Buckmasters Magazine

Final Exam

Final Exam

By Jon Walker

Why a laboratory soil test is critical for a quality food plot.

You’ve probably heard the term “magic bullet.” It describes something reputed to provide a wide range of benefits easily, efficiently and precisely, even though common sense tells you it won’t. Sadly, magic bullets never seem to fulfill our lofty expectations. Laboratory soil tests are one hunting tool that does. The reason? A laboratory soil test is based on reality, not magic.

This simple and inexpensive tool can be the difference between the best food plot you can possibly imagine and total failure. Yes, it’s that important.


If you’re new to the idea of testing soil, you’ll need a little background. For plants to grow well, they must have access to nutrients in the soil. That means two things. First, soil fertility (levels of nutrients plants need to grow, such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) must be present in sufficient amounts for the plants to thrive.

Often, levels of one or more essential nutrients are lower than optimum, and fertilizer should be added to bring fertility to optimum range.

Second, the plants must have access to those nutrients. That’s where soil pH is critically important. In fact, soil pH is the single most important factor you can control to ensure food plot success.

Soil pH is a number that tells you how well (or poorly) plants will be able to absorb nutrients from the soil.

Most high quality food plot plants need soil pH to be neutral – between 6.5 and 7.5 – to freely access nutrients. Most fallow soils are acidic (pH lower than 6.5), causing nutrients to bind up in the soil and be unavailable to plants. For example, if you plant in soil with a pH of 5.0, about half the fertilizer you put out will be unavailable to the plants.

Not only does that reduce the quality and quantity of your food plot crop, it also impacts your wallet. Let’s say you buy $100 worth of fertilizer and plant in soil with 5.0 pH. About half the nutrients in the soil will be unavailable to the plants, which means you just wasted $50 buying fertilizer your plants can’t even access.


Most hunters have access to two types of soil tests: do-it-yourself kits, which are usually either probe or slurry types; and laboratory test kits. Both are inexpensive and convenient, but only a laboratory soil test eliminates the potential for human error. A laboratory test also provides precise lime and fertilizer recommendations.

Is such precision important? If you consider the benefits, absolutely!

First, exact applications of lime and fertilizer will increase your plot’s forage tonnage (the amount of food), its nutritional value and attractiveness to deer.

Optimum forage growth and quality depend heavily on making sure soil pH and fertility are optimum. Natural soil

pH and nutrient levels can vary widely even between two food plots that are fairly close together. Also, some soils are able to hold lime and fertilizer longer than others.

Because nutrient requirements aren’t the same for all types of plants, a laboratory test allows you to use the exact amounts of lime and fertilizer your chosen plot crop requires. Most do-it-yourself test kits can only make generalized recommendations.

Second, a laboratory soil test’s precision allows you to eliminate wasted expense for lime and fertilizer you don’t really need.

Remember the $100 fertilizer example? When you know exactly what and how much to buy, whether fertilizer, lime or seed, you save money and time with any food plot.


Planting food plots can be an intimidating proposition, something that keeps many hunters from employing them on their hunting properties. Still others get caught up in hype and the many misconceptions.

If you have any interest in food plots, take a step back and look at the big picture. Think about a food plot the same way you think about any other hunting technique or practice.

Do you expose your hunting clothes to gasoline? Do you play a loud radio when sitting in a treestand? Then why would you plant a food plot without getting a soil test and applying the correct lime and fertilizer?

If you get a soil test and ensure your food plot crop has access to all the nutrients it needs to grow vigorously and remain healthy, it will be nutritious and attractive to deer. That pays off with more and healthier deer.

Most experts agree planting high quality food plots is one of the most effective ways to improve the quality of your deer and your odds of success. That’s especially true when you consider you’re competing with your neighbors to attract game.

The single most effective thing you can do to ensure you have a quality food plot is conduct a laboratory soil test.

Control everything you can, including making sure soil pH and fertility in each plot are optimum for the forage you’re growing. Only a laboratory soil test can give you precise recommendations so your forage plants have everything they need to thrive.

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This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2023 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd