Now, we’re going to get down to some of the nuts and bolts of nutritional side of food source management. We’re going to explain how and why it works, layout the seasonal nutritional needs of the whitetail and then outline a nutritional strategy to meet those needs.
How and Why Food Source Management Works
We need to start with some assumptions. First, a deer eats about 8 to 10 pounds of food a day. We’ll use an average of nine pounds. If you multiply nine pounds times the number of days in a year (365), that’ll give you the annual average food consumption for one deer, which we’ll round off to 3000 pounds. Now, let’s assume that the natural habitat can grow about 300 pounds of good deer food per acre over the course of a year, which is realistic for much of the South and East. Studies have shown that deer can eat only about half of the available food without seriously damaging the habitat. (You can see how carrying capacity is determined.) So, about 150 pounds of good deer food are available per acre of natural habitat. To determine how many acres are necessary to support one deer, we simply divide the annual poundage of food consumed by one deer (3000) by the poundage of food an acre of habitat can produce without suffering damage (150). That tells us that the carrying capacity is a deer per 20 acres, about what might be expected for a place under a good habitat management program.
If that level of carrying capacity is not sufficient to meet the goals of those involved with the property, there are four options – lower the goals, reduce the number of participants, continue on frustrated or elevate the carrying capacity. Not surprisingly, the most private landowners don’t like the first three options. More and bigger deer from increased carrying capacity sounds a lot better.
There is more than one way to increase carrying capacity. The traditional method is to improve the natural habitat, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. In fact, all reasonable steps need to be made to improve natural habitat. However, this strategy has some limitations. First, it takes time, perhaps several years, to effect wholesale habitat improvement. Second, the landowners might not be willing to allow what it would take. The key is to get more sunlight to the forest floor and to regenerate early successional growth. That takes some fairly drastic mechanical measures, such as prescribed burning, thinning timber, creating edge through clearing, etc. Such major habitat alterations might not sit well with the landowner. Third, the level to which the carrying capacity can be increased through manipulating natural habitat is somewhat limited, short of practically clearcutting. Also, natural habitat improvement will not deliver two important advantages found in the concentrated food sources associated with the strategy we’re discussing here – one, increased deer visibility and huntability and two, hold deer in a local area.
Increasing carrying capacity through enhanced nutrition lies at the heart of food source management. This is accomplished through nutritious agricultural crops and/or direct feeding. Our focus here will be on agriculture, by far the preferred and more desirable of the two options. In places with tillable land, literally tons of highly nutritious deer food can be grown per acre. For instance, a year-round food-plot program can produce up to 10,000 pounds of deer food per acre, all of which may be as nutritious as the very best nature provides. That’s more high-quality deer food than 70 acres of natural habitat normally produces since all of the agricultural crop theoretically could be consumed by deer with hurting a thing! Put another way, one acre of year-round food plot can meet all the annual nutritional needs of 3½ deer! That’s production! Compare that to 20 acres of natural habitat to support one deer. And remember, all of the agricultural food can be top-rate. The huge advantages of food source management should be abundantly apparent.
To illustrate, let’s assume a 2000-acre club wants to carry 200 deer, about twice what the can under natural habitat management. Let’s assume they want their deer to reach the greatest size possible so they design a year-round agricultural program to provide 100 percent of the deer’s nutritional requirements, realizing of course that the deer will still browse the natural vegetation some even with a table full of deer delicacies. It’s an easy exercise to determine how many acres of food plots are needed to support 200 deer. Simply divide the number of deer to be carried (200) by the number of deer an acre of food plot will carry (3½) and you get the required acreage of agriculture, in this case 57.
Yes, about 60 acres of year-round food plots (assuming the right crops are planted with the right farming techniques) can meet all the nutritional requirements of 200 deer. That’s a program they can get started right away quite cost effectively and with minimum startup hassles. And does it ever work! That number, 3½ deer per acre of food plot, is exactly what we’re supporting on food plots at Fort Perry … and have been for years! If you want to carry more deer, it’s almost as simple as doing the math and adding the necessary acres of food plots. Of course, there’s a limit to how high you might want to push the herd, but it’s well up there if nutritious food is in abundant supply.
In areas with high inherent carrying capacity, the native habitat can pick up more of the slack and reduce the number of acres required to get to the same number. For instance, Gary Schwarz’s El Tecomate Ranch lies in prime South Texas Brush Country, where the natural habitat is inherently productive. Because of the support he gets from nutritious native vegetation, Gary is able to support closer to five deer per acre of food plot, with a little help from supplemental feeding on the shoulder months between crops.
Seasonal Nutritional Needs Of The Whitetail
In order to formulate a nutritional strategy (plan) for whitetails, it is necessary to know their seasonal nutritional needs. Biologists and scientists can get into tedious detail on this subject, but from the game manager’s standpoint, it’s really quite simple.
