Outdoors With Craig Robbins

Food plots can be a big part of your deer hunting strategy, but there are many other factors that will contribute to your success.

Here’s the truth of the matter.

While bagging quality whitetails is not necessarily a reflection on the net effect of food plots, it does offer a telling picture of the ups and downs of planting and maintaining them.

In other words, planting some clover, wheat or chicory doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll kill bigger bucks or even see more deer.

In fact, a variety of factors that you can’t control can dictate not just the quality of antlers on your local bucks, but the overall numbers of deer.

Now that the food-plot craze has had a chance to settle into a steady, stable industry and has been woven into the deer-hunting culture, some hunters are beginning to wonder if food plots are actually worth it.

Like with anything, money does matter.

The bottom line is that food plots can become pretty darn expensive. Even with gas prices down from last year’s peak, the overall cost of planting and maintaining a healthy stand of clover, wheat, soy bean or brassica can add up to a sizable chunk of money.

No matter what you plant, the seed is likely the least expensive part of any food plot, even if you choose a premium name-brand product that has pictures of giant bucks on the front of the bag.

To grow healthy plots, you’ll need to fertilize them twice a year, and in many regions it’s critical to spread a heavy dose of lime on the soil. You’ll also need to manage weeds, probably with a herbicide.

If you don’t tend your plants and give them exactly what they need, why bother growing food plots at all?

Along with just about everything else, the price of fertilizer has gone through the roof. According to a report by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the cost of a ton of fertilizer has doubled in the past few years.

The higher prices are a result not only of higher fuel prices, but increased demand from developing countries such as China and India, which are using more advanced farming practices.

Although many wildlife managers would say fertilizer is the last thing anyone should scrimp on, it is something that many good hunters go without.

Even if you do plant and grow a lush stand of deer candy, it doesn’t follow that you’ll produce any larger deer than what you had before you turned into a farmer.

A growing number of deer biologists are questioning claims that merely giving deer additional forage in the form of a food plot will grow bigger antlers.

“They can help boost nutrition, which can help increase antler size, but it takes far more than a food plot or two to grow bigger deer,” says Quality Deer.

Quality Deer Management Association’s New England and Canada Regional Director Matt Ross explains, “Will a food plot turn your farm into Iowa or Illinois? No-Big bucks don’t come in a bag.”

Food plots certainly can’t hurt, but in order to produce quality deer, it’s vital to have a total management plan, one that not only includes habitat management, but hunter management as well as deer management.

And then there’s another question: Just how hard is it to fill a deer tag or two? In most places, killing a deer, even a decent buck, is getting easier each year. As whitetail numbers continue to rise and more hunters manage their land and deer herd for quality animals, the number of trophy-class bucks is rising.

That means putting some venison in your freezer can be as easy as just sitting still for a few hours, whether deep in the hardwoods or on the edge of a well-manicured clover field. Deer are grossly overabundant in many states, and hunters who don’t have food plots do just fine.

All that being said, the benefits of planting and maintaining food plots extends well beyond the obvious reward of producing a great place to hang a tree stand.

Whether or not you actually shoot a giant buck over a plot of clover you planted might not matter so much if you enjoy the time spent sowing that plot. In other words, the act of growing a food plot can be just as rewarding as hunting over it.

And when it comes down to it, food plots do attract and hold deer, especially in areas with low-quality natural forage or when local crops fail.

There’s no question that in many regions, especially those with marginal habitats, a food plot can draw deer like ants to a picnic.

If deer have an alternative food source that is high in protein and other nutrients, then they will definitely use it if the native forage isn’t as good.

“Deer know what’s good for them,” says Ross, adding, “A typical hardwood forest can produce about 500 pounds of forage per acre in a good year. A well-maintained food plot can produce up to 3,000 pounds.”

Ross also notes that food plots can make deer more visible, pulling them out of thick cover and into the open, giving hunters a better opportunity to judge individual animals before pulling the trigger.

Food plots also benefit a variety of game and non-game species besides deer.

In the end, if you believe a food plot will help you bag bigger deer and more of them, then by all means, plant all you want.

What matters more than anything is that you hunt with as much intensity and confidence as you can possibly muster.

Putting a few food plots in the ground certainly won’t hurt your chances, and if nothing else, it will help create better habitat for all wildlife.