FEED VS. SEED — The Smart Way To Feed Deer 365 Days A Year By Matt Harper

By Matt Harper

My wife contends that when I’m in a farm store, I don’t have a shopping problem but rather a buying problem, and for the most part, she is spot on. I can pretty much guarantee that if I walk into my local farm store, I will walk out with something — or likely multiple somethings. One summer day, I was in the midst of full-blown shopping gluttony when I noticed a guy filling up the back of his truck with bags of deer feed. Curious, I walked over and asked the seemingly dumb question of what he was doing with all that deer feed, and he promptly told me the obvious answer: “Feeding deer.”

Before you question my mental prowess, consider that I was in the Midwest, and it was summer — growing season. When I asked Mr. Deer Feed what food plots he uses, he said, “Oh I don't mess with food plots. This is way easier. I don’t spend a ton of money on seed and equipment, and besides, this feed provides better nutrition.”

Before we dive into the food-plot-versus-feed debate, I want to be clear that I’m not insinuating that the use of deer feed in a whitetail management program is not sometimes warranted. You might experience a severe drought or, conversely, a year when flooding has drowned out your plot, leaving your property with little food for deer. If you are in a northern climate and you didn’t plant enough winter food plot acreage to sustain deer throughout winter, you might find yourself in a nutritional deficit situation. Further, you might live in an area where food plot production is simply not practical because of climate or topography, but that would be rare, as whitetails typically live where food plots can be grown.

Certainly, there are many situations in which deer feed can be used in conjunction with food plots as a part of an overall nutritional management program. But none of these scenarios were in play during the conversation I mentioned. It was the Midwest, arguably one of the best places to grow anything, and we were not suffering from extreme weather conditions. The man’s reasons had to do more with lack of knowledge and a hefty dose of short-term thinking.

The arguments he gave me at the farm store that day are the same ones typically used when debating the advantages of deer feed over food plots. Admittedly, at first glance, some of these arguments seemed valid. However, if you dig deeper, you find that these arguments don't hold water. First, let’s look at the thinking that using deer feed is easier than food plots. Buying some bags of feed, driving out to the property and dumping it in a feeder does seem pretty easy compared to building and planting a food plot, at least on the surface. The time it takes to plant a food plot is variable depending on many factors, including the size of the plot, the equipment you’re using and whether the plot area needs to be cleared or is an existing field.

For this example, let’s say we’re planting in a previously cleared field. You might say, “Well, you can’t take that out of the equation. That takes a ton of time.” Remember, clearing is a one-and-done process. After the area has been cleared, that job is completed for as long as you use that area for food plots. If you average the time needed to clear the field over the course of several years, it becomes so minimal that it’s really not worth adding into the equation. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume it took 10 hours to clear one acre. If you use that acre as a food plot for 20 years, it results in an annual time expenditure of 30 minutes. If you’re using medium-sized equipment, liming, fertilizing, tilling and seeding should take no more than three hours, and that is being conservative. If you’re using small equipment, it might lengthen the time to maybe six hours. Throw in maybe a couple of more hours for maintenance trips (mowing and spraying), and you end up with five to eight hours of time for that one acre.

Now let’s say that one acre will produce about six tons of forage/feed for the deer herd. That would equate to 12,000 pounds of deer feed, which would feed maybe 20 deer for eight months (2.5 pounds per deer per day). If you have a 500-pound feeder, you would have to make about 24 trips to get that much feed delivered, but we will say you have three 500-pound feeders, so that cuts your trips to eight. Obviously, the time it takes to make each trip is variable, but if we use one hour of time to pick up the feed and drive to and from the property, plus two hours to cut bags and fill up three 500-pound feeders, it would take three hours per trip. Do that eight times and you have 24 hours of time invested. The result is you have three times more time involved using feed compared to a food plot. If you think that’s not a significant difference, let’s say the food plot you planted was a perennial and will last five years. You have two hours of maintenance for four more years for a total of eight hours, plus the original first-year planting time of eight, giving you a five-year total of 16 hours. Take five years multiplied by 24 hours invested for feeders and you end up with 120 hours of labor, or 7.5 times more compared to the food plot.

So we now know that food plots can be a time saver, but what about the cost difference? If we use the same example, buying feed would require purchasing 240 50-pound bags. Again, there is variability in cost of the bags depending on what product you buy, but it will likely range from $10 to $20 a bag, or a total cost of $2,400 to $4,800. For our food plot planting, we will use Imperial Whitetail Clover. It will cost about $80 for the seed, maybe $200 for lime and fertilizer and another $100 for maintenance (spraying and mowing). I’m not going to consider fuel cost because I didn’t consider the fuel cost in driving back and forth to fill feeders, so we will call that a wash, although I think it would cost more in fuel to fill feeders than to plant a one-acre food plot.

