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Water That Plot: Using Sprinklers to Salvage Drought-Ravaged Food Plots

A sprinkler watering a plot as a group of bucks move in to feed on the moisture-filled, succulent clover. You can water a few select plots as bow season approaches to concentrate deer activity near your stand.

By Gerald Almy

In this article from Whitetail Times, the author discusses how food plot work is a labor of love and Mother Nature may be your worst adversary. With the hot dry summer months that so often devastate the site, having an irrigation system for back-up can be a game-changer!

Every now and then there comes an opportunity to make a big change in one’s life. That came for my wife, Becky, and me 27 years ago. We were living comfortably in a modest cedar cabin on the banks of the Shenandoah River on 4 acres of land, but we felt we needed more space.

When a unique parcel of land on the west side of the Shenandoah Valley became available, we splurged and sunk most of our life savings into that 117-acre tract of mixed wooded and open land. It was more land than we needed or wanted, but it was just too beautiful to pass up. Lying at the base of North Mountain, it had two live streams, two springs, and a mixture of cedars and open tillable fields in the low area, oaks, ash, and pine in the foothills.

We only wanted enough land for a little privacy, a few food plots and maybe a pond—perhaps 25 to 30 acres—but we wound up with over a hundred. Everything was going smoothly as we settled on having a Lincoln log home built out of western red cedar logs, but once the structure was up, the well drilled, and electricity hooked up, we found we had a problem.

The well pumped strong at 15 gallons per minute, but much to our dismay, the water was silty. The contractor assured us that wasn’t unusual at first. Wait and it will clear up. Long story short, it didn’t. Not quick enough, anyway. And while I wasn’t in the mood to spend money, Becky, wasn’t in the mood to take showers and do laundry with slightly brownish water.

I tried to tell her a little silt was healthy and made her skin smooth. She didn’t go for that.

As unhappy as I was to spend the money, we bit the bullet after a few weeks and drilled a new well. It didn’t have the volume of the first one, but soon poured out crystal clear. The wife was happy, and the more I got to think about it, that extra $3,000 may have been the best money I ever spent.

I never would have talked Becky into spending that much just to have a spare well to water my food plots during dry weather, but the way it worked out the spare well was there, and I figured it might as well be put to use. In 27 years now, I can think of only two summers when that well has not saved a number of my best plots from totally withering away. As in many areas of Virginia, we have (mostly) been in a prolonged drought. The well has meant the difference between a shriveled, struggling plot and a lush green one that attracted and nourished deer.

Of course, as I planted more plots and larger ones, I couldn’t water them all, but I could reach some pretty far away. First I ran a few hundred feet of hard plastic 1-inch hose from the wellhead. Then I used a connector to taper it down to regular garden hose.

I experimented with many types of sprinklers, but settled on a metal, circular, heavy-duty one that wets an area up to 100 feet across and allows me to keep several plots lush and green even when some months pass without an inch of rain. Those pampered plots offer succulent clover and chicory for the deer to eat, and equally important, take some pressure off the struggling dry plants that I can’t reach with the sprinkler and hose.

You can even use this “special treatment” of specific plots as a hunting strategy to concentrate deer activity near a few of your early season stand sites. If some of your plots are tall and green and the others are withered and struggling, you know which ones bucks are likely to be visiting. Make sure the plots you choose to water favor early season wind patterns for accessing and hunting the plot if you decide to use this selective watering approach.

Six bucks feeding in a plot—watering a plot with sprinklers and a good well system keep things going under drought conditions.

Certainly sprinklers won’t replace rain, but they do buy you a little time… maybe just enough time for the plants to hold out until some showers, or better yet, a slow, steady rain arrives. I’ve connected as many as 12 50-foot hoses. With a stronger well, you might be able to stretch that even farther. If the well is located in a good location, this can cover a lot of food plots within 200 yards reach.

Sprinkler heads come in a variety of styles including impact, gear drive, and wobbler. I prefer the impact variety because they seem most rugged and durable. You can also find a variety of sprinklers at big box stores or online. Wheeled cart, sled-based and tripod mounts are other options. You can also install timers that allow you to set the start time, duration, and frequency of watering without even being on site if you want to water your plots at regular intervals but can’t be there.

Maintaining strong pressure for a long distance is imperative if you string together a number of hoses like I do. When you connect them, make sure to install good rubber washers for maximum pressure and water output.

If you decide to invest in a well, consult one or more drillers before choosing a location and compare estimates and drilling rates. Also consider where you can reach the maximum number of plots from when choosing the site.

No doubt some landowners may hesitate at this idea and think it’s an outrageous expense, but consider some of the other expenses you have and it might not seem quite so bad—fertilizer, seeds, herbicides, $10,000 (or $100,000!) tractors, implements, taxes, road maintenance, not to mention the big one—the land itself.

