Today’s whitetail managers know what an important role food plots play in the drive towards a healthy herd and bucks with bigger antlers. Food plots can transform deer management, even on small tracts, and make your hunting dreams come true. What’s the big difference between food plots and their native vegetation? Or, why couldn’t supplemental feeding have the same impact? Here’s why:
On average, native vegetation will produce about 200 to 300 pounds of deer food annually at approximately 6% to 12% protein. However, if they actually consumed that much you would see a browse line about 6 feet high and the habitat would be destroyed. So they can only use about 100 pounds per acre without destroying the area.
On average an adult deer will consume about six pounds of feed per day. Multiplied by 365 days per year and you get 2,190 pounds of feed per year. So, one deer can be supported on roughly 22 acres. However, body size, health and antler size are going to be well under their potential because of the poor average protein content of the native vegetation. Biologists agree that whitetails need about 16% protein to express their potential, especially during fawn rearing and antler growth.
There are some that would argue that feeding corn or protein pellets makes everything alright, but corn has approximately 8% protein, so even native vegetation is better than corn. The carbohydrates that corn produces does have a place, but even if you are feeding protein pellets at around 20% protein, you still have to consider predation, disease transmission, legality, aesthetics, the amount consumed by non-target animals and the cost.
I’m not saying that supplemental feeding is bad – on the contrary, I believe supplemental feeding is a good thing pending you do it right. But even if you do everything correct it is shown that no matter what you feed or how you feed it, deer will only consume 20% to 25% of their diet from the supplemental feed! So you are not significantly increasing your property’s carrying capacity and you are not making a big impact on their nutritional intake either. You are still well below the 16% biologists say is necessary.
There is no way that you can supply the amount or the quality of food that you can for the cost than by planting food plots. Food plots are going to decrease the average home range size for each deer in the area and in doing so can significantly increase your property’s carrying capacity! Food plots are going to supply well above the necessary 16% protein so your deer will have a chance to express their true health and antler growing potential.
Remember we said that they will only consume 20% to 25% of their diet in supplemental feed. It is shown that they will consume approximately 75% to 80% of their diet in food plot crops! It is probably for two reasons; one, because it is more like browsing to them. Deer are naturally browsers. It is unnatural for them to stand at a feeder. Two, because of the quality of the forage – food plots produce forage that is much more palatable and digestible then corn, protein pellets or native vegetation.
Food plots are not only important towards the health goals that you set, they’re also important to help you with your harvest goals. The use of a “harvest plot” containing very attractive blends during the hunting season can make it much easier to fill your tags. There are many choices in what to plant for whitetail. It really depends upon what your management goals are and how much acreage you are devoting to food plots as to what would be the best things to plant. On the properties that I manage throughout the country I plant many different blends containing diversity in plant species – each type of plant provides a different aspect towards achieving various management goals. So it depends upon “what” you want to use each plot for and “when” you want the use to occur as to what would be the best things to plant.
Regardless of your goals, if you have enough ground to devote to food plots, variety is important. You want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for them to provide everything they need regardless of the time of year or the conditions. As various plants yield different amounts and have differing maturation and palatability time frames, it also makes a difference how much acreage you are devoting to food plots as to what you should be planting.
You must have adequate acreage to do this “variety tactic” justice. For instance, if you only have an acre or less in total to devote to food plots you are probably better off planting just one or two blends. Otherwise, when a specific cultivar becomes palatable there’s not going to be enough to keep them coming back. They’ll wipe you out too soon. With small plots you have to be very specific about your goals and what you will plant.
If your goal is attraction you’ll want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for your herd for the entire time frame that you want to draw them. If your goal is nutrition, in that case, you want to have a nutritious, palatable food choice for them ALL YEAR LONG.
For antler growth, so many managers feel that it is the most important to have the best food source available for the early stages of antler genesis. Although this is an important time, for a buck to really show you what he is capable of producing, good nutrition must be made available all year long. For instance, if during the fall or winter their diet is lacking, when ample spring and summer forage is available, they’re playing catch up rather then reaping the reward.
Certain plants do a good job at both attraction and nutrition. Brassicas, clovers, chicory, various beans and peas are all good examples. Timing and placement would dictate how the cultivars will be used. Even though I might be talking about specific plants, I would not suggest planting single plant plots. There are several exceptions, but blends of multiple varieties or species of plants will almost always outperform “mono-plots.”
As said, there is no way that you can supply the amount or the quality of food that you can for the cost than by planting food plots. A good management program will likely stress the importance of both good nutrition to help grow big, healthy whitetails, and attraction to help with animal sightings and your harvest goals. Food plots will help your herd’s health, help your bucks express their true antler growing potential and make your hunting much easier.
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