By Jason Snavely
With this being the first Whitetails column of the 2020 growing season, there is no better time to hit the reset button than right now. I’d like to dedicate this column to an aha moment I had in 2019 that completely changed how we are designing food-plot programs. Adapting this new approach to food-plotting could be the answer to making this your best whitetail year yet!
Each year, there are five or six new strategies that positively impact the whitetail-management programs I’m involved with. While I would like to tell you that all of them are the result of careful scientific research, some of the most significant are actually pleasant surprises we stumble upon quite accidentally. After all, Mother Nature doesn’t play by our rules, and she regularly throws us curveballs.
In 2019, the most promising accidental advancement came from observations and early data that prove the best whitetail food plots come in the form of multi-species, biological primers. In other words, extreme diversity (15-30 different plant species in a single plot) is king! Likewise, it is increasingly clear that — given the choice — whitetails prefer food sources devoid of commercial fertilizers and pesticides.
Make Soil Great Again
Before I dive any further into the weeds on what I mean by multi-species biological primers, I need to explain the origin of this accidental discovery. Every year, I try to push the limits of modern whitetail wisdom by intentionally questioning accepted norms. Clients and I regularly agree to make our best attempt to fail at an idea that seems like it would work. Many times, we simply fail and move on. Other times, we actually fail at failing and move forward with success!
In the two years leading up to the 2019 growing season, I traveled extensively to learn more about the extremely successful regenerative-agriculture movement: a momentous push in farming and ranching circles worldwide that adheres to a fairly straightforward concept that healthier soil yields healthier animals that ultimately yield more nutrient-dense food for human consumption. Consider research conducted by Dr. David Thomas in the Nutrition and Health journal that shows the results of a comprehensive analysis of nutrient depletion in our food. His research showed that because of nutrient depletion in our soils over time, you would have to consume four to five times as many vegetables today to get the same amount of minerals you received from those same vegetables in 1940! Likewise, because of nutrient depletion in grocery-store meats, you would have to consume twice as much meat today as you did in 1940 to receive the same amounts of trace elements and minerals. Could this also be the case in our food plots? I think so!
You’ve most likely heard the old adage, “You are what you eat,” but the regenerative-agriculture movement has proven that, “You are what you eat EATS!” In other words, that venison on your plate from an animal harvested anywhere near modern agriculture is not organic, nor as nutrient-dense as it could be! If those animals are dining in fields planted by farmers who employ tillage (plowing), intensive monoculture farming (corn, soybeans, cereal grains) and the use of commercial fertilizers and chemical herbicides, you are also consuming certain levels of those same manmade products as well as foods that have been depleted of valuable nutrients.
I’ve written about soil health and the importance of no-till farming in past columns. During my research into the regenerative-ag movement, I discovered that ranchers were witnessing obvious health improvements in livestock that were offered extremely diverse plantings. A diversity of plants results in an increased diversity in soil biology. It’s this soil biology (everything from microbes to earthworms) that works symbiotically with plants (by making more nutrients available to plants) to increase the nutritive quality of forages. When given so many options in one field, livestock could employ “nutritional wisdom” to nourish and even self-medicate based on specific nutritional demands without being forced to travel farther to do so.
Can you imagine the benefits of a food plot that addresses more of the nutritional needs of the deer that spend time on your property? This could be the major advantage you needed to win more deer, more often, from your neighbor who may also be planting food plots. My clients from all reaches of the whitetail world are thrilled about this!
Invest for Success
Diverse food-plot mixes featuring 15-30 plant species specially selected to complement one another and work well with your chosen planting time will help improve soil biology and offer more complete nutrition to your deer. And nutrient-dense plants grow LARGER ANTLERS!
While multi-species food-plot mixes (aka “biological primers”) still contain many of the commonly planted species such as clover, turnips, radishes, cereal grains and chicory, they also contain underrated and underutilized species such as lentils, barley, triticale, grazing corn, flax, hairy vetch, safflower, phacelia and plantain. A great way to begin diversifying your program is to seek “cover crop” species commonly planted by forward-thinking farmers in your area who seek to follow the principles of soil health and regenerative agriculture. It is my hope more seed companies will follow the path I’ve chosen with Drop Tine Seed Co. and push the limits on plant diversity in food plots.
For decades, the food-plot industry has promoted the same chemical herbicide weed-control measures that modern agriculture has employed, destroying soil health in the process. While it’s a fact that the bare spots in your clover plot that are obvious in late winter/early spring will result in weed invasion, it’s a myth that herbicides actually work!
If herbicides work, why do we still have weeds? Before those bare spots turn into weeds, simply plant cool-season cereal grains such as spring oats, spring barley or spring triticale into the spots. This strategy will provide highly nutritious forage for your whitetails, allow clovers to slowly fill in the gaps and deter those unwanted invasive plants from taking over your plot. Don’t get hung up with fancy seed bags and genetically improved deer plantings. Instead, look to diversity to outcompete your neighbors this fall!