Unteaching Deer Management: Have We Been Fed a Lie?

Imagine being a high school algebra teacher and walking in to your first day of class and finding out that the majority of your students have been taught that 2+2=8. How far back would that set you?

You learn that instead of being taught grade school math many students chose the route of taking a different class and they chose philosophy as their mathematical foundation. Instead of learning about empirical relationships they studied from the likes of Descartes and believed that the mind could produce whatever answers they coveted. From the high school math teachers’ perspective you would need to spend quite a bit of time “unteaching” them so you could lay the proper foundation for them to move forward in your class.

Welcome to the world of whitetail deer management.

deer management - velvet-buck-standing

Can you grow big bucks without spending big bucks? (Photo: Bob Howdershell)

The deer hunting world has changed drastically over the last few decades and there is a widening chasm between what many hunters believe to be true and the reality of the natural world. There is a “Descartian” belief that things are different than what is typically observed. It is a problem born out of the marketing world and the age of not only instant information but also of instant misinformation.

I’ll give you a prime example. Many hunters today believe free-ranging whitetail deer are generally sick animals and are in need of our assistance in order to be healthy. They think that whole herds are underperforming because their bodies can not acquire their nutritional needs from the natural environment.

No? You don’t think that’s the main school of thought?

Next time you are amongst your deer hunting friends ask them why they are putting in food plots, why they are maintaining mineral licks on their property, or why they are running deer feeders year-round.

I can almost guarantee you most of the responses you hear will be to grow bigger and healthier deer. Remember, without our help, deer are going to be running around sick and in poor condition.

Of course, that is not the case.

deer management - spring-food-plots

What role do food plots play in your deer management efforts?

Wild animals in areas devoid of humans are typically not struggling to survive. They did not need our help for hundreds of years, so why do we think they suddenly need our help now?

They don’t.

This ‘feeding frenzy’ is a concept that has been created by the hunting industry over the last few decades. To put it bluntly, it was a marketing strategy. It was designed and pushed to make a profit for man, for it certainly wasn’t based on what science tells us free-ranging deer need.

Is it bad?

No… not if it is done right.

Providing food for wildlife through habitat management can absolutely benefit deer but as a whole it doesn’t make them grow any bigger. This is the crux of the 2+2=8 philosophy. When you believe that doing something actually equals more than the true end result.

How do we know the end result?

Multiple studies have been conducted on free-ranging deer to measure the impact of food plots, feeding programs, and mineral supplements. Guess what almost every single study reveals?

No significant impact.

The difference between deer that were offered “man-provided” foods versus deer that feed naturally within their environment is almost immeasurable. Think about that again and let it sink in because not only is it a game changer, it’s a tremendous money saver as well.

Studies of food plots and feeding programs on free-ranging deer often show that natural browse consistently makes up the vast majority of their diet and the added “man-made” foods are only a side dish. Think about it in simpler terms, if a deer is feeding at a salad buffet its entire life and you add a new kind of lettuce, regardless of how healthy it is, is it really going to cause him to explode weight-wise or health-wise? Same thing goes for minerals.

Age this buck - week-1

Did this buck grow big because of food plots placed by hunters?

Multiple studies show free-ranging deer almost never lack minerals. These elements are usually found throughout the environment and are only required in trace amounts. Deer typically meet their minimum requirements through the natural foods they eat. It also does no good loading them up with “extra” minerals because their body can’t use them. In other words, they excrete what they don’t use. How many of you who take 50 milligrams of Vitamin C each week believe it’ll help if you up your dose to a half a kilo? Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

Ahh…the power of the mind to create a desired outcome.

When all is said and done, no matter how hard you try, in most situations, you are not significantly changing the body characteristics of a free-ranging deer by instituting a feeding program. Odds are you are not going to make them any more than what they have always been.

In other words, 2+2=4 and nothing more.

Believe it or not, though they’re not growing bigger deer, food plots and other supplementation strategies can be incredibly useful management tools and you don’t have to break the bank to do them. They can be small and seasonal, but as long as they are well placed, you’ll reap nearly the same benefits as any other deep-pocketed deer manager.

