Whitetails prefer and require a vast amount of plant diversity for a nutrient-dense and nutritionally-balanced diet. Such a diet not only allows them to thrive on the landscape but also provides many medicinal benefits for acute diseases, infections and pest infestations. When developing food plot blends for clients, I like to remind them that deer can’t go to the pharmacy for medications and vaccines and as a result, they have the ability (and wisdom) to seek plants that offer medicinally beneficial compounds. If those plants are not present, whitetails suffer and so does your bow hunting. Modern chemical food plotting, moving in lockstep with modern chemical agriculture, relies heavily on toxic man-made chemicals and has resulted in extensively degraded ecosystems and whitetail health. If we continue, we’re on a crash course to an overwhelming number of chronic diseases.
Our modern landscape, hyper-focused on yield or tonnage produced by planting merely a handful of forages & crops, has been stripped of plant variety and quality. In effort to grow many of these “monoculture” (think corn, soybeans & wheat) or low diversity mixes (think clover & chicory), the use of chemical herbicides has increased at an alarming rate. Make no mistake about it, the science clearly illustrates that the ‘cides”: herbicides, insecticides, fungicides cause biological dysfunction in whitetails and other wildlife (not to mention humans!). Unfortunately, most of this research never makes it to main stream media outlets.
The result of this mono-culture-focused agricultural system has led to an increase in the prevalence of chronic whitetail diseases that state agencies and deer biologists can’t seem to get a handle on. Researchers in Minnesota are finding that up to 94% of deer spleens tested are positive for toxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics). Once touted as a safe and revolutionary insecticide to protect row crops from insect damage by applying the insecticide directly to the seed, multiple studies are showing that neonics lead to organ damage, birth defects, lethargy and mortality in whitetails, pets and humans. If this isn’t enough to concern you, the most commonly used herbicide, Glyphosate, and its antibiotic activity on the gut microbiome, has been linked to depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and yes, chronic wasting disease. With nearly 300 million pounds of Glyphosate applied in the U.S. alone, you should be alarmed. These two toxins are just the tip of the ice berg and you should expect to hear more about it in mainstream media outlets in the years to come.
Enough doom and gloom. For several years now, on my podcast, I’ve been talking about the regenerative agriculture and soil health movement as it relates to wildlife food plots and property management. While traveling the whitetail’s range to work with clients to improve their soil health by removing the toxins and adding more of the “the good”, I’ve been blown away by the results. How are these forward-thinking food plotters (and bowhunters) changing the way they grow nutrient dense whitetail food plots and putting healthier venison in the freezer?
The first objective of food plotting in Nature’s image is to maintain living plants in your food plots on a year-round basis. Farmers refer to this as cover cropping. Many food plotters only think about growing plants in the fall/winter during the hunting season, leaving the soil uncovered and soil life unfed, creating favorable conditions for soil erosion, carbon loss and undesirable plant growth (aka “weeds”). If you want to provide nutrient-dense forages in the fall you must maintain living roots in the ground and living plants on the soil surface year-round. Why? Plants, through photosynthesis, feed the beneficial microbes in the soil, via liquid sugars that leak from their roots, and these microbes offer the organic fertilizer to your food plots through various complex pathways. This symbiotic relationship has existed since the beginning of time! We’ve simply disrupted it and must get back to facilitating it. There are no voids in nature; therefore, if you don’t put a plant that you want there, Mother Nature will do it for you and you may not like what she grows (many times the deer don’t mind!).
If you ever observe the plants growing in a field that has not been sprayed with herbicides, you will notice various grasses, legumes and forbs; a diverse plantscapes. This is because the soils thrive on diversity from all of the major plant functional groups. Your food plots are seeking the same level of diversity and every time you spray a herbicide, you disrupt this desired balance and nature works to repair your mismanagement: an expensive never-ending battle. Successful regenerative wildlife food plotters who I work with maintain grasses, legumes, brassicas and forbs in their food plots because they know that improved soil health equates to improved whitetail health!
No till planting has gained in popularity in recent years because soil health advocates realize that tillage of all kinds disrupts the biology in the system (imagine a plow going through your house!), resulting in an unnatural, nutrient deprived system that relies heavily on spoon fed synthetic herbicides and pesticides. While the use of a no-till drill makes the job much simpler and results in planting precision, many food plotters have done very well without a drill by broadcasting their fall food plots into a standing warm season crop just ahead of a rain. While these plots may result in “ugly plots” the deer most definitely approve! Regenerative food plotting requires you to work WITH nature and sometimes that means using your brain and changing the way you look at things.
One of the greatest tools for a regenerative food plotter is a roller crimper or similar implement. The roller crimper allows the food plotter to crimp-terminate certain (not all) plants ahead of planting the next crop. Perhaps the greatest benefit is rolling down massive amounts of plant residue that armors the soil, reduces moisture loss when its needed most, reduces wind and water erosion of the soil and builds soil organic matter over time as that plant residue decomposes. I have seen growers use lawn rollers, tractor buckets, ATV’s and even a Honda Civic to roll down a previous crop! Roller crimpers allow a regenerative food plotter to eliminate the use of toxic herbicides while detoxing the soil.
Full disclaimer: Anything worth doing requires hard work, determination and patience. I don’t want to lead anyone to believe that regen food plotting is easy. In fact, after 150 years of chemical agriculture, the transition can be painful and mentally taxing. However, the alternative of venison laced with toxins and whitetails that continue to experience increased chronic illness is will not be inexpensive or easy to deal with. I’m here to tell you that soil health and regenerative food plotting works anywhere the sun shines and the rain falls.
Herbivores possess the ability to self-medicate and manage parasite loads by consuming diverse plants and plant parts rich in phytochemicals. Unfortunately, we’re not making these options available. After two decades of private wildlife consulting, I have never been as excited about an advancement as I am about regenerative wildlife agriculture. If you don’t want to be left behind, NOW is the time to learn more about regenerative wildlife agriculture!