There are plenty of reasons to plant food plots, but keep your expectations realistic.
A decade ago, food plots were little more than a place to hang a treestand and bring deer into the open. These days, food plots have become not only a hunting tool, but management tool. Hunters use them to provide high-quality forage that, in theory, helps bucks grow bigger, heavier antlers. But do they? If you look at the various food plot products, you’d think the answer is as clear at the giant-racked bucks on the seed bags.
There’s no question high-protein foods improve the health and antler growth of white-tailed deer. Protein is the primary ingredient in antlers. Studies that examined the effect of protein levels in diets of pen-raised deer found dramatic differences in antler size. The antlers of bucks that were fed diets with 18 percent crude protein were considerably larger than those fed 12 percent protein. It would seem only natural that when given the opportunity, bucks would favor plants high in protein. Ladino clover, one of the most common food plot plants, has 25 percent protein. Alfalfa has 19 percent, and soybeans carry a whopping 40 percent crude protein.
However, deer don’t live off food plots alone, and pen-raised deer can’t be compared to free-ranging whitetails. University of Tennessee professor and wildlife extension specialist Dr. Craig Harper says deer typically eat far more natural vegetation than food plot forage, even when food plots are abundant. A Louisiana study found that although a large majority of deer in the study area ate food plot plants, those plants made up just 32 percent of the total diet during the summer and fall.
“I think a lot of people assume that when you plant a food plot, deer will stop eating everything else and just eat what you plant,” he says. “That’s not the case. In fact, the peak growing season for food plots is April through June, which also happens to be the peak growing season for natural forage.”
A study that examined crude protein levels of six common natural forage plants in Mississippi found the amount of protein was roughly equal to those of many food plot plants. A different Louisiana study examined crude protein content of deer feces in areas where food plots were available and where they were not. The protein levels among the two groups were nearly identical.
Other research has shown that deer eat lots of plants that don’t have high protein levels, something biologists might never fully understand.
“Protein isn’t the only driving force in a deer’s forage choice in the spring and summer,” Harper said. “We don’t know why they choose what to eat.”
WHEN DO THEY HELP?
That’s not to say food plots won’t have an effect on body weight or antler growth. Harper recalls one Midwest study that examined antler size and body weight before and after row crops were removed. Simply put, antler size and body mass decreased after farmers stopped planting crops.
A 1987 Louisiana study determined that body weights of yearling bucks increased 19 percent after the establishment of cool-season food plots. The study area had poor soil, high deer densities and a herd of cattle that shared the habitat. A Mississippi study found an increase in body weight, antler beam diameter and length, and even antler points in yearling bucks after both warm- and cool-season food plots were introduced to the habitat. The study was conducted in the state’s Coastal Plain region, which generally has poor quality soil and forage.
In other words, planting a patch of clover or peas can certainly help, especially when the quality of existing forage is marginal or when deer numbers are high. Quality Deer Management Association outreach and education coordinator Kip Adams says as little as 1 percent of an area planted in food plots can make a difference in body weight and antler mass. “Two to 4 percent is ideal,” he adds.
Adams warns that planting something like clover is a good first step, but to maximize the benefits of that plot, the soil must be amended so the plants can reach their full nutritional potential. That can only be done by conducting a soil test and implementing the recommendations. A poorly-maintained plot won’t likely provide any additional nutrition the deer can’t get somewhere else.
Even better, the right food plot can help maintain forage quality as the natural forages fade with summer. A soybean field, for example, can fill the nutrition void in July, August and early September, the last months of antler growth and the season when natural forage is typically at its lowest quality. Harper, however, warns that even beans lose protein later in the summer.
“You can’t sustain your deer herd on food plots alone,” Harper says. “You have to take a holistic approach to deer management, which means everything from forest management, field management and herd management. Food plots are the dessert, and natural forage is the meat and potatoes.”
WHEN THEY DON’T
Harper says too many hunters fall into the trap of unrealistic expectations. Despite the studies that show increased body weight and antler growth, there is scant evidence that food plots have a dramatic impact on antler growth in most situations. Yearling bucks that had access to food plots in the Mississippi study were about three pounds heavier than those that relied on natural forage. Their main beam lengths were about 3⁄4-inch longer, also. Remember, those deer lived in a region known for poor or marginal soil and forage quality.
“Food plots will have a far less noticeable effect in areas with lots of high quality habitat and lower deer densities because the deer are already getting what they need,” says Mississippi State University associate professor of wildlife Dr. Bronson Strickland.
Adams says a late season plot, even in places like Iowa or Illinois, can help improve the overall health of the deer herd. Even though the Midwest states are blanketed in high-protein food sources like beans and corn, whitetails need food after those crops are depleted. Planting something like brassicas can give deer the extra late season forage they need to preserve body mass through the waning weeks of a long, harsh winter.
“If a buck can go into spring in good shape, then he will have to put less energy into recovering body mass and more into producing larger antlers,” says Adams. “Any time you can offset the loss of body fat, you automatically help deer recover faster in the spring.”
Another link in the antler equation that can’t be manipulated is genetics. Some regions’ deer will never produce antlers with the mass and overall quality of Ohio, Iowa and Kansas because they just don’t have the genetics to do so. Food plots might make a difference, but how much difference is open to debate. Most likely, it will be slight.
JUST ONE FACTOR
That’s because food plots are just one part of the deer management equation, says Adams. “You have to consider everything from the habitat to the deer herd itself if you want to see a difference in antler quality.”
You also have to consider hunter management — possibly the most important ingredient in the antler equation. No matter how many food plots or different plants a buck has access to throughout the growing season, nothing matters more than time. A buck will never grow big antlers if he’s been taken out of the population in his second year. Thankfully, more hunters are using trigger restraint as part of their overall deer management plan, and more bucks are making it to older ages.
“The combination of good forage and age can result in a better deer herd overall, but if you are planting food plots and your neighbors are still shooting yearling bucks, it will be hard to determine if you are making much of a difference,” Adams notes.
Strickland says environmental factors can have a bigger impact on deer health and antler quality than food plots. Research in Texas has found antlers are larger in wet years, which results in more and higher-quality natural forage. Conversely, antler scores decrease during dry years, even when food plots are available. Acorn crops also can influence herd health and antler growth.
“It’s very difficult to point to a single factor. There are so many variables we can’t control in a free-ranging deer herd,” Strickland said.
So, do food plots actually grow bigger antlers? Strickland and Adams agree any time you provide high-quality, high-protein foods, whitetails will respond favorably, particularly in areas with high deer numbers and marginal habitat. But because there are so many variables in the antler equation, it’s tough for the average hunter to measure any noticeable difference. In fact, Harper is skeptical of hunters who use anecdotal observations to claim they are growing bigger bucks after they implement a food plot program.
“Show me the data,” he said. “We often want to see things turn out a certain way, but science often disproves what we think we see. If you want to determine if there is a statistical difference, you need to conduct several years of careful observation and data collection.”
If you don’t have the means to monitor body weights, antler beam diameter or overall antler score for every buck harvested, don’t be discouraged. Whitetails will use your food plot and will be healthier for it, even if you don’t see giant bucks behind every stalk of clover.
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• Field of Greens: When it comes to brassicas, if you plant them, deer will come. This article was published in the September 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.