6 Ways Food Plots Are Not Baiting

This fall, tens of thousands of acres of clover food plots will feed deer and numerous other wildlife species. In addition, alfalfa, chicory, oats, and a suite of other species and mixes will be actively growing and feeding wildlife. Depending on your location, much of this acreage will have already provided food for one to three months and will continue providing it for another four to six months. The sheer tonnage provided and time of availability make food plots a valuable habitat enhancement strategy.

Food plots are not without their critics, however. Some people equate food plots to baiting and claim that if baiting is not allowed then food plots should be illegal too. This is flawed logic, which explains why not a single state outlaws the planting of wildlife food plots. Regardless, food plots and baiting discussions regularly occur at deer camps and around firepots throughout the whitetail’s range. To arm you with information on why food plots are far different from bait sites, here are six key differences.

24/7 Availability

As I described in my opening paragraph, food plots provide food for deer 24/7 until the forage fades away with a change of seasons or is completely consumed. In very small plots it may be consumed after a few weeks, while in larger plots it can last for several months. I realize bait sites are routinely recharged, but they don’t commonly provide forage for deer 24/7 for even a week, let alone a month. This time of availability is important as deer have well-defined pecking orders, and subordinate animals may be denied access to food when its availability is limited. Food plots provide equal-opportunity access to all deer in the neighborhood.

Two acres, no waiting

Due to their size and amount of food produced, food plots spread deer out over a much larger area than bait sites, and thus they mimic natural forage in woods and fields. This reduces stress on animals, minimizes aggressive behavior, reduces direct contact with individuals thus reducing possible transmission of diseases and parasites, provides more access to forage by subordinate animals, and allows more individuals to feed at the same time. In contrast, bait sites tend to congregate animals in a very small area which exacerbates stress, aggression, exclusion, disease transmission, and habitat degradation.

Some people equate food plots to baiting and claim that if baiting is not allowed then food plots should be illegal too. This is flawed logic, which explains why not a single state outlaws the planting of wildlife food plots.

The five-second rule

In food plots, deer tend to forage above the ground rather than right on it. This is a big deal from a health and disease standpoint. Many disease and parasite carriers live at ground level, and deer feeding off the ground, like at bait sites, are more susceptible to them. Conversely, when deer forage off plants well above the ground, they are far less likely to be afflicted with ailments.

Similarities exist in the livestock industry. Progressive farmers and ranchers who rotationally graze cattle can keep them feeding on only the upper portions of plants. The upper portions tend to be higher quality than the lower, but this also keeps their animals foraging well above the ground and away from most parasites and pathogens.

In the food plot/bait site discussion, deer eat at ground level from bait sites and well above this in food plots, at least until the plots are eaten to the ground. Don’t underestimate the significance of this point, especially since bait sites can congregate large numbers of deer into a confined area. Anyone who has visited a well-used bait site knows the area is often littered with deer urine and feces. So, deer are eating from the ground, and food is often placed directly on top of urine and feces. I have a strong stomach, but you’re not going to catch me eating supper off the floor of our camp’s outhouse.

Come one, come all

In addition to forage for deer, food plots provide high-quality nutrition for numerous other wildlife species. They’re typically planted with deer in mind, but food plots also feed bear, elk and other big game species. They feed squirrels, rabbits and other small game species. They feed turkeys, doves and other upland birds. Plus, they feed a variety of nongame species, songbirds and insects. A flowering buckwheat stand full of honey bees is a sure sign your planting efforts were completely worthwhile. I’ll acknowledge bait sites also feed more than deer, but many of the other species such as feral hogs, raccoons and crows are often regarded as nuisances.

A place to hide

In addition to forage, food plots also provide abundant cover for numerous wildlife species. Corn, sorghum and sunflowers provide cover for deer and other large species, while many other food plot varieties provide cover for a variety of small game and birds. I’ve seen woodchucks den in soybean fields, rabbits hide in clover plots, mice escape from foxes in brassicas, and ruffed grouse chicks take cover in clover/chicory stands. Bait sites only provide cover for pathogens and parasites.

