Whitetail Nutrition: Food Plots-Helping Deer Beat the Winter Blues

clover food plot for whitetail deer
by Eric Hall

Many believe that the winter is the hardest time for a whitetail deer with regards to nutritional deficiencies.  While it is true that post rut and into winter is a taxing time on the whitetail deer, the end of winter can be just as impacting.  Does are well into their pregnancy and bucks are still recovering their body weight from the rut. Compounding this effect, most, if not all, of the available browse has been consumed.  This time of year can make or break the whitetail deer.

Food plots do not have to be kill plots or hunting locations.  In my case, I have a small quarter acre supplemental feed plot.  It is not really huntable as it is in my backyard and the deer tend to use it at night.  But they do use it. It is in place to provide the herd with supplemental nutrition in the spring, summer and into the late season when food becomes scarce.  
Whitetail Nutrition: Food Plots-Helping Deer Beat the Winter Blues 1
Ladino White Clover

My plot consists of perennial clover and chicory.  This plot is at the end of its life (I got 7 years out of it) and will be killed off soon with the ground worked, amended and replanted early to help my herd into the late spring and early summer months.  In the late summer, I will again top the plot with rape and turnips to allow some fall and late season sustenance.

I choose clover because most varieties are perennial plants lasting up to 5 years with the proper maintenance.  Clover provides protein that is necessary for fawn development, antler growth and overall body weight of whitetail deer.  It is palatable and attractive to deer so they will seek it out and consume it while being economical and easily available for purchase.  

Growing clover is not a difficult proposition either. Perennial clovers tend to establish slowly, so  I like to mix in annual clover along with the perennial variety when first starting a food plot. The annual clover will establish quickly, providing food for the whitetails and suppressing weed growth while the perennial crop establishes itself.  
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Crimson clover

The annual clover that I am going with is crimson clover.  This variety is a great choice because it is attractive to deer, has a high protein content, and grows well in most soil types.  Soil pH range can be as low as 5.7 but it prefers soil with a ph of 6.7 – 7.0. Nutritional content includes 25% crude protein during the spring growing season which is 80% digestible.  Even more impressive is the 12 to 14% crude protein content that is 65% digestible even at full bloom. This early protein content is the perfect jumpstart for a winter-ravaged herd.

Perennial clover choice will be ladino white clover.  This clover is slow to establish the first year but tends to flourish the second spring bloom.  Ladino clover prefers a slightly acidic soil between 6.0 and 6.7 pH. When used in conjunction with crimson clover, my target pH level will be 6.5 to accommodate both species needs. Ladino white clover has 25 to 30 percent crude protein content and is 75 to 80 percent digestible.
All perennial clover require maintenance.  Once the plants reach a height of 10 inches or more, mowing will be necessary.  When mowing, cut the plants down to six inches in height to encourage new growth.  Fertilizer for both will be a low nitrogen fertilizer because clovers deliver their own nitrogen into the soil.
Whitetail Nutrition: Food Plots-Helping Deer Beat the Winter Blues 3

Chicory is a unique perennial plant in the sunflower family.  It looks a lot like a common weed called plantain, but don’t let its looks fool you.  Chicory is a great addition to your whitetail food plot, is a perennial plant and provides 15 to 30 percent crude protein to the herd.  In addition, chicory provides magnesium, calcium, sodium, manganese, potassium, vitamins A, B6, C, E & K.   With an ideal pH of 5 -7.5, chicory fits well with the clover in the food plot.  Chicory can be mowed along with perennial clover varieties and will last up to 5 years.

Rape and Turnips (Brassicas)
August is the time to consider amending your food plot with some late season food.  Clover and chicory will go dormant in cold northern environments. To assist the whitetail herd through the winter, I “top” my food plot with forage brassicas in the form of rape and turnips.  I simply mow the plot down to six inches in height and drag a yard thatcher over the plot to loosen some soil. I then broadcast the seeds over the plot. I aim to do this right before a rain event to help drive the seed into the soil for germination.  The pH level needed for these annual brassica varieties are in line with that of the clover and chicory so the additional plants will thrive alongside the perennial plants.
Whitetail Nutrition: Food Plots-Helping Deer Beat the Winter Blues 4
Dwarf Essex Rape

Brassica plant palatability increases with the first frost.  Sugars from the roots are drawn up into the leaves with the first frost and the plants become magnets to the whitetails.  The leaves become sweet and will be consumed first. As winter progresses, whitetail deer will dig up the bulbs from the turnips providing further nutrition.

Dwarf Essex rape provides up to 30 percent crude protein and is highly digestible for whitetail deer. Rape can provide up to five tons (dry weight) of forage per acre to help sustain the herd. According to an article on QDMA, forage rape is the most digestible plant for whitetail deer allowing the animal to use the nutrients most efficiently.
Turnips can provide up to eight tons of forage per acre. Turnips also provide 15 to 20 percent crude protein in both the leaves and the root. The leaves are consumed normally after a frost or two and are around late into the season filling a much needed nutritional gap.  The root of the turnip is a great food source itself. It does not increase fiber content as it ages, so it remains digestible for deer. I have noticed that once the leaves are gone and other food sources are depleted, the deer will paw up the roots and eat them. This is especially true when snow is abundant.  My first food plot with turnips was 100 percent consumed by the end of winter. One lesson learned was not to plant turnips too early. I planted in early July one year and the turnips matured too quickly. The deer consumed them eventually but they lost some attractiveness. In the North plant turnips at the beginning of August for best results.
Supplemental food plots are a great way to assist the herd. Providing additional nutrition in the spring and winter months will provide much-needed food at times of high stress in the whitetail world. Summer supplementation will drive overall body weight allowing your deer to thrive once the hunting season begins.

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Author: Eric Hall

Afflicted with Whitetail OCD, I have been addicted to the Whitetail Deer since the late 1980s. It is an all-consuming and never-ending passion to learn about and ultimately preserve the heritage of whitetail deer hunting. Now I feed that addiction with the Whitetail OCD blog.

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