Upfront Investments Yield Big Deer Hunting Dividends

By Scott Bestul

I honestly don’t know how much time I log creating, prepping, planting and maintaining food plots every year. Let’s just say that between five properties in Minnesota, another in Missouri, and some occasional work in Wisconsin, a large part of my spring and summer is devoted to growing deer food.

Then, of course, there’s the money. I fork out cash for vehicle gas, fuel for ATV’s, chainsaws and mowers…. And, of course lime, fertilizer, and herbicide. You can’t sugar-coat it; all this stuff is expensive. With such a huge investment of time and cash, it’d be perfectly understandable to want to save money on the item in the equation where I have a choice; the seed itself. All the rest—the fuel, the chemical, the fertilizer — is a fixed-price deal (of course the time and sweat is “free”). But shop around enough, and I know I can find better deals on clover and brassicas, wheat and rye. There’s no shortage of people selling seeds out there (including local ag-product dealers) and any time you have competition, someone is willing to sell cheaper than the rest. But here’s the thing: after all my initial “investment” why in the heck would I want to gamble on the major item that could make or break a food plot? “It amazes me,” Steve Scott said, “how a guy will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on his gun or bow, thousands on an ATV, a bunch more on trail cams, lease fees, clothing and other gear, and when it comes to the things that will actually help him have more deer, better quality deer and just a better hunting experience, he starts nickel-and-diming.” High-quality food plots and mineral products are the things that can have a positive impact on the number and quality of deer on our land. Scott’s point is an excellent one, especially when you consider this. You could easily make the argument that all the aforementioned gear — as important as it can sometimes be — is secondary to a more fundamental goal: attracting and growing better quality deer and keeping them on your hunting property. Now I love gear and gewgaws as much as anyone, and a quick tour of the shed that stores my hunting toys will prove it. But here’s the thing: I could dump most of my gadgets and still get deer killed on any property that held a decent number of whitetails. And what better way to ensure that deer will live on or make frequent visits to your chunk of real estate than to provide them with the best food and habitat in their home range? What follows, then, are some thoughts on perspective when applied to food plots and land management.

The Seed Equation

If you’re reading this issue, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the quality of Whitetail Institute products. What might be less obvious is that there’s a dramatic difference between the quality of the seed products offered here and those marketed by many others selling seed. “It took seven years before our first genetically developed seed was incorporated into Imperial Whitetail Clover.” Scott said. “And we’ve maintained the same standards for the entire history of the company. The average testing period before we release any new product is about five years. We’ve left a lot of money on the table because we just won’t throw something on the market we aren’t totally confident in. It’s just not the way we do business.” One little-known fact of the food plot industry is that the vast majority of companies obtain their seed through a veritable handful of the same sources: large seed companies that supply farmers and other non-deer-industry growers. And to the uneducated consumer, the product they offer seems identical. The package has a big deer on it and says, for example, clover. So if Joe Lunch bucket reads the ingredients list and sees two companies offering clover, a lot of customers will buy the cheapest one. What they don’t realize is that there are many varieties of clover, and some might be more suited to livestock forage or growing hay than for deer. As noted, Whitetail Institute products are meticulously tested on whitetails, the ultimate judge of whether a certain seed variety for the food plot market is better than another. And that process costs money. Is the difference worth it? Scott and tens of thousands of hunters think so. As an illustration, he told me a little-known story from the Whitetail Institute archives. “Over 20 years ago, when we saw the first ‘me-toos’ diving into the food plot business, my brother Wilson and I did what most businessmen do; we looked for ways to stay ahead of them,” he said. “We realized we could get product from the same places others did, and take this shortcut and that one, and penciled out this plan where we could cut costs by about 50 percent. So we pitched the plan to our dad (Whitetail Institute founder Ray Scott) who listened intently, nodded his head and was quiet for a bit. And then he said ‘Well, I remain the majority shareholder in this company, and if we decide to cheapen the product, I’ll shut this place down.’ Everything went quiet for a minute and then he said, ‘If we’re still in business 20 years from now, it’ll be because of the quality of the products we offer, not the dollars we tried to save making it.’” Steve went on to say, “What a great business lesson that was and giving the old man credit, he was right and we haven’t looked back.”

