By Kent Kammermeyer
Certified Wildlife Biologist/Consultant
Here is a quick quiz to see if you need to read this article: Does your hunting property lack row crop agriculture (corn, soybeans, alfalfa) either within the property or around it? Has all previously existing row crop agriculture been converted to pasture, hay field or pines? Do you have lots of planted or natural pines? Do you have lots of hardwoods?
Photo: The difference in clover and wheat standing crop inside and outside the cage represents literally tons of forage consumed by deer.
If you answered "no" to the first question, you can still benefit from food plots but you don't absolutely need them. If your answers to any or all of these questions are "yes," read on because your deer herd will likely never reach its genetic potential for body weight or antler development without food plots.
That's what you want, isn't it? A healthy deer herd with big body weights and large antlers? You can employ all the fancy forestry management practices that you want but without the benefits of agriculture, you will never get there unless you keep the deer numbers depressed to the point that hunting is not satisfactory because you are not seeing enough deer.
Got feeders? If so, good luck and happy feeding, I hope you have deep pockets, enjoy getting exercise lugging 50 lb bags all over your property every weekend, and enjoy feeding lots of animals besides deer (including hogs, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, foxes, rodents and birds). Wet feed is yet another matter, it is almost inevitable and spawns mold and rot and potentially acts as a breeding ground for the spread of diseases.
What if I told you that you do not need 10 percent of your property in high quality food plots to produce significant gains in your deer herd (remember that unlike feeders that feed individual deer, food plots feed deer herds). What if I told you that you do not even really need 5 percent of your property in high quality plots? Yes, 5 percent would be nice but it's expensive and not really necessary for most deer managers.
You can do it with only 1.5 percent in high quality plots but they have to be the right kind of plots and managed intensively. So, for a 500 acre property, you need 7.5 acres of food plots planted, limed and fertilized to obtain the results that you are looking for. What if your whole place is poor soil and was abandoned by farmers 50 years ago because they could not make a living from row crop agriculture? Thank heaven for lime and fertilizer!
What if I told you that glyphosate (Roundup) is now dirt cheap and can capture back ground that is now covered by noxious weeds like fescue, crabgrass and even bermudagrass or bahia grass? Read on, but first a little background.
Old timers reading this are saying "Shoot, we didn't need all that stuff back in the good old days"! They are right in one regard and in the other regard, their expectations for lots of deer and big deer were much lower. They were proud (after an extensive restocking program) to have any deer! In huge areas of the Southeast, they also had row crop agriculture (mostly corn and soybeans) on or around their deer lands, expansive areas of escaped Japanese honeysuckle in woodlands, small family farms intermingled with wooded stream corridors and very little urban sprawl, shopping centers, subdivisions, and highways.
Now, most of this is gone, plus lots of deer herds overshot the carrying capacity of their habitat, wiping out preferred browse plants (including Japanese honeysuckle), and eating themselves out of house and home. The lack of high quality food caused reduced antler development and body weights combined with heavy buck harvest producing very young buck age structures. On a wide scale, these herds were in a few words "Over the hill." The news for today's deer manager is not as bad as it sounds! Since those days, to the surprise of many biologists, one by one, recoveries are being frequently documented in local deer herds and food plots are most often implicated in these recoveries.
I spent an entire 30-year career managing deer on public lands in Northeast Georgia that were "Over the hill" and over 99 percent forested with mostly hardwoods and mixed pine-hardwoods. All those hardwoods sound good because of those acorns but about one of every three years was an acorn failure that left the deer herds on a starvation diet for a four month period. This wreaked havoc with deer numbers and condition, especially antler development! This vast expanse was on 12 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) on over 230,000 acres of Forest Service lands (The Chattahoochee National Forest) and state property. Deer herds without food plots could reach a grand total of 10 or 15 deer per square mile densities which made hunting quite challenging and difficult! What to do?
A few food plots were already there in the 1970's but they were in fungus infected fescue or orchard grass. Just as agronomist Dr. Bill Sell was launching us into a perennial clover food plot program, The Whitetail Institute came out with Imperial Whitetail Clover. We were the first to put it to the scientific test in 1980. After two years of monthly clipping, our results indicated that Regal, Osceola, and Imperial white clovers were all highly productive (up to 10,000 pounds/acre/year dry weight), high quality (20-30 percent protein and 70-80 percent digestibility), and available basically for 10 months of the calendar year (all except December and January). We knew then that we were on the right track because we were already using Regal and Osceola white clovers.
Next step, was it working? With three years of deer harvest from eight mountain WMAs, we found by plotting deer kills on our maps that deer harvest numbers were significantly related to numbers and acres of food plots! In forest compartments with food plots, deer harvest was higher by 1.5 additional animals for each acre of food plot. As a whole, our food plots accounted for approximately 40 percent of the deer harvest overall on eight mountain WMAs! This was where food plots comprised only 0.13 percent of the huge land area (keep this low figure in mind)!
Were these deer shot standing in plots? No! The plots were producing an additional five to eight animals per acre basically living within a one mile radius of the plot as determined by an additional study in the late 1980's. After three years of radio-tracking deer (mostly does), we found that our clover plots basically anchored one end of their home ranges and the other end was bedding areas a half mile or more away. Moreover, their average location distance from the food plots was cut in half in the fall and winter during an acorn failure year which occurred during the study! All of this is convincing evidence for food plots on public lands, but what about private land?