From a timing standpoint, bucks and does have quite similar nutritional needs, but for very different reasons. Basically, they both have two distinct periods with specific nutritional requirements – during one period, they require protein; during the other, carbohydrates. Generally, when bucks have the highest need for protein, so do does. The same is true for carbohydrates. Convenient, isn’t it? It is, however, no accident. The needs of the deer are adapted to when nature supplies the appropriate nutrition in greatest abundance. During the spring and summer, plant growth is underway and protein production is at its peak. During the fall and winter, plant growth is largely complete and plants have produced carbohydrate-rich mast and seeds. Even the leaves of many plants are high in energy-yielding sugars and carbohydrates in the fall. Interestingly enough, the whitetail’s need for protein is highest in the spring and summer and is greatest for carbohydrates in the fall and winter.
Let’s divide the year into two parts based on the whitetail’s nutritional needs. We’ll call one the cool season, meaning fall and winter. The other, the warm season, is spring and summer. During the warm season, bucks have either just begun or are about to begin their annual antler growth cycle. Not only that, they have just come through the winter and need to rebuild the muscle and mass lost during the rigors of rut and winter. From early spring all the way through the summer, protein is of utmost importance in both growing antlers and rebuilding muscle and body mass. If protein is in short supply, the body gets first dibs on what’s available, and whatever antler growth is lost while the body recovers is lost for good, at the cost of antler size in the coming fall. For bucks, the rule of thumb is that they need a high-protein diet from the time they loose their antlers in late winter/early spring until they shed their velvet during early fall.
During this same warm period, does also need a high-protein diet. Like bucks, they must regain the muscle and body mass lost during the winter. And also like bucks, they need to nourish something growing very rapidly – fast-developing fetuses. Nature has worked it out so that fetuses don’t grow much from inception until about the onset of spring, but from that time on, fetuses rapidly develop into the full-pledged fawns that will be born in late spring or early summer. And of course, the demands on does don’t end with the birth of a fawn. Nursing continues all summer and places great demands on does, requiring that they essentially have to eat for two. Protein is the primary nutritional requirement for does from the beginning of spring until weaning time in early fall, about the same time bucks shed their velvet.
The cool season places similar demands on both bucks and does. The name of the game now is not building muscle or body mass as much as it is trying not to loose what they already have. Between the heightened activity of the rut and the caloric demands of the cold, deer need an outside energy source to burn rather than burning muscle and consuming their body reserves. This is especially so with bucks during the rut. Growth is not the issue during the cool period, energy and maintenance are. Thus, protein requirements are much lower, but carbohydrates are now needed in greater supply. From the manager’s standpoint, the better shape the deer come through the winter, the more of the spring’s early protein can go to antler growth in bucks and fetal development in does, which, of course, ultimately contributes to antler size and fawn survival.
The Heart Of A Nutritional Strategy
Understanding the seasonal nutritional needs of the whitetail makes it relatively easy to develop a nutritional strategy for a management program. The basic strategy is to provide a source of high-protein feed beginning in spring (corresponding to antler-drop) and continuing through summer (to velvet-shedding). Then from the start of fall through winter, provide a carbohydrate-rich food source. Ideally, all or most of this strategy can be carried out employing agriculture. If not, direct feeding is an option, at least as a supplement. It’s a simple strategy really.
Since the best way to meet the whitetail’s nutritional needs is agriculture, then let’s apply an agricultural strategy. The warm-season protein requirements can best be met by planting some type of legume. Legumes are nitrogen-fixing plants, meaning they take nitrogen from the air and, with the help of bacteria in their roots, put nitrogen back into the soil. Since nitrogen is one of the essential nutrients for plant growth, legumes are natural soil-builders. Legumes are typically warm-season plants and are characterized by having seeds that grow in pods. Peas, clovers and beans, including soybeans, are legumes. There are many types of legumes suitable for deer, and almost anywhere whitetails are found, some kind of legume will grow there. Some are annuals, meaning they grow for one season then die, and some are perennials lasting for years. But, the one thing legumes have in common of particular interest to us is that they are typically very high in protein. So, some type of clover, pea or bean, either an annual or a perinnial, is probably the best source of agricultural protein for deer anywhere in the U.S.
If direct feeding is required during the warm season either as a primary or supplemental source of protein, the usual answer is high-protein pellets, of which there are many choices suitable for deer on the market. Natural and less expensive options, such as cottonseeds, may be available locally. Deer normally have to be trained over time to eat both pellets and other feeds they have no previous experienced with.
