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Unique Food Plot Study Reveals What Deer Really
By Charles J.
Outdoor writer Charles
Alsheimer did an in-depth study on deer forages. His study concluded that
Imperial Whitetail Clover is the most attractive forage. photo by Charles
management and quality deer management are popular topics among whitetail
America today. At my seminars the most frequently asked
questions are about how to do QDM on small properties and what are the best
seeds to plant in food plots.
people interested in planting food plots have learned what they have through
advertisements or from the “experts.”
In spite of being brought up on a farm I have to admit that this is the
method that influenced me when I began seriously planting food plots, ten years
ago. Over the years I’ve seen
hundreds of sales pitches on what deer prefer in the way of forages.
addition to writing and photographing whitetails, I’ve spent the last 20 years
researching their behavior – everything from rutting to what they prefer to
eat. In 1995, this research was expanded when I constructed a 35-acre, high-fenced research enclosure on our
facility is divided into 25- and 10-acre areas that are connected with
gates. This division allows for
isolated studies to be conducted.
The enclosure has a variety of habitats, from open mast-producing
hardwoods to an apple orchard. In
addition, a variety of forages are planted in small food plots (one acre or
less). The enclosure’s deer
population is kept to 14 whitetails.
No hunting is allowed in the facility and the herd’s population is kept
low through non-hunting methods.
of very interesting studies have been conducted here since 1995, with some being
in place since the facility was built.
One of the more interesting studies deals with what whitetails prefer to
eat, both natural and planted forage.
whitetail’s natural food preference study is in its ninth year. The planted food preference study is
relatively new; at least as far as analysis goes and will be expanded as time
goes on. Analysis of forage has
been going on for the last two years and is modeled after the natural habitat
to conduct any study on food preferences in whitetails you need to have
habituated or semi-habituated deer. Wild whitetails will not work because it’s critical that they can be
observed from close quarters in near-natural settings. Some may argue that such studies can be
done with the aid of utilization cages.
However, after attempting this method I’ve found that utilization cages
may be able to tell you how hard the forage is being “hit” but they don’t always
tell you where the food ranks on a deer’s preference list.
One of the keys to my research is to offer deer choices in
both natural habitat and planted forages.
If choices don’t exist, it’s impossible to determine a deer’s preference
to foods because they are forced to eat whatever is available to survive. So, variety is not only the spice of
life, but essential in order to find out what is really going on in the
Natural Food Study
explaining the food plot forage study I’ll briefly explain the natural foods
study that preceded it. Prior to
1998 about all I knew of a whitetail’s preference for natural foods came from
what I read or observed in the wild, which consisted of checking browse lines
and habitat utilization.
raising deer I’ve come to realize that each deer consumes approximately 1- 1/2
to 2 tons of food per year. Of
this, the percentage of food that comes from crop and natural habitat depends on
the wild/farmland habitat mix and amount of each that is available in a given
area. I live in an eastern farmland
setting where the forest/cropland is about 50/50, so in our area about half of a
whitetail’s diet should come from natural habitat and the other half from farm
crops or food plots.
research facility’s inception, we’ve provided natural browse to our deer on a
daily basis, to balance what they eat from food plots and the supplemental feed
they are provided. It’s critical
that whitetails have a balanced diet, and without ample browse, they cannot have
a balanced diet. In the beginning I
noticed that deer sought out certain browse brought to them. This got my attention. So, in 1998 I had a local welder
construct a number of what I call browse racks.
placing various natural species in the rack’s individual sections, the natural
foods can be presented to deer in such a way that they can check over the day’s
menu and decide which natural food they prefer to eat. When the various browse species are
placed in the racks, the set-up resembles an elaborate salad bar. Presenting the natural food this way
lets the deer show us which browse specie they prefer. During the course of this research we
have been able to witness a whitetail’s reaction to nearly 100 different natural
habitat species. Though most of the
results concur with previous biological reports, there have been some
the biggest surprise dealt with the notion that whitetails have an innate
ability to select the most nutritious foods available. Through the study we’ve been able to
disprove this theory by having the various browse species analyzed by
University’s nutritional and
environmental analytical lab.
addition to visually observing which browse deer prefer to eat first (every week
over a one-year period), we had each browse specie tested for crude protein and
crude fiber content, at leaf-out on May 15, late summer on Aug. 15, and during
browse dormancy on Dec. 15. The
study proved to be fascinating. The
bottom line was that, like people, deer do not always eat what is best for them,
but rather, what they like best.
Fortunately, most of what deer prefer is very good for them.
the last two years this study has dealt with three forages;
Clover, chicory and brassica.