Now that you understand that additional food and mineral programs are usually not significantly impacting the deer health wise, as in weight and antlers, you can now design your property so they can significantly benefit YOU, the hunter. You can then focus your efforts on where it’s needed most…habitat management as opposed to food management.

We want to hear from you! Do you agree with the author’s theory mentioned above? How do you differ? Comment below and let us know what you think.

(The author is the former Chief of Wildlife and Big Game Program Coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.)

Daryl Ratajczak

Daryl Ratajczak

Former Chief of Wildlife and Big Game Program Coordinator at Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Daryl Ratajczak is an avid hunter and outdoorsman living in northern New Mexico. He is the former Chief of Wildlife and Big Game Program Coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Daryl Ratajczak

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Comments

  1. Is there a study that approves that they attract more deer?

    Reply
    • Daryl Ratajczak says:

      Joe…off hand I don’t know of any studies that focused strictly on observations by I’ll see if I can find anything.

      Reply
  2. H. Anderson says:

    Mr. Ratajczak speaks from his heart and his successful career in wildlife habit management. I agree with his premise. I have come to the conclusion that my use of minerals, food plots, and year-round food supplementation has helped to pattern deer and hold them on my property just a little bit longer. Will I continue purchasing deer food products? Yes!!! But my main efforts will be making significant improvements through a habitat improvement plan. Thanks, Mr. Ratajczak.

    Reply
  3. Where I live in upstate NY, hunting on a 130acre farm, we have a great herd of deer. The food plotting we provide, in my eyes, does 2 things: lends an “opportunity “ to have a given shot from a few stands, and maintains the herd though winter. The 2nd being of most importance. We are constantly tried during the winter months, brutal sub zero temps and sometimes feet of snow. For me, I like knowing that the deer have a good source of food to binge on before bad weather. And a go to place they know they can get no matter the conditions. If you can help the health of fawns in the womb who otherwise may not make it though these conditions, its worth it for me.

    Reply
    • Clay Frazer says:

      As a Wildlife Biologist I can tell you this article is spot on. Thank you Bowhunting.com for attempting to reintroduce sound science into the world of whitetail hunting!

      Reply
      • Brodie Swisher Brodie Swisher says:

        Thanks for reading, Clay!

        Reply
      • Daryl Ratajczak says:

        I appreciate that Clay. You know what’s pretty funny, I had three other wildlife biologist reach out to me after reading the article and tell me the exact same thing. I wish we had a better way of getting the truth out there but it seems like the Science is always overwhelmed by the marketing.

        Reply
  4. Craig Harvey says:

    I would have to respectfully disagree with parts of this. I don’t know many people that feel deer are sickly and deficient in nutrition. Natures provides for us all. The point is to provide the ability for the herd to reach their optimal growth. Point in case if diet and nutrition supplements do not make a difference then why are there 200 inch 2 year old whitetails on farms. Yes I realize a farm raised deer is different than a wild free range deer but it does help the argument that supplemental feeding and minerals help the herd reach optimal growth. I’m not a biologist but I do learn from cause and effect and over time I have seen the impact that supplemental feeding and supplements have on the local herd. Yes deer nutrition has been commercialized to the point that there are several gimmicks but there are several products that work.

    Reply
    • Genetics make the difference in fences

      Reply
  5. Dwayne Jones says:

    Great article and it makes some sense, but I personally have seen deer benefit from supplemental foods and minerals. When you target a specific buck and watch his growth from year to year, you can see changes based on food availability. I believe that genetics play the biggest part, but in the lean months of Winter, deer get very thin and focus first on survival. Scavenging for what they can find. When supplemental food is available, they don’t have to waste as much energy searching for food and their Antler development is far better the following year. I have aeeen it first hand. I think some of the food plot things are overkill and native browse is HUGE for the growth and survival of deer. I have seen some Giant deer in land that has never been hunted and when I looked around, crops were almost, always close by.

