Most deer hunters never dreamed that growing big bucks meant producing a lot more than just antlers. At one time, all it took to harvest a big buck or just a fat doe for the freezer was little more than climbing into a treestand to execute a pretty bland hunting strategy.

Yeah, that approach to deer hunting worked pretty well more than 20 years ago. Well, most of the time anyway.

Growing big bucks today is a little more complicated.

“When we bought the 650 acres in Holmes County back in 1992, the last thing we thought was that we’d be getting into the farming business,” said Dwight Perry of Natchez. “Sure we had some great natural habitat on the place, but it didn’t take but a couple of hunting seasons to realize we needed to do some supplemental work to attract more deer and also keep the ones we had. That turned into a lot more work and expense.”

Many deer hunters who already own hunting land, recently just bought some or maybe leased a parcel especially for deer hunting have virtually all gotten into the farming business. These hunters moved into the practice of wildlife agriculture out of sheer interest in enhancing their deer hunting opportunities, plus a desire to grow bigger, better and more bucks. They wanted doe numbers to increase, too.

Even more deer hunters are looking at going this landownership or lease route every season as an alternative to relying on public hunting land or paying for outfitted hunts. Many of these hunters have little practical knowledge about how to assess habitat, how to map out a reasonable plan for habitat enhancement or what is required to accomplish their deer-management goals.

Assessment, planning

Many landowners and leaseholders know little about the property they hunt. Some hunters have never even scouted the majority of the places where they hunt. If you are in this situation, it is not rocket science. Just get out there and learn the place.

Assessing a piece of hunting land ought to begin with studying a good topographic map of the entire area, but better yet is an aerial photograph of the place. These can be obtained from a variety of on-line services selling satellite imagery. The aerial perspective is perfect for actually getting a mindset of the habitat layout and features.

Every aspect of the land will stand out for a clear analysis. Open spots in the forest canopy suitable for planting small plots will be easy to spot. Habitat edges, funnels, pinch points, natural trail routes, water resources like ponds, depressions, creeks and drainages can all be seen. Look for open grassy pasture areas or sage grass fields. These are good spots to build wildlife food plots. After the map study, go walk the property to see firsthand what is there.

It’s smart to solicit the help of able experts that are commonly available to help land managers, farmers and hunters with recommended agricultural practices. These experts can be found at local farm co-ops, regional universities and a variety of state and federal agencies like the department of agriculture or Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Once you identify some suitable locations for wildlife food plots, be smart and start small. An ideal deer food plot need only be a half-acre to a couple acres in size. Make the layout uneven or an odd shape in order to maximize the edge effect in contact with the surrounding habitat. Multiple plots should be widely dispersed around the property to maximize their utilization by the resident deer herd.

Be sure to choose areas with good soils and adequate water drainage. Of course, food plot sites with easy access for farming equipment and monitoring are best. Some new trails may need to be added or even old trails widened or improved. Make the farming process easy on yourself, and you’ll be more likely to find even more satisfaction at the accomplishments.

Also don’t forget to make plans to enhance native browse as well by mowing, disking or low-intensity burning. Adding a little fertilizer to wild berry bushes or honeysuckle thickets can go a long way toward providing high quality browse for white-tailed deer.

Select timber thinning is another idea to open up natural areas to increase native browse development. A little disking or mowing in these areas will spur new growth of native woody plants for deer to munch.

A balance between enhancing existing habitat wildlife food sources mixed with the creation of new wildlife food plots is a good first plan for hunters who want to take up the farming part of a good overall quality deer management plan.

Basic tools and tactics

The trouble with quality farming equipment is that it is expensive. It is even more expensive if the pieces of equipment are not fully utilized on a regular basis as farmers do when crops are raised for profit. Hunters as farmers rarely need farming implements at the high end of cost. So what are the alternatives?

“A couple of years into the wildlife land-management business taught us one thing: It takes a professional, knowledgeable farmer to get food plots cut and properly plowed or disked the first time,” said Gary Adams of Spring Lake Farms east of Lexington. “Small implements simply cannot turn the virgin soil over in order to produce the type of quality seed bed needed for a successful wildlife food plot.

“Just take my word for it, and save yourself a lot of agony and a lot of wasted seed cost. Get it done right the first time.”

After food plots are initially laid out and the seed bed is properly prepared, then hunter/farmers may be able to maintain the plots with smaller-capacity farm equipment or even ATV-pulled implements. Certainly an ATV-mounted disking unit, soil harrow or a seed and fertilizer spreader can be useful and viable options. These are light and portable for small, quick jobs.

Farming wildlife food plots is real agriculture, just on a smaller scale. It requires soil analysis, seed bed preparation, liming, fertilizing and properly planting a selection of seeds compatible with the soil, growing region, drainage, sunlight and annual temperatures. If in doubt, talk to a local farm co-op manager or county NRCS agent for recommendations.

“Here in the South, there are plenty of seed options for wildlife food plots,” said Bill Maily, wildlife food-plot specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “The best option for a low-risk seed mixture is a combination planting. That way if one seed type fails to produce adequately, then another is likely to do well.

“A good basic combination is cowpeas, soybeans, alyce clover and jointvetch.”

A more-basic, inexpensive wildlife plot mix consists of equal parts winter wheat, oats and Marshall ryegrass. This mix will succeed in almost any southern soil in a proper seed bed and under normal growing conditions.

These seeds need a light cover and adequate moisture after planting. Too wet or dry conditions will impact the success, though seeds laying dormant for even a month after planting will sprout to some degree once a rain finally comes.

Good fertilization and regular liming of the soil is essential to providing a suitable foundation for growing wildlife food plots. Experiment with other seed mixes, too, including some of the many commercial high-profile seed mixes such as Mossy Oak Biologic or Tecomate. Change up your food-plot trials until you find what works best for your location.

Warm season vs. cool

“Warm-season supplemental plantings are rated more important than cool-season plantings by some biologists, but rarely are they given even equal consideration,” said MDWFP Wildlife Director Larry Castle. “Recommended ratios of warm to cool season plantings approach 60:40 in many comprehensive supplemental planting programs. Quality forage in the summer months is important because of the typical decline in native forage quality and the additional nutritive demands experienced by lactating does.”

Most deer hunters who get involved in the farming aspects of whitetail management often neglect summer food plots. In Mississippi, most food-plot activity centers on getting something growing just prior to and throughout the deer season.

Hunters interested in applying sound deer management principles to their hunting land plans will inevitably get involved in farming practices at some level, either directly or indirectly. Start with property assessment and plan development, and then move to food-plot layout and implementation.

Both your deer herd and your deer hunting will improve immensely. Just leave the denim bib overalls and the straw hat in the closet.