October 06, 2023
Successful whitetail deer hunting requires an accurate understanding of the many factors that influence deer movement and foraging patterns. While the weather, time of year, disturbance ecology and competition among bucks all play major roles in determining the location of deer throughout different times of the day, perhaps no factor is more important than the type and quality of plants that occupy a site. Successful hunters have long used their own observations to recognize the intricacies of mast production and deer foraging habits. However, fewer of us have placed as much thought and effort into the different types of planting projects that we can undertake on our own properties that can improve hunting opportunities available for our families for many seasons to come.
As a long-time leader in the production of a wide range of outdoor products, the folks at Mossy Oak recognized the need to integrate the observation of wildlife preferences and nutrition into the production of high-quality plant materials for hunters and for those looking to improve wildlife habitat on a variety of properties. This principle of growing plants that match wildlife preferences has guided Mossy Oak BioLogic and Nativ Nurseries in the selection, breeding and production of high-quality plants for the past fifteen years.
A Short History of Mossy Oak BioLogic
Mossy Oak founder Toxey Haas has obviously long been a keen observer of wildlife behavior and habitat, which has served to inform the design and development of his signature outdoor products over the past forty years. Traditionally, there have been many forage seed blends adapted from agricultural applications for use in wildlife food plots.
While there are many similarities between raising food plots for wildlife and growing forage crops for livestock or for hay, the unique preferences and nutritional needs of the wildlife species must be considered. This is what led to the development of Mossy Oak BioLogic by Toxey and wildlife researcher Dr. Grant Woods. Rather than simply using the same legume blends that had historically served livestock producers, Dr. Woods studied the nutritional requirements and feeding patterns of whitetail deer as a means of developing food plot mixes that would improve hunting opportunities. Lessons learned from studies of whitetail deer in America as well as red deer farmers in New Zealand led to the realization of the importance of nutritional factors for body weight and antler development in deer.
Perhaps most notably, Dr. Woods’ studies helped to illustrate the potential for high-quality forages on relatively small percentages of a property to contribute to deer body weight. Although only less than one percent of a property was planted to high-quality forages, measurable improvements in the body weight of deer were observed in Dr. Woods’ studies. Using this knowledge of the role of nutrition, Toxey Haas and Dr. Woods pioneered the use of multiple forage species mixes to attract and support whitetail deer populations. This research led to the development of Mossy Oak BioLogic, which currently offers a variety of products for wildlife habitat improvement ranging from forage cultivars and seed mixes to mineral supplements and deer attractants.
A Short History of Mossy Oak’s Nativ Nurseries
Recognizing the role that specific native plants play in any successful hunt, Toxey took note of the trees that deer were drawn to and began collecting seeds for propagation. Just as many of us have observed over the years, deer seem to be drawn to certain trees sometimes for reasons not easily discernible. For example, in a year in which rainfall favors widespread production of white oak acorns, deer seem to exhibit a strong preference for particular trees. While the recognition of this preference can be a great advantage to planning hunts and stand locations, there is a greater value in using this preference to guide selection and nursery production of plants that will draw deer to a specific location.
Similarly, prior to the establishment of Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries, sources of plants bred and grown specifically for wildlife purposes was limited. Foresters and plant scientists had selected hardwood tree genetics for veneer production, rapid growth, disease resistance but not necessarily for mast production. Therefore, the genetic basis of many tree nurseries was well suited for timber production but not necessarily ideal for wildlife habitat improvement projects.
As Toxey looked for tree seedlings to use for wildlife plantings and the improvement of hunting sites, he was often forced to use his own collection to source those plants with the ideal characteristics to attract deer. While his backyard was used early on to house these plant collections, Toxey recognized the usefulness of plants that wildlife prefer for not only himself, but for the larger community of hunters looking to improve hunting opportunities on their own properties.
