Whitetail Food Plot: Leaves, Lichens And Needles

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Red-Osier Dogwood
Red-Osier Dogwood make a good hiding or bedding place for deer.

Red-Osier Dogwood

Any deer hunter who has ever stepped into a deep-woods marsh with a creek running through its center has likely seen stands of Red-Osier Dogwood flanking its banks. This distinctive brush is aptly named, as its distinctive bark looks like a bright red wall from a distance.

Individual shrubs typically stand about 8 feet tall, but they range from 3 to 19 feet high. As they do with beaked hazel, deer find ample cover when hiding or bedding in red-osier dogwood. They browse the shrub’s extensive buds and stem tips, and continue working their way down its twigs into woodier portions over the course of winter.

These shrubs are extremely tolerant of extreme temperatures, surviving laboratory tests that reached -320 degrees Fahrenheit. That might explain why its range peters out before reaching the Southeastern U.S., but it has been found in northern Mexico and California.

Eastern Hemlock
Eastern Hemlock appeal most to whitetails only during their first year of growth.

Eastern Hemlock and Canada Yew

Abundant deer herds in forests surrounding the Great Lakes often make it difficult to find Eastern Hemlock and Canada Yew. They have been lumped together because their needles look nearly identical.

Although mature hemlock trees remain, new hemlocks struggle to make it past their first year before deer nip them off. Once established, however, hemlock loses much of its appeal to whitetails but they’ll still eat its needles when hungry.

Canada Yew, a ground-hugging shrub, fares far worse because it never loses its appeal to whitetails. Don’t expect to find it where whitetails winter or in autumn sites where deer have ready access. Canada Yew and young Eastern Hemlocks can be found on rocky hillsides, in areas with heavy hunting pressure, and isolated sites where extensive windfalls of mature trees created pockets of protection from browsing deer.

Canada Yew
Canada Yew, unlike the Eastern Hemlock never looses its appeal to deer.

As decay breaks down some of these natural barriers, providing access to deer, they clean out yew in short order. Hunt it while it’s hot, because it won’t last long when deer find it.

White Pine

White Pine will never rank atop the whitetail’s plate preference, but it sure beats spruce and balsam fir if you’re looking for feeding sites among the forest’s late-autumn, early-winter greenery. That’s because White Pine needles yield far more protein than those of spruce or fir. Research in New York state by Drs. Grant Woods and Richard Harlow in the early 1990s found low amounts of White-Pine needles in deer stomachs they analyzed, but it yielded far more protein than did those of spruce and balsam.

White Pine
White Pine is not one of whitetail's favorite foods, but they have offer a lot of protein.

White Pine is likely one of those foods deer require in supplementing their diverse diet. Nearly 50 years ago, researchers found that deer maintained better weight when consuming a variety of second-choice woody browse species than they did on a strict diet of white cedar, even though white cedar is a top-shelf autumn and winter food.

Minnesota researchers say diversity probably also aids in digestion. Some plants might be too low in sulfur, nitrogen, phosphorus or magnesium, but those same plants might combine with other foods in the deer’s stomach to provide the critical supplements.

Red Oaks

One deer hunter once hunted five years in a region in the far North Woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Red Oaks
Another food that deer enjoy are the acorns from Red Oak trees.

before realizing red oaks grew in isolated patches of the sprawling forest. He only discovered their presence

when noticing acorn shapes pressed against the lining of a buck’s rumen after he field dressed him. One slice from my Kabar revealed he must have gorged on them all night. The local forest ranger later steered him to a stand of red oaks a mile north of our hunting site.

Red oaks was included in this discussion as a reminder that food preferences are often dictated by availability. Not every deer herd has a large menu to choose from, so the taste subtleties of Red-Oak vs. White-Oak acorns is irrelevant if White Oaks don’t grow within 100 miles of where a deer lives. In such cases, Red-Oak acorns are a heavenly dessert, not just an acquired taste.

Whitetail Food Plots Conclusion

In today’s world of food plots, automated spin feeders and sprawling corporate farms, it’s easy to think all deer foods sprout from the hand of man. Even in the forests, many foods burst forth after logging and development create new edge habitat.

By learning which shrubs and trees produce nutritious browse for autumn whitetails, you’ll continually harvest fresh insights into the comings and goings of area whitetails. How you fold that information into your deer hunting strategies will go a long way in determining your success each fall.

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