By David Hart
Deer hunters have become a sophisticated and dedicated group. We’ve also become more demanding. We want better equipment, we want healthier deer, and we want bigger bucks. And we’ll go to great lengths to meet those demands. We practice quality deer management, and we plant food plots with the expectation that they will produce whitetails with massive antlers. But will they?
The bad news first: There is no easy way to produce bigger bucks on your property. Dropping some seed on a patch of bare ground and then sitting back won’t help you put a monster buck on your wall, not even if food plots cover half your hunting ground. Neither will passing up a spike or a forkhorn the next time you find yourself staring at one through your scope. Truth is, growing high-quality bucks on your land has as much to do with total herd and habitat management as it does with planting food plots. And the overall size of your bucks somewhat depends on the general deer potential in your region of the country.
But there is good news. Planting food plots can indeed help produce a healthier deer herd and, therefore, better-quality bucks. It takes hard work, dedication and plenty of time, but eventually it will pay off. We talked to the food plot experts from some of the best seed companies in the business, and they all agreed: Food plots are an important part of growing bigger bucks.
John Carpenter, national sales and product manager for Pennington Seed Co., said it took several years before he started to see results on the farm he hunts. “There are three basic ingredients that dictate the size of a buck’s antlers: age, nutrition and genetics. Contrary to popular belief, the third one is probably the least important,” he said. “Any biologist will tell you that age is the number one ingredient. If a deer doesn’t live to four or five years, he’ll never reach his full potential. As hunters, we can control that. We also have some control over nutrition.”
How? By planting high-quality food plots. The key, of course, is “high-quality.” And all the experts advise planting as many food plots as possible. “Any extra protein will probably just pass through their bodies if it isn’t used for antler growth, but it’s certainly better to have too much protein than too little,” said Jake Butler, co-owner of Buck Forage seed company. “Don’t be fooled into thinking you create bigger bucks just by planting a single food plot.”
Carpenter recommends providing as many food plots as your land can hold without sacrificing bedding cover and other vital habitat. But those plots need to be diverse and offer deer more than just one or two types of plants.
Those new to planting food plots often think their plots have failed, even when they have taken all the proper steps. In many cases, the problem isn’t the plot, it’s the deer! Deer can mow down a food plot in no time. One way to tell how much of an impact they’re having is to scatter a few exclosures throughout the plot to protect small patches. These exclosures will tell you what your food plot would look like if it wasn’t being browsed by whitetails.
Exactly what you plant is largely determined by the number of food plots you plan to grow. If you have only one or two plots, a mix is the way to go. “Many of our products contain seed mixes that are specifically designed to meet a deer’s needs as the seasons change,” Carpenter said. “Buckmasters Ultimate, for example, has a mix of chicory, and Durana and Patriot white clovers. The clover thrives in the spring and early summer, while the chicory provides a good source of protein throughout the summer. Then as the days grow shorter and cooler, the clover starts to grow well again.”
But the more plots you can grow, the more you can target food plots to meet a deer’s needs at a particular time of year.
“There are a lot of things you can plant to draw deer out of the woods for hunting, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they’re not going to help you have bigger bucks,” said Whitetail Institute vice-president Steve Scott. “There are plots that will give you a better hunting experience, and there are plots that will improve the health and potential of your deer. What you plant depends on your goals and the amount of land you have.”
Scott said that in order for a buck to reach its genetic potential in terms of antler size, it needs to have a diet of 16-18 percent protein throughout the entire 200 days of the antler-growing period. Further, he recommends a plant with a protein content percentage in the 30s. “Keep in mind that deer are browsers; they aren’t going to feed exclusively in your food plot,” he said. “Much of the time, they’ll be eating lower-quality forage. Our Imperial Whitetail Clover, for example, can provide up to 35 percent protein. You need that high percentage to try to offset the low protein content of a deer’s normal diet.”
