Over the course of my career, no area of the hunting market has expanded faster and farther than the habitat improvement niche. When I first began giving seminars, I gave around half of them on habitat improvements. Back then, those habitat improvement seminars covered little more than laying out and planting food plots. Wow, how far we've all come since then!
The problem with any rapidly expanding niche is that a lot of bad info seems to get spread right along with the good, and food plot info has certainly been included in that. Truth be told, I've always been one to bristle when I see false info being spread as gospel, even when it encourages otherwise positive activities.
With that in mind, let's talk generally about benefitting deer with food plots. I have no desire to try to correct every myth spread in an attempt to sell products, promote organizations and/or even promote individuals as experts. Instead, we'll merely explain what main purposes food plots serve deer and give the rest the attention it deserves — none.
Feeding & Hunting Deer
Right off the bat, there are two major reasons for establishing food plots for deer. The first and most common is simply to attract deer to specific locations for hunting. Frankly, that's why the food plot craze began. Food plots were promised to improve the hunting on the properties that planted them.
That's an extremely solid reason. At the heart of it all, hunting is supposed to be fun. In my line of thinking, that's every bit as important as hunting's need to help balance deer numbers with the habitat and overall social desires to keep numbers in check. In the later regard, we hunters may want as many deer as the habitat can support in a healthy manner, but our neighbors may not be as willing to drive obstacle courses to work, dogging deer at every turn.
Frankly, if we hunters aren't finding enjoyment and satisfaction when hunting, odds are we'll quit and turn the deer numbers issues over to the government, which is a far more costly and less tolerable solution. Well laid out food plots increase the fun factor by seeing more deer on stand, thus helping to inspire us to continue climbing trees to watch the show.
What a difference a few months make! Look at the amount of food available in these two shots, with the cam merely shifted to cover the licking branch, instead of the opening. Adding more summer food would do little good, when food is everywhere. Winter is a different story all together.
With hunting seasons being in the fall and early winter, it would seem that food plots serve no purpose for hunting, outside of deer season. That's not entirely true. Simply put, having a primary food source, in the same location, for the entire year can lead to more stable, year round deer patterns on a property. One can easily argue both sides of how big a help in hunting that is, as well as note that shifting core areas with the seasons is normal for deer. However, in theory, more stable deer patterns most certainly can help hunting and having a year round primary food source definitely encourages that, even if it doesn't deliver as completely as often advertised.
The other major selling point is offering increased nutrition, outside of season, can be very helpful in increasing the carrying capacity of a habitat, which can help support higher numbers and healthier deer. After all, the carry capacity, which is the max number of deer a habitat can support, is most often determined by the seasonal low point of food availability.
We hunters focus on deer season, as that's when we're out there playing in the woods. Putting plots in specifically for fall-feeding attraction has the potential to draw more deer and increase our hunting opportunities.
The catch is that fall is rarely the seasonal low point for food. Even outside of farm country, where grain crops have matured and often are available in abundance in fall, the big woods typically offers a surplus of nutrition over fall. Even if one doesn't count all the hard and soft mast crops fall offers, cool season grasses and weeds abound most everywhere grass and weeds grow. These spring and fall food sources typically offering around a 15% protein content and are fine deer foods.
As already mentioned, if one's goals are to impact deer health and even possibly raise deer numbers, one must focus on offering food during the low water marks. Your habitat is only as strong as its weakest link.
In the areas of receiving cold temps and significant snow depths, winter is most often the low point for nutrition. In those areas, assuming the deer aren't engaged in migrations to overwinter yarding areas, leaving grain crops stand for deer is an expensive, yet viable method of increasing the nutritional plain during those deer's most stressful period of the year. In fact, right before spring green up is often the most nutritional stress these deer endure, as they've been stressed all winter long and typically don't recover until those cool season grasses and weeds begin to emerge.
Less expensive options are cereal rye plantings, such as Antler King's Fall/Winter/Spring. Cereal rye isn't killed by frosts. Instead, it goes dormant, remaining green, palatable to deer and ready to resume growth any time the ground thaws. That high quality fall, winter and very early spring feeding. In areas without constant, deep winter snows, even clovers are routinely pawed bare and eaten. Many brassicas are also fine overwinter plots, but they are typically wiped out or dead by spring.
Also, don't forget the importance of woody browse. Whether one uses a logging method or merely plants a bunch of browse species of trees and bushes — a surplus of preferred — woody browse is nature's overwinter and spring food plots in areas receiving true winters. Sure, planting trees takes money, but cutting them can cost as little as chainsaw gas or even put money into your pockets from logging. Either method can result in a significant bump in in nutrition over the stressful winter and early spring these deer experiencing winter endure.
For our hunting buddies in the hotter, more arid regions, winter is often a time of food surplus, as killing frosts aren't turning nature's buffet into a wasteland. For deer in those areas, overly hot, dry summers are the major stressor. Not only is the heat overworking their bodies, but those hot, dry temps cause many food sources to go dormant or completely die off.
It's hard to peg exactly what plantings can work well to soften the nutritional stress of these deer, as the areas subjected to these conditions range so wildly. For example, soybeans, many clovers, alfalfas, peanuts and certain peas can all provide great over summer nutrition, for deer in hot, more arid regions. The catch is that they will grow in some of those areas and not in others. This is where the reader will be well served to check with their local agriculture department to see which type of summer food source is best suited for their specific area and conditions.
That said, offering a surplus of woody browse can pay off big time for these deer, as well. The leaves of many trees and shrubs, as well as their woody browse, are key food sources for deer trying to beat the heat. Using logging or tree planting to jack their availability can help those deer every bit as much as it does their northern brothers.
Regardless of where you are, the main purpose of offering food plots outside of season is to increase the health and potentially the number of deer within that area. The trick to really pulling that off is to target the portion of the year that offers the least nutrition and specifically increase the nutritional plain, during that phase. Offering a prime summer food source may be the most benefit one can get on a southern property, but it's just not going to deliver in the north.
No, it sure doesn't hurt northern deer to have a surplus of summer foods further bolstered by food plots, but they'd benefit a heck of a lot more from offering more overwinter and early spring nutrition.
That's a long way of saying, ID and focus on improving the nutritional plain of your seasonal weak link. Adding to the surplus of riches many seasons offers isn't a bad thing, but does a pitiful amount of good, compared to focusing on increasing food production during the lean times. Doing that provides by far the most significant improvement in deer health. Improve deer health and you will likely be chasing more and bigger bucks this fall.