    Reply
  6. Richie Nell, Richmond Nell Consulting, Inc. says:

    I disagree with most of what is stated in this article. As a wildlife biologist myself I have seen a major difference over the years in deer health, body weights, antler growth, etc. directly correlated with supplemental nutrition. Soil quality is the number one indicator in deer quality in general. The best example can easily be seen around farming communities. Even in terrible sandy soils in South Alabama, the antler quality and body weights are significantly better around any type of agriculture where landowners are fertilizing the ground for row crops, turfgrass, etc. than areas close by but have no access to the ag fields. That is easily seen and not even debateable. I have worked on the Mississippi River where the top soil can be 30 feet deep and provide basically the best deer growing dirt on earth. That in turn provides landowners with some of the best quality deer in the country. I have also managed deer herds in large (3000 acre) high fence enclosures. There we farmed soybeans and fed soybeans in troughs. Generally speaking, deer raised on supplemental soybeans are typically better quality than deer that aren’t. No doubut about it. However, I will say this with great, great empasis…..the natural food items availalbe that the deer walk on is the most important indicator of assessing a deer herd’s diet. No matter what supplemental foods are avaialable and their benefits, the quality of the natural weeds, forbs, buds, leaves, flowers, etc which exists due to soil quality is very key. That is why the fertilized farmland is so beneficial. It creates great soil quality.

    Reply
    • Daryl Ratajczak says:

      Richie…no one doubt the importance of nutrition. What you explain is well understood and supports the main point of the article…deer are a product of their environment. The issue is hunters rarely have the means to significantly affect the environment. Like the article and studies emphasize, the results are almost always insignificant. Just look at the national map for B&C entries. It highly correlates with the fertile souls of the Midwest and large river bottoms. Food plots are utilized in every state where white-tailed deer roam. If they were effective at increasing health and antlers that map would be more uniform and B&C would be more common in every state. It’s all a matter of scale and we as land managers rarely have the ability to significantly impact the overall nutritional out put if the land. We just add another lettuce-type to the buffet.

      Reply
      • Richie Nell says:

        Daryl, “The issue is hunters rarely have the means to significantly affect the environment. Like the article and studies emphasize, the results are almost always insignificant.” Having the means to affect the environoment seems to be an entirely different issue. But if you have the means, a deer herd can significantly be affected. I just told a guy a few days ago. Successful results really depends how much you are willing to spend on deer management. I think that most hunters who plant food plots in the fall are not doing so expecting to produce big bucks. They are doing so to see and shoot animals. So I am not sure the expectations of hunters are what I am inferring in the article. I also believe there is a “seafoam affect” in some areas around the country. If my Land Cruiser intially has clean, unclogged, efficient fuel injectors upon me adding Seafoam to my gas tank, then it is not likely I will realize any measurable positive affects. Similarly, depending on the initial condition of the deer herd health when a supplemental progrom begins. the results will be realized at different degrees of success.

        Reply
  7. I agree in general, that most of the things marketed are for creating profits not big deer. But not all properties are equal in providing support for the deer population. If the food source is low on the property then providing a plot or fruit trees or a mineral lick helps keep deer on the property; otherwise they go where there is a food source. I would rather have clover on my property than sericea lespedeza. Or have fruit trees than Honey Locust trees.

    Reply
    • Daryl Ratajczak says:

      Great comment. Spot on. What works best on your property all depends on what surrounds you.

      Reply
  8. Skip Deckman says:

    I believe parts of this are spot on. I believe those of us in poor deer habitat, need to supplement our herds to keep them in our area. We have a lot of sandy soil, pines, crdars and no farms.

    Reply
  9. My question for the author and other biologist on here is how can a non agricultural property have smaller deer (frame, antler size, weight and fat) than a property with Agricultural crops? Within 50 miles of each property I hunt in thick woods with brush and acorns. The second property has cattle mineral and a 40 acre alfalfa field. The deer I harvest (does and bucks) off the alfalfa property are larger in antlers, weight, frame size and also the fat when I process the meat. One could say genetics, but if we switched the entire herd from property to property the deer would be larger in the woods rather than the alfalfa field? Just seeing what your opinions are on this, thanks for the article as well!!

