It’s been said that antlers are made of soil. While that may not true in the technical sense of the word, it makes a point that should be understood by deer hunters: soil is the key to growing good deer, deer that have large massive racks and tip the scales at 25% heavier than most.

Ever wonder why so many record-book bucks come from the Midwest? It’s not the corn or the soybeans or other high-quality food that grows in that country. It’s soils that grow them. Soil is the reason a Pennsylvania 3-year-old buck will score 115 inches and weigh 150 pounds while a 3-year-old buck from Illinois will score 150 and tip the scales at 200+ pounds.

Deer eat more than corn, soybeans, and other crops; they eat forbs, shoots, and just about anything. They eat anytime they are on their feet, and everything they eat starts with soil. When it comes to deer nutrition, it is all about the soil. Plants take up the vitamins and minerals from soils and transfer them to deer. Poor soils don’t have the minerals found in good soils. It’s about that simple. A deer eating clover grown in poor soil will not get the same quality nutrition as deer eating clover grown in good soil. The same goes for browse species and any other plants deer feed on.

One needs to only overlay a soils map on a Boone & Crockett record book map to see the connection between soil and antlers. Great soils grow great deer. It’s about that simple.

But everyone can hunt in Iowa, Illinois, and Buffalo County, Wisconsin. Yet everyone reading this article hunts somewhere and wherever you hunt, it’s all about the soils that feed your deer. Too often we limit our thinking to food plots or planted fields when it comes to deer nutrition. It is important to remember that deer consume plenty of foods not grown on food plots. Most food plots generally are able to produce cultivars at the most for only 6-9 months before they become dormant. Planted agricultural fields like corn and beans are available to deer for only a few months per year. So, what do they eat when the planted stuff is unavailable? Native vegetation.

Studies show that even in areas of high agricultural production, roughly 60% of what a deer eats is comprised of native vegetation. Watch a deer sometime. Anytime he is on his feet, he is pretty much eating. He eats on his way to food plots or agricultural fields, and he eats on the way back to his bedroom. He eats when he is hanging out in social areas and when he gets up to take a stretch. He chews his cud when he beds and occasionally sleeps, but by and large, when a whitetail is on his feet, he is chowing down on something. That’s why native vegetation (and the soils that drive it) is so important!

You don’t have to live in the Midwest to have good soils. They can be found in most parts of the country. “Bands” of high-quality soils are frequently found among areas dominated by lesser soils. We are familiar with a number of them in New York that routinely produce bucks that are 15-20% larger than surrounding areas of lesser quality. If you want big bucks, hunt where they grow them.

It is not uncommon to find hundreds of square miles of sweet soil with an ideal pH for growing right next to 10,000 square miles of acidic soil. Rich deep loam can be found among rock outcroppings and ledges. You can also have variations within a given soil category. Our 500-acre property could be best depicted as “high and dry” at 2,500 feet. Most of it sits 1,500 feet or so above the river that runs through the valley we overlook. Being high and dry, we are not blessed with much in the way of topsoil; in fact, some of our fields and food plots have less than 6 inches. Drop a thousand feet or so to the river
flats below and it is a different story: three-foot-deep soils with plenty of rock-free topsoil. The farmer below us is now the proud possessor of dirt that belonged to our property a scant few million years earlier. Good dirt flows downhill and it will be his until the river floods and washes it away for someone else to enjoy.

While we are predominantly high and dry, it is not without some good spots to locate a plot or 3-acre field. There are any number of flats and draws tucked in among our steep slopes and ridges. These areas have accumulated 6 inches or so of organic, rich topsoil over the years and do nicely when planted.

A good deal of our consulting work is “finding dirt” on hunting properties to work with. You don’t necessarily have to live in Iowa to have a decent patch of soil to grow some clover in. It might take some looking and a little track hoe or bulldozer work but good soils can be found if you are willing to put in some time and effort.

And by the way, how you plant and what you plant can also affect soil quality. But that’s a separate article in-and-of-itself.

Bottom line, soil matter. Great soils are found in the Midwest but pockets of good growing soil can be found almost anywhere you find deer. Study your soil maps, talk to your local taxidermist, and most importantly, pay attention to the ground you are walking on.