Checking soil pH good way to spend camp workday

According to deer biologist William McKinley, food plots could be critical this year.

Sampling can lead to more nutritious food plots

A deer camp workday or a root canal, it’s too close to call.

Seriously, I don’t know which I hate more.

But I do know this: At least in the dentist’s chair, he can give me gas or a shot, followed by a wonderful prescription that makes the whole experience tolerable (especially when the Rx allows at least one refill).

I have found nothing yet that alleviates the misery of spending a summer day, in Mississippi’s brutal blend of heat and humidity, working on food plots, paths and deer stands. (Not even the aforementioned refill.)

All that considered, I question the sanity of my friends who actually enjoy and relish their summer workdays at deer camp. I’ve got about 10 who are planning just such an ordeal this weekend.

I wish them well, and, as an outdoor writer, I felt it was the least I could do to give them some direction so they can get the best out of their efforts. For that, I turned to deer biologist William McKinley of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Exactly what should sportsmen be doing on workdays to get the most bang at their bucks. (Get it, bang at their bucks … oh never mind).

“The most important thing they can do, especially if they haven’t done it in a few years, is pull a pH sample of their soil where they plan to put in food plots,” McKinley said. “That is the first thing I tell everybody, and the time to be doing it is right now especially if lime is needed to raise the pH. What you want is a pH of between 6.0 and 7.0. Anything less and the food plot will not produce the kind of nutrition deer need and will seek out.

“What happens is that if you have a pH of like 5.5, most of the fertilizer you put out with your planting will be tied up in ionization, which renders it unusable for the plants. The fertilizer will be wasted and you just wasted a lot of money and time.”

Collect soil from a potential food plot area and get a pH test done as soon as possible.
Collect soil from a potential food plot area and get a pH test done as soon as possible.

McKinley said deer are very picky eaters.

“They’re not like me; I like to eat a lot of stuff that isn’t very nutritious but tastes so good, like chocolate ice cream,” he said. “Deer are just the opposite. They will seek out food sources they know are nutritious. They can taste it and if your food plots are not producing good nutrition, they will go elsewhere to get it.”

Timing is critical now, since winter food plot plantings will be coming in a few months.

“Lime needs to be incorporated into the ground by disking it in soon after it is applied, and it takes 90 days to activate,” he said. “You need to get the ground tested as soon as possible. It costs about $6 for a kit and you just take it to the Soil Conservation office in your district and they will test it.”

It’s too late to test the soil for summer food plot plantings.

“Yeah, but if you know the pH is good because of liming in a recent year, then summer food plots can be very beneficial,” McKinley said. “I am a big fan of cowpeas and forage soybeans. But if you are going to plant them then this weekend or the next is when you need to do it. Actually, you should already have. Our recommended dates are May 15-June 30, so the window is closing fast.”

Liming is important to get the pH of soil in a food plot into an acceptable range to produce the best forage for wildlife.
Liming is important to get the pH of soil in a food plot into an acceptable range to produce the best forage for wildlife.

So, what else can hunters be doing in the heat?

“Mowing and spraying their white clover if they have it,” McKinley said. “I like white clover and recommend that if you don’t have any, then plan to plant some this fall. This is especially good for smaller plots, where deer will just eat up a summer plot. Plant in the fall and it will produce high protein forage year round if we get rain. And it will last for years. I saw a patch recently that was 12 years old.

“Another thing you can be doing, and I know most people are, is getting those trail cameras out and start watching them grow. Whether you plan to do a full trail cam survey, which is a planned and detailed effort, or just put out a few cams and watch some fields, it can be very beneficial.

“If you set them up in a few fields, at the very least you can get a good idea of the sex (buck/doe) ratio of the herd, which will help you a lot in designing a harvest strategy.”

There is one thing McKinley doesn’t recommend with cams.

“Do not set them up on feeders,” he said. “Bucks can establish dominance around a feeder and you won’t get a full picture of your herd makeup. Just stick to fields and you will get a better look.”

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About Bobby Cleveland 1350 Articles
Bobby Cleveland has covered sports in Mississippi for over 40 years. A native of Hattiesburg and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Cleveland lives on Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson with his wife Pam.