Now the big one: equipment. Obviously, you can spend hundreds of thousands on equipment, but realistically, for food plots, you will likely not do that. Often, you can borrow or share equipment from a neighbor, hunting buddy or local farmer at little to no cost. You could also hire it done for $200 to $300 per acre. However, we will say that you’re going to buy a tractor and some equipment. You pick up a tractor for $20,000 and equipment for another $5,000, for a total cost of $25,000 in equipment. For the first year, your planting cost will be $25,380. That’s a lot more than $3,600 (average of $15 per bag) for the feed, right? But you have an asset of $25,000 worth of equipment you could turn around and sell for probably about what you paid for it if you bought it used.

But you will likely keep the equipment, so to figure your cost per year on the equipment, you would need to use a depreciation value. Using the reasonable number of a 20-year depreciation gives you an annual cost of $1,250. Imperial Whitetail Clover can last five years, so seed cost is a whopping $16 per year, and your lime, fertilizer and maintenance cost would stay at $300 per year, costing you a total of $1,566 per acre. Now, that $3,600 for the feed looks a heck of a lot higher.

I’m being pretty conservative in my comparison. First, you can buy equipment cheaper than the numbers I used. For example, I bought a good old tractor and some equipment for about $12,000. Also, if you have equipment, you will probably not just plant one acre. If you plant three acres, the cost of the equipment per acre goes down to $416, and the cost of feed to equal the food plot product is multiplied by three, creating a bigger gap in cost of feed versus cost of food plots. Finally, there is the argument of feed providing better nutrition. Honestly, this is not an argument I hear very often, and the only reason it comes up is because marketing departments sometimes paint deer feed products as nothing less than deer food from heaven. Deer do not naturally eat “feed.” It’s not that they won’t eat deer feed, obviously, but it’s not their natural food source. Before you think that I’m some wacko all-natural proponent, I’m not making the argument based on ideology. Deer are ruminants — more specifically small ruminants, which make their nutritional living primarily off various forages. Using a food plot is simply enhancing the nutritional plane by introducing a forage variety that’s highly nutritious.

Further, deer nutrition management is a 365-day-per-year program. Most people putting out deer feed do not faithfully fill up feeders 12 months a year, and even if they do, they typically don’t put enough out to equal the food provided by a food plot. In my example comparison, I used the amount of feed required to equal the amount of food supplied by a food plot to get an accurate comparison. In reality, most people don’t put out that much feed, often putting out a token supply, therefore supplying far less nutrition than if they had planted a food plot. When you plant a perennial food plot, you are planting a year round, consistent, almost-always-there food source.

Granted, there are some months in northern climates in which perennials might be dormant or times of hot, dry weather in the South during which perennials might not be as productive, but usage of annuals targeted at those times takes care of that. Brassicas planted for a food supply in winter or a heat-tolerant planting such as PowerPlant for the hot summer months are a couple of examples of annual plantings that fill gaps that might occur with perennials. For many parts of the country, a perennial such as Imperial Whitetail Clover provides a food source 365 days a year. If you compare specific nutrients found in deer feed versus food plots, you will also find some big differences. For example, the protein level in deer feed is typically 16 to 20 percent, as compared to Whitetail Institute’s perennial line of products, some of which have more than 30 percent protein.

Remember, deer will not eat just the deer feed — or just the food plot, for that matter — and the rest of what they eat (other browse) is often lower in protein. Therefore, you want your supplemental nutrition source to be higher in protein to equal out any deficiencies. Energy is something often overlooked but is one of the most important nutritional aspects in a deer’s diet. Deer feed contains energy, but the total volume of energy supplied by a food plot far exceeds that of a typical deer feed formula. This is especially true if you are planting a food plot variety that is particularly high in energy, such as soybeans or brassicas. Minerals and vitamins are also derived from food plot forages. In particular, calcium is very high in legumes such as alfalfa and clover.

However, I recommend a good free-choice mineral program in conjunction with a food plot program to supply sufficient amounts of macro and trace minerals and vitamins A, D and E.

Deer feed really doesn’t have an advantage with minerals either, although they are normally part of the blend. The levels of mineral found in deer feed are normally formulated as a complete diet and would only satisfy the nutritional requirement if deer only consumed the feed as their sole dietary source and further consumed enough of that feed to meet the full mineral needs.

So as you can see, there’s little doubt that food plots are the most efficient, economic and productive means of providing nutritional supplementation to deer. Not to mention that the use of deer feed is illegal in some states, and food plots are legal in all states. I realize you might think that I am against deer feed. As mentioned, the reality is that I’m not unless it’s used in place of food plots where food plot usage is feasible. Deer feed can certainly play a role and using it should be considered, but for a 365-day-per-year deer management program, food plots remain the easiest, most economic and most effective tool we have as managers.