Improving the Land

Finally, when food plotters use good agronomic practices, their efforts actually enhance soil health. No-till planting helps increase soil organic matter and cycling of nutrients, reduces erosion, and improves soil biological fertility. This leaves that specific plot of land better than the food plotter found it. As a deer hunter and steward of our natural resources, we should always strive to leave our natural resources a little better than we found them. In contrast, I’ve never seen a plot of land that appeared healthier after it was used as a bait site.

The purpose of this article is not to chastise hunters who use bait nor to suggest that all bait sites are detrimental to deer management. In the past, in areas where it’s legal to do so, I’ve hunted over bait sites, and it’s likely I will again at some point in the future. Rather, the purpose of this article is to highlight the beneficial value of food plots and clearly demonstrate that food plots and bait sites are not equal in the deer world.

  • Pete Rogers

    I enjoyed the article, however disagree with the premise. The title is misleading to the point made, or I just missed it completely. The comparison of the two, food plots and baiting have to come with some sort of understanding that the two, while different, are attempting to achieve the same purpose. People who use bait to attract deer to a specific location
    and people who plant food plots are also attempting to attract deer to a location for one purpose to kill them. While it may be true that land owners should be trying to benefit the herd with plots, the fact of the matter is that most are planting plots to attract deer to a location to kill them. Plain and simple. It is easier to plat a small field and attract deer to the field, than to scout, hang stands and get into the woods and find the deer. Make the deer come to us. Mr. Adams statement that “not a single state has outlawed food plots” supports my position that plots are a method to skirt the anti-baiting laws and achieve the same purpose. Attracting deer to a specific location for the purpose of killing them. Most of the ways that Mr Adams refers to as benefits of food plots are secondary benefits. Size, variety of game attracted, hiding cover, may be beneficial to a diminutive degree. But I have to contend that food plots and baiting are by their very nature one and the same. Manipulating the landscape for the purpose of attracting wildlife to a location for the purpose of killing them.
    Personally, I am not opposed to baiting or food plots. They are not for me, I don’t enjoy hunting over either of them. But I also know for a lot of people, this is the only thing they know and understand, and if it promotes the participation in hunting and its legal, I am all for it. There are many types of hunting that don’t appeal to me personally, but if it is legal, and it gets people into the woods, I support it.
    Thank you Mr. Adams for your insight and perspective. Your work with QDMA has helped it reach the level of recognition it is today.

    • Kip Adams

      Thanks Pete. I respect your statement that while you don’t care to hunt over food plots, you support them if legal and they get people into the woods. We need every hunter we can get.

      • Ross Fornaro

        I have a small piece of land and use my food plots to keep deer on my property. I do hunt them occasionally but mainly hunt trails coming and going. Food plots can be some what limiting to hunt since its difficult not to bump the deer.

        • Kip Adams

          Thanks Ross. You’re correct. I know a lot of hunters who plant food plots and do not hunt over them. Rather, they hunt deer coming to and leaving them. You tend to see far fewer deer, but it keeps you from pressuring deer into only feeding in them at night.

    • Frank Pierri

      There is one big difference that I see which is most people bait with one food be it apples, corn or another attractant. With food plots it is relatively easy to support a larger and healthier number of deer with a variety or plants and fruit trees. Plot seed mixes are available with early, mid and late plants that can provide a long duration of nutrition to deer and other critters from spring well into the winter. It takes a bit more effort to manage plots than to dump bait, but it is not all that hard or expensive once you do it for awhile. Generally, plots benefit critters more and longer than baiting.

  • Larry Hull

    As an organization dedicated to well-being of white-tail
    deer, and sound management strategies for growing bigger bucks, I am surprised
    (and disappointed) that you would allow such a slanted, disingenuous and
    potentially harmful article to be printed under the QDMA name. As a consequence of this article, QDMA has
    rightfully fallen several notches on the respectability scale. I would encourage you to either retract the
    article, or revise it, by providing the “other side of the story” concerning
    food plots. Land managers (and deer herd
    managers) need to be fully aware of the negative aspects of food plots, with
    respect to disease transmission, so that they can make knowledgeable,
    well-informed decisions.

