Big Antlers Start in the Soil

Big Antlers Start in the Soil
Even in areas with poor soil, such as the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri, deer health can be significantly improved by using fertilizer and creating food plots that offer high-quality forage. 

It’s almost time to establish warm-season food plots for whitetails. Warm-season plots are primarily used to provide quality forage for deer and allow them to express more of their antler growth and fawn-production potential. Cool-season plots are usually established in hopes of attracting deer and/or allowing hunters to pattern deer. Fewer hunters plant warm-season plots, but they are often a necessary tool for those who truly want to have the best deer in the neighborhood.

Simply having a warm-season plot doesn’t ensure quality forage for the deer where you hunt. This is primarily because plants are simply nutrient transfer agents. That is to say plants transfer nutrients from the soil and air to the critters that eat them. To have the best deer in the neighborhood, you must have the best food in the neighborhood!

The nutrient content of soil varies drastically based on what has been previously grown in the soil, what has been added to the soil, and the native soil source. For example, sandy soil is typically very low in nutrients unless they have been recently added. The parent material for sandy soil doesn’t contain many nutrients. And sandy soil is so porous that existing nutrients can rapidly leach too deep for plants to obtain.

Because sandy soil typically doesn’t have or hold moisture or nutrients, plants that grow on sandy soil are often very low in nutrients. Deer that consume forage grown on sandy soil often have smaller body size, smaller antlers and fewer fawns compared to deer consuming plants grown on more fertile soil.


Genetics vs. Habitat

Some folks make the mistake of assuming deer living in areas with poor soil have poor genetics. There’s been much research comparing antler size and fawn production of deer by soil type. One of the classic studies was by Dr. Harry Jacobson. Jacobson compared deer living on different soil types throughout Mississippi and found strong correlations between soil quality and several health indicators of deer, including antler size and fawn production.


During the 1940s through the 1970s, deer were being actively restocked in many states. Most of the restocking was recorded, allowing researchers to compare the physical traits of deer at the restocking sites and from where they were transported.

A perfect example is deer that were transported from the Ozark Mountains in the southern counties of my home state of Missouri to the northern counties, which are primarily corn and soybean fields. There have been very few Pope and Young deer recorded from the counties in southern Missouri, while the world-record non-typical deer was found dead near St. Louis. Also, there are multiple Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett entries every year from the northern counties in Missouri. The difference is the soil quality and the plants that are grown on these soils. Southern Missouri has very shallow and poor soils. The landscape is primarily covered by oak/hickory forest and fescue cattle pasture. Northern Missouri has dark, deep, rich soils, and the landscape is primarily covered by soybeans and corn — both being great nutrient transfer agents.

I’m always amazed that deer with the same genetic source can appear so different in antler size and fawn productivity simply due to local conditions. We truly are what we eat!

Improving Your Ground

Another obvious example is from Georgia. The middle portion of the state, the Piedmont section, was primarily used to produce row crops such as corn and soybeans a few decades ago. This area of the state produced the majority of the record-book bucks entered from Georgia. Due to some government programs and a few other factors, it became more profitable for landowners to plant pine trees than corn or soybeans in the Piedmont. As the pines matured, no fertilizer was applied and less sun reached the soil, resulting in plants transferring fewer nutrients available to be transferred to deer. The number of record-book bucks entered from the Piedmont of Georgia decreased significantly, yet simultaneously increased in the lower part of Georgia where corn and soybean production is common.


This is a great testimony, as the soils in the lower part of Georgia aren’t as good as in the Piedmont. The addition of fertilizer in lower Georgia allowed the plants there to transfer those nutrients, producing deer with larger antlers than deer in the areas not receiving fertilizer and covered by pine trees. This is a great example of what can happen on individual properties! Soils can be improved through fertilization, using conservation tillage practices and planting forage crops that are excellent at transferring nutrients to deer and the quality of deer can be substantially improved — even in areas with poor quality soils!

I’ve made these changes on my property and have had great results. The first step is realizing that big antlers start in the dirt.

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