One of the fundamental questions hunters grapple with each year is how to effectively and consistently get deer into shooting range.

Of course, constructing food plots — parcels of land full of browse the animals feed on — has become a common practice that, indeed, lures in large numbers of deer.

But a hunter choosing to use food plots becomes a farmer of sorts, subject to the whims of Mother Nature, and a strict regimen that requires precise timing and planning to ensure a successful crop. It’s more of a science than an art.

And as is true for a farmer, it starts months before a crop can be planted — with a focus on the soil.

Don Reed, a wildlife specialist at the Bob R. Jones Idlewild Research Station in Clinton and LSU AgCenter professor, has spent 16 years researching deer on managed food plots at Idlewild, studying whitetail behavior. He stressed the importance of quality soil to have a healthy food plot.

“Get a soil test done to find out what the pH level of your soil is,” Jones said.

Testing the pH level of the soil — a measure of how acidic or basic a substance is — from the prospective food-plot location will give hunters an idea of what steps need to be taken to grow healthy plants. A pH level higher than seven is considered a “base,” while a reading lower than seven is acidic.

“You want to get between six and five, in general,” Reed said. “That’s the optimum level. When you get down into the fours, you certainly need to be liming.”

Adding lime, a mineral high in calcium, to soil increases the pH level, while adding sulphur compounds will lower pH levels. According to Reed, getting to the right pH level allows plants to more effectively absorb nutrients from the soil. If the pH level isn’t ideal, plants will grow poorly.

Any liming should be done a month or two in advance of actually planting seeds, Reed said, which makes August an important preparation month to get soil tested and, if needed, adjusted to the right pH level.

Hunters can easily find out their soil pH levels or nutrient requirements by sending dirt samples to the LSU AgCenter Soil Testing and Plant Analysis Lab. When submitting the sample, hunters should identify land use and what is to be planted in the soil-tested area.

After the soil is tested, a written evaluation spells out how much of what substance should be added to get the optimum pH level. All that’s left for the hunter is to add the recommended amount to the desired location.

Figuring out the pH level, though, is just step one in “creating a good seed bed,” as Reed described as suitable soil conditions for germination.

“You then can clip the area or herbicide it, then disc (the soil), or you can burn the plot,” Reed said. “You want no competing vegetation or dead material when planting.”

The secret to a good seed bed is basically creating a plot full of bare soil with an ideal pH level, devoid of any other vegetation. Removing overgrown vegetation from last year’s plot, or shrubs on a new location, will help to ensure the seeds hunters lay down aren’t competing with other plants for nutrients.

August is a good time to clip unwanted vegetation, but Reed advised to wait until the latter part of the month because of the chance that young fawns may still be using areas with tall grass for cover.

What’s more, plants need moisture, as well as nutrients, to thrive. Unfortunately, deer season opens Sept. 20 in western Louisiana, and the majority of the state on Oct. 1 (archery season), coincides with hot, dry days that can spell disaster for fledgling, cool-season food plot plants.

“A lot of people plant too early,” said Dave Moreland, a retired Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries deer biologist. “If you plant too early, soil moisture can be a problem. September and October can be dry months — we often run into dry spells — and when the seed germinates and sits there and gets hot, you can lose a whole plot.”

For this reason, Moreland waits to plant in mid-to-late October, when rain is more abundant and the sun isn’t as intense; although hunters do plant in late September and early October with success.

Though planting time is still a few weeks away, now can be a good time to decide what seeds hunters will use. Through years of observation, Reed has come to the conclusion that deer prefer three types of fall and winter forage: winter wheat, oats and clover.

“There are lots of variation to that, but those are the staples right there,” Reed said. “Deer like variety, so that’s why for the fall it’s generally a blended mix (of the three). You can plant straight wheat or oat, but many people mix because they do so well together.”

While it may be tempting to put off the thought of deer hunting for another day, the upcoming season’s success comes down to the beginning — now. The few weeks before the season, when plot preparation occurs to lay down a healthy seed bed, Reed said, is a crucial step in building a healthy food plot.

“It’s not so much what you plant but how you plant it,” Reed said.

“If you prepare that site well and have proper pH, you will attract deer by anything you plant.”