Subsequently, Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries was established in 2007 by taking Toxey’s original concept to a larger scale. The identification of superior genetic material was key, which has been done by paying attention to the trees to which deer are most attracted. This preference exhibited by deer may be attributable to a variety of plant characteristics, ranging from a higher palatability due to differences in tannin levels in acorns to the timing of acorn drop throughout the season. Because wildlife preference for certain plant materials is likely an expression of a variety of factors, the genetic material selected for production at Nativ Nurseries likely represents a combination of these characteristics into plants that wildlife are most drawn to.
Following the development of Nativ Nurseries, significant effort was placed into improving the process of native plant production for the consumer. Given the wildlife forage production is one of the most important reasons many landowners will select plant materials, Nativ Nurseries developed the Rapid Mast Seedling production process. This system of growing plant materials, as developed and described by Mossy Oak’s own plant expert Dudley Phelps, involves three distinct components that guide the production of mast-producing trees.
First, the development of Rapid Mast Seedlings requires the use of superior genetics in the source plant materials. This means the identification of parent trees that exhibit high levels of mast production early in the life of the tree. Breeding for precocious plants and for large acorn crops is essential for the development of plant materials that wildlife prefer. Similarly, parent plants must be selected for other characteristics of the wildlife crop, such as palatability and maturity of the crop during specific times of the year along with drought tolerance and suitability to certain sites and climates.
The second component of the Rapid Mast Seedling development system is the method used to grow the plants. Growing tough native plants requires specialized techniques that encourage maximum root development. Seedlings at Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries are grown in containers with holes designed to encourage air pruning of roots. Basically, these holes expose growing roots to air in such a way as to encourage the development of more fibrous, feeder roots. According to Dudley, by focusing the plant’s energy into development of a robust root system, Rapid Mast Seedlings can establish more rapidly following planting and don't suffer from the same ‘transplant shock’ as conventionally grown seedlings. Perhaps more importantly for folks working to improve wildlife habitat on their own farm, the extensive root system and superior genetics of Rapid Mast Seedlings can result in much faster acorn, nut or fruit production.
The final aspect of the Rapid Mast Seedling is sharing the success with hunters, landowners and others interested in wildlife habitat improvement. This involves educating customers on optimum planting methods, matching appropriate species to different sites, controlling invasive species, protecting seedlings and fertilizing wildlife plantings. The vast knowledge base of Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries staff is made available through multiple podcasts, blogs and the YouTube channel. Open access to information on planting and managing native trees for wildlife has led to the development of online communities of practice among hunters and those interested in improving wildlife habitat.
In addition to the young oaks produced as Rapid Mast Seedlings, Nativ Nurseries has expanded to offer a wide range of other plant materials for habitat improvement projects. Fruit trees, including several native plums and other soft mast species, are available. Hybrid oaks and chestnuts are available through Nativ Nurseries, which have been bred specifically for characteristics beneficial for wildlife. Given the great interest among many landowners in improving early successional habitat for upland game birds in addition to whitetail deer, Nativ Nurseries produces native grass and forb plugs, which help to expedite the growth and productivity of wildlife plantings.
Numerous selections have been made from wild populations to create plugs that are beneficial for deer in addition to game birds and pollinators. Native grass and forb seed mixes are also available for landowners seeking to improve habitat on lands with unique soil and site characteristics. Offerings have also expanded to include products helpful for the long-term success of wildlife habitat improvement projects, including tree protection tubes and Mossy Oak BioLogic fertilizer blends.
Since the establishment of Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries and BioLogic, the brands have expanded from a small selection of offerings to a wide range of plant materials that have been bred specifically for their ability to attract wildlife. As landowner interest in improving habitat for game species has increased, so too has Mossy Oak’s offerings of trees, forbs and grasses to meet the diverse needs of wildlife habitat managers. By focusing on selection of superior plants, constantly improving propagation methods and educating customers on land stewardship, Mossy Oak BioLogic and Nativ Nurseries continue to contribute greatly to the wildlife habitat improvement for whitetail deer and many other important species.