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Fall is the prime time to reap the rewards of your food plot labors, as you enjoy watching hungry whitetails and other wildlife making feeding forays to your established plots.

But this is also a great time to think about next year’s food plots. A little forethought and prep work now can make next year’s plantings the best.

We’ve discussed creating a food plot strategy that matches your property and your goals for hunting and wildlife management.

Once your plan is in place and you have an idea of the location, size and shape of the plots you’d like to add to your property, it’s time to prep for success.

Test The Soil

It’s tempting to think you can grow a bumper crop of food plot forage on idle acres. After all, the ground should already be flush with natural nutrients—right?

Actually, in most cases, your plantings will do much better with a little human help—in the form of fertilizer. There’s more to boosting the soil’s firepower than pouring on fertilizer willy-nilly, however. For example, a standard 13-13-13 fertilizer blend offering equal parts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium might have too much of one ingredient and not enough of another for your particular soil.

For the best results, you’ll want to match fertilizer application to the soil’s composition. Also, match the soil type to the plant you intend to grow.

A soil test is a great way to get started. Soil testing has multiple benefits. For starters, it takes the guesswork out of applying fertilizer and other soil treatments such as lime and ensures fertile soil while protecting the environment. Plus, it will help you get the best plots possible for the least amount of money.

More good news. A soil test is inexpensive and easy to accomplish. Many farm service centers and mills offer soil testing services, as does the University of Minnesota through local extension offices. These local experts can also show you the simple steps involved in taking soil samples and submitting them for testing. Some food plot seed manufacturers also offer soil testing.

When you submit a soil test, take the time to fill out the information on the plant species you intend to grow. That way, you’ll get the most accurate recommendations on the application of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, lime and other soil treatments.

Different Species, Different Needs

This is critical since different plant species have different needs. Clover fixes nitrogen itself, so you generally don’t have to add nitrogen to a clover plot—in fact, doing so could boost the production of unwanted vegetation. On the flip side, corn and wheat need plenty of nitrogen, while soybeans typically benefit from an ample dose of potassium. Working with your local extension agent, mill or ag service center is the best way to dial in the perfect fertilizer blend for your soil. More good news, many mills and ag centers will mix a custom blend tailor-made to fit your needs.

Soil pH (potential hydrogen), which reflects soil acidity, is another important consideration, as pH influences beneficial soil bacteria populations and plants’ ability to absorb nutrients. Low pH is a common problem in many areas of central Minnesota, so it’s worth checking.

The ideal pH varies by plant species but is generally somewhere between 5.5 and 7.5. Product packaging and other recommendations from the seed company should steer you in the right direction.

Your soil test should cover the pH equation, or you can conduct informal tests yourself with a handheld pH meter. If your ground suffers from low pH, adding lime will raise it. Follow the seed maker’s recommendations or work with your local mill or ag center to determine the right amount of lime per acre needed to bring your ground’s pH into balance. Be forewarned, though, it can take up to six months for an application of lime to take full effect.

Clear The Area

Fall is a great time to get a jump on spring chores including vegetation removal and tillage. If the area you plan to plant is currently choked with tall grass or brush, cut the unwanted vegetation down to size with a rotary cutter—also called a brush mower.

Mowing makes it much easier to work the soil with a plow, disk or rotary tiller. These tillage tasks could wait until spring, but there are often advantages to breaking ground in autumn.

In general, the soil is dryer in the fall. This results in less soil compaction, more efficient soil fracturing and less soil smearing. It also reduces the risks of burying your tractor in the mud.

During a wet fall, these benefits are mitigated or eliminated, leaving the decision on tilling up to you. As you weigh the options, keep in mind that tilling now means there’s one less chore to tackle next spring.