Whitetail deer are the ultimate survivors. They live through extreme cold and droughts and even pull through significant disease outbreaks. They are highly adaptable. They change their diets as the food sources change and can live in places many other wildlife species can’t. They’ve survived for eons without so much as a food plot, a mineral block or a protein feeder.
But sometimes, they just need a little help. A summer food plot or even a steady supply of supplemental feed throughout the late spring and summer can mean the difference between an average deer herd and a great deer herd. It can also translate to larger antlers under the right circumstances.
One of the most effective ways to give your herd a helping hand is with a summer food plot. They include annual plants like beans, peas, sunflowers or a combination of all three. Summer plots are planted in the spring after the last frost and provide nutrition when natural foods either die or go dormant during the hottest months.
Warm-season plots are often called nutrition plots because they are meant to feed deer, not to provide a place to hunt in the fall and winter. They often don’t last beyond August or September. That’s okay, though. Summer food plots are loaded with protein, a vital ingredient for antler growth and for giving nursing does an extra boost for milk production.
“If you have the space and if you have adequate rain, you can plant a nutrition plot later in the summer so it lasts into the early fall. That will give you a place to bowhunt, because deer will stay on those plots as long as they remain green,” says Evolved Harvest pro-staff member Aaron McCaleb.
Beans in particular will draw deer well into the fall, especially if they are planted later in the spring or early summer. Generally, though, the purpose of a summer plot is to give deer attractive and palatable forage high in protein.
“I like a bean and pea blend like Evolved’s Mean Bean Crush. Maximize is also a good choice. It consists of peas, beans, sorghum and sunflowers. All of those plants are high in protein and deer love them,” says McCaleb. “Blends are a great choice for summer plots because they give deer a variety of food options. They tend to focus on one plant and then they’ll start on another type of plant. Blends can provide a huge amount of forage.”
That is, as long as the deer don’t eat them before they have a chance to grow. McCaleb says it’s vital to plant enough acreage so the plots actually have a chance to mature and last through the summer. How much you need to plant depends entirely on your deer density.
“I plant 8 or 9 acres on my 400-acre lease in north-central Georgia, but I know some guys who plant quite a bit more because they have higher deer densities,” he says.
As with any food plot, it’s also important to conduct a soil test before broadcasting the first seed. Some regions have highly-fertile soil, but much of the south and southeast does not. It’s critical to give your summer plots the right dose of lime and fertilizer, information that can only be gleaned through a professional soil test. Healthy plants will draw deer much better than anemic plants.
Summer food plots aren’t the only way to provide extra nutrition to your deer herd. Supplemental feed and minerals can also benefit whitetails. They are a great choice for hunters with a limited amount of land or who don’t have the equipment necessary to plant and maintain food plots. Pelleted feed and granular or powdered minerals also provide vital nutrition when drought and other natural factors reduce the nutritional quality of food plots and natural food sources. In fact, a number of studies have shown that average antler size decreases during abnormally dry years where whitetails rely entirely on natural vegetation.
Not all mineral supplements are equal, though. Some are little more than blocks or bags of salt with a few additives thrown in for good measure. They do draw deer, but they are mostly attractants and provide little in the way of nutrition. Deer need salt, of course, particularly in the summer when they take in (and expel) large amounts of water. However, the better supplements have a carefully calculated blend of vitamins and minerals that provide the necessary building blocks for better antlers and healthier bodies. They have trace minerals, vitamins and a crude protein level of at least 16 percent. All of those help antler growth.
“Some regions have poor soil, and the deer aren’t getting the maximum nutrition levels as a result,” says Whitetail Institute Vice President Steve Scott. “Our Cutting Edge supplements have 30 different ingredients. Deer will get something out of a supplement in some way, no matter where you are.”
Pouring a single bag onto the ground won’t have any noticeable impact. Nor will starting a supplemental feed program in the middle of the summer. It’s critical to give deer a steady supply of minerals throughout the growing season. That means you need to start in the early spring.
“Antler growth starts almost as soon as they shed last year’s antlers, and does that are carrying fawns benefit from the extra nutrition before they give birth,” says Scott. “Start putting out supplements in February and don’t stop at least until late August when antler growth has stopped.”
He recommends establishing a feed station every 50 acres. Many supplements, including those sold by Whitetail Institute, can be poured directly on the ground or can be mixed with beans or corn. The better ones include an agent that prevents rot. However, pellets or even powder can spoil if it sits on the ground too long. That’s why it’s a good idea to use a trough-type feeder or a gravity feeder.
Don’t expect miracles with any summer food plot or supplemental feeding regimen. Don’t even expect a significant change in your herd’s health or antler size the first year. In fact, it can be difficult to notice much of an impact at all in some situations. Nutrition is just one factor that plays into a buck’s antler size. Age and genetics are just as important, although most experts agree that nothing affects antler size as much as age.
“It’s really pretty simple. A 4-year-old buck will have bigger antlers than a 2-year-old buck from the same region,” says McCaleb. “You can provide all the nutrients you want, but if they walk off your land and get shot by a neighbor, all the supplements and food plots in the world won’t grow bigger deer.”
A feeding program combined with trigger management can ultimately produce noticeable results after a couple of years. If you hunt a smaller parcel, talk with your neighbors and see if you can get them to agree to some sort of management cooperative. They might even start a summer nutrition regimen of their own. McCaleb says he’s seen an overall improvement in deer numbers, antler size and general health since he started using summer nutrition plots and supplemental nutrition several years ago.
“There are a lot of factors at play. Some you can control, some you can’t,” he adds.
Mississippi State University professor of wildlife ecology Dr. Steve Demarais agrees. However, he warns that feeding deer will only produce noticeable results under certain conditions. One study he was involved in compared whitetails that were given a steady supply of high-quality feed for two years with a population that was not provided any additional feed. There was little difference.
“Both years were very wet, so the natural forage was providing adequate nutrition,” he says. “Another study did show a noticeable improvement in overall health, though. That was conducted during a dry period when forage was generally poor. The supplemental food clearly helped in that situation.”
Providing a steady diet of pellets or mineral supplements raises an important question: Just how much money are you willing to spend in order to see more deer or produce bucks with slightly larger antlers? In most situations, antler size will increase by a small percentage, usually no greater than 10 percent.
Is that enough to undertake the expense? Processed deer food and supplements aren’t cheap. Demarais says in order to have an impact, it’s necessary to provide about one pound of pelleted feed per deer per day. That takes into account the loss of feed to non-target animals like raccoons, hogs and other wildlife.
“If you have a very high deer density, which is not uncommon in some parts of the Southeast, you can be talking a couple hundred dollars a day, not to mention the time it takes to keep filling feeders,” he says.
Food plots are considerably less costly, and they can provide a large amount of high-quality food. They are also less labor-intensive than filling feeders on a regular basis.
Just remember, if you convert several acres of your land into nutrition plots or if you start an intensive feeding program, you’ll probably have to shoot more deer. Healthy does have more fawns and healthy fawns generally have higher survival rates. That’s certainly not a bad problem to have as long as you understand the dynamics of deer management.