    And, if you (for some reason) are unaware of the negative
    ramifications that food plots potentially have on the transmission of diseases
    (CWD in particular), I hope you take the time to do more research. Then, the next time you do a “food plots are
    better than baiting” article, you’ll be sure to explain why food plots are not
    necessarily the “safe” alternative. In
    your research, be sure to explore such topics as:

    How larger food plots unnaturally attract (and concentrate)
    larger numbers of neighboring deer from longer geographic distances.

    How food plots artificially concentrate deer on specific
    sites over longer periods of time, concentrating prion-shedding (saliva, feces,
    urine) . . . year, after year, after year.

    How “viable” prions have been shown to persist for a decade,
    or even longer.

    How some plants have demonstrated the capacity to uptake
    prions through the root system, and trans-locate those prions to the leafy
    portions of the plant (which become susceptible to deer grazing and/or
    browsing).

    In fact, it might even be a good idea for QDMA to install a
    whole new initiative, educating land and deer herd managers on the dangers of
    artificial food plots.

    • Don Bales

      Larry you make some good points but please be aware that Kip never said food plots were absolutely safe places for deer to feed, he just makes the case (very well done too) that baiting concentrates deer feeding more than a food plot. By your flawed logic, I suppose i should cut down all of my persimmon trees and oak trees because deer could concentrate under them? Deer concentrate in nature even on natural mineral licks and those man made ones are banned in CWD zones in most if not all states.

      • Kip Adams

        Thanks Don.

    • Kip Adams

      Thanks for taking the time to write Larry. Food plots aren’t a magic bullet, but they can provide several benefits to deer and other wildlife species. We will consider your suggestion for a future article.

      • Larry Hull

        Thanks. I was hoping you’d say that. I appreciate QDMA. I really do. I especially appreciate your stance on “voluntary” APRs. Local chapters here in Michigan have been very effective in foisting their MANDATORY APR position on the public and the Natural Resources Commission. As such, I believe they are giving the QDMA organization a black eye. To wit, we now have mandatory APR regulations (on both bucks harvested) in several areas of the state. We are a “two buck kill” state. (I wish we were a ONE buck kill state). Throughout the remaining regions of the state we have a mandatory APR established on the “second” buck tag. That alone puts tremendous kill pressure on yearling bucks! Guys will put their first tag on a spike or forkhorn, then concentrate on a mature buck with their second (APR) tag. Now, get this . . . all the while, currently and historically, bucks constitute 57% to 60% of the annual deer harvest. We are one MESSED UP state! Keep up your good work. Like you, I believe in voluntary APRs . . . killing more does in pursuit of a more balanced sex ratio . . . and keeping our deer healthy. Again, keep up the good work.

        • Kip Adams

          Thanks Larry.

  • Sycamore Ranch

    Enjoyed the article. Many deer experts site those reasons for the negative impact on deer with regard to baiting and disease. Most of these same experts also talk about the importance of putting out mineral sites. Usually about one site per 40 acres. Doesn’t a herd of deer licking on the same trophy rock cause the same problems? I am a new land owner and looking to learn as much as possible .

    • Kip Adams

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. You’re correct about the potential for disease transmission at mineral sites, and that’s why most states with CWD ban all feeding and mineral use.

  • Jeff Young

    Great article and a new bullet in my resource library. As CWD sweeps down the highway, continuing the journey from state to state, it will become more obvious, even to those who think supplemental feeding/baiting is the only way they can grow a deer, that food plots are a much better option. Hopefully, we can gain the interest of state legislatures and stop the detrimental practice of congregating our deer at feed troughs.

    • Kip Adams

      Thanks Jeff.


About Kip Adams

Kip Adams of Knoxville, Pennsylvania, is a certified wildlife biologist and QDMA's Director of Conservation. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University and a master's in wildlife from the University of New Hampshire. He's also a certified taxidermist. Before joining QDMA, Kip was the deer and bear biologist for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. Kip and his wife Amy have a daughter, Katie, and a son, Bo.