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Food Plot Study - Eating Habits of Whitetail Deer

Growing A Wild Tomorrow!® An Informational Website From

Unique Food Plot Study Reveals What Deer Really Prefer

By Charles J. Alsheimer

Deer in Food Plot

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 Alsheimer

Land management and quality deer management are popular topics among whitetail enthusiasts across 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.

Most 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.

In 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 farm.

The 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.

A number 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.

The 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 analysis.

In order 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 whitetail’s environment.

The Natural Food Study

Before 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.

Through 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.

Since the 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.

By 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 surprises.

Probably 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.

In 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 Forage Study

During the last two years this study has dealt with three forages; Imperial Whitetail 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.

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The 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.

The 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.

Our 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.

During 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.

I 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 to clover.

Chicory 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 forage.

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, by month.

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 later.

It is interesting to note that the months when deer are growing their antlers they are eating Imperial Whitetail Clover.

Importance of Food Plot Choices

During 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.


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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 Clover.

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