In the 1990's, food plots began to explode and become widely popular among deer managers both public and private. Private land managers including lots of small hunting clubs implemented successful food plot programs. Quality Deer Management (QDM) also exploded and food plots fit QDM programs like a glove! Wildlife seed companies, seed blends and new varieties sprang onto the market so fast it made your head spin! As always, research lagged behind to determine what was successful and how much it took to produce results.
We chipped off a little piece of this huge research iceberg! Besides many years of WMA deer data, I had enough hunt club data in my files to make a stab at the value of food plots in both extremes of forest management. By this I mean mature forested habitat (public lands in the mountains) and industrial pine forests in the Georgia Piedmont and everything in between. The best common ground was to compare the percentage of food plot composition of the property to quality bucks harvested per square mile.
The properties were as large as a 39,000 acre mountain WMA and as small as a 750-acre private farm. For purposes of this study and to keep aging errors at a minimum, a quality buck was defined as a 2.5 years old and older. Data sets consisted of nine WMAs with less than 0.05 percent food plot acreage, five private hunt clubs with less than 0.05 percent food plots and five private hunt clubs with greater than 1.5 percent food plot acreage. This was an automatic food plot split out in that it just happened in these data sets that there were no clubs in between 0.05 percent and 1.5 percent food plot acreage.
Results were both convincing and surprising! All three data sets were significantly different. The private clubs with high food plots (>1.5%) produced 3.7 quality bucks per square mile and a total harvest of 17.3 deer per square mile! Meanwhile, the WMAs (<0.05% food plot acres) produced 1.4 quality bucks per square mile and the private clubs with low food plot acreage (<0.05%) produced only 1.0 quality bucks per square mile. Slam dunk!
Hence, the food plot link with QDM buck harvest was established and spanned the divide between public and private lands. In addition, food plots (as established in our study and others) produced higher hunter success rates, higher deer harvests, higher body weights, better antler development, and higher deer populations. Why did more high quality plots equal more quality bucks? Higher habitat carrying capacity for more deer or bigger deer; increased harvest opportunities in and around the food plots (especially does); and changes in movement patterns or home ranges "anchoring" deer to food plots. It really makes sense!
Learning From a QDM "Failure"
Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area is 17,000 acres in the Ridge and Valley Province of Northwestern Georgia with a long deer harvest history. Beginning in 1991, the area switched from traditional management to quality deer management (QDM) regulations (four points on one side minimum). In 1997, due to disappointing quality buck harvest and resulting lack of hunter support, the area reverted back to traditional management regulations.
Our data compared averages for six years pre-QDM, six years during QDM, and three years post-QDM. The QDM period (versus pre-QDM) was characterized by significantly lower hunter success (7 percent versus 22 percent), significantly lower deer harvest, and lower quality buck harvest (0.7 versus 1.1/sq. mi.). The area was unsuccessful at QDM because of temporarily low population numbers due to the combination of five consecutive poor acorn years, high doe harvests, low recruitment, and a blizzard.
When taken out of QDM, there was one year of suddenly increased hunting pressure and phenomenal buck harvest in 1997 with 78 quality bucks harvested (2.9/sq.mi.), then an immediate return to buck age structures and kill numbers reflective of the pre-QDM data. Pigeon Mountain has over 100 acres of food plots (0.06 percent of land area).
What a phenomenal QDM buck harvest in one year, more than four times that of the QDM six year period average! Despite the problems described above, deer managers had been successful at stockpiling lots of quality bucks after six years that eventually would have been taken over a longer period of years had the area been left longer under QDM regulations. Observations clearly indicate that this stockpile is also happening on lots of private lands QDM programs with food plots in the form of frequent sightings of multiple young antlered bucks. This is a real QDM bonus that we don't hear about very often.
Hunting Plots or Feeding (Nutrition) Plots
Simply do not worry about it! Most plots double as both and don't need to be categorized as exclusively one or the other. Try to plant a minimum of one half acre up to a maximum of three acres and plant your best clover/small grain mix, limed and fertilized according to soil test.
Step back, let it grow and hunt it a maximum of twice per week in the evenings. Anything more complicated gives the deer more credit for intelligence and learning ability than they are absolutely capable of. In scientific research, deer have shown poor learning ability because of requiring numerous repetitions to train them to make the right choices to receive food rewards.
Both during and after hunting season, your plot doubles as a high quality food supply to help them through winter stress periods and even the secondary late summer stress period. This scenario works with either perennial clovers (white (ex: Durana or Patriot) and some red clovers) or reseeding annual clovers (crimson, arrowleaf and berseem). This plan will not work nearly as well with grasses or grains only. It does work with either plowing and careful ground preparation or herbicide application followed by no-till drilling.
Patience is a Virtue
Nothing is truer when dealing with food plots and expected results. Most often, your plots will have to feed the next generation of fawns from birth all the way to adulthood and eventual harvest at ages 3.5 to 5.5 years old. Extra nutrition provided by food plots increases fawn birth weights and doe lactation and milk quality that makes them jump start body weight and condition far ahead of previous generations of fawns that did not have access to high quality food plots. It is difficult (but not impossible) for a deer to catch up in subsequent years after a poor start in its birth year.
While some hunters get lucky and "score" in their first year of food plotting by attracting a quality buck, most don't reap dividends for three to five years until after growing a quality buck from birth! If you start now you will get there sooner. Good luck and have fun being a quality deer manager instead of just a plain old deer shooter!