I live in southwest Alabama, and we plant corn, peas, watermelons and such in about 12 acres every year and plant food plots in winter. We are starting to have a few bigger bucks, and I would like to know what I can feed in the summer and fall to help keep the deer in the area and assist with antler growth. — Charles Baxter, Alabama
Anything you plant for deer will help keep them in the area. The more you plant, and the more nutritious it is, the more effective it will be at accomplishing that. Even (especially) if you’re surrounded by agriculture, you should be planting food plots at a ratio of somewhere in the area of 5-15 percent of your property.
In terms of when, let’s begin with fall and work backwards. Some time in late summer, circulation is cut off to the velvet and antlers effectively become dead bone. Therefore, nothing you feed them in the fall will help antler growth. However, anything you feed that helps them enter the winter in better condition (assuming they live past hunting season) will improve the odds of better antler growth the following spring and summer. Corn, brassicas or other cool-season forage that helps them lay on winter fat will do this.
If antler growth is your goal, summer feeding is where you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck, as this is when antlers grow the most. However, you should remember that antlers are made up of minerals, and deer take up those minerals by eating plants. What you actually plant is sometimes less important than where you plant it. Your soils should have the right proportions and amounts of trace minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorous. Get a professional soil test, then follow the recommendations for lime and fertilizer.
This time of year, a whitetail’s greatest nutritional demands, and thus food preferences are directed toward protein. Plant your warm-season/feeding/destination plots with high-protein species like clover, peas and soybeans, the latter being about as good a crop as there is to enhance antler growth. You can also enhance nutrition with supplemental feeds, but in good soils and habitat you’ll be far more effective and cost-effective by planting the right crops.
Bear in mind also that it takes three things to make big antlers: nutrition, genetics and age. It sounds like you’ve got a good jump on nutrition already, particularly if you follow the above recommendations. Based on what’s coming out of areas of southwest Alabama with good soils and nutrition, I’d say you probably have the genetics too. If you really want to see bigger racks, let your bucks reach maturity (at least four years of age). You’ll be amazed with the results. Hopefully you’re keeping records on what you see and harvest now so you can compare to future seasons and evaluate if your efforts are working.