What about carbohydrates? In warmer climes where cool-season agriculture is an option, small grains that grow in winter, such as rye, wheat and oats, are excellent sources of carbohydrates. Some warm-season crops harvested in the fall, such as corn and small grains, can continue to be a valuable source of carbohydrates well into winter. However, agriculture may not be a total solution in cold regions, in which case direct feeding is probably the best alternative. Corn, which is cheap and readily available, is hard to beat as a direct carbohydrate source. In some areas, such as high acorn-producing locales, mast production can be encouraged by reducing competition and by fertilizing, thus offering some natural carbohydrate support.
Is a nutritional program worthwhile if cool-season feeds aren’t included? For instance, will planting a warm-season high-protein crop do any good if a winter carbohydrate source isn’t provided? The answer is yes! Everything that elevates the nutritional plane helps deer. Obviously, the more the nutritional plane is elevated the more gains are realized. Even cool-weather carbohydrate feeding alone helps some, but not to the same degree as a warm-season high-protein source. Deer, especially those in cold climates, are adapted to survive the cold times with minimum nutritional intake. The strategy is to bulk-up as much as possible in the summer and fall in preparation of having to burn body reserves of fat and eventually muscle to carry them through. Plus, they have adopted an energy-conserving lifestyle during the cold times. Barring extreme conditions, they can get through the winter in decent shape, but every pound of muscle that is preserved by having sufficient energy-providing carbohydrates available adds to the overall health of the herd, the antler development of bucks, the fawning success of does and the survival rate of fawns.
One other question often arises. Which is better, annuals or perennials, particularly in regards to legumes since perennial carbohydrate options are somewhat limited? The answer depends on many factors, like the amount of tillable farmland available, budget, goals, soils, topography, the list goes on. The choice lies with the manager, but generally speaking, annuals produce more tonnage and allow for easier weed control. Plus, double-cropping both warm and cool-season crops on the same acreage cuts down on the acreage of farmland necessary for the program, an important consideration on many properties.
Real-Life Examples Of Success
The nutritional strategy for whitetails is essentially the same everywhere, but how that strategy is carried will vary greatly from place to place, whether by choice of the managers and by the dictates of the place, climate, soils, resources, regulations or circumstances.
Ok, let’s head to the field and look at two real-life examples of how this strategy is executed. We’ll first look at WHITETAIL’s Fort Perry Plantation, then we’ll go at El Tecomate Ranch in arid South Texas, where Dr. Gary Schwarz has developed his own agricultural-based nutritional program in a place where supposedly dependable crops can’t be grown. I choose these two examples because, both being intensive programs, they well-illustrate a wide range of innovative and practical ways the nutritional cat can be skinned. I could have easily chosen examples I’m familiar with in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida or a number of other states. The main thing our two Southern examples won’t address is the snow limitations prevalent in northern climes, where cool-season nutrition normally must be meet by direct feed rather than agriculture. We will, however, briefly cover supplemental feeding that will be applicable everywhere. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover so we’ll be speaking in plain English and get right to the point.
The Fort Perry Nutritional Strategy
Here, we want to show you a sample program that works … big time! It’s the program we at WHITETAIL magazine have developed over the years at Fort Perry Plantation, our 2000-acre management research facility in southwest Georgia. This program may not be the best for your land or your circumstance. In fact, the time may come when we find a better way to elevate our own nutritional plane on Fort Perry, but for now, we offer this program in its most basic form as an example of a plan that brings nothing short of astounding results – both in deer numbers and size.
How astounding? In terms of numbers, we’re supporting several times the number of animals possible on unmanaged habitat. We’ll just call it more than a deer per five acres! As for size, if I told you the actual truth, you wouldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t had I not seen it for myself. As I write this, our herd and research have just reach the point that we are ready to begin harvesting our bucks. By the time you read this, we will have antler and body-size data on harvested bucks, but as for now, we’ll have to go on sheds, pickups and field-judging. From that, I can tell you conservatively that nearly all of Fort Perry’s 3½-year-olds and older score will above 150 and some top 170 and 180!
First, a word about soil and planting preparation. Fort Perry has deep sandy soils for the most part. If we can grow good crops, most any place can. We are able to do it because we soil test, apply the recommended treatments of fertilizer and lime and employ sound farming techniques, including weed-control practices. All these things are important for maximum efficiency. However, farming for the purpose of growing deer feed doesn’t require the level of sophistication demanded by commercial farming. Still, the better job you do, the more returns you’ll see.
Now, our warm-season program. Though we have experimented with various clovers and soybeans, the legume we’ve settled on as our staple is iron-clay cowpeas. Cowpeas are a high-yielding, high-protein annual legume that our deer really find to their liking. We plant about a bushel per acre. (We no-till behind our winter small grain after mowing it very low, but it certainly doesn’t have to be done that way.) Planting usually begins in early May when the soil temperature reaches 70 degrees. As soon as the tender young peas come out of the ground, deer take to them. They are vulnerable to over-browsing at this time on small plots so we like to overwhelm them with acreage. Most of our cowpea plots are at least five acres for this reason.
