Weed Growers: The Evolution of Food Plots, Roundup Spraying, and Deer Habitat Management

A popular management trend is about moving away from blanket spraying native weeds and from planting as many food plots as possible. The result: more wildlife and bigger bucks

JASON HEWETT knew how to grow food and habitat for wildlife. He’d been managing land in one way or another since he was 16 years old, and he oversaw 15,000 acres covering three counties in South Carolina. Those properties raised plenty of quail, but they weren’t producing the quality of deer Hewett had hoped for.

“We had a lot of resources, and 600 acres of food plots with the average food plot at 3 acres,” Hewett says. “But we weren’t growing 160-inch deer.”

He knew South Carolina wasn’t a typical big-deer state—the state record is 176—but still, Hewett had a feeling the bucks on his properties weren’t reaching their full potential. So Hewett called Craig Harper, a University of Tennessee professor with a reputation for a new way of thinking about land management and the results to back it up.

“He pointed out that we were focusing on quail still, and had a lot of warm-season grass, and yes, we had our food plot acreage, but he said, ‘Very little of this property is quality native forage for deer.’”

Food plots, Harper told him, should be considered the ice cream of deer food. Focus on bringing back native species high in protein by using fire, disking, and herbicides, and watch the deer grow.

Hewett did. And deer responded. Four years into the new program, Hewett started seeing 160-class bucks turn up on his land.

Harper, Hewett, and others are part of a growing contingent of habitat managers promoting a philosophy of managing whitetail habitat that takes less work, less time, less money, and, most important to some, less herbicide. The timing for this trend couldn’t be better.

Bayer AG, the German company that owns the popular herbicide Roundup, recently announced plans to pull the product from home and garden supply shelves, though the company stresses that the move is not an admission that the herbicide causes cancer, as alleged in lawsuits across the world.

Most food plotters say the decision won’t affect their use of glyphosate-​based products like Roundup. Glyphosate is still available in generic brands, and Roundup will still be for sale to commercial, professional, and agricultural producers. But the decision to pull Roundup from the home and garden market only continues the debate over herbicides, their propensity for creating resistant weeds, and their application to food plots for wildlife that we hunt—and eat.

The more holistic approach to land management that Harper and others promote doesn’t call for an absence of herbicides like glyphosate (plus, some researchers are quick to point out that herbicides may be the best weapon against the continuing barrage of harmful invasive species). But managing land for native plants, and ultimately feeding everything from deer and turkeys to songbirds and butterflies, may actually require less herbicide and result in that ultimate goal of better deer hunting.

The Plot Thickens

The food plot trend as we know it began in earnest sometime in the 1980s, says Harper, an extension wildlife specialist, wildlife management professor, and national expert on habitat management. The original intention was simple: Grow, and kill, big whitetail bucks. (It was popularized with help from promotion by Outdoor Life.)

Landowners plowed up and sprayed open fields of anywhere from a quarter acre to 10 acres. They then planted clover, wheat, oats, or brassicas and waited for the magic to happen.

While the use of food plots in the U.S. might be relatively recent, some researchers say planting food to attract and grow game may date back to the era of Genghis Khan, the 12th-century Mongol leader.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, there was more focus on warm-season plots. So instead of just planting clover or wheat to attract and feed deer during hunting season, landowners added crops like soybeans, cowpeas, and joint vetch to provide food for lactating does and bucks growing antlers.

Food plots have only continued to gain popularity. Organizations like the Whitetail Institute of North America promote testimonials about hunters who were disappointed with their hunting until they planted food plots. Magazines, newsletters, and newspapers print how-to articles, and county extension officials hold classes. Hunting shows feature hosts killing giant bucks over lush plots.

But as criticism mounts around herbicides like Roundup, many habitat managers are talking about alternative methods. Plus, as the organic food movement continues to gain momentum in deer hunting culture, plenty of field-to-fork deer hunters are hesitant to spray their habitats.

thistle weed
Spraying Roundup is still necessary for many habitat management initiatives. Dan Forbes

Roundup: A Controversial Chemical

Books could be written on Roundup, glyphosate, and safety. But in short, here’s what deer hunters need to know. The chemical, created in the ’70s by American agro-chemical company Monsanto under the name Roundup, has become a lightning rod in the debate over herbicides and human and environmental health.

Glyphosate is by far the most commonly used herbicide in the world, largely because it’s cheap and effective. Between 1974 and 2014, more than 3.5 billion pounds of “glyphosate active ingredient” has been used, which accounts for about 19 percent of global use of the chemical. “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use,” according to a 2016 paper published in the Environmental Sciences Europe scientific journal.

The chemical works by preventing “plants from making certain proteins that are needed for plant growth,” according to the National Pesticide Information Center. Once sprayed, glyphosate generally kills every broadleaf plant and grass it touches, which is why it’s popular for everyone from your neighbor fighting weeds in her sidewalk cracks to a hunter managing a 1-acre food plot of clover to industrial sugar beet producers.

Researchers have recently developed genetically modified plants such as corn and soybeans to be Roundup-resistant (also known as “Roundup ready”), which means a farmer can spray Roundup and kill weeds but not crops.

While glyphosate became the key to not only more efficient agriculture production and yard care but also invasive species control, it also started raising health concerns across the globe. Tens of thousands of lawsuits piled up against Monsanto, with people arguing that even when used according to the label instructions, glyphosate, and more specifically Roundup, causes a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Monsanto lost some lawsuits in jury trials, settled others, and had many pending when Bayer AG, the German company best known for creating aspirin, bought Monsanto in 2018. In June 2020, Bayer announced it would pay up to $10.9 billion to resolve litigation, but a U.S. judge later rejected the plan to limit future lawsuits, a decision Bayer says it plans to take to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Bayer also announced it would stop selling glyphosate weed killers in U.S. residential markets and would instead use other active ingredients in those products. Roundup will still be available to commercial, agricultural, and professional users. Plus, more than 750 other products for sale in the U.S. also contain the chemical.

