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Food Plots and QDM

Food Plots and QDM

Deer are what they eat. So if you want quality deer on your land, feed them well.

STOP IN ANY coffee shop where deer hunters gather, and along with the story of the big buck ol' Joe arrowed last week, you'll no doubt hear someone mention "quality deer management." Quality Deer Management, or QDM, is the latest buzzword among whitetail hunters, but it's also one that's here to stay. Why? Because QDM works, and it can make a difference on the property you hunt.


QDM can be broken down into four important building blocks.

  • Herd management — Balancing the deer herd with the existing habitat and establishing good age structure for bucks and does.
  • Herd monitoring — Collecting observation data before hunting season and harvest data during the season and adjusting hunting strategies accordingly.
  • Hunter management — Educating hunters to make good decisions while in the field.

  • Habitat management — Improving habitat through native vegetation management and supplementing it with high-quality, year-round food plots.


Of these building blocks, habitat management is the most labor and site intensive, and it should be a year-round effort. Year-round nutrition is important to any QDM plan because whitetails experience two stress periods annually. Winter stress is obvious during periods of snow, cold, and ice when little food is available, but deer also experience summer stress, as they require vast amounts of nutrition for body growth, maintenance, antler growth, and lactation.


If a deer herd is in balance with the carrying capacity of the land, native vegetation can provide adequate nutrition to feed deer during the year. However, even under balanced conditions deer experience an energy deficit during winter, as less and less high-quality food is available.

"Considering that many regions have deer herds above the habitat's carrying capacity, it's easy to see how native vegetation can use some help," said Brian Murphy, executive director of the QDMA. "Food plots can really help improve wildlife health — and hunting."

Food plots are defined as agricultural-type crops planted for wildlife to supplement nutrition provided by native vegetation. Food plots also reduce browsing pressure on native vegetation and allow for increased forest regeneration when proper deer numbers are maintained. More importantly, the higher nutritional value of food plots can have a huge impact during winter when native foods are limited in both quantity and quality. Though it takes some planning, the addition of food plots to native vegetation provides many benefits to any deer herd.


A food plot program should provide high-quality nutrition for deer all year long. Research indicates a minimum of 1 percent of a property planted in food plots is necessary to have a measurable impact on the average weight of deer in a herd, antler size, and reproductive success. Planting 3 to 5 percent of an area would be much better. The larger percentages provide additional forage and ensure a good crop despite poor site or weather conditions. Planning should ensure 60 to 70 percent of the food plot acreage be planted in cool-season perennials, 10 to 20 percent in cool-season annuals, and 20 percent in warm-season annuals. This mix assures adequate forage for deer throughout the year.

Seed mixes are generally preferred over single-species plantings. Fast growing species in the mix act as nurse crops to protect slower growing species. Clovers benefit from this "nurse" arrangement as they grow slowly while developing their root systems. The faster-growing species take the grazing pressure and allow the clover to fully establish itself before being subjected to grazing. Individual species have different maturity rates, and that increases the opportunity for deer to find preferred forage in the plot. Mixes also provide insurance that at least some species will be suited to the site and weather conditions to prevent total crop failure.

Perennials or Annuals?

Perennials are plant species that live longer than one year. They're harder to establish and slower growing than annuals during the first few months, but they are more productive in the long term. They merely require periodic mowing, fertilization, and weed control. Annuals are easier to establish and produce more biomass than perennials during the first few months. However, annuals need to be replanted every season and are more expensive and labor intensive.



Cool season plots are planted in fall, winter, or spring and are used mainly from fall through early summer. White and red clover, alfalfa, bird's foot trefoil, cereal grains (wheat, rye, oats), chicory, and brassicas (rape, turnips, canola) are some of the more popular cool-season forages. Clovers are the number one cool-season perennial. Chicory and trefoil are especially valuable because of their drought tolerance. Brassicas are excellent cool-season annuals that are important in any food plot component. Brassicas provide abundant (up to 10 tons of forage per acre) high protein (up to 38 percent), highly digestible food at a nutritionally limited time of year (remember, native browse has 4 to 8 percent protein). As such, brassicas should be included in nearly all food plot programs.

Warm-season plots are planted in spring and early summer and are used by deer mainly during summer and fall. Corn, peas, Lablab, millet, and soybeans are the popular warm-season forages. Corn, while low in protein, is valuable because it is a high-energy food source, and it also provides cover.


With respect to whitetail deer, food plots can be divided into nutritional plots and hunting plots. Nutritional plots are designed to provide abundant, highly nutritious forage to the deer herd while hunting plots provide a place to harvest deer. Nutritional plots are typically larger (1 to 5 acres) than hunting plots (1/4 to 1 acre) and contain cool-season annuals and perennials as well as warm-season annuals. Hunting plots typically contain cool season perennials or annuals planted to attract deer in the fall.

Food plots can be planted in agricultural and abandoned fields, along logging or forest roads, in log landings, and nearly anywhere else sunlight reaches

open ground. In wooded areas small plots can be created with a chainsaw and backpack sprayer, while larger plots may require a bulldozer or similar equipment.

Ideally, food plots should be distributed evenly throughout the property, and long, irregular plots are preferred over round or square plots, because they maximize the amount of edge — the transition zone between habitat types.

Large fields can be divided into smaller units with areas closest to cover used for cool-season plants. This proximity improves harvest opportunities since cool-season species will attract deer during the hunting season, and it helps deer save valuable resources during winter by placing food close to cover.

Prior to planting any plot, always conduct a soil test, and apply lime as conditions dictate. If necessary, seek assistance from a professional. Check out for even more food plot info.


Whether planted on public or private land, food plots are beneficial to deer. Private landowners and state agencies across the country are using food plots to improve deer habitat, increase available nutrition, and provide viewing and harvest sites. In addition to being one of the most important steps in any successful QDM program, food plots are good for deer, good for hunters, and good for other wildlife.

The author is a professional wildlife biologist currently serving as Northeast Regional Director for the QDMA. He makes his home in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

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