Whitetail Deer Use of Agricultural Crops

Supplemental food is one of the easiest way to ensure that a deer population reaches it’s genetic potential. It also makes for great whitetail hunting because healthy animals mean high fawn crops and big bodied and antlered bucks. Now let’s look at what for many managers is the most effective way to significantly elevate deer nutrition: an intensive year-round agricultural program directed toward the herd.

Let’s assume that 75 percent of a whitetail’s daily food consumption consists of prime agricultural crops, the other 25 percent of native browse. Such heavy utilization of food plots isn’t theoretical; at North American Whitetail’s Fort Perry Plantation in Georgia, agricultural crops make up 80 percent of the herd’s annual diet. And under management, the deer density increased to more than five times that of natural carrying capacity – even as the health of the natural habitat steadily improved. In the West, whitetails in river-bottom habitat with irrigated alfalfa are almost fully dependent on that crop when it’s available. The same trend is true in the Midwest and Central Canada.)

Here’s the key to why whitetails do so well when provided with the right food plots: They view prime agricultural crops as browse, not as supplement. Depending on the quality of native browse and that of the crops, they will utilize the plantings almost exclusively, just as they would any other highly nutritious, highly digestible “ice cream” plant. To whitetails, items such as cowpeas, clovers, alfalfa, lablab, etc., are simply super forbs available in super abundance.

Let’s assume an average (warm-season) agricultural protein level of 25 percent protein. (Cool-season crops, such as cereal grains, don’t have — or need — that level of protein, but we’re speaking in relative terms. And some food-plot plants average in excess of 25 percent protein, particularly in the growing tips deer favor.)

At 75 percent agricultural consumption of 25 percent protein and 25 percent natural browse consumption at 11 percent protein, the herd’s average protein intake is 21.5 percent. And even at 20 percent average protein for agricultural crops, at this level of utilization the average protein level still is 17.75 percent. (The impact on deer numbers and quality at these relative levels is obvious and dramatic.)

With 75 percent agricultural consumption, logic dictates a corresponding reduction in browsing pressure on native habitat, allowing herd density to increase from a deer per 25.6 acres on native browse to a deer per 6.4 acres on agriculture — without increasing pressure on the natural habitat.

Looking at the above numbers, it’s easy to see that deer size and numbers can be significantly increased through the proper use of agricultural plantings. In fact, under intensive agricultural programs, it’s possible to carry two, three or even more times as many deer as natural habitat alone can support, and for those deer to be bigger than they would be if feeding on native habitat alone.

The key to achieving these agricultural gains is intensive farming that consistently produces the necessary crops. Of course, that isn’t something every whitetail manager is willing to do or capable of doing. It’s a big commitment in every sense, but it’s possible.

Huge gains through agriculture are more than theory. They’re now being enjoyed by deer managers in many parts of North America — without damaging the habitat. And the beauty is that as a manager you can choose your level of management intensity based on personal goals and resources. For most of us, some combination of natural habitat management, supplemental feeding and agriculture is a logical and feasible way to go.

The quality of natural habitat can be preserved with a sound food-plot strategy, even in the face of significantly higher deer numbers than once thought possible. As a result, fair chase (which can be compromised by the degradation of habitat and the resultant “taming” of deer in over-browsed habitat) can be protected if managers work to protect the environment. And protecting the habitat and ensuring fair chase are essential if we’re to be seen as stewards of the resource by the hunting and non-hunting public.

If you want more and bigger deer on your hunting land this year and beyond, these numbers should convince you that the right food plots are well worth planting. Yes, you need high-quality native habitat, and in many cases, supplemental feeding of deer will prove to be quite effective at improving whitetail hunting as well. But as we’ve noted throughout this long-running series on private-land management, it’s hard to beat the gains that come from mixing year-round food plots with the right harvest strategy.

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