Food Plots vs. Baiting: The Controversy Continues

By Bill Marchel

Fifteen years ago, I purchased 70 acres of land in central Minnesota. My goal was to develop the acreage for wildlife, especially whitetail deer, and to that end I have implemented a number of successful projects, including food plot construction and maintenance, tree planting and other forest habitat improvement projects, plus the excavation of ponds.     

Although I had spent my entire life in the outdoors, when it came to farming I was as green as a well-maintained plot of Imperial Whitetail Clover. Now, with 15 years of dirt under my fingernails, I more fully understand and appreciate the link between the land and whitetail deer as well as other wildlife components. And the learning process is continuous.      

What does this have to do with the continuing controversy over the use of food plots vs. baiting when it comes to attracting whitetails? A lot.     

Here in Minnesota, hunting deer over bait is not legal. Even supplemental feeding is discouraged by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Had it been legal to bait deer like it is in a number of other states, and had I chosen that route to attract whitetails to my land, I would not have garnered the many valuable, interesting and entertaining lessons the outdoors has to offer.     

This “link to nature” is just one advantage the implementation of food plots has over the use of bait to attract and hold whitetails. Let’s explore some of the other factors.     

I should note here that the purpose of this article is not to pit those who hunt over bait (where legal) against those who hunt over food plots. Instead, I would like to note some advantages to both the deer and the hunter/landowner that the implementation of food plots has to offer.     

The increased chance of the spread of diseases such as chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis supplies critics of baiting the most fuel. Baiting concentrates deer around food stations, whether that bait is a pile of corn, apples or whatever, more than does deer gathering in a food plot. Some biologists believe diseases are spread more easily among deer when the animals feed in the presence of their own droppings and urine. A number of biologist also deem that diseases are spread when deer touch noses, a situation that would occur far more readily, one would assume, in a baiting situation than in a food plot environment.      

Although the potential for the spread of deer diseases in a close feeding environment seems likely, biologist admit a link is difficult to prove.      

What has been verified is that once a disease like CWD or bovine tuberculosis enters a deer population, everyone suffers. Financial costs aside, the deer suffer, livestock producers suffer, and finally so do those who hunt in the disease-affected areas. Ultimately, is it best to err on the safe side? It would seem so.     

Some hunters who use bait to attract deer claim they can’t afford to plant and maintain food plots, and that they don’t have the time to invest in deer management work.    

Implementing food plots can be expensive, but when compared to dumping bait daily for weeks or months, the cost of even a well-maintained food plot is comparable. Let’s compare the annual cost of a one-acre food plot of Imperial Whitetail Clover to a bait station maintained only for the duration of an archery deer season.    

Right now the price of corn in my area is $7 for a 50-pound bag. If a hunter were to dump only 25 pounds of corn per day for an entire archery deer season—say three months—that would be 25 pounds times 90 days, or 2250 pounds for the season. Divide 2250 pounds by the 50 pounds per bag and the result is 45 bags. Multiply that figure by $7 per bag and the total is $315.   

A one-acre food plot, not counting the initial work of clearing, costs close to the same and is available to deer and other wildlife for the entire year and for years to come. Fertilizer is roughly $20 per 50-pound bag and most one-acre plots require 200 to 300 pounds per acre annually, which would cost $120 on the high end. Add the price of seed, about $55 for Imperial Whitetail clover, and ½ ton of lime at about $60, and the total for the first year of planting is $240.    

Since Imperial Whitetail Clover can last up to five years, and lime usually needs to be added only every few years, the maintenance cost after the initial planting will be only the cost of fertilizer. Of course there will fuel costs, plus the cost of equipment and equipment repairs, but you can see that implementing just a single bait station for only three months is expensive, too.   

My friends that live in states that allow hunting over bait tell me that once baiting starts in an area, it can easily get out of hand. A competition of sorts among landowners can brew. The results are that baiting during the hunting season expands into year-round deer feeding and that can get really costly. Bait and feed stations become larger and spring up seemingly everywhere, sometimes close to property boundaries which causes tension between neighbors.    

Another problem faced by hunters who bait whitetails is that the deer often become nocturnal because a bait station supplies deer with a concentrated food source that is easily and quickly consumed. The deer, knowing they can rapidly fill up on a highly palatable food like corn for instance, often wait until after dark for their easy meal. Deer must spend a greater amount of time feeding in order to fill up while grazing in a clover food plot.   

As I mentioned earlier, it is illegal to hunt over bait here in Minnesota. But feeding deer is not illegal. So, following the firearms deer season, many Minnesota hunters start to feed deer. That makes hunting difficult for late-season archers and muzzleloader hunters who are still afield because the deer concentrate near the feeders and rely on the easy meal afforded them. Thus they move less, and become more nocturnal. I experience this first hand each year as several of my neighbors feed deer. I can immediately see the shift in deer movement when the feeding begins, especially the lack of daytime travel.    

Biologists worry too, that the use of bait is altering deer habits, concentrating them near bait stations. Yes, food plots also concentrate deer to a certain extent, but not like a bait station where an effortless meal is readily available. In some areas, deer from miles around often leave well-managed habitat to gather in close to the bait stations. Thus, over-browsing of the nearby habitat occurs, which affects not only the health of other wildlife, but also the long-term health of the habitat itself. An over-browsed section of forest for example, can take decades to recover. In addition, some deer biologists claim it can be difficult to attain sufficient deer harvests in areas where baiting has significantly shifted deer.   

Conversely, food plots actually become an additional element of proper deer habitat. A pile of bait doesn’t need good habitat surrounding it to support deer.     Ultimately, the debate between hunting over bait vs. hunting over a food plot should be decided not by which is more effective, more ethical, less costly, or more acceptable to the non-hunting public. What is important is the long-term health of the whitetail herd and their habitat, an environment that is shared by many other creatures besides deer. We as hunters and stewards of the land need to remember that.   

For me, implementing food plots has become a passion that goes far beyond attracting whitetails for the purpose of hunting. I often pause while working my food plots to watch other wildlife like woodchucks, rabbits and various species of songbirds as they gather for a feast. It is difficult to explain how gratifying it is to listen as a ruffed grouse drums “from its log near my clover plot” or how I love to listen to the incoming Canada geese as they announce to the world below that my food plot of corn is theirs.   

Sometimes when I pause for a rest during arduous tasks like removing rocks from my food plots I’ll wander about my land with no real intentions in mind. I’ll study a buck rub, size up the tracks in a freshly made scrape, or look for shed antlers.    

One late spring day just after sunset, while taking a break from digging rocks, I glanced up to see a female cinnamon-colored black bear and her two jet-black cubs staring back at me. When I stood, the female woofed at me and then ran away while her cubs scrambled up a nearby tree. The two young bears ascended a few feet up the tree and then paused. When I took a few steps in their direction they leaped from the tree trunk and ran to catch up to mom.   

Gratifying? Indeed. For me providing deer and other wildlife with year-round nutritional benefits is more than just dumping a pile of corn.