All the experts agree that protein is essential to growing bigger bucks, whether you go with perennial clover mixes or you rotate plantings with something like chicory and oats as the seasons change. No matter which way you go, your food plots cannot reach their potential if you don’t take the proper steps to prepare the soil.
“A properly fertilized food plot can generate five to seven tons of forage per acre, while a poorly prepared one will only grow one or two tons per acre,” Carpenter said. “Not only will the fertilized plot carry more deer, it will also create better-quality forage.” Healthy plants, he said, have higher protein content.
“Just as underfed plots don’t produce a high amount of overall forage, they don’t generate much protein, either,” Carpenter said. “If you don’t do anything else, at least put some time, money and effort into getting a soil test and following the recommended rates of fertilizer and lime.” Fertilizer can nearly double the protein level in many plants. It might take the local deer a little time to find the healthiest plants, but they will. And when they do, you’ll notice a marked difference in the amount of browse pressure they put on the fertilized plants compared to the ones that haven’t been fertilized.
Bobby Cole of Biologic agrees. “We view the plants as nutrition transfer agents,” he said. “They need to be highly digestible, and fertilizer is real important. The plants absorb the nutrients and minerals that are in the soil, and the deer get those nutrients and minerals when they eat the plants. Antler growth is all about getting the protein and minerals into the bucks.”
But that’s a concept that’s pretty easy for hunters to understand. What many miss out on is a whitetail’s need for nutrition throughout the entire year, especially in the winter.
“You have to think of year-round deer health if you want quality bucks,” Cole said. “Just because their antlers aren’t growing in the fall and winter doesn’t mean deer don’t need quality food sources. If they come through the winter in good shape, they can put all their energy into growing antlers instead of rebuilding body mass.”
Regardless of climate, whitetails lose huge amounts of weight over the winter. Bucks are known to lose about a third of their weight while pursuing does during the rut. They go into the winter already weakened and could face months of snow and ice. Even in the Deep South, natural winter plants don’t provide good nutrition. In short, it’s a bad time to be a deer.
This stressful time requires a different kind of food plot. Carpenter said winter is when deer need plants that provide carbohydrates. Virtually all of the popular fall and winter food plot plants are good, but like a spring or summer plot, those with a mix of plants give the deer more choices. Butler is a big fan of forage oats, which are high in carbohydrates.
But to really meet the needs of a buck and help it grow big antlers, chances are you’ll have to provide supplemental feed.
“From our perspective, supplemental feeding is the biggest part of a year-round nutrition plan,” Cole said. “We’re not talking about baiting here; we’re talking about high-protein food for non-hunting situations.”
Taking that philosophy a step farther, Wildgame Innovations vice-president Matt Busbice stressed the importance of providing fat content in addition to protein. “That’s where our products step in,” he said. “Our Acorn Rage has the highest fat content of any supplement and is specifically designed to help keep body weight up. Hunters just don’t realize that antler development is always second to body weight. And while the benefits to the bucks are obvious, think about the does and even the unborn bucks.
“When a deer has to regain weight in the spring, it can’t devote energy and nutrients to antler development,” he added. “Without supplemental food, a buck could spend two months just getting back to normal weight when it could be growing antlers.”
So do you have to have thousands of acres and multiple food plots to help your deer and grow bigger bucks? Not at all. But the smaller your property and the fewer food plots you have, the less control you have over other factors that can influence the fruits of your labor.
“Even a guy who has only 40 acres will make a difference,” Scott said. “He’s going to improve the deer that are on his property, but he has to be realistic. He can’t control what his neighbors are doing, so he needs to make his place as attractive to deer as possible to get them to spend as much time on it as he can. And more and more small-property owners are getting together to discuss management goals and work as a team.”
Knowledge, hard work and persistence are the keys to making a deer management plan work. If you’re intimidated by the thought of starting a nutrition program or planting food plots, look to the seed companies for expert advice. Their products are specifically designed to meet the needs of deer hunters, and they have a wealth of information they’re happy to share.
For More Information:
Whitetail Institute of North America
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Buck Forage Products
This article was published in the July, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.