Deer Management – Food Plots and Supplemental Feed
The two habitat variables that affect deer diets and nutrition are plant availability (quantity and accessibility) and quality (nutrient content and digestibility). Native plants will vary in abundance, stage of growth, and nutritional characteristics on a seasonal basis. Because of this variation, one common practice to deer management is the installation and maintenance of food plots. Not only can food plots be used to supplement forage provided by native habitat, but many ranches attempt to use food plots to increase the carrying capacity of the deer herd. Is this a good idea? Not always.
Are Food Plots Right For You?
Deer management is about habitat management and using high-quality native plants to provide the nutritional requirements of deer. As most land owners are aware, producing quality whitetail means enhancing and maintaining high-quality deer habitat that provides both food and cover. But even with that fact, the biggest struggle in most deer management programs is to harvest enough deer to keep the herd in check witht the habitat. Land owners want to have lots of deer, and that almost always means an inflated deer population. Here enters supplemental feeding and food plots, both viable ways to increase available forage for white-tailed deer depending on the situation.
Food plots are great as supplemental food for white-tailed deer–if they grow. In the southeastern part of the United States, because of ample rainfall, food plots make a lot of sense. In areas, such as Texas, where rainfall can vary or fall off sharply, food plots don’t always work. And this can pose a problem for anyone involved in a deer management program that is relying on plot to keep their deer herd going strong. In these cases, it is recommended that the ranch owners look at providing supplemental protein pellets rather than food plots. Why gamble the time and money on a food plot in low-rainfall areas when protein pellets will provide supplemental nutrition without a hitch?
When it comes to food plots, cool season (winter) food plots are generally more reliable than warm season (spring) food plots. Cool season species are not susceptible to drought or weed competition, in most cases, unlike warm season plantings. One exception may be legumes, which may require delayed planting if rainfall is deficient in the early fall months of September and October. Cool-season species can be planted on either upland or bottomland sites because of cooler temperatures and increased water availability during fall and winter periods.
Cool season forages commonly consist of oats, rye, ryegrass, wheat, arrowleaf clover, sweetclover, subterranean clover, Austrian winter peas, and brassicas. Various companies provide a myriad of cool season seed mixes that use a number of plants into a single food plot mix. These are often good choices because of the variety of seeds in the mix, at least some of them will be work with the soil type on your property.
Spring food plot species are more reliable when planted in bottomland soils that retain moisture during the drier summer months. However, care should be taken to select a plot site that is not prone to flooding from nearby streams, rivers, or other waterways. Dry, upland soils are not good sites for warm season species for obvious reasons, so avoid such areas and concentrate on your better soils when possible.
Warm season species should be selected for their ability to grow quickly and compete with native weeds. Remember, with either warm or cool season supplemental forages, soil samples should be taken to determine lime and fertilizer requirements. Failure to properly prepare the soil may result in drastically reduced yield or excessive weed competition. If you are going to do it, do it right!
Well planned food plots can increase forage availability and at least partially compensate for decreases in suitable deer habitat. However, maximum benefits can be obtained only if forages complement the diet available from native vegetation and if forages are availalbe when vegetation is lacking or is low in nutritional value. Take a good look at your deer management program and decide if food plot are right for your before investing the time, money, and space.