May 05, 2021
By Dr. James C. Kroll
Virtually since the beginning of North American Whitetail in the early 1980s, I’ve been writing about the key role food plots can play in developing prime deer habitat. The advice I’ve shared has been based on our findings at the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research in heavily forested East Texas, as well as working in cooperation with other landowners, managers and hunters all across the continent.
Considering how long I’ve written about food plots, you might assume that I’ve frequently gone into great detail about their location and methods of clearing to plant. And it’s not as though I’ve avoided discussion of cutting trees; in fact, in the last issue I devoted my “Dr. Deer” column to how forestry practices can help produce more good native deer food. However, as I think back over my writings in NAW, I can’t recall ever having gone into the specifics of starting a plot from scratch, whether in the forest or in a more open location. I guess I assumed every reader already had a place to plant the forages I was discussing.
While it’s probably true that most food plotters have spots already picked out, it’s also true that those spots often are chosen mainly out of convenience to the person planting them, not where they’ll do the most good for managing the herd. With this in mind, here I’ll focus entirely on where plots should be located, their size and how to clear them for planting.
Developing the Landscape
Perhaps on our “Build Your Own Deer Factory” segments on NAW TV presented by Wildtree Nursery you’ve heard me talk about “landscaping for whitetails.” We came up with this concept as an offshoot of a research field called “landscape ecology.” In fact, our early radio-tracking work with wild deer was aimed at finding out how they use the natural landscape. That research showed habitat is made up of patches of plant communities, each of which has its own utility to deer.
In those days there was no clearcutting, so we had a pretty much unbroken forest in which to work. When clearcutting began to become popular, it unfortunately was done to excess. Very large areas of highly diverse forest were cleared of all trees and shrubs, then planted like corn fields to a single merchantable tree species.
Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against intensive forestry. In fact, I’m a forester as well as a biologist. But I favor it only if it takes into account the natural composition of habitats.
Fortunately, while working at Boggy Slough Hunting & Fishing Club, a 25,000-acre area along the Neches River bottom of East Texas, we were able to complete our movement and habitat-preference studies on whitetails before clearcutting began. Arthur Temple, then President of Temple-Inland Forest Products, had taken an interest in our work and provided support to our studies and management philosophy well into this century.
We learned that the typical home range of a whitetail is elliptical in shape. The axis length of the ellipse appeared to be determined by the uniformity of habitat. Put simply, in a forest composed of many acres of the same habitat type, deer must range farther to satisfy all their needs. So we began “playing” with certain forest elements, measuring how the deer responded.
To our surprise, the more complex the habitat, the more like a circle the home range became. This was one of our most significant discoveries, as we then could manipulate deer movement by arranging the various habitat needs appropriately on the landscape. Thus did we come up with the term “landscaping for whitetails.
Since learning what deer needed, how much of it they needed and where it should be, we’ve focused our efforts on creating and maintaining the right amount of each habitat element. Food plots are one such potential element, assuming they’re in the proper locations.
Whitetails lead simple lives: They eat, sleep, socialize and have a once-a-year breeding season. Being herbivores, they awake looking for something to eat and pretty much browse and graze whenever on their feet. They travel easy-to-walk corridors that connect elements of their landscape. I once wrote that deer are basically “lazy,” but I later amended that comment to be that they’re “physiologically efficient.
Whitetails also are genetically programmed not to overbrowse their feeding areas if avoidable. They’re what I call “patch grazers.” In fact, by patch grazing they keep some vegetation tender and growing, which makes the plants more nutritious.
Location & Size Considerations
Food plots should be along existing travel corridors and as close to cover as possible, so deer can feel comfortable going there to feed. The problem is, most of these currently unworked locations are either where there’s a lack of convenient access or are occupied by trees and brush.
Although properly locating a food plot can be challenging, in the 21st century there have been innovations in equipment that go way beyond a bulldozer. But before you start constructing access roads and clearing land, let me share a story with you.
Back in the 1990s, we provided management assistance to the growing number of Temple-Inland hunting leases in East Texas. One of these was Fountain Creek Club, west of Lufkin. The land had been grossly abused by the timber company that had formerly owned it. There wasn’t a single remaining natural timber stand left. When the club was organized, the land was occupied by even-aged young pines. It really was a classic monoculture
The landowner’s policy logically prohibited the clearing of plantation pines by hunting clubs. However, there was a way to grow more deer forage. Members were free to plant any existing openings but not remove any merchantable trees. So what were the options?
This club’s membership was made up of average guys, most of them factory workers: people with common sense; in other words. Using aerial photos, we helped them find every opening that was near a good place to have a food plot. They also planted plots in strategic locations along rights-of-way and timber roads. Coupling this with proper herd management, over the years these members produced several trophy bucks and became a shining example for other Temple-Inland clubs.
Most of the potential plot locations we found on that land were overgrown with brush and trash trees. Unfortunately, these had to be cleared by hand and/or using tractor-mounted mowers, rather than larger equipment. I was sympathetic to the members’ plight, as the first food plot I ever cleared at our Institute involved swinging a double-bit ax.
