Without question, the vast majority of time, effort, money and energy spent on food plots is directed toward fall plots designed to attract deer so we can kill them. Next highest on the list are late-season hunting plots that also help carry deer through the bottleneck of winter, when natural food is at its scarcest and least nutritious state.
Then there are those conscientious managers who also build plots designed to hold and feed deer year-round. But even they sometimes overlook two of the most important periods of nutritional stress for white-tailed deer: early spring and late summer.
The Cupboard Was Bare…
The first of those seems rather obvious. By early spring, most (if not all of the food in fall and winter food plots) is gone — either eaten or decomposed. Except for a few stray acorns, most of the natural food is gone as well. Deer have been living at a nutritional deficit for several weeks now, burning more calories than they can possibly take in and feeding largely on coarse, woody browse. Fat reserves are depleted, the gas tank is empty and the first greens of spring could be a week or more away. Meanwhile, antler and fetal fawn growth are about to kick into overdrive.
There’s only so much you can do with food plots to remedy this. Depending on deer densities, the deer are going to consume most or all of the available food before the late spring bottleneck arrives. The easy but expensive answer is supplemental feed.
However, if you haven’t been providing supplemental feed all along, providing it now could do far more harm than good. Deer have a very sophisticated digestive system that takes time to adapt to changes in food availability. They must produce the proper rumen bacteria to digest the food they eat. A sudden dramatic change in diet, like adding corn or protein pellets during periods of nutritional stress is a bit like fueling your chain saw with pure gas. At best it will make deer sick. At worst it could kill them.
As is often the case, you’re better off providing natural foods that are available on demand. Depending on where you live, some plots may continue to provide some, limited nutrition. Regular selective cutting of hardwoods ensures an abundance of coarse woody browse in the way of downed tops, suckers and stump sprouts.
Best of all are mast orchards. The more hard mast bearing trees on your land the better. If you don’t have any, or enough, plant some. Also try to maintain or establish a variety. Some oaks do better in some years than others. Some drop nuts early, others late. Chestnuts produce more nuts, more nutritious nuts and produce them more often. Different varieties of mast trees ensure more food is available over a longer time.
The Dog Days are Over
The second bottleneck is the one most often overlooked by well-meaning wildlife managers. When late summer rolls around energy demands on white-tailed deer are at a peak. Adult does must meet the skyrocketing needs of nursing their nearly grown but not yet weaned fawns. Meanwhile, bucks are building muscle and antlers at an astonishing rate as they begin bulking up for the forthcoming breeding season.
One wouldn’t think either sex should have issues finding enough food as all is still green. But in many cases plant growth has ceased. Plants have matured and are now shunting energy away from leaves and blades and into seeds. Almost overnight, nutrition levels of herbaceous growth start dropping off. Meanwhile, hard mast has yet to mature. If you’re going to provide supplemental nutrition this is a darned good time to do it. Now, as with any time, you should phase it in slowly.
Again, providing on-demand nutrition in the way of natural food (including food plots) is always a better option. In late summer, the whitetail’s greatest nutritional need is protein, which can be provided in the way of buckwheat, clover and other legumes like peas, lablab and soybeans. These plants will also help transition deer into their fall diet and its higher energy demands.
So will soft mast plants. While herbaceous plants are dying and going to seed, the fruits of soft mast bearing shrubs like raspberries, blackberries and wild cherries are starting to ripen, paving the path toward early fall fruits like apples, pears and persimmons. Berries and cherries need little if any effort to establish as they typically pioneer disturbed areas, like the select cuts you did to increase woody browse. The larger frut bearing trees often also occur naturally, and just need a little thinning of the competition to become more productive. And if you don’t have any on your land, establish a soft mast orchard to compliment your hard mast orchard, further elongating the period of food availability and attractiveness to deer.
We all want to attract more deer during the hunting season and providing food is a good way to do that. Providing year-round nutrition is an even better way as it encourages more deer to hang around longer. The longer they stay, the more comfortable they are, and less likely to wander over to your neighbors. And, the deer on your land will be healtheir, which means more meat in the freezer and larger antlers on the wall.