Are Summer Food Plots Actually Worth It?

Are Summer Food Plots Actually Worth It?

There comes a point every deer season, typically during the “lockdown” phase of the rut, when my dad and I start working through the long list of terrible excuses contributing to the lack of deer activity on our family property. Bad neighbors, lower deer numbers, terrible acorn crop—all excuses we throw out to console ourselves and gloss over our own shortcomings. Eventually, the conversation turns to off-season work, and my dad will mention how if we had only planted summer food plots, we might have held the does, given the bucks a ton of protein, or at least kept them from the neighbors’ corn feeders.

This sounds like a great idea in theory, and it’s a tactic that gets thrown around in all sorts of hunting media and outlets. I’ve seen plenty of guys standing over a dead booner in the middle of an ag field, saying something about holding deer, growing deer, food for the late season, etc. But those situations don’t apply across the board, and a host of other factors contribute to big properties with big bucks.

Still, that doesn’t mean that weekend warriors or folks with smaller properties won’t entertain the idea of planting a summer food plot. After all, if there’s a way to “hold” and grow deer within your means, wouldn’t you want to try?

To find some kind of answer, I spoke with Dr. Bronson Strickland, the St. John Family Endowed Professor of Wildlife Management at Mississippi State University. Along with being a distinguished professor and deer research expert at the MSU Deer Lab, Dr. Strickland is also one of the cohosts of the Deer University Podcast. If you’re thinking of planting summer plots this year, consider these points from Dr. Strickland.

Prepping the Dirt

Before diving in, Dr. Strickland emphasized that planting food plots are just one way to make habitat improvements, and they’re certainly not going to solve your big buck troubles overnight.

“We want people to know they have several options,” he said. “They don’t have to just rely on ag. There are other things people can do that are more beneficial than just planting a food plot.”

Still, he did insist that they can play a vital role in habitat management, especially if you live in nutrient or management-poor areas. For instance, he pointed out that summer food plots can have the greatest impact in places where agricultural land isn’t readily available.

“Summer food plots are probably more important in the Southeast than they are the Midwest,” he said. “There’s a direct relationship to the land and the food sources they have available. Midwestern deer live in the heart of ag country. This isn’t necessarily the case for deer in the Southeast. It isn’t that midwestern deer are just bigger or that the relationship is related to latitude per se, it’s more so the food they have available.”

Summer Food is Vital

Summer food is important, but that constitutes natural forage and browse, too, not just summer food plots. Dr. Strickland works with or sees tons of properties that practice habitat management for deer. However, he noted that the best properties incorporate both timber management operations and some type of agricultural practice like planting food plots. Rather than an either/or equation, hunters should be doing both.

One way to increase the amount of herbaceous plants available for deer is to drop some trees and get sunlight on the forest floor before or during early summer. At this point in the year, the natural plants that deer desire are highly nutritious, so you probably don’t need to worry about planting a summer food source then. However, late summer can be a critical time to do so.

“By the end of summer, when most plants go to seed, the nutritional value is far less than it was at the beginning of summer,” he said. “You can either use a late-season fire to stimulate growth, or you can plant a summer food source. Mid- or end-of-summer food plots are a ‘nutritional bottleneck’ for deer because the nutrient demands for deer are greater this time of year, and the food is scarce. It’s the most demanding time for does, but it’s also the time of year when bucks are wrapping up their antler growth.”

Dr. Strickland also noted that some naturally occurring plants are just as nutritious as anything you can plant. The difference lies in the way natural browse and food plots are dispersed. Basically, forage is broadcasted, whereas food plots are concentrated. The concentration of nutrients is what makes late summer food plots beneficial for deer during this time of year.

Are Summer Food Plots Beneficial for Small Properties?

I assume that most folks probably have smaller (10-100 acres) properties they’re interested in managing or improving, whether privately owned or leased. According to Dr. Strickland, warm-weather food sources during the latter part of summer will benefit a few-several deer but won’t have an impact on the local population.

“A larger landowner (500-several thousand acres) will positively influence the local population,” he said, “but if you have fifty acres, food plot management just isn’t going to move the needle for local populations. You’re definitely influencing some deer, but you won’t see a local improvement.”

While smaller habitat management operations might not be affecting the general population in isolation, it seems they can positively influence a few deer hanging around a given property. So, if you have a few bucks that you consistently see on camera this summer, putting in a summer food plot might not be a bad idea if you’re wanting to beef them up.

Do Summer Food Plots Contribute Greatly to Antler Growth?

One of the main agendas pushed in the whitetail space is the idea of growing bigger deer, especially with summer food plots. These ads, promotions, commercials, etc., are usually accompanied by pictures of deer in velvet munching on leafy greens in the middle of a field. But does that actually correlate to bigger antler growth?

According to Dr. Strickland, it depends on the situation. For instance, he referenced this study, which showed the deer they observed demonstrated 10, sometimes 20% increases in antler size that were a direct response to changes in diet quality. However, it applied mainly to deer that only had prior access to poor or nutrient-lacking food. For deer that already live in ag country or have access to nutrient-dense food, little to no changes occurred.

In short, if you live in a whitetail food desert, planting a warm-season plot might not be a bad idea. On the other hand, if you or your neighbors already have the groceries, you might better off concentrating your efforts and resources in other ways, like improving bedding areas or trimming shooting lanes.

Do Summer Food Plots “Hold” Deer on a Property?

In true academic fashion, Dr. Strickland gave a “Yes and No” to this response, with a caveat, of course. He pointed out that we have to think more about deer movement rather than their eating habits.

In this study, Dr. Strickland observed that ⅓ of the collared bucks had a mobile personality with two very distinct home ranges, one of those bucks actually crossed the Mississippi River and split time between Louisiana and Mississippi. The other ⅔ of those bucks, which he labeled “sedentary,” had a home range of about 1500 acres. These deer had access to premium ag and natural browse, yet their movements couldn’t be correlated to available food sources. Dr. Strickland noted that food plots or sources can “certainly influence where a buck spends time,” but they won’t cause a deer to shift its home range.

In fact, Dr. Strickland emphasized that hunters, especially on smaller properties, should be more focused on the available cover than the amount of summer food, especially considering that deer home ranges and food sources will change by the time the rut rolls around.

“Summer food can be vital for deer, but when gun season kicks in, I’d rather have half of my property in cover,” he said. “and then have natural browse or a food plot or two.”

So, if you’re really interested in “holding” deer, consider habitat improvements that will offer deer more bedding when all the leaves are gone. A summer food plot might offer them necessary nutrients now, but just know it won’t be the reason they’re around come November.

The Verdict

You’ll have to evaluate your own situation to determine if a summer food plot(s) is worth planting. If you’re already surrounded by ag and tons of nutrient-dense food, I’d say you can focus on other things. However, if your hunting situation looks more like the big woods, you’ll probably see a positive influence from a summer plot over the next couple of seasons. Just remember to keep expectations realistic.

Dr. Strickland did emphasize that if you endeavor to plant warm-season plots, just know they require a bit more work than fall/winter plots. He encouraged taking a soil sample so that you know exactly what nutrients your plot will need to thrive.

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