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Hunting or Nutrition: Not All Plants Are Created Equal

When the food-plot craze was just taking root a decade ago, deer hunters simply turned some dirt, threw down a bag of wheat or clover seed in a corner of a field and hung a tree stand over it. It didn’t always amount to a punched deer tag, but more often than not, those rudimentary food plots did attract more deer.

We’ve come a long way since then. Thanks to diligent research by wildlife biologists, agronomists and dedicated hunter-scientists, we know an awful lot more about the effects of food plots on deer and deer hunting than we did just a decade ago. We know that food plots are not only great for attracting deer, but they’re also a superb way to provide whitetails with high-quality nutrition throughout the year. Science has even proven that food plots can turn average bucks into good bucks and marginal deer herds into healthy ones.

There is, however, confusion among hunters about what to plant to attract deer for hunting and what to plant to give deer vital summer nutrition that can help grow bigger and healthier animals. A single plant or even one food plot can’t do it all. The good news is that it doesn’t take a dozen different plants on 20 acres. It just takes a little understanding of what — and why — to plant.

Summer Stress

Often overlooked by many hunters, warm-season plots (those planted in the spring that grow and provide food throughout the summer and early fall) are as important for deer management as cool-season plots. In fact, biologists have learned that warm-season plots play an important role in producing bigger bucks and healthier deer herds. Antlers are growing vigorously in the summer, and does are nursing fawns. That’s why hunters interested in a total management plan should include warm-season plots on a portion of their land.

“The summer is undoubtedly one of the most critical times of a deer’s life, and the availability of high-quality forage can determine their health as they go into fall and winter,” says Kip Adams, Quality Deer Management Association’s (QDMA’s) director of education and outreach for the northern United States.

There’s no shortage of food during spring green-up, of course. Annual food plots such as clover and chicory bursting at the seams, and the entire landscape has turned into one giant food plot thanks to early spring rains, increased sunlight and warmer soil temperatures. Everything is growing and growing fast, and because whitetails consume hundreds of different plants, there’s plenty to eat right now. Food plots are not a major factor for deer nutrition and health. However, as summer approaches and that new spring growth matures, there is less food available, even though everything is still green. Much of that green forage is simply unpalatable, especially in the South and Southeast.

In some ways that’s good, because deer will gravitate towards high-quality food plots. A variety of crops make excellent summer forage plots, Adams noted, but his all-time favorite is soybeans. They’re loaded with protein and are a favorite of whitetails everywhere. However, he doesn’t suggest planting just any variety, although virtually every variety is high in protein and other vital nutrients, and deer will eat them all. Adams instead prefers forage beans.

“Forage beans are designed to be eaten by deer and livestock. They produce more leafy matter and they regenerate leaves as they are consumed,” Adams says. “They also produce an incredibly high yield, so they provide a lot of food throughout the growing season.”

Although protein is the primary ingredient hunters should be concerned about when they plant summer plots, Adams warns about getting carried away with protein levels. Protein is what grows antlers, but deer only utilize protein in the 16- to 17-percent range. Anything else is simply passed through their system and not utilized, notes Adams. That’s not to say plants with higher levels of protein are bad choices for food plots. It’s just that they aren’t necessary and don’t command the sometimes-higher prices they cost. However, hunters should pay close attention to protein levels of various food plot plants, because at least two studies have determined that food plots can indeed result in bigger antlers. One, conducted in Mississippi, found that just a small percentage of available land put into year-round food plot production accounted for increased body mass, antler diameter and average number of antler points. Another study, conducted in Louisiana, showed that yearling bucks were 19 percent heavier following the establishment of food plots.

It’s not a bad idea to include more than one plant in warm-season plots, and a good mix is a blend of sunflowers and cowpeas. Both are high in protein and whitetails will devour them with equal gusto.

“The sunflowers give the beans something to climb and the mix just gives the deer more options,” says Adams. “Sorghum is also an excellent plant when combined with something like cowpeas.”

Not Just About Bucks

Deer management — especially when it comes to food plots and forage availability — shouldn’t be focused entirely on growing big bucks with bigger antlers. Of course, any food plot that helps bucks will automatically benefit females as well, but does are an important part of any herd and shouldn’t be left out of the food-plot equation.

“The healthier a doe is going into the breeding season, the more fawns she’s likely to produce the following spring,” notes Adams. “While we don’t always want more deer on our property, we certainly want to have enough that we can sustain the population at the right level while providing a high-quality hunting opportunity. That’s what this is all about.”

Let’s Hunt!

In other words, does need to be included in any management plan, and that includes harvesting them. While older bucks won’t always walk into a food plot during legal shooting hours, there almost always will be a few antlerless deer that make that mistake, making a cool-season plot the perfect way to help manage your herd.