    Reply
    • Richie Nell, Richmond Nell Consulting, Inc. says:

      No. Not genetics. It is all about nutrition. Genetics play a very small part but genetics cannot be expressed until excellent nutrition takes place first. Like I mentioned in my first post, the deer are getting much better nutrition around the farmland due to fertilized food. Just like the Mississippi River flood plain is mega fertilized a couple times a year from all the farming up river. That is why the deer are larger. If your woods deer moved to the farmland they would get a bit portly as well. It’s no different than ltaking a gander at customers surrounding a Chinese buffet.

      Reply
    • Daryl Ratajczak says:

      Joseph…it’s all about the landscapes in which the deer live. Agricultural areas are generally putting in large acreages, oftentimes farmland which consist of hundreds and hundreds of acres. Just look at the Midwest where it’s usually corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see. That’s why those areas produce the biggest deer, their landscape IS a foodplot. The average hunter does not have the means to significantly change the landscape so changes are rarely seen.

      Reply
  10. Richie Nell, Richmond Nell Consulting, Inc. says:

    My brother just happen to send me this video from Grant Woods.

    link to youtu.be

    Reply
  11. Comparison thought; a beef farmers goes out to buy the best bull possible to improve herd genetics ( recently a 80% share in a certain bulls semen sold for 1.5 million). This farmer buys a $30,000 dollar bull and puts in his herd of cows. A couple of years go by and the farmer decides he wants to fill his freezer. What animal is taken from his herd? A young tender one or his prized herd bull? A real no brainer as proven genetics are kept to raise future generations. Deer farms have used this same genetic improvement to raise massive Deer.

    Why is the wild deer herds managed differently as the results could be the same. Three things come quickly. Money for the hunting industry as hunting shows promote the harvest of the best of the best taking the best proven genetics out of the herd. Secondly, Greed. The industry thrives on money flow, a picture or show showing certain brands of equipment bring in cash. I asked a well known turkey call maker why they no longer sponsored a natural ability calling contest at the NWTF convention. His reply, “you can’t sell natural ability.” Third bragging rights. Look at my wall full of wall hangers

    In nature we find predators take out the young and dumb along with the old and weak. It will take everyone practicing this natural approach to allow the proven genetics of the strongest surviving to improve wild Deer herds.

    Reply
  12. Richie Nell, Richmond Nell Consulting, Inc. says:

    Why can’t you manage deer genetics in wild herd like you do with cattle? Very simple. No one knows the genetics of the female deer population and you don’t have one buck in a pen with a few does. If it was possible to create significant results then why do hunting clubs never seem to run out of “cull” or “ management” bucks. Because they are doing nothing to control of affect the genetics of the wild deer herd. “Cull” buck is just an excuse to shoot a buck.

    On the other hand, I have been involved in research at Auburn University deer pens where we did have one buck in a pen with a few does. The results were, even in that small environment that the maternity influence on antler genetics was as much of more than what the paternity side brought to the table. You just can control deer genetics to any extent in a wild deer herd.

    Reply
  13. Richie Nell says:

    *cant

    Reply
  14. I think the number one benefit of food plotting is trying to control when and where deer are to make them easier to harvest. The best way to “increase” deer antler size is to let them grow to maturity. Habitat improvement such as increasing the available winter browse seems like the best investment.

    Reply
  15. John Torchick says:

    Daryl, good article. I was raised on a dairy farm in central Ohio in the early and mid 50s. Good plots were unknown and wildlife management was in its infancy if it even existed. I recall seeing huge deer brought my my uncle’s farm. I feel that the success of the large bucks with good antlers was due to the availability of wheat, oats, corn, soybeans plus a soil that had a good limestone/calcium base. Why do we set up blinds and stands by food plots? I think JDUB gives a valid point here. Now to get the 3-D target out and start practicing! BTW, I’m pretty much confined to hunting public lands with very limited food plots. Good hunting to all!

    Reply

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