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Agricultural Lessons from the Deer

By Peter J. Kelly

One thing I know very well and yet continue to study is the whitetail deer. Although cursed by crop farmers, landscapers, gardeners and others I sympathize with, deer provide many valuable lessons and perhaps even models for the ecological farmer.

Under normal circumstances, deer do not “mow” or even really graze; they browse, seldom making obvious changes to their “pasture” or killing the plants. For example, when deer eat the tops off hardwood saplings, they leave one leaf — enough for the tree to re-grow its top. In my experience, they often come back and eat it again.

Certainly, deer’s expensive tastes can be a problem for your trees if the deer are overpopulated. However, if the population is healthy and in check, they use this technique with natural forage, leaving enough so that what they ate may grow back.

It is easy to see how we can apply this principle, as evidenced by rotational grazing. We let our livestock graze a certain amount such that the pasture will regenerate lush, nutritious herbage, and then move the animals to a different area. Wild animals are constantly on the move, and we are imitating this.

Deer provide many valuable lessons and perhaps even models for the ecological farmer.

The places that deer frequent also pose as models for agricultural endeavors. Most who know something about whitetails know that they are considered an “edge animal.” They frequent edges between field and forest, field and brush, different kinds of forest — any area of change in the vegetation or topography of an area.

The places that excite this deer hunter are the tucked-away places where the woods open up to fewer trees with grasses filling the space beneath. Often these areas — the edges particularly — provide everything that a whitetail (or any other animal) needs and wants. Do they sound familiar? With today’s attention to silvopasture, I thought so.

Deer Diet

What most amazes those I speak to on this subject is the sheer amount of food that deer eat. An adult deer consumes at least of seven pounds of food per day. According to outdoor writer and photographer Charles Alsheimer, during more bountiful times of the year, an adult deer may eat between 10 and 15 pounds of diverse browse every day. Consider the size of your local deer population. That is a lot of food; and here is the point: it’s out there!

Keep in mind, we are talking about animals that weigh about as much as we do. This is a lesson for all permaculturists, homesteaders, gardeners, graziers and wildlife biologists: a vast amount of food and food-growing potential in our soils is out there! It is being consumed, much from land deemed worthless, to build a thriving species of 120 to 250-pound animals.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from deer is their ability to know where to find exactly what they need. In this way, deer are perhaps smarter about their groceries than are many people. They know exactly where to find the plants and the soils that give them what they need. Take calcium for example: in the spring and summer it is imperative for healthy fawn and antler development. If your soil has the best and most accessible calcium source in the area, your land will become a deer magnet.

Deer also know what produce to avoid. It has been shown that given the choice, deer will walk past genetically modified corn to feed on minimally sprayed heirloom varieties. If you are farming wisely, you are calling deer to your farm.

A solution for keeping deer away from healthy food I have not. The issue that I find is that deer eat a large amount of GMO corn and beans, although it is neither their choice nor healthy for them any more than it is for any other living being. This leads me to draw two conclusions. First, in any ecosystem with significant acreage devoted to GMO corn, the deer are going to eat it. Second, and I know this to be the problem in my upstate western New York, the deer are overpopulated and thereby forced to eat it.

If the food systems and ecosystems of the United States are to be changed for the better, the wildlife must be considered. I propose that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done on this subject. Most hunters are extremely concerned about where their food comes from. Yet, at the same time, many people still use Roundup and other spray materials, and plant corn and soybeans for the deer.

It is well-known that ruminants are not designed to digest corn, and soybeans wreck the endocrine systems of plants and animals alike. We need to do the research that will show the detrimental effects of these practices upon deer and other wildlife, especially those being consumed by humans.

It is my firm belief that better and more effective deer food plots can and will be made by focusing on soil fertility (especially mineral concentration) and on heirloom plant varieties. By observing the deer, we will discover endless information to apply in managing both whitetail deer herds and in raising livestock ecologically.

Peter J. Kelly is a high school senior and soon-to-be college student from Steuben County, New York. He will be studying plant sciences and sustainable agriculture, in hopes of becoming a farmer.