October 18, 2023
Whitetails prefer and require plant diversity for a nutrient-dense and nutritionally balanced diet. Such a diet not only allows them to thrive on the landscape but also provides many medicinal benefits for acute diseases, infections and pest infestations.
When developing food-plot blends for clients, I remind them deer can’t go to the pharmacy for medications and vaccines. Rather, they have the instinctual ability to seek plants that offer medicinally beneficial compounds. If those plants are not present, whitetails suffer — and so does your bowhunting. Modern food-plotting practices, moving in lockstep with modern agriculture, rely heavily on toxic, manmade chemicals, resulting in extensive damage to ecosystems and whitetail health. If things continue on this trajectory, I fear our whitetail population is on a crash course with an overwhelming number of chronic diseases. Chasing Our Tails
The commercial agriculture industry is hyper-focused on maximizing “yield,” the amount of a crop that can be harvested on a per-acre basis. And most of the effort in that regard is focused on a handful of grains cultivated on a mass scale such as corn, soybeans and wheat, or low-diversity mixes such as clover and chicory. In a never-ending quest to maximize yield, the use of chemical herbicides has increased at an alarming rate. Make no mistake; scientific research clearly shows that herbicides, insecticides and fungicides cause biological dysfunction in whitetails and other wildlife, not to mention humans. Unfortunately, most of this research is ignored by most media.
The result of this maximum-yield, monoculture-focused agricultural system has led to an increase in the prevalence of whitetail diseases that state wildlife agencies and deer biologists can’t seem to get a handle on. Researchers in Minnesota are finding that up to 94 percent of deer spleens tested contain toxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics). Once touted as a safe and revolutionary insecticide to protect row crops from insect damage by applying the insecticide directly to the seed, multiple studies are showing that neonics lead to organ damage, birth defects, lethargy and mortality in whitetails, pets and humans.
If that isn’t enough to concern you, the most commonly used herbicide, Glyphosate, and its antibiotic activity on the gut microbiome, has been linked to depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and autism in humans and, yes, Chronic Wasting Disease in whitetails. With roughly 280 million pounds of Glyphosate applied annually to the soil in the United States alone, you should be alarmed. A Better Way
For several years now on my Drop-Tine food-plotting podcast, I’ve been talking about the regenerative agriculture and soil-health movement as it relates to food plots and managing wildlife habitat. While traveling the whitetail’s range to work with clients to improve their soil health by removing toxins and adding more of “the good,” I’ve been blown away by the results. How are these forward-thinking food plotters changing the way they grow nutrient-dense food plots and putting healthier venison in the freezer?
The first objective of food plotting in nature’s image is to maintain living plants in your food plots on a year-round basis. Farmers refer to this as cover cropping. Many food plotters only think about growing plants in the fall/winter during the hunting season, leaving the soil uncovered and soil life unfed at other times of year, creating favorable conditions for soil erosion, carbon loss and undesirable plant growth (aka “weeds”). If you want to provide nutrient-dense forages in the fall, you must maintain living roots in the ground and living plants on the soil surface year-round. Why? Plants, through photosynthesis, feed the beneficial microbes in the soil, via liquid sugars that leak from their roots, and these microbes offer organic fertilizer to your food plots through various complex pathways. This symbiotic relationship has existed since the beginning of time. We’ve simply disrupted it and must get back to facilitating it. There are no voids in nature; therefore, if you don’t put a plant that you want there, Mother Nature will do it for you, and you may not like what she grows.
If you ever observe the plants growing in a field that has not been sprayed with herbicides, you will notice various grasses, legumes and forbs; a diverse plantscape. This is because soil thrives on diversity from all the major plant groups. Your food plots are seeking the same level of diversity, and every time you spray herbicide, you disrupt this desired balance and nature works to repair your mismanagement, resulting in an expensive, never-ending battle. Successful regenerative wildlife food plotters I work with maintain grasses, legumes, brassicas and forbs in their food plots because they know improved soil health equates to improved whitetail health!
No-till planting has gained popularity in recent years because soil-health advocates realize tillage of all kinds disrupts the biology in the system, resulting in an unnatural, nutrient-deprived system that relies heavily on spoon-fed, synthetic herbicides and pesticides. While the use of a no-till drill makes the job much simpler and results in planting precision, many food plotters have done very well without a drill by broadcasting their fall food plots into a standing warm-season crop just ahead of a rain. While this technique may result in “ugly plots,” the deer definitely approve! Regenerative food plotting requires you to work with nature, and sometimes that means using your brain and changing the way you look at things.
One of the greatest tools for a regenerative food plotter is a roller crimper or similar implement. The roller crimper allows the food plotter to crimp-terminate certain (not all) plants ahead of planting the next crop. Perhaps the greatest benefit is rolling down massive amounts of plant residue that armors the soil, reduces moisture loss when its needed most, reduces wind and water erosion of the soil and builds soil organic matter over time as that plant residue decomposes. I've seen growers use lawn rollers, tractor buckets, ATVs and even a car to roll down a previous crop! Roller crimpers allow a regenerative food plotter to eliminate the use of toxic herbicides while detoxing the soil.
Anything worth doing requires hard work, determination and patience. I don’t want to lead anyone to believe regenerative food plotting is easy. In fact, after 150 years of chemical agriculture, the transition can be painful and mentally taxing. However, venison laced with toxins and whitetails that continue to experience chronic illness is not inexpensive or easy to deal with either.
After two decades of private wildlife consulting, I have never been as excited about an advancement as I am about regenerative wildlife agriculture. Regenerative food plotting works anywhere sun shines and rain falls, and now is the time to learn more and get on board.