The medical and scientific community appears divided on the question of whether or not, when used according to the label, glyphosate causes cancer. The EPA’s most recent official statement, made on January 30, 2020, says, “EPA has concluded that there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used according to the label and that it is not a carcinogen.” This is similar to the conclusions of several other regulatory agencies around the world.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, on the other hand, reported in March 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Most county organizations dedicated to weed and pest control as well as state extension agencies recommend using glyphosate on unwanted plants and say the herbicide is critical in the fight against invasive plants.

The National Deer Association has this to say: “In the broader world of agriculture and forestry beyond food plots, is glyphosate being over-​applied or misused? Yes, and one confirmed result of over-reliance is glyphosate-​resistant weeds, which NDA has warned against. But addressing worldwide misuse of this herbicide goes beyond the scope of NDA’s mission. Where deer and deer hunters are concerned, glyphosate is safe for use by habitat managers when they follow the label.”

Cutting and Burning

So if deer hunters want to use less herbicide on their property, because of health concerns or environmental concerns or simply because it’s cheaper to spray less, can they still grow quality deer?

Yes, Harper says, and they could grow a healthier deer herd overall.

When Harper first starts talking to landowners from New York to Texas about food plots, he asks them to take a step back. Walk around your property, he tells them, and think about what you have. The answer to providing better habitat for deer may actually be fewer food plots and more focus on native vegetation.

“A lot of people as recently as 10 years ago were trying to plant as much open space as they possibly could and quickly found out it could be pretty expensive,” Harper says. “People were then receptive to managing for the ‘weeds’ in the field because deer like many of the weeds as much as what we’ve been planting in food plots.”

whitetail buck feeding
Managing for "weeds" can lead to bigger bucks and better hunting. John Hafner

It’s true. Deer love many plants we consider weeds, including even the hated ragweed. The most advanced deer habitat managers use controlled burns, selective timber harvest, disking, and targeted herbicides to clear fields, to open the canopy and allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, to remove invasive species, and to let the natural seed bank do what it’s made to do.

Using fire to improve habitat is how Indigenous communities and tribes have managed land in the U.S. and across the globe since time immemorial, says Johnny Stowe, a South Carolina wildlife biologist on the board of the International Association of Wildland Fire who admits to loving little more than lighting a fire with “much planning and great care.”

“Fire is the oldest landscape management tool, in addition to being such a part of everything we do,” he says. “The people of the South burned the woods a lot. I term it traditional rural lifeways. Everyone who lives on Earth has burned.”

Do it carefully, Stowe and others argue, and you can watch your land improve with minimal financial investment. When fire can’t be used, landowners can try disking—​a form of plowing—​to clear fallow fields. But when fire is not an option and disking is too broad a brush, Harper recommends using herbicides like Roundup to target only those plants that really don’t provide nutrition to deer, turkeys, and other wildlife.

“You will have dead spots, and then within a couple of rains something will start growing,” Harper says. “If you don’t like it, you kill it and let germination take place again.”

Do that once a year in June or July, and by year three, you won’t need to spray as much. It’s natural selection with a hand from you and modern chemicals.

A Better Way for Wildlife

Jim Phillips will spend hours extolling the virtues of landscape management for wildlife. But he’s also just as happy offering statistics. Public land in North Carolina averages between two and five deer per square mile. On his actively managed timberland, he has 65 per square mile. And they’re significantly heavier per age class than their public-land counterparts.

“Go over the ridge on public land, you have a deer for every 150 acres. We have a deer for every 10,” he says. “It can be that dramatic.”

He has limited food plots because of his timber farm’s hilly terrain, but he knows his crops are just a dessert for deer. The real goods are in his acres and acres of oak woods, where he strategically thins trees, opens the canopy, and varies stem densities. He’s a businessman first, running the timber company his family has had for generations. But Phillips says that while his goal and Harper’s may be slightly different—he needs to make money, Harper wants to help wildlife—the end result can be the same.

This evolving philosophy of land management is actually better for the wildlife that food plots were intended to benefit, says Kip Adams, a wildlife biologist and chief conservation officer for the National Deer Association.

“If you try and carry a deer herd on food plots, you will fail in many years,” he said. “Even if you do everything right, some years it will rain too much or not enough and you will fail. You will do a far better job providing food for deer if you manage your fields and property properly.”

Adams still grows his own food plots, but he’s switched many to early successional vegetation, largely broadleaf plants like ragweed, jewelweed, beggar’s lice, and goldenrod. Those plants provide plenty of protein for deer but at a much lower cost. He still uses glyphosate for the food plots he maintains and to spot spray noxious weeds. But he uses far less than he once did.

For Jason Hewett, the land manager in South Carolina, the new (or some would say old) approach is just more logical.

“If you just do things to promote plants that occur naturally, you will be in a better place,” he says. It seems the deer will be too.

Tips for Planting Food Plots Without Roundup

Grow annuals: Quick-germinating, quick-growing annuals compete better against weeds and produce good biomass for mulch.

No-drill and no-till: When possible, use no-till broadcast methods like frost seeding so you can skip seedbed preparation.

Pull ’em: On small plots, simply hand-pull weeds like thistle and horse nettle before they flower and spread seed.

Alternatives: Check with local co-ops for suggestions on chemicals to use. Many mix their own for the region’s specific needs. —Gerry Bethge

This story originally ran in the Deer issue of Outdoor Life. Read more OL+ stories.