If you’re like most food plot managers, you are always looking for strategies to make your planting work easier, quicker and more efficient. Putting in food plots takes a lot of time, effort and money. So if you’re searching for ways to get your food plots established earlier in the year, then frost seeding deserves serious consideration.

Frost seeding, or winter seeding, is a great way to re-establish perennial clover food plots, particularly those that have not been seeded for several years.

“We had some clover in a food plot in the past, but it was on its last legs,” explained Garret Barger, sales manager for Outfitters Choice Seed Company. “By frost seeding, we were able to re-establish the plot quickly and cheaply, giving deer a much needed food source earlier in the year.”

Let’s look more closely at the art and science of frost seeding.

Frost Seeding 101

It’s hard to find a livestock owner who has not frost seeded. “The practice (frost seeding) was first used by farmers and grazers who wanted a cheap and effective method for re-establishing their pastures,” explained Dr. Dan Undersander, forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin. “Today frost seeding is best accomplished with red or white clover, because these plants germinate quickly in cool weather.”

The timing of when to frost seed is critical to its success. “You want to frost seed when the ground is still freezing and thawing over a 24 hour cycle,” advised Shaun Mulrooney, owner of Southern Illinois Trophy Outfitters. “To determine when the best time to frost seed is, look for stable weather that gets above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.”

This thawing and re-freezing action, known as honeycombing, draws the seed into the soil, creating good seed-to-soil contact.

In Michigan, frost seeding season is March 15th – mid-April. Keep in mind these dates are merely estimates and do not guarantee success. For more precise dates, it’s best to consult with a biologist or extension agent.

Selection of the appropriate site is also critical to the success of frost seeding. Wildlife biologist Kent Kammermeyer recommends not planting in areas where rye grass, bluegrass, timothy or fescues are present. “These plants will out-compete your clover and eventually shade the clover out.”

Mulrooney, who has been frost seeding successfully for over 10 years, recommends following these steps to ensure a quality frost seeded food plot:

1) Watch the weather for the appropriate time. Frost seed when the ground is still frozen, but the top 1/8″ of the soil is thawing and refreezing daily.

2) Although not necessary, Mulrooney recommends clearing your food plot with a harrow. The harrow will loosen up the soil and break up clods, helping to create a good bed for the seed.

3) Broadcast the appropriate amount of seed using a hand crank or broadcaster pulled by an ATV. If planting a mix of red and white clover seed, use two parts red clover to one part white (red clover seed is much bigger). To provide deer with a diverse spring food plot, consider using a blend of different clovers and chicory, such as the Outfitters Choice Spring Blend, sold in Michigan by Troy Waterman (www.moabhunting.com). The blend is comprised of 30% Kopu II, 60% Jumbo Ladino and 10% Oasis Chicory.

4) Fertilize. Clover seed does not require nitrogen, so use a 0-20-20 fertilizer, or similar ratio. Fertilizing can be done at the same time as seeding, or a couple weeks later.

5) Cultipack the seed. Although this step is not necessary, it will help to improve your odds of creating good seed-soil contact and achieving a high rate of germination.

Advantages And Disadvantages

As previously noted, frost seeding is a quicker and cheaper alternative to conventional seeding. The practice requires little soil preparation, no expensive equipment and can be completed in just a few hours. In contrast, conventional seeding involves multiple steps performed using equipment such as a tractor and no-till drill, both of which can be expensive to operate or rent.

Advocates of frost seeding also point out its simplicity as another benefit.

“Frost Seeding is as simple as watching for the right weather, filling your hand seeder and turning the crank,” said Tom Grall, who has frost seeded his food plots for years.

While the practice of frost seeding is easy, knowing when to frost seed is not. Its success is highly dependent on the weather. For example, if you frost seed prior to a torrential downpour, your seed may be washed away.

Another problem may occur if you frost seed too late. Frost seeding requires daily thawing and re-freezing to bring the seed into the topsoil. Consistently warm temperatures throughout the day and evening will inhibit soil honeycombing, meaning you will not get good seed-soil contact.

In yet another scenario, you may plant at the right time, but the weather turns bitterly cold a couple weeks later. Sub-freezing temperatures can cause the soil to contract to the point that germinated seedlings are spewed from the ground. This is what happens when turnips are pushed out of the ground by the freezing ground.

Despite these potential problems, frost seeding remains the cheaper, easier and quicker alternative to conventional seeding. So if you’re looking for something to help you get an early start on your planting work and you enjoy watching the weather, give frost seeding a try.

“We can’t understand why more people don’t do it,” commented Mulrooney. “I think that part of the reason is because many people aren’t that proactive – they don’t think about planting when the ground is still frozen.”

If you haven’t begun to think about getting started on your spring planting, think again!