Whitetail Hunting photo

It’s time to plow under the clover-plot-equals-corn-pile argument. Of the many fresh debates germinated by modern whitetail management, none has proved faster growing or hardier than food plots vs. bait, in which one side insists that planting plots to attract and kill deer is no different from luring them to a mound of carrots or sugar beets. This may sound perfectly sensible…until you soil-test the dirt from which the logic grows.

Food plots are very different from baiting–and better for the health of the deer herd as well as for hunting. And while it’s true that a small plot of lush clover in the middle of otherwise barren woods may be no different from a pile of corn in terms of fair-chase principles, food-plot planting and management provides a long list of tangible and intangible benefits. Here are the main ones.

#1 – Better health
Food in a pile (read bait) forces deer into unnatural concentrations, upping the odds of disease transmission through nose-to-nose contact, a proven vector for bovine TB. Also, because most bait lies directly on the ground, baited deer are more likely to ingest each other’s urine and/or feces, a suspected cause of CWD.

Even a quarter-acre plot adequately spreads out feeding deer in most cases, and because deer typically eat the leaves, fruits, or seeds of food-plot plants, they ingest less dirt, diminishing the likelihood of urine or feces consumption. And since food plots are on the landscape 24/7, competitive feeding, and therefore crowding, naturally decreases.

#2 – Deer behavior
Multiple studies have shown that the continual visits a baiter makes to freshen his pile change deer behavior, making them more cautious, more nocturnal, and tougher for everyone to hunt. Once you plant a food plot, on the other hand, you are more or less done, and deer will visit it as they would any natural food source or ag crop.

#3 – Hunter relations
One of my biggest beefs against baiting is its effect on public-land hunting. Invariably, the baiter draws an immediate, imaginary boundary around his setup and claims squatter’s rights–ratcheting up tensions with other public-land hunters. By default, food plots, which are planted almost exclusively on private lands, don’t create this kind of conflict.

#4 – Habitat stewardship
A hunter may plant his first food plot with the sole purpose of luring a deer for the kill, but before long, something very cool happens to many a food plotter: He finds other ways to improve deer habitat. Of course, not every weekend farmer becomes a land steward, but this evolution is common.

What’s more, food plots benefit more than just whitetails. In a study completed in 2009, University of Georgia researcher Will Ricks inventoried populations of invertebrates, small mammals, and songbirds in and around clover plots located in Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, and Tennessee. Then he compared them with adjacent forested areas. In each location, the abundance and diversity of nongame wildlife species was greater in and around food plots.

Finally, believe it or not, there are still some places in this country where deer densities are low and food is a limiting factor. Here, perennial food plots–unlike bait–can help increase the area’s carrying capacity and improve deer hunting for not just the planter but eventually his neighbors, too.