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Importance of Hard and Soft Mast to the Deer Herd

After fully explaining what whitetails need, we'll show you how to create a deer orchard for your local herd.

One of the main areas of interest in whitetail management continues to be herd nutrition. More specifically, people remain highly focused on how to increase protein.

But is this warranted? The truth is that whitetails are marvelously adapted to making do with a lot less protein than some would have you believe. For that reason, much of our recent habitat-management research has been on ways to increase digestible energy, including through the use of food plots.

We’ve found that one trait making some plant varieties quite attractive and useful to deer is the amount of digestible energy they provide. For example, we discovered (somewhat by accident) that the reason deer prefer oats over wheat or rye is that oat forage contains higher levels of water and alcohol-soluble carbohydrates. This discovery led us to conduct research on ways to increase available energy to the herd.

The “no brainer” food for energy is the acorn. But while oak fruit are rich in fats and carbohydrates, they’re only available for a small fraction of the year. Some deer herds, such as those in the Georgia Piedmont and northern Michigan, are acorn-driven; years with high mast production lead to higher deer recruitment the following year.

Unfortunately, acorn production is not only fleeting, it’s too sporadic to be dependable. Thus, our studies logically evolved to explore fruit and nut trees that are more reliable sources of energy. We set a goal of developing a suite of species and varieties to spread energy sources over more of the year, especially in the critical antler-growth and nursing periods.

We broke our search into trees, shrubs and vines that produce soft fruits, as well as plants that produce nuts attractive to whitetails. Emphasis was on having something good out there from spring through fall.

The 'Deer Orchard' Concept

The next step was to develop a workable solution for providing this energy where deer need it. We settled on well-distributed plantings we simply call “deer orchards.”

In principle, a deer orchard is no different from a food plot. In fact, it often can be incorporated into a plot or adjacent to it. The strategy is to plant several species and varieties that not only produce fruit over much of the year, but also provide a hedge — pardon the pun — against unpredictable climatic conditions.

The idea is to have enough plants to provide adequate energy from spring to fall but without taking many years to start producing. With that in mind, we generally start with fast-growing plants such as blackberries, raspberries and even blueberries, which can fruit their second season. (We avoid exotic varieties, as they seldom live up to the hype.)

Bucks love to rub on your fruit trees, so take steps to protect them from bark damage. (Photo courtesy of Dr. James C. Kroll)

Cherries and plums tend to start bearing fruit within 3-7 years and can produce high yields. In the South, mulberries are great producers in late spring and early summer; there even are some everbearing varieties. American beautyberry is a great native shrub found from Texas to Maryland. It produces huge crops of purple berries that mature in late summer.

Apples and pears are our mainstays for mid-summer to early-fall production. We’ve produced a Dr. Deer variety of pear that holds onto its fruit until late fall and even into early winter. Japanese persimmons do the same and can be grown well into USDA Zone 7. American persimmon can even survive sub-zero temperatures.

Fast-growing nut trees favored by whitetails include chestnuts (blight-resistant and Chinese types, zones 4-9) and sawtooth oak in the South to Midwest (zones 5-9). These trees are very dependable producers, starting as early as their third season!


Most recently, we’ve developed a very early live oak (zones 9-10) that produces some nuts 3-5 years after planting. In zones 5-9, Shumard oak is a fast-growing, heavy-producing oak. Chinquapin (chinkapin) oak can be planted as far north as Zone 5, and it also produces attractive acorns quickly.

Size & Location of Orchards

Deer orchards can be developed as edge plantings or as actual plots, ranging in size from a quarter-acre to a half-acre. We recommend having at least one for every 40-80 acres. Of course, you might not have that much land, but you can develop an orchard no matter how small your property.

Organization of the planting is critical. Arrange berry plants and grapevines along edges, serving to both soften the edges and allow grapes to climb trees along the fringe. Note that most fruiting plants produce better with ample sunlight.

The more varieties you plant, the more reliable the orchard. Plant trees at a spacing of 25x25 feet to allow for good crown development. That translates to about 35 trees for a half-acre plot and 17 for a quarter-acre plot.

Planting & Maintaining

Any tree or shrub planted in your orchard will require an investment of time and money. It costs around $40 per plant to do it right. That means to plant in a good spot at the proper time, protect the plant during early growth and reduce its weed competition so it remains healthy and becomes productive as soon as possible. Spring is the best time to plant orchards in the North, but I find fall planting more effective in the South.

If you don’t place a substantial protective cage around each tree, you might as well throw your money out the window. Bucks will consider any tree you plant to be a toy for rubbing. For each plant we thus construct a triangular cage, using three pieces of 52-inch-high utility panel cut into 12-inch widths, zip-tied to a T-post.

Young orchards sometimes need watering. A small water tank and pump can help you do the job easily and inexpensively. (Photo courtesy of Dr. James C. Kroll)

Be prepared to water your orchard plants for at least the first year or two, until roots are well established. Note that this doesn’t require irrigation; you can simply haul water by ATV, UTV or pickup. We use a small trailer designed for riding mowers, carrying a polypropylene tank and inexpensive water pump to our orchards.

Once plants are established, you should conduct what we refer to as “intermediate treatments.” Competition from native weeds, grasses and shrubs can be a real problem. You can mow or spray with herbicide to control such plants. But never allow herbicide to reach the trunks of young trees; it will kill them.

Some trees, including oaks, chestnuts, persimmons and apples will require early pruning to obtain a solid base to support heavy nut/fruit crops; Due to their natural shape, pear trees generally don’t need pruning.

Lastly, fertilize your orchard each fall by applying one pound of a balanced fertilizer (eg., 13-13-13) per inch of basal diameter around the drip line of each tree.

The Payoff

Over the last decade we’ve developed deer orchards from Mexico to Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York. In most cases, mast production is now well under way.

Planting a quarter-acre orchard will have an up-front cost of about $700, with maintenance then running about $50 per year. Once in place, your orchard should remain productive for 30 years or more, making the annual cost pretty attractive when weighed against less effective ways to supplement the herd’s diet.

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