Soil Prep Savings?

You don’t have to read many issues of Whitetail News to learn about the importance of proper soil prep, weed control and maintenance. They’re every bit as vital as the quality of the seeds we choose to stick in the ground. Yet this is another area where, inspired by penny-pinching, rushing, ignorance or laziness, many food plotters decide to cut corners. “Sometimes I get sick of hearing the broken record, which is me, chanting, ‘Soil test, soil test, soil test’ to everybody who calls here to talk about food plots,” Scott said. “There’s no more important step to getting the most out of a food plot, yet one that many still choose to ignore.” Scott said the phenomenon isn’t all that surprising, however. A lot of us are trying this farming thing for the first time, and the temptation to rush in and simply try to grow stuff is heady indeed. Plus, we’re a busy lot these days. Our schedules are full of commitments that leave us in hurry-up mode in almost everything we do. That said, taking the time to do it right is the best insurance we have for ensuring that our food plot efforts are as successful as possible. Taking a soil sample is a relatively quick and painless procedure. And the costs — whether you use Whitetail Institute’s soil testing service or take it to your local agriculture co-op — are minimal. Think about it: If someone said, “I can guarantee you better food plots if you spend $15-20,” few of us would balk at the expenditure. The same mentality can be applied to the critical steps that follow: applying appropriate lime and fertilizer. I was reminded of this only a month ago, when my neighbor and bowhunting partner, Dave, and I visited several plots we’d planted on his hunting acreage this past summer. As we walked up to them, I remembered working them in the blazing heat of August. Time for both of us had been at a premium, but we’d taken the extra effort to prep the soil before planting. It was a no-doubt-pain-in-the-butt at the time, but when we walked into a plot that included strips of Winter-Greens, Whitetail Oats and Bow Stand and saw the unbelievable feeding activity there, it was all worth it.

Other “Money Savers”

There are other aspects of managing land for deer where an extra up-front investment makes sense. I’ve written in this space before about the importance of timber management. It’s one where most of us need some professional guidance. Think about it: You screw up a food plot, and you get a do-over less than a year later. Make mistakes with a chainsaw, and you’ll live with them for decades. When my neighbor wanted to do some clear- and hinge-cutting on his property, I arranged for a logger buddy to come and assess the project beforehand. Tom was able to make some great recommendations at a price that my neighbor was more than willing to pay, and the results from that project are already showing dividends. There’s a final category that comes to mind when considering financial perspective. In recent years, there’s been an increase in habitat consultants that will visit your property, assess the deer habitat and feed, and make recommendations (short- and long-term) for improvement. Although the fees for such a service vary widely, I’m convinced it’s a good investment for many property owners. A while back I was a member of a large hunting lease that held tremendous potential. Indeed, the property was so big that deciding where to start was an intimidating prospect. We talked to the landowner, who agreed to a cost-share if we hired a consultant, and the experience was beneficial to everyone. The visit took the better part of a day, as we toured the farm and listened to some general recommendations. After his visit, the consultant drew up a detailed report (complete with aerial photos and a timeline) that carved out a path for us to follow. Again, the financial cost would have been easy to shirk, but in the long run, it was an investment that I’m convinced made plenty of sense.


It’s no secret that we live in challenging economic times. Many of us struggle to pay for the basics of any endeavor, much less consider risking any extra money we have. But when it comes to managing deer, the investments we make are rarely large; an extra few bucks here and there, some added effort that most of us can expend, a handful of hours spent thinking before we act. And in the end, these measures almost always come with a payoff. Of course, these are the ruminations of a deer hunter, a simple guy who views a churned-up food plot in midwinter as proof that his time and money were well spent. But somehow, I believe if you’re reading this, you share the same perspective.