Pump Systems

If you don’t have a spare well or location where you could drill one near your plots, another option is to use pump and irrigation type systems offered by companies. They have systems including pump, intake and output hoses, and sprinklers starting as low as $995 that allow you to water plots using ponds, lakes, rivers or creeks. Their base model includes a 6.5 hp Kohler pump, 2-inch suction hose with strainer, and 1 ½ inch discharge hose. Both hoses come with convenient quick-connect couplers.

The use of a 1-inch pipe from the wellhead tapering down with a connector to a garden hose, or several such hoses, gets the job done.

I’ve rented and experimented with this type of system using a two-acre pond on my property. It has the advantage of using larger hoses and strong pumps that will saturate a plot more quickly than the well, garden hose and sprinkler method. Even with the lowest-priced system you can thoroughly drench a large food plot in a few hours. If you don’t want to invest in such a setup, rentals are a good option during intense short-lived droughts. Make sure you prime your pump properly before starting if required, and check periodically to make sure weeds haven’t clogged the intake hose.

Strategies

Whichever system you use, be sure to soak the plot thoroughly, then move the sprinkler to a new area or new plot, rather than superficially dampening the plot then rushing to the next one. It takes a while during dry periods to even soften the soil enough that it starts to absorb water. Only after that does some of the applied moisture reach the critical roots area that is most important. I’ve found clover, alfalfa, and chicory respond best to watering. It’s hard to get enough water to reach the deeper roots of plants such as soybeans or corn, but if you water long enough, you can revive any food plot offering.

Because of the need to thoroughly soak plots, I suggest selecting some to focus on and not trying to water all of your plots. This will tend to transfer deer feeding pressure to the ones you water and give the others a break while they are under stress.

When to Water

Watering can be done any time rains are scarce and plots are struggling from the heat and dryness, but using sprinklers is particularly valuable in several specific circumstances.

One situation is when it’s hot and dry and you have weed and grass problems in clover plots that require mowing, but no rain is predicted. If you have sprinklers available, you can mow the weeds and grasses that are growing above the clover and some of the plant itself that might be flowering, and then water the plot immediately afterward. If you weren’t able to water, it wouldn’t be wise to mow under these conditions because the plants are stressed. That in turn would allow the weeds and grasses grow taller, compete with your crop, and potentially go to seed.

Another time sprinklers come in handy is if you are putting in a new plot and no rain is in the forecast. You can sow the seed, water it so it germinates, then nurse the new crop along with periodic watering until rain arrives. This allows you to put each type of seed in at the optimum calendar date for that plant and not have to wait on Mother Nature, perhaps getting it in too late.

Our author with a nice 11-pointer that he bagged feeding in an oat field he had kept green with use of sprinklers throughout the summer. To setup an irrigation system for food plot conservation is a big commitment, and so is rebuilding a plot after a summer drought destroys your hard work.

Alternative Strategies

If it’s not feasible to drill a well or use a pump irrigation system, there are several steps you can still take to help plants survive the drying, parching summer weather. First off, plant some drought-hardy seeds or mixtures such as lablab, Eagle soybeans, and chicory. Secondly, make sure you do a soil test for all your plots and apply the appropriate amount of lime and fertilizer, including micronutrients such as boron and manganese, and major elements like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Appropriate fertilizer and a good pH reading will result in the strongest plants, and those are the ones most capable of withstanding dry spells and surviving.

Weed control is also important. You want the limited amount of moisture available to go to your crop, not to competing grasses and weeds.

Keeping your deer herd in check is another way to help food plots survive dry spells. Limited, spread-out grazing pressure is fine, but heavy usage by deer while a crop is already stressed and growing poorly from dry conditions may completely destroy it.

Another strategy I use is to put plots in where they get the most morning sun, rather than late afternoon sun. Look for north- and east-facing fields on gentle slopes or areas with tall trees on the south and western sides that will shade the plots some from the hottest late day sun.

Conclusion

Once you’ve taken these steps, though, give some serious thought to saving up to invest in a well and sprinklers or pump irrigation setup. You can sit back and let the drought make you miserable, or you can do something about it.

I was “fortunate” that the silt in the first well we drilled for our home forced us to dig a second one. That gave me an unneeded source of water that I could use for my plots, but I think eventually I would have taken that step anyway or purchased a pump irrigation system.

Oh, and by the way….That silt-tainted first well that we dug and had to replace, the one I now use to water my plots? It cleared up about two weeks after we dug the second well. I now irrigate my plots with water clear as vodka!

Gerald Almy has been an outdoor writer for over 30 years and a regular contributor to Whitetail Times. The author lives in Mauretown, Virginia with his family. 

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • May 5, 2021