By Don Higgins
Roughly 25 years ago, when I started managing my 120-acre low-fenced Illinois property for deer, in an “average” year the biggest buck on the place would have a gross antler score of right around the 150-inch mark. Year after year I could count on having such a buck to hunt. However, every few years there would be a noticeably bigger one available, usually scoring around 170.
At that time, I was quite happy with this level of management success. And those are still really good deer. But I continually studied whitetails and whitetail management to see if I could do even better. Along the way, my property has “evolved,” if you will, to the point I can now expect to have at least one 170-class buck on my property every season, and about every 3-4 years one that’s noticeably better.
There’s no single reason the average size of the biggest buck on my place has increased by roughly 20 inches over this span. I’m sure the fact I now pass some bucks I’d have been happy to shoot back in the early days of managing my property is a big part of it. Still, there are some specific things I do concerning land management, as well as a herd management, that have contributed to this success.
I’m confident one big reason for this increase in buck size is the food-plot program I continue to practice. I won’t guarantee following it will add 20 inches of antler to your best bucks, but hopefully it will get you moving in that direction.
We know nutrition, genetics and age are the key ingredients in the recipe for growing bigger bucks. I believe a manager has some control over all three of these areas (yes, even genetics, but we’ll leave that for another time). With free-ranging deer, nutrition is the area we probably have the most control over. So what can we do to make sure deer get the nutrition to take antler growth to the next level?
The Purpose of Plots
Many hunters see food plots simply as small cultivated areas to attract deer during hunting season. While a lot of folks utilize food plots of various sizes to simply draw deer within shooting range, a growing number are looking to grow bigger bucks. So let’s start by looking at plot size as it relates to both growing deer and attracting them to a stand or blind.
I often tell consulting clients to think of food plots as they would restaurants. A small plot is like a fast-food restaurant for deer. If you’re hungry and happen to be driving by a fast-food place, you might stop in for a bite to eat — but you and your wife wouldn’t drive 50 miles to eat there on a Saturday night. Likewise, a hungry passing deer might stop in at a small plot for a bite to eat but he won’t travel far out of its way to hit a small plot. Such food sources simply lack the drawing power and quantity of forage to make a big impact on the herd’s nutritional needs.
I’m a fan of having fewer but bigger food plots. A big one not only provides more tonnage of nutrient-dense food but it has the drawing power to pull in deer from all around. Think of it as that great all-you-can-eat 7-meat buffet with a 45-minute wait to get a table. Such a restaurant has the power to pull in people from long distances.
This doesn’t mean small plots have no place in a management program. Just as a city has both fast-food joints and fancy restaurants, a well-managed whitetail property has both. Small plots are great for enhancing stand sites by concentrating deer movement as well as diversifying food sources.
Meeting the Need Year-Round
One common mistake I observe with many whitetail managers is not providing enough quality food 365 days a year. The tendency is to provide it during hunting season and maybe a little beyond. If you’re seriously trying to grow bigger bucks, such a program falls far short. Any animal, be it wildlife, livestock or even humans, can only achieve peak performance with a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet all year.
I often get asked to name my favorite food plot crop. While soybeans are my clear favorite, that’s a misleading answer. There’s simply no magic bean, pun intended. Diversity of plants on a property is critical to meet the nutritional requirement of a deer herd year-round. Different plants provide different critical nutrients to form a well-balanced diet, and they’re at peak palatability and availability at different times.
I tell clients their plots should contain both “greens” and “grains,” but let me break it down further.
Grains are critical during fall and winter. They help fatten deer in preparation for winter, then provide energy and carbohydrates to help keep deer warm. What a deer lacks in available nutrition during cold weather it will make up for by burning body fat. Getting deer through winter in the best body condition possible takes providing the best food when they need it most.
Without straying too far afield here, I’ll throw in a quick hunting tip here. When hunting in late season, I often plan my hunts around various food plot crops. If the temperature is warmer than normal for that time of year, I’ll hunt near green food sources. Otherwise, I’ll hunt closer to grains. When it really gets cold, nothing on the planet will pull in deer from long distances the way a sizable plot of standing soybeans will.