Though the study is in its infancy, our deer have definitely taught us a
lot about what they prefer in forages.
As the study continues to grow, the goal is to introduce other forages to
the project and let the deer show us what they prefer during the spring, summer,
autumn and early winter months.
forages being tested for comparison are in food plots that are one acre or less
in size. The two plots contain a
combination of Imperial Whitetail clover, chicory and brassica. The soil pH in the plots is between 6.2
and 6.4 and is fertilized twice during the growing season, in May and
August. I might add that the soil
is loamy and rocky in nature, typical of our part of New York.
Imperial Whitetail clover, chicory and brassica plots are in a part of the
enclosure where it can be gated off if it is hit too hard, which happens from
time to time. Consequently, there
are periods when I might close it off for a week to 10 days. The plots are well established and frost
seeded each spring to insure they are lush.
spring green-up occurs mid-April to the first of May each year. Therefore, the testing runs from May
through December. Our winter snows
normally begin to build by mid-December and by January we can have from one to
two feet of snow on the ground until the end of March. For this reason, the forage study is not
possible from January through April.
the study period deer are monitored every 15 days to see what forages they
prefer, as spring progresses to early winter. The data collection involves visually
observing deer in each food plot for one to two hours each morning and recording
how many bites they take of each forage.
The accompanying photo illustrates how the process works. Needless to say, it is a labor intensive
but a very accurate way of determining which forages the deer prefer.
realized going into the study that whitetails love clover. However, because of the media play that
chicory and brassica have been getting, I wanted to see how well it stacked up
has been promoted heavily by seed companies and deer ranchers in
New Zealand, has a protein level of more than 20 percent and grows a
deep root system, making it near drought resistant. Brassica, sometimes called kale, is a
cabbage-looking broadleaf forage, which under normal conditions, matures and
becomes attractive after it has been subjected to a few frosts. So, it can be a great late season
Imperial Whitetail Clover, chicory and
brassica food plot utilization: There were no surprises when it came to
utilization of these food plots. As
mentioned previously, for every 10 bites a deer takes, I record how many of the
bites are from each forage. Below
you will find the breakdown of how my research whitetails utilize these forages,
Because the research deer have all the browse, forage and supplemental food options
available to them, their utilization of clover, chicory and brassica pretty much
mirrors what some of the forage experts say will take place. When spring (or late winter) green- up
occurs, clover is the forage of choice.
Then, when the dry “dog days” of late July and August arrive, our deer’s
preference for chicory increases.
However, even during this time deer still prefer clover to chicory. Brassica takes a few frosts to make it
attractive to deer, so a deer’s craving for it doesn’t kick in until November or
interesting to note that the months when deer are growing their antlers they are
eating Imperial Whitetail Clover.
Importance of Food Plot Choices
August several years ago I was invited to what appeared to be an incredible
whitetail set-up. As I drove onto
the property deer were walking across open areas in the middle of the day,
seemingly unaware of any human activity.
On the trip from the main road to the lodge I passed by food plots
containing corn, clover and brassica.
The brassica plots intrigued me because I, too, had brassica planted on our
farm. However, unlike our farm’s
brassica food plots, which were basically being ignored by our whitetails from
May through October, this property’s brassica was being “hammered” by the
deer. The first night I was there I
observed 17 deer in a one-acre food plot wolfing down brassica plants.
The next day I decided to see what was causing these deer to be so different from my
deer, which live less than 300 miles away.
It didn’t take me long to see why.
This property’s deer had few food options. The woods were void of any leaves for
the first five and a half feet off the ground, making it easy to see 100-plus
yards in any direction. The mature
oak forest floor was a blanket of ferns, a food source that deer will not eat unless they are in
a crisis mode. To an
environmentalist, the setting would appear pristine. This property’s deer population was way
out of balance with the amount of food available. Due to the lack of natural browse, they
ate whatever was available to them.
In this case the brassica plants, which are generally a late fall food
source were being consumed earlier than normal.
The bottom line is that whitetails need to have options available to them in order
to determine which forage they really
prefer. If options are not present
forage preference can be very misleading.
Throughout this ongoing study one thing has become very apparent. In spite of all the hoopla about this forage or that forage, deer, if given a choice, will gravitate to clover if it
is not buried with snow (even then, deer will often dig through snow to get to
clover). This is not to say that other forages are not worth planting, because they are in order to balance and
to fill the void when clover goes dormant. In short, the biggest loudest bang for your buck is clover – hands
down. And studies have shown that Imperial Whitetail Clover is noticeably more attractive than other clover
varieties. The proof is in the pudding and the pudding deer prefer is Imperial Whitetail