Deer hunting has been putting food on the table for centuries, but more recently white-tailed deer hunting has become a socially and economically important game animal. Landowners and hunters are now turning to deer management practices to improve their land and the deer and other wildlife found there. Deer managers realize that supplemental foods provided through pelleted feeds and deer food plots can substantially increase the productivity of a herd, so these tools have received a lot of attention over the past few years.
First and foremost, food plots should be just a part of an overall deer and habitat management program. A landowner’s top priorities should be maintaining high quality native habitat in combination with deer densities that are within the carrying capacity of the property. In addition to proper harvest rates, managers must avoid overgrazing by livestock to avoid overuse of important deer browse.
If objectives include quality deer management, sex ratios should be maintained near 1:1 and only mature bucks – those 5 1/2+ years old – should be harvested. A good rule of thumb is to harvest no more than 15 to 20% of the buck herd each year. It is important to keep in mind that the effect of food plots or any form of supplemental feeding on nutritional status, productivity, and deer quality will be diminished if all aspects of a sound management program are not implemented.
Food plots and supplemental feeding are not substitutes for proper population and habitat management. Do not use supplemental feeding – whether it be pelleted feeds or deer food plots – as a tool to increase deer densities beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat. There may be short term gains, but long term problems will arise quickly. Native forages comprise a significant portion of deer diets regardless of how much supplement is provided.
In closing, summer and winter food plots are great ways to improve the overall quality of a deer herd, but not in the absence of other deer management activities. Too many deer will result in degraded habitat, reducing the ability of the habitat to produce quality bucks and recruit fawns. Use supplemental feeding as an appetizer, but not as the main meal.