Those of you who hunt or manage property for white-tailed deer are well aware of the increased use of food plots and feeders in recent years. These tools are becoming so popular that many are now considering them the staple of habitat management. In fact, planting food plots and establishing feeders are usually the first tools, and often the only tools, implemented for "habitat" improvement. Food plots and feeders are intensive management practices and, while widely used, they are not real habitat improvement practices in most cases. Usually, they only work as supplemental feeding to concentrate wildlife populations for improved harvest success or observation.
Costs associated with implementing these practices increased between 2006 and 2007. At the time of this writing (late June '08), projections indicate that costs will increase even more this year. For example, those that fed corn in feeders to white-tailed deer in September 2007 paid about $260 per ton ($6.50/50 lb.). The September 2008 price is projected to increase by about $134 per ton or to $9.85 per 50 lb. Those of you that purchased corn in December last year paid about $280 per ton ($7/50 lb.) The December 2008 corn price is also projected to increase by about $120 per ton or to $10 per 50 lb. If you fed alfalfa pellets last year and plan to again this fall, you can expect about a $120 per ton increase ($3/50 lb.) from 2007.
Wheat is probably most commonly planted in fall food plots for white-tailed deer. Wheat seed was about $13 per bag in 2007. This year, wheat seed may be more difficult to obtain, and the price is projected to increase to at least $15 per bag. While diesel prices are high, the good news for those of you spending a lot of tractor time planting food plots is that prices are projected to remain about the same. This may not be a major concern for those planting small areas, but, if your goals call for large acres of food plots, these increases can be significant.
This brings us to the basic fundamentals of wildlife habitat management. Admittedly, the rising cost of diesel and other products will increase the cost of implementing basic extensive habitat management practices such as prescribed fire and brush sculpting, but they are two of the best and most effective methods of managing wildlife habitat. Grazing management and rest from disturbances are the other two. And, other than a little planning time, grazing and rest can basically be implemented at no cost for wildlife habitat improvement.
All of these tools, coupled with population management, are the keys to good wildlife habitat management. Proper application of grazing management and rest will control herbaceous plant density and diversity, and allow high quality native forbs (including legumes) to persist, which are extremely important to wildlife. Prescribed fire can be applied to encourage forb growth, control brush and herbaceous plant density, and improve browse quality.
What about food plots? As the old saying goes, "When it rains, you can grow 'em, but don't need 'em, and when it doesn't rain, you need 'em, but can't grow 'em." Feeders are more reliable in drought, but, like food plots, are usually applied in a feeble attempt to address only one component of wildlife habitat - food. To address all aspects of wildlife habitat (food as well as cover, water, space and arrangement) and to insulate against the blows Mother Nature sometimes deals, you get a bigger bang from your "buck" by properly applying extensive wildlife habitat management practices - grazing, rest, prescribed fire and brush sculpting.