Deer are not grass- or cereal-eaters by nature, but prefer clover and legumes.

Deer are not grass- or cereal-eaters by nature, but prefer clover and legumes.

Good nutrition is important for antler size

By Arlo Kane, private lands biologist

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

If you are interested in improving the quality of your deer, then you have to be serious about summer food plots. Most hunters plant a fall crop of cereal grains and maybe some clover to attract or keep deer on their lease. If your goal is to improve your opportunity or you simply do not have much land to plant crops, then winter plots are great.

But if your goal is to improve the nutritional quality of your food sources and improve the body size and antler size of your bucks, then summer food plots are your best bet.

Age, nutrition, genetics

Antler size depends on three factors: age, nutrition and genetics. While there is very little you can do for genetics, you can definitely affect age and nutrition. Antlers increase in size up to about 6 years of age for most bucks, but most bucks in Florida are harvested before 3 years of age. Therefore, letting bucks get to maturity will automatically improve the size of your antlers without spending a dime.

If you are already letting young bucks walk, the next step is to improve your summertime nutrition. Growing antlers are composed of 80 percent protein and growth occurs from late May through August, with the peak growth occurring in June and July. Before a buck can put any energy into antler growth, he will have to restore lost body weight from the rut. That means if you can have a high protein source of food available starting about March, your bucks should be in good shape to start maximizing antler growth in June.

To have high protein forage available in March you need to think about adding a clover to your fall mix. White clover and red clover can actively grow from March to October but clovers like crimson are done by May. If you have moist soils, then your best bet is to plant white clover in the fall and manage it through the summer. If your soils are a little drier then red clover is a good option, but if you have enough room to plant at least a 5-acre patch, then look for a good summertime legume to plant.

Legumes are plants in the bean and pea family. Plants such as soybeans, cowpeas, lab lab, velvet beans, American jointvetch, and Alyce clover are good choices. The key to summer plots though, is size. Small plots will not do for summertime. Lab lab and Alyce clover are good for droughty, sandy soils and soybeans, cowpeas, American jointvetch, and velvet beans are good for better soils.

You can try mixing your peas with corn. Plants like lab lab and cowpeas like to vine around the stalks. If you can find them, velvet beans are excellent. Once used as a natural nitrogen fertilizer on farms in the 1930s, this plant is fast-growing and able to keep ahead of most browsing by deer. The velvet-covered seed pods are hard to clean to remove the seeds, so their availability is low, but you can find them online.

If you do not have enough land to plant summertime plots, then consider converting your fall plots to clover plots. To establish these plots, reduce your cereal grains (wheat, oats, or rye) to only 25 pounds per acre and add in the clover. Deer are not grass-eaters (only 3 percent of their diet is grass) and cereal grains are grass. Watch your cereal grain plots in a warm winter and see if they are not the best you have seen. It’s not because you suddenly became a great farmer but because the native foods do not go dormant as quickly in a warm winter and deer prefer anything other than cereal grains if its available.

Look at your cereal grain plots in spring and you will notice the same thing. It’s as if they suddenly started growing. That’s because as spring green-up begins, deer move off of plots and back to their preferred native vegetation. Deer eat cereal grains because it’s the only thing green and growing in most cold winters, not because they are preferred.

In the spring, use a grass selective herbicide and kill off the grass in the clover plot. Your clover will reseed itself each fall and you can get up to seven years from one planting.

I also advise hunters, not to buy premixed bags of grain and clover. Clover is a small seed that needs to be top-sowed and cereal grains need to be planted about 1 inch deep. Planting them together usually buries the clover seed too deep to fully germinate. Instead, plant your cereal grains first then top-sow your clovers and cultipack or drag them in if you can. Remember that clovers and other legumes need a bacterial inoculant. Either purchase pre-inoculated seed or make sure you buy the correct inoculant for the type of legumes you are planting.

If you cannot find enough acreage to plant, or you lease timber land and are not able to plant food plots, then protein pellets may be an alternative. Look for pellets with at least 20 percent protein and feed them from March to August. Open trough feeders with a good covered roof at least 3 feet above the trough is needed to keep the pellets from becoming water logged and for bucks to feel comfortable putting their head in the trough.

To learn more about managing wildlife on your property, check out our habitat how-to section at the FWC’s Landowner Assistance Program by going to If you need technical assistance you can also contact the LAP regional biologist at the FWC Regional Office.