There has been and always be a lot of interest among landowners in improving the antler size of white-tailed deer using deer food plots. Genetic improvement of deer as related to antler growth has received more than its fair share of interest, but nutrition is far more important in free-ranging whitetail deer. In fact, good nutrition is essential to produce large-bodied and large-antlered bucks. Improving genetics through culling of inferior animals or introducing breeder bucks will have little impact on free-ranging white-tailed deer populations on a practical time scale, but deer food plots can help every whitetail on a property.
Besides, let’s say that genetic improvement through culling does work, then a landowner would still need habitat that provides high levels of nutrition is needed for deer to express their genetic potential. Did you know that a buck’s gross antler score can vary by up to 20 inches depending upon food availability? Unfortunately, the available habitat does not constantly supply an optimal diet to wild animals. Nutritional quality and availability of forbs, recognized as broad-leaved weeds, and browse (shrub leaves, stems and twigs) fluctuate seasonally, limiting availability of natural foods at certain times of the year.
Whitetail deer prefer forbs over browse and eat little grass except when it is young and tender. During rainy winters and springs, forbs often are abundant, resulting in deer that are on a high nutritional plane. Forbs are extremely high in protein, so when it rains bucks will produce well above average antler growth. However, the deer’s habitat does not always get the necessary precipitation, animals do not get the necessary deer nutrition, and buck’s do not achieve the antler growth that many hunters desire. Even if there is adequate rain, properties that are managing for quality deer should recognize deer food plots as a means to supplement the whitetail’s natural habitat.
Summer, especially late summer, is often a period of nutritional stress for deer in much of the United States. Not that all deer food plots can withstand drought, but better deer condition can be achieved during the spring by using plots to prepare deer for the hardship of dry weather. This not only helps bucks with antler growth, but helps does as they develop and nurse their fawns. Keep in mind that mid-summer is the period of maximum antler growth in bucks.
As with other times of the year, rainfall in September and October is sometimes lacking, resulting in poor whitetail food conditions. Although winter forbs are abundant if rainfall is adequate, dry winters result in a lack of green, nutritious forbs. Cool season deer food plots can help maintain deer body condition and hold deer on a property. Winter food plots are much more reliable than spring or warm season food plots, but rain is never a sure thing.
Forbs, preferred browse species and deer food plots can work in combination to keep deer on a high nutritional plane. Both forbs and browse decline in nutritional quality during summer, particularly when rainfall is low, so improving condition during the spring and summer can be aided by food plots. When forbs are lacking, browse becomes the mainstay of deer diets, so landowners should always be involved with habitat management if they are interested in producing quality deer.
Hungry deer become smaller deer with inferior antlers. A food deficiency can cause weight loss or reduced weight gain and may result in reduced antler growth in bucks. Fawns are born during summer and the high nutrient demands of lactating does must be met or fawn survival will be reduced. Deer food plots should be part of an overall deer management program. That being said, do not rely on food plots or supplemental feed as a cure all for maintaining more deer on a property than the habitat can support.