My “green” plots consist of a mixture of cereal grains, brassicas and legumes. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Oats, wheat and rye (not ryegrass) are all examples of cereal grains. These are generally planted in the late summer to early fall and are extremely tender and palatable from the time they germinate clear through the winter and into spring. They’re very attractive to deer and provide better nutrient levels than do most native browse plants.
Commercially available food plot seed blends often contain some cereal grain(s), because they’re easy to grow and deer readily eat them.
In the brassica family I’ll include all bulb-type “root crops,” such as turnips, radishes and sugar beets, plus such leafy plants as rape and kale. Some of these plants become more palatable with colder weather, and generally they’re used in blends with other crops.
I like a fall-planted blend that includes both cereal grains and brassicas. Such a plot will attract hungry deer from the time it germinates on through hunting season and well into spring. Typically the specific plants that are attracting deer to these blended plots will change with the seasons. While deer are coming to the same plot throughout this time frame, they’re actually eating different plant species at various times of year.
We round out the “green” portion of a good plot program with legumes. These plants produce soil nitrogen through nodules on their roots and are typically very high in such key nutrients as protein and calcium. In my opinion, legumes are a critical part of any well-rounded whitetail nutrition program. Perennial legumes also are some of the first forage plants to green up in spring. Clovers and alfalfa are classic examples of perennial legumes, but this huge family of plants also includes many annuals that attract deer, including soybeans, cowpeas and lablab.
Several years ago, I saw firsthand the importance of legumes in a deer’s diet. At that time, I owned a small captive herd of research whitetails. One spring I had two pens side by side with an equal number of bucks in each. One pen was mostly fescue grass with some areas of bare dirt, as a lot of deer had been wintered in that pen; the other pen had a nice stand of clover and alfalfa. Both pens of bucks were provided with all the high-quality feed they wanted.
By late May, the difference between bucks in each pen was obvious to even a casual observer. Those with the clover and alfalfa had cleanly shed their winter coats and looked slick. They’d regained weight lost over the winter much faster and looked to be 50 pounds heavier than the bucks in the other pen. Their new antler growth also appeared to be 30 days ahead of that shown by bucks on the fescue. Again, the only difference between groups was the early-greening legumes bucks in the one pen had access to.
This was a real eye-opener for me, and I quickly started establishing more clover and alfalfa acreage on my property. I’m confident this has boosted the antler-growing cycle and has helped my does make their way through the final trimester of pregnancy, then nurse their newborn fawns.
Where Are You Now?
So let’s do a quick review to assess your current food-plot program and see where changes can be made to take things to the next level. Let’s start with an evaluation of the quantity of good deer food you’re now providing.
How do your plots look in late March or early April? Is there still enough good food available? In more northerly regions, this is when quality food is in shortest supply and when deer need it most for maximum production. Farther south, the main food deficit is slightly earlier, due to the difference in timing of spring green-up.
I evaluate my plots every spring to note how much food is still available. I then plan my program for that year right before planting season. If my plots have been picked clean or have very little food remaining, I’ll adjust planted acreage and/or crop mixes for a better balance.
Is your food plot program diverse, offering grains, greens and legumes? Or are you simply telling the farmer not to cut a couple acres of whatever crop happens to be grown in an ag field each year? To maximize the size of the deer on your property, give them the best nutrition possible. No single plant or plot can do this. It takes providing a complete and diverse food plot and nutrition program and having good food available to the herd 365 days a year.
When I started my journey as a whitetail manager decades ago, I never dreamed that every year I’d have bucks scoring 170 on my 120-acre property, never mind an even bigger one every few years. I’m guessing I’m now close to the limit of what I can do in terms of antler production. However, I recently came up with a new idea and have made a couple of minor tweaks to my approach. If I see another bump in antler size, I’m sure it will be fodder for a future article.
In the meantime, it’s now been three seasons since I shot my last 200-inch buck. So if my calculations are correct, I should have another true giant showing up in the near future. I’m anxious to see if it happens.