It’s a well-known fact among trophy deer hunters that antler growth is mainly related to nutrition. Because this concept is pretty straightforward and simple, many hunters assume that providing deer with the proper nutrition is an equally simple process, but it’s not.
The past decade has seen a major increase in landowners developing food plots, and the hunting industry has responded with endless agricultural products and attractants to meet these needs. Unfortunately sometimes not even the people selling seeds and fertilizer have a complete understanding of which plants should be grown where, during which time of the year. So you have to do your homework when it comes to food plots, otherwise you might as well pour your dollar bills directly into your seed spreader and fling them across the dirt.
You may discover that you don’t even need to clear space for a field-type food plot, but instead can improve food quality by simply fertilizing native plants already growing on your hunting land. Try broadcasting fertilizer by hand across areas with fruit-bearing trees and shrubs to give them a boost, and you might be surprised by the results. The rule of thumb for this type of application is to use a 10-10-10 fertilizer mix (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium), spreading about one handful of fertilizer per inch-diameter of the shrub or tree you’re treating. The best time of year for this is once in the early spring, then again 1-2 months later.
Let’s say you’re getting good results by fertilizing native forage, but still want to introduce some different nutrients to your deer herd, without actually planting anything new. A great option, and one that might actually produce results this deer hunting season is a deer feeder. These devices come in many shapes and sizes, from a simple feed trough like those found on a cattle farm, to solar-powered grain broadcasters equipped with automatic timers set to distribute food evenly over time; especially useful while your hunting camp is left unattended. These devices are usually affixed to a large drum containing the food, and elevated so the grain spreads over a large area. Another reason they are high off the ground is to prevent bears and other scavengers from getting at the grain.
If you make the decision to create food plots on private hunting land there are a few things to consider before you fire up the chainsaw, brush hog or start tilling soil. First, try to figure out two things: where are deer bedding down, and where are they getting water from? If deer feel secure in their bedding areas they will only travel as far as they need to when looking for food and water. For this reason, once you determine where you’ll put food plots, you may want to consider keeping a particular field “off limits” to hunting. This way deer will continue to feel secure not only in their bedding areas, but in their feeding area as well, and they’re more likely to stick to your property, instead of jumping the fence to access a neighbor’s property after they get up from a nap.
You’ll also want to test the soil composition so you can determine its pH number, or level of acidity, which will help you figure out the proper fertilizer mix, or whether or not you should even bother planting in the area at all. There are pH testing kits available at arbor supply outlets, but a great resource found in most areas are county soil maps that will give you a good idea of which plant species will do well on your hunting land.
Once you narrow down a list of nutrient-rich plants that will work in your area, you’ll want to plant a somewhat diverse variety to ensure that at least some of them will do well regardless of how dry or wet the growing season is.
Another thing to remember, especially in our age of “immediate gratification,” is that food plots take time to develop, and deer take even longer to develop big racks. So although it might be possible to see fast improvement in antler quality, don’t bet the farm you’ll be making the records books this deer hunting season, or even next season.
What are the best forage options for maximum deer antler growth? Depending on climate and site-specific conditions, the best options for winter plants are legumes, like red and white clover, oats, winter wheat, and rye. In the summer deer love to eat alfalfa, cowpeas, soybeans, vetches, alyceclover and hairy indigo.
Good luck, this deer hunting season!