Fortunately, at Fountain Creek Club s were some potential plot locations needing less intensive site development. These included utility rights-of-way. Years ago, we worked with utility companies in Georgia to offer cost-sharing to hunting clubs and landowners who would maintain powerline rights-of-way by planting food plots. This can save the company money while creating good wildlife habitat and boosting public relations. There are untold miles of utility rights-of-way in the U.S. and Canada, representing a great potential resource for deer forage management.
As you can tell from my description of Fountain Creek Club, its planted areas tended to be small. And that brings us to another key question: How big do forest plots need to be? We often plant strips that are only 16-20 feet wide and 50-75 feet long: 1,500 square feet maximum. The thinned-out rows we plant in timber stands are 20-24 feet wide and up to 150 feet long. Each plot is a tiny fraction of an acre, but if you have enough of them, they can make a real difference.
If these mini-plots are purely for nutrition, we plant red clover, white clover and chicory. If we’ll be hunting them, we plant Buck Forage Oats.
A New Era of Equipment Options
Around the time we began working with Fountain Creek Club, we also engaged in habitat research with another Texas landowner, this one near College Station. He’d acquired a property that once had been a native savanna of grassland and scattered trees but had since become overgrown with yaupon holly. This greatly limited the production of preferred browse.
Wanting to return the land to a more natural state, we came up with the idea that the equipment used to site-prepare timber plantations could, on a smaller scale, be used to “landscape” the deer woods. Using an articulated log skidder with a huge mulcher (woods gator) attached to the front, we quickly restored acres of dense forest to their original savanna condition.
Since that work was done, we’ve seen the availability of small-scale equipment to reduce the effort and cost of constructing openings. In fact, in many regions these days you can hardly drive down a rural road without seeing little signs advertise forest-mulching services. These operators use small yet powerful skid loaders outfitted with a smaller version of the huge mulcher we used on our savanna-restoration project years ago. You also might have seen us using them on our BYODF segments on TV. Such mulchers offer the advantage of being able to maneuver around trees with little effort. They’ve become game-changers in plot construction and forage management.
To learn more about the small equipment that is available now, check out our article Cool New Tools for Whitetail Work.
Preparing The Plot Area
Once the proper location for a new plot has been found, we use this mulching equipment first to provide an access lane wide enough for a tractor and implement to reach the location. Unwanted trees on the plot site can be cut and pushed to the edge, where they then provide screening cover for deer. These downed trees also can be arranged to funnel deer to where you want them to enter/exit the new plot.
Be sure to cut all trees as close to ground level as you can, to allow easier use of farming equipment. This is the way in which pioneers cleared land. Yet stumps create a host of issues. Pine stumps tend to rot in 3-5 years and are easily burned. However, hardwood stumps sometime seem to last forever. So we use another piece of rented equipment, the stump grinder. Some of these can be mounted onto a tractor, while others come with tracks for moving about the plot. Either way, using a grinder beats paying someone to remove stumps with a large track-hoe machine.
Food plots are no different from gardens in that they take time to bring to their full potential. For one thing, recently cleared land often lacks the proper soil nutrition to grow lush plots. Also, during the first years of development you’ll be battling competing vegetation such as grasses and brush. So the first year after clearing, we use non-soil-active herbicides to kill the weeds. (Our fallback herbicides are glyphosate and triclopyr.) Using a soil-active herbicide can prevent your desired crop from growing — in some cases, for years.
The highest forage yields tend to come from well-developed plots receiving ample sunlight throughout the growing season, whether cool season or warm season. However, we’ve also developed ways to increase forage where we need it within existing timber plantations. The trees are planted at set spacings, often very densely. This is done to force the young trees to grow more upward than outward, producing better timber products. Yet crowding for too long causes trees to stunt and reduces diameter growth. For that reason, most foresters come back 7-10 years after planting and thin the timber stands.
The most common thinning method is to use “row thinning,” removing every third or fifth row of trees. This leaves spacing between rows where there had been none. Brush quickly grows up in these strips, which can provide browse to deer; however, the cleared rows also offer opportunities to grow specific forages.
Over years of working with landowners on timbered properties, we found some plant varieties that could produce reasonable yields in more shaded conditions. For instance, we found many clover and chicory varieties can do relatively well in partial shade. As noted, oats even can be grown in the “down rows” in conifer plantations. With space for bigger equipment being tight, seed can be spread by hand, from a UTV outfitted with a spreader or even by air. At Turtle Lake Club in Michigan, aerial seeding of clover has become standard operating procedure.
Hardwood stands also need to be thinned to allow better growth and mast production. In particular, the vast majority of old-growth oak stands in the Great Lakes states are too dense to produce much in the way of acorns or deer forage beneath them.
By thinning these oak stands, leaving the same mix of species, we allow the remaining tree crowns to expand and for acorn production to increase. This approach also provides room to plant forages between trees. Again, we top-seed recently thinned areas with clover, which can thrive for three years or more. This greatly reduces cost and puts forage where it’s needed. (For more on this, see my “Dr. Deer” column that ran in the Dec.-Jan. issue.)
Implementing new food plots into your whitetail landscape takes studying the area from a bird’s-eye view and critically analyzing what each area already provides. Once this has been done, strategically locate plots where deer really need them — even if those spots aren’t convenient to you. Using the methods we’ve developed and tested over the last 50 years will help reduce the distance deer have to travel on a daily basis and will result in their spending more time on your property. In the long run, that can only help.