What is the most important aspect to any good deer-hunting property? That’s easy. Food is absolutely No. 1 when it comes to retaining and attracting deer to a chunk of real estate. 

For hunters who invest their cash and energy in dozens of acres of cool-season food plots, the soil chemistry must be sufficient to make lush foods possible. Preseason pH adjustment is critical in southeastern soils and should never be skipped. While most lime is applied during winter, the beginning of summer is the perfect time for hunters to lime their soil if there’s a mack-daddy cool-season plot in the works.

During the fall, the chief component to attract and retain deer is, hands-down, food. Even in areas with constant pressure from hunters and non-hunting distractions, deer will keep flooding these properties, gobbling up everything in sight if the groceries are there in sufficient quantity and quality. 

Lucky for deer living in the Carolinas, the thousands of acres of fields full of soybeans, corn and peanuts will keep their hunger pangs at bay. But there’s plenty of land in pine-dominated landscapes and areas where cotton and tobacco reigns supreme. To make your land more appealable than anything else in the home range of the local herd, a super-duper food-plot plan had better be in place, and a pH-balanced plot is the perfect foundation. 

The majority of the soils in the Carolinas, especially the forested regions, will lean towards the acidic side of the pH scale. While there are some acid-tolerant, cool-season food-plot varieties available, the overwhelming majority of crops prefer a balanced pH, usually between 6.5 and 7.0. Crops growing in  balanced pH soil have the opportunity for maximum nutrient absorption and optimum growth potential. The chemical components of most fertilizers required for growth will only convert to soluble, usable solutions when dissolved in a nearly pH balanced strata. The addition of limestone to tilled soil is critical to raise the pH. 

Not only does adding lime allow the soil to release nutrients, soil with a balanced pH encourages microorganism/bacterial growth that is important when inoculating nitrogen-fixating legumes. Specific bacteria in the soil form a symbiotic relationship with legumes to convert gaseous nitrogen from the air into a usable product in the ground.       

Typically, farmers apply lime to fields between December and February because that’s when many fields are without a cash crop in the ground. But that doesn’t mean lime must be applied only in winter. It can be applied at any time, as long as the ground is not frozen or flooded. The best situation is when the soils are freshly tilled and dry, and when no other crops are growing.    

Unfortunately, changing soil acidity is generally not a fast process. Depending on how acidic the soil is, it usually takes several applications to bring the pH into target levels. Lime is available in several mediums, including liquid, granular and pulverized powder. The fastest-acting is the liquid form of calcitic lime, but its effectiveness dissipates rapidly, and the overall effect on soil pH is not as significant as a solid source of lime. The granular form is the slowest acting, but it will have the greatest impact on soil acidity over the finer-particle products. Pulverized lime is quick acting but will dissipate rapidly. 

The overall goal for landowners being to increase the pH, it really depends on how much it needs to rise. For a small increase with a faster response time, pulverized lime is the way to go. For strongly acid soils, with more than 1.5 notches to travel to reach a 7.0 pH grade, low and slow is the best option with the granular applications. It may take a while, but the granular lime will have greater positive impact on decreasing soil acidity over time.

There is not one standard application for the amount of lime to add to a soil to raise its pH to acceptable levels. Different pH’s will dictate how much and how often to apply. Application can vary between one and three tons of ag lime per acre depending on the pH. The lower the pH, the more lime needed. For soils needing a major advancement in pH where the application rate is two to three tons per acre, these applications should be broken up into at least two applications over a 12- to 18-month period. 

A soil test is the best way to determine how much lime is needed. Soils can be brought to the local agriculture extension agency to be tested for a nominal fee. 

For cool-season food plotters, a June lime session is just what the doctor ordered, with dry weather and more than four months for the lime to do its job. Liming is just as important as fertilizing. When soils are too acidic, fertilizer applications are a waste of money. And when fertilizer cannot reach the food plot plants at a cellular level, food availability will be dismal. Regular liming to increase the pH to a level at or near neutral will immediately affect crop productivity and bring more deer into range when hunting season arrives.