30 Years of Deer Habitat Management, Part 1: It All Began With Food Plots

January 3, 2024 By: Craig Harper
food plots

Deer hunting has evolved in a big way in the last 30 years. Most of us don’t hunt in blue jeans or a red-and-black plaid wool coat anymore. We don’t fry bacon in our hunting clothes just before heading to the woods, oblivious to which way the wind is blowing, and most of us no longer shoot the first antlered deer we see. Times have changed with deer hunting, and so have the methods and practices we employ to manage deer habitat. It all began with food plots. 

For 35 years, the National Deer Association and its forerunner, the QDMA, shared information related to managing land for deer, how we in the deer management community have learned together, and how we have truly advanced along the way. Long-time members have followed and participated in this journey, but there are new NDA members who might appreciate a glimpse back at how we got to where we are and where we may be headed in the next 30 years.

It Started With Food Plots

As recent as the 1990s, a majority of the habitat management implemented for deer could be summed up in three words: a green plot. 

Food plots did not become popular until the late 1980s, but by the mid-1990s they were all the rage, and for good reason. Food plots can provide 2,000 to 6,000 pounds or more of high-quality forage per acre, far exceeding what is available in woods and fields. Hunting strategies quickly changed to take advantage of the increased visibility and predictability of deer visiting food plots. 

Use of food plots was mostly centered in the South at that time, and most food plots were plantings of cereal grains or ryegrass, which would germinate and grow just about anywhere. Through the efforts of the Whitetail Institute, Mossy Oak, and other companies, improved varieties of perennial clovers and various species of Brassica greens became available and changed what we planted through the 1990s and 2000s, and these products helped spread food plot establishment throughout the Midwest and northeastern United States. 

food plots
One of the early cafeteria-style research plots where 20-plus forages were tested in each field. Sampling was conducted each month to determine deer selectivity, forage production and nutrient content.

Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of research effort concentrated on documenting selectivity of various food plot plantings and developing mixtures of those species. My graduate students and I planted cafeteria-style plots with 20-plus forages in each plot all over Tennessee. We spent literally thousands of hours monitoring use and clipping forages over a 12-year period to determine mixtures, rates, and nutritional content. We developed mixtures of annual clovers that extended forage availability through the year, and we developed perennial mixtures that could be maintained for five years or more, especially when selective herbicides were applied at the appropriate time. We also completed many experiments developing mixtures of warm-season plantings. 

By the mid-2000s, turnips and radishes became popular as people realized they provided a great source of energy in winter and also could help with soil compaction. 

We completed many experiments from the mid-2000s to recently, using various selective herbicides and mowing strategies to manage weed pressure in perennial plots. Mark Turner, Bonner Powell and Lindsey Phillips documented how perennial plots do not have to be mowed regularly through summer to keep them productive, nutritious, and attractive to deer, and that many of the weeds actually improved the attractiveness and nutrition available in these plots. 

L-R: Craig Harper’s students Ryan Basinger, Chris Shaw and Jessie Birckhead all worked to help identify cool-season and warm-season food plot mixtures.

All of that work brings us to today, where many folks are working to fine-tune establishment strategies using no-till methods with and without seed drills to maintain productive and nutritious forages on a continual basis. Regenerative approaches now are commonly used that ultimately lessen the need for synthetic fertilizers, reduce the need for herbicide applications, and enhance soil health by reducing compaction and increasing water-holding capacity and nutrient filtration. 

A New View of Soils

Since my time as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, I’ve had an interest in soils and how soils impact nutrition available to deer. While working in the mountains of North Carolina at that time, I was told that we could not grow big deer there because of the soils, that the preponderance of shallow, rocky soils precluded deer from getting the nutrition they needed to reach their genetic potential. I questioned the response, but I had no data to indicate otherwise. 

I got my chance with unexpected funding in 2014 that allowed me, Jordan Nanney, Marcus Lashley, Colter Chitwood, and Mark Turner to collect plant and soil samples from more than 50 sites across 23 states over a six-year period. We found soils certainly impact the nutritional carrying capacity of a property, but not necessarily as you would think. 

Dr. Craig Harper speaks at NDA’s Deer Steward Level 2 class in 2023. His research revealed that plants are not more nutrient-dense on high-quality soils, there’s just more biomass produced.

Nutrient-rich soils grow a lot more vegetation than nutrient-poor soils, but that doesn’t mean plants of the same species are more nutrient-dense on high-quality soils – there’s just more biomass produced on good soils than poor soils, which feeds more deer. 

I gave a presentation at the Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting in 2015 detailing these results. After my presentation, one of the attendees said to me “Craig, what you said was all good and fine for some parts of the country, but that doesn’t work where I live in Mississippi. All we get when we thin our woods is yaupon and sweetgum.” 

“Well, whose fault is that?” I responded. “If you don’t know how to turn yaupon and sweetgum into ragweed, partridge pea, and pokeweed, ask me!”

In Part 2 of this series, you’ll learn how as we move from food plots into fields and forest.

About Craig Harper:

Dr. Craig Harper is a Professor of Wildlife Management and the Extension Wildlife Specialist at the University of Tennessee. Craig is a regular contributor to the NDA website and a Life Member of the NDA. Dr. Harper and his graduate students concentrate their work on applied management issues, including forest management, early succession management, food plot applications, and the effects of quality deer management.