Although many warm-season plants are still growing in the early fall, it’s critical to have at least one new plant available when the summer plants — most of which are annuals — are no longer palatable. One of the best all-purpose, cool-season plots is white clover. It comes in a number of varieties, but they all have one thing in common — deer love them, especially when the plant is in the active-growth stage. Although seed sold at the local farmer’s supply store might produce a healthy stand of clover, it’s not necessarily the best choice for hunters, says Adams.

“The clover varieties sold by Whitetail Institute, BioLogic and others are undoubtedly better for deer because they were designed specifically for deer,” he says. “The stuff you buy at the farmer’s supply is probably engineered for cattle.”

Clover grows in a variety of climates and will thrive in the both the North and the South. Perennials like white and red clover will last two, three, even four years in some regions. It takes a minimum amount of maintenance, but like any food-plot plant, clover is prone to aggressive weed infestation and requires the proper pH level and soil nutrients. It’s an excellent plant for bowhunters because it’s highly palatable during the cooler period of late September and October. Southern deer will eat it all winter.

Alfalfa is a favorite cool-season deer food as well, but it’s expensive and difficult to grow. Adams says alfalfa varieties sold as deer forage tend to be better than those sold for general agricultural use, but all varieties are prone to disease and require constant maintenance. The stalks tend to become too woody for deer, and it’s necessary to mow and bale it regularly.

Wheat and forage oats require less maintenance, are good all-purpose hunting plot choices, and both are relatively inexpensive and easy to grow. Wheat grows in a variety of soil types and conditions, and there are drought-tolerant varieties that work well in the South and Western whitetail states. Both are annuals and can be mixed with other annuals like crimson clover.

As cool nights turn cold, another type of forage comes into the equation. The various brassicas, which include forage rape and turnips, are typically left uneaten until a hard frost or freeze changes the chemical composition of the plants, making them far more attractive to whitetails.

If you have high deer densities, your brassicas might not last very long. Deer love them and will hit them hard later in the season when other food sources start to become scarce, which can be a good thing from a hunting perspective,” says Adams.

Deep Winter Blues

Winter is perhaps the most critical time for the local deer herd, and in the colder Northern states, providing adequate forage during the extreme months of December, January and February can mean the difference between survival and death. A late-winter food plot will not only give the deer vital nutrition in the winter, but will help them go into the spring healthier as well. That means they won’t have to put so much nutrition into rebuilding fat reserves and muscle mass. Healthy does will produce more offspring and healthy bucks will likely grow bigger antlers the following year.

A variety of foods can help sustain deer even during periods of extreme cold and snow. Adams says corn is one of the best late-season choices for hunters and deer managers. It’s high in carbohydrates and other vital late-winter nutrition deer must have. Deer eat it throughout the fall and deep into the winter, often staying around corn throughout the harshest winter months if the grain is available. In fact, late-season hunters who have access to standing corn or even a harvested cornfield with waste grain on the ground can score on some tremendous deer.

“I always recommend leaving it standing if you have the choice,” says Adams. “That way, it not only provides food above the ground during snow and ice storms, but it also provides cover, which is extremely important toward the end of hunting season. If deer can hide and eat at the same time, there’s a good chance they’ll do it all day, not just at night.”

Deer aren’t the only animals that devour corn, however. Raccoons, crows, bears and other critters can decimate a small cornfield before hunting season opens. That’s why Adams says a field of at least an acre is vital for success. Anything smaller might not hold any corn when hunting season rolls around, and it certainly won’t provide the late-season nutrition necessary to help carry deer into the spring.

Adams says hunters with an acre or less of tillable land can provide their deer herd with not only high-quality summer nutrition, but with high-energy foods that can carry them through the winter. Of course, more land in deer food is always better, and small plots might not last very long in areas with lots of deer. No matter how much land you have, Adams recommends planting at a 2:1:1 ratio.

“I like half the land in cool-season perennials such as clover, a quarter in cool-season annuals such as wheat or brassicas and a quarter in warm-season annuals, such as corn, beans or peas. That will give your deer high-protein summer nutrition and the necessary high-energy food they need to get through tough winters while giving you a great place to hunt in the fall,” he says.

That’s what a total deer management plan is all about, isn’t it? Instead of focusing on a place to hang a tree stand in the early fall, why not give the deer everything they need? That way, you’ll not only have a great place to hunt, you’ll have some great deer on your land.

What About Supplements?

Just about every product that contains salt and various minerals and nutrients boasts claims of producing giant bucks with big, gnarly antlers. Just look at the label. A number of studies have determined that supplemental minerals — things like mineral licks and pour-on-the-ground substances — don’t account for bigger antlers. Although they do include a variety of minerals that are found in deer antlers, researchers have determined that whitetails utilize the various commercial mineral products primarily for the salt. In fact, one study found that deer preferred straight salt over products with a combination of salt and minerals. Another study compared antler growth in captive deer that were provided supplemental minerals with those that were not. There was no noticeable difference. There’s no question that deer will devour mineral licks, and where legal, these can provide a powerful attractant during early hunting seasons. However, they aren’t a viable substitute for high-quality food sources and a healthy habitat.

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