Deer Hunters Should be Weed Farmers

April 19, 2023 By: Cheyne Matzenbacher

Deer hunters should be weed farmers. Wait, not that kind of weed! I’m talking about forbs – all those non-grass, broad-leaved, herbaceous plants that most people call “weeds” and most deer consider food. Common ragweed, shown in the photo above, is a great example. The best way to increase deer forage and nutrition – not to mention cover – where you hunt is to become a weed farmer.

Whitetails eat forbs all year long, but forbs dominate deer diets in spring and summer when their availability and nutritional value is highest, with the exact percentage varying by region. They can provide nutrition at a time of antler development in bucks, lactation in does, and when fawns are being born and growing.

So, where can you get these amazing weeds? The answer is, they’re probably already in the seed bank just waiting for you to encourage them. Let’s look at how you can capitalize on natural deer forage by becoming a weed farmer.

Stop Killing Beneficial Weeds

Many food-plotters dream about that perfect weed-free, green plot to attract deer. They often fight those weeds with herbicide when sometimes they should just leave them alone. Some food plot “weeds” are high-quality deer food, and if they aren’t choking out the planted crop, fighting them isn’t necessary. Deer don’t care if there are a few weeds in the plot, and we shouldn’t either.

Pokeweed growing in a patch of blackberries. Both species produce quality deer forage as well as desirable fruit for wildlife, and they grow naturally from the seed bank when allowed and encouraged.

My dad planted one of the most amazing looking forage turnip food plots I’ve ever seen a couple years ago. The leaves were lush and green, and it almost looked appetizing to me, let alone the deer! The problem was the deer weren’t eating the turnips, they were eating the “weeds” along the outer edge of the food plot. Every single pokeweed plant and the majority of the common ragweed that was growing along the edge had signs of heavy deer browsing. These were not what he had planted for the deer, but they were apparently what the deer preferred to eat.

Encourage Beneficial Weeds

You can easily start a weed farm by allowing natural plant growth in open areas, edges, and in forests where 30 to 50% or more of the sunlight is reaching the ground. Disturbance is the key to waking up the seed bank to start your “weed” farm off right. Prescribed fire, light disking, or even mowing can all be ways to unlock the seed bank.

American beautyberry is a native shrub that is common in open, disturbed areas receiving adequate sunlight. It provides high-value cover and medium deer forage value.

Fire is the preferred disturbance as many of the seeds require a higher temperature to germinate and also gives you a clean slate on the soil bed to work with. 

In some open areas like former pastures, you may need to first control non-native grasses like fescue and orchardgrass to give the forbs a chance to germinate. These species form carpets that prevent the growth of native species in the seed bank. We should really be calling non-native grasses the true weeds, since they are the unwanted plants we don’t want to grow there! 

Once your weed farm is growing, you may also need to spot-spray to control additional non-native invasives that emerge along with the natives. This prevents the invasives from competing against your desirable weeds. It is best to get a plant identification guide so you know what is out there, what is coming up in your patch, and if you need to take action to get rid of some of these plants. 

Wild lettuce is high-quality deer forage. To encourage native forage, you sometimes need to control competing non-native invasives like the sericea lespedeza seen in the background of this photo.

Keep in mind that not all forbs are preferred by deer, equally available or equally valuable as nutrition, but that’s okay. A diverse weed farm with many different species providing forage and cover is best for deer and all wildlife.

I highly recommend Dr. Craig Harper’s book, Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants. This book helps to identify the plants that are there, herbicides that can be used for different species of plants, techniques in managing early successional vegetation, and more. The chart below is a sample of information from Craig’s research found in the book.

SpeciesCrude ProteinDeer Preference
Old field aster23%High
Wild lettuce22%High
Common ragweed18%Medium
Partridge pea30%Medium
Japanese honeysuckle*16%Low
Nutritional value and deer browse preference from scientific research by the University of Tennessee. Note (*) that non-native Japanese honeysuckle, thought of by many as good deer food, is actually lower in quality and preference than many native forbs when those species are available for deer. Controlling non-natives to encourage native forbs is good deer habitat management.

Weed Farming for Wildlife

Your weed patches provide the benefits of food and cover throughout the year for not just deer, but all wildlife! Food plots are valuable and useful tools for habitat improvement, but you can do more with a few added weed plots where you hunt. Sign me up to be a “weed” farmer!

About Cheyne Matzenbacher:

Cheyne Matzenbacher is an NDA Deer Outreach Specialist in Missouri. A Missouri native and lifelong deer hunter, Cheyne works with private landowners to establish and support Wildlife Management Cooperatives in the southern half of the state.