Our cool-weather planting is actually designed not only to provide fall and winter carbohydrates but also to carryover into the warm season and kick in some early protein. We accomplish this by planting a mixture of rye (the carbohydrate producer) and two varieties of clover – crimson and arrowleaf clover. Crimson’s growth takes off in the early spring about the time bucks drop their antlers. Arrowleaf comes on a little later and produces until the cowpeas are planted. The clovers provide a critical source of protein early in the spring when both does and bucks have a very high demand for it. We plant our rye (no-tilled behind the “scalped” cowpeas) around the first of October at a rate of a bushel an acre in combination with about 10-20 pounds per acre of the two clovers.
To guarantee a constant source of both protein and carbohydrates, we back up our agricultural crops with year-round, free-choice supplemental feed. Basically, it’s a safety net for the agriculture, mostly for the transition periods between crops but also in the event of poor crop production from drought or any other reason. From the time bucks drop their antlers in the late winter/early spring, we feed high-protein pellets, often mixed with corn early in the transition. Once bucks begin velvet-shedding in early fall, we shift over to corn. We normally see our greatest supplemental feed use in May when the does are heavy with fawns and don’t like to move very far to feed. As for overall supplemental feed use, it comes in a very distant second to agriculture, which supplies the bulk of the nutritional requirements of Fort Perry deer. Under our program, the quality of the natural browse has actually improved while our deer herd has grown to levels far surpassing the natural carrying capacity. Food source management works!
The Fort Perry program is surprisingly simple isn’t it? But, what it has done for that deer herd would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. It’s safe to say that for both size and numbers the Fort Perry herd will rival any in the entire country! It was all made possible because of a management plan that has greatly increased the amount and quality of food available to the deer … while the natural habitat has improved! That’s progress any way you look at it.
El Tecomate Ranch Strategy
Before 1995, I thought I had met the nuttiest of the country’s deer nuts. I couldn’t imagine anyone crazier about the whitetail deer than folks like Bobby Parker Jr., Steve Vaughn, James Kroll, Jackie Brittingham, Bob Zaiglin, #### Idol, Scott Taylor, Gordon Whittington, George Cooper, Bill Jordan, John Wootters, Chuck Larsen, Greg Miller, to name but a few of the myriad of whitetail junkies I’ve crossed paths with. Not withstanding my wife’s opinion about me, I figured these guys were the most smitten of all. Then, I met Dr. Gary Schwarz … and even my wife had to admit that Gary makes me, and most everybody else, look like mere Ned and the first reader.
Gary is an oral maxillofacial surgeon by necessity, and an excellent one, but by love and by choice, he is one of the most dedicated, knowledgeable and innovative deer managers in the country … and as his accomplishments on El Tecomate Ranch in South Texas attest, one of the most successful. In recent years, Gary’s nutritional program has produced buck after buck that have won top honors in Texas’ many big buck contests.
His success has even been documented scientifically by comparing the body and antler size of his bucks to those of neighboring leaseholders who have the same herd management strategy but no nutritional program beyond natural habitat management. The results have been nothing short of startling. Age class for age class in a three-year comparison, Gary’s bucks averaged 20 B&C points higher and 26 pounds heavier than those on the neighboring leases! Twenty B&C points – that’s the difference between a 140 and a 160 or a 150 and a 170! To a trophy hunter, that’s all the difference in the world! How did Gary achieve that kind of results?
One of the things I like about Gary’s success story is that he started with nothing, not even an acre or a dollar to buy it with. You see, while still in dental school, Gary, along with a handful of friends, borrowed money to buy his first ranchland. Over time, he added more acreage, some his own and some with partners. Today, Gary’s personal acreage totals about 3,000 acres, which is known as El Tecomate Ranch.
You Have Options
You’re probably beginning to see the real beauty of food source management – it can be as intensive and extensive as the manager chooses and still give positive results. He can pick from a wide menu of options and match the depth and breadth of his plan to his objectives and resources. In intensity, his options range from the most basic first step – a food source aimed primarily at attracting deer for viewing and harvesting – to going all the way with an intensive year-round feeding program and a carefully regulated harvest aimed at achieving a precise herd balance. As for extension, the manager can opt to put all or only part of his land under this program. Larger landowners, especially, may choose to concentrate their efforts in the secure core of their property or may elect to spread a more modest program over the entire place.
Yes, this innovative program brings you something entirely new – control over your deer herd and hunting future … with options. Anyone with a sizable chunk of deer country, a desire to improve his deer hunting lot and a commitment to improving the health of his deer herd has within his or her power the ability to control his own deer-hunting future! So armed, you can decide how much opportunity you take off the table on your land. Whatever you choose, whatever progress you make, you can have the satisfaction of knowing that it all came to pass because you cared enough to make it happen!