By Jeff Johnston
I’ll admit the title of this article may be slightly misleading. That’s because, according to several key studies, biologists don’t definitively know if humans can cause whitetails to grow bigger racks just by planting plots or pouring some minerals on the ground.
Here’s what we do know. Deer tend to eat what their bodies need and little more. Biologists believe whitetails thrive on a diet of 16 percent protein, and most native browse diets provide only half of that. So most deer will readily eat protein supplements. We know that big, healthy bucks grow outsized antlers much more often than nutritionally deficient bucks and that healthy females tend to grow bigger, healthier fawns during pregnancy that in turn have greater potential to be big healthy bucks.
You shouldn’t expect to work miracles this spring, but many experts believe enhancing the herd’s spring and summer diets with high-protein foods and minerals may boost bone.
Consider that a buck’s growing antlers are 80 percent protein. Once hardened, analysis reveals the antler is half protein and half minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus and trace amounts of about nine others. So it’s reasonable that providing protein and minerals could enhance antler growth. But how to get those proteins and minerals into your deer? The most feasible solutions are planting food plots, supplementing deer diets with protein and minerals, and fertilizing the natural food sources already there.
Planting anything is expensive and time-consuming. It’s also very rewarding to watch your plot pop up in the spring and see deer gobbling it up as they grow. One of the very best things you can do for deer is to plant legumes (think beans, peas, and clovers) in the spring. Clover is tops because this palatable, easy-to-plant perennial offers 25 percent protein. Run-of-the-mill clover seed from any feedstore is cheapest, but whitetail-optimized seed, like that from the Whitetail Institute, is higher in protein and grows better in conditions that are less than ideal, so it might be a better investment in the long run. Set up side-by-side test plots and judge for yourself.
In addition to clover, crops like soybeans, lablab, and buckwheat are fantastic spring forages for deer. Deer love soybeans in fall, but they relish the green forbs that are high in protein during spring. Alfalfa would be a great choice—especially in cooler climes—if it weren’t so labor intensive. Be honest about your skills and your dedication to planting while you’re deciding what to plant.
For those who don’t have the time, means, or wherewithal to farm, consider distributing protein pellets. Most feedstores offer from 13- to 16-percent protein pellets in 50-pound bags that cost $7 to $10 per bag. It can get expensive—especially if you invest in a gravity feeder so you can keep it available and dry the entire spring—but for the short term it’s likely cheaper and certainly easier than planting.
If you decide to go the pellet route, you won’t be dependent on the sunshine and rain that’s required for farming, so don’t wait until spring. Rather, distribute it in January, February, or March when rut-ravaged bucks need it most. Then keep it out all spring—or as long as you can—to help does, fawns, and young bucks grow strong.
While there is little scientific correlation between mineral supplements and big antlers in wild whitetails, cattle ranchers (and more recently big buck breeders) cite ample evidence that proteins enhance their stock’s size and health.
I started mixing my own mineral concoctions to save money. I bought calcium, phosphorus, and salt, mixed it, and then poured it on the ground in strategic locations on my property. I noticed deer weren’t licking it. Turns out, deer aren’t like us, e.g., that bowl of M&Ms we don’t need but devour anyway. Rather, deer ingest minerals when their bodies have deficiencies, but in most areas, deer get all the minerals they need naturally from the browse they eat. Also, they really don’t like the taste of straight minerals. That’s why I began sweetening my mineral mixes with apple extract. I soon realized I was paying almost as much as ready-made mineral/attractant products while expending much more time and effort. So now I just buy bags of Legit from Big & J. I see deer eating it occasionally, so I’d like to believe that at least some of my money is going into their antlers and not just into the dirt.
If it’s true that animals obtain most of their protein and minerals from their natural food sources, consider fertilizing those sources to enhance its nutritional output. While it’s unfeasible to fertilize an oak forest in hopes of boosting its acorn’s protein content, if you can identify and fertilize isolated food sources that deer hit perennially in the spring, such as stands of persimmons and honeysuckle, crops, fruit trees, or the like, you could potentially enhance antler growth. Just use some caution. First, take soil samples to determine if your target food sources even need fertilizing—and if so, what type, when, and how much. Failing to do so could have negative effects. But done correctly, your sickly persimmon trees or old apple orchard could get a shot in the arm, and that, in turn, could turn a ho-hum buck into a wall-hanger.
Spring is the most important time in a buck’s antler growth cycle, so if you plan to sway nature, now is the time to do it.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.