Prescribed fire in a pine stand for better deer habitat

Natural Browse Trumps Food Plots

Matt Dye 7.6.2017

It’s time to take a look at real science. The food plot world is flooded with seed mixes, fertilizers, and equipment that all swear to bring big bucks into range. For a food plotter who has been around the block or even someone looking to get into food plots, the market can be intimidating and even overwhelming. With all the buzz about food plots, it begs the question, how beneficial are they?

Here is the skinny, deer are natural browsers of herbaceous plant material. Research tells us that a deer’s diet is comprised of at least 400 different plant species. This is incredible! Sure, they have their preferences, but deer consume 6-8% of their body weight daily to fulfill nutritional demands. They can only be so picky if they want to survive. Understanding what and how much a deer consumes leads us to question the impact of food plots on a given property.

Eagle Seed Soybean Food Plot for DeerFood plots have their time and place, but it’s important not to forget about the year round supply of natural and “free” browse.

As a land and wildlife consultant for Land & Legacy, I routinely get asked, “what is the number one thing I can do on my property to grow and hold more and/or bigger deer?” The answer is not just additional food plot acres. On a well managed property, food plots should not be providing the bulk of nutrition throughout the year. A managed forest or regenerating forest will provide on average 1,000 lbs of food per acre, while a summer time food plot will produce roughly 8,000 lbs of digestible material. Now let’s do some math. On a 100-acre farm, I would need to successfully plant 11 acres of food plots to equal the amount of forage produced on the remaining 89 acres of non-ag land.

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The solution to productive forest is managing the timber by opening up the canopy to allow sunlight to reach the ground. This can be done through timber stand improvement practices such as: prescribed fire, logging, select cutting, and using the hack-n-squirt technique followed by prescribed fire every three to five years. A landowner shouldn’t intentionally neglect the other 89 acres they bought just because they can’t plant a food plot there. In fact, many timber practices make you money versus cost you money like food plots do.  Most landowners rejoice at the sound of the opportunity to provide quality food and manage a large majority of their property with little cost.

Another important practice, to compare with food plots, is old field management. This is exactly what it sounds like. Simply, let an old field grow up in weeds and other early successional species. Commonly found species in old fields include: blackberry, pokeweed, old field asters, partridge pea, beggar’s-lice, raspberry, and ragweed. When these species are young and tender, they are highly preferred by white-tailed deer. Many of these species during the growing season are nutritionally equal or close to that of summer annual food plots. So, 11 acres of summer food plots or 11 acres of old fields is equivalent in nutritional levels of digestible material during summer months. One big difference between these two techniques is the time and money it takes to manage them. Food plots are far more expensive than successfully managing old fields.

Aerial photo of an old overgrown field for deer huntingHere’s an old overgrown field that’s providing lots of ridgetop browse and bedding cover.  

When laying out a property for clients, food plots are just a tool in the tool box. They have their place and in the appropriate situation they are very useful. However, they are not the one and only solution to managing deer. One benefit of food plots is their ability to concentrate deer movements. Packing high-quality forage into a small area makes for a great hunting or observational strategy. Considering this advantage, food plots should be used as an additive to enhance your outdoor experience. Food plots can have a large impact, but managing an entire property to be productive can outweigh the time and money spent on just creating food plots.

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