wildlife to the property. My efforts have been successful and very gratifying.

During these years I’ve written about my wildlife farming practices and fielded many questions from those with similar interests. I must confess, I’ve been a hypocrite at times when answering these queries.

“Before you do any planting, be sure to get your soil tested,” I tell prospective food plotters.

Two years ago, my food plots failed to yield their usual lush plants. I wondered why. Then I realized it had been four years since I last tested the soil in my various food plots. “Do as I say, not as I do,” I thought to myself as I recalled the soil test advice I had given others.

I kicked off the growing season by ordering six soil test kits from the Whitetail Institute of North America. The kits cost only $14 apiece, with each kit containing a soil container, a submission form and a preaddressed return envelope. I followed the simple instructions included with the kits and sent them off.

A few days later the results arrived via e-mail.

The results were a rude awakening for me.

I had been assuming my poor crop production was attributable to acidic soil. In other words, I thought I would need to add lime to raise the pH of the soil. But the soil tests showed that only two of the six plots had a low pH. Had I randomly applied lime to all plots, as initially planned, I would have wasted time and money and risked leaving the soil too alkaline in a couple plots.

Test results for one of the two acidic plots showed a pH of 6.0. Optimum pH for growing most plants is 6.5. According to the test results, I would need to apply 3,200 pounds of lime per acre to raise the pH from 6.0 to 6.5. Since the plot is a half-acre in size, I simply cut the suggested amount in half and applied 1,600 pounds of lime. That sounds like a lot of lime, and it is, but proper pH is very important for optimal plant growth. And once the proper pH is obtained, reliming usually isn’t necessary for several years.

The soil test showed the same plot was also deficient in potassium (K) and nitrogen (N). The other important element to plant growth, phosphorus (P), was adequate. I had noted on the soil test kit that I planned to plant Whitetail Forage Oats Plus in the plot. The test results indicated I needed to apply 90 pounds of 34-0-0 fertilizer to satisfy the nitrogen (N) needs and 40 pounds of 0-0-60 fertilizer to raise the potassium (K) to an optimum level. I applied lime, nitrogen and potassium as directed, and the plot grew a lush crop of oats that fall.

Without the soil test I likely would have applied more fertilizer than necessary and not enough lime. I would have spent the same amount of money but with poorer results.

Soil test kits can be purchased at www.whitetail institute.com. The website also features two brief videos describing why and how to test your soil.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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