Ray Scott is famous as "Mr. Bass," and deer hunters also know him as a pioneer in the food-plot business. In 2008, Scott's wildlife-nutrition company, the Whitetail Institute of North America, has celebrated its 20th anniversary and is moving forward.
In observance of the milestone, we got together with Ray and sons Steve and Wilson-all of whom are NRA Life members-to learn more about the food-plot revolution and its impact on hunters and wildlife.
Can you give some kind of yardstick regarding the growth in Whitetail Institute's business and the wildlife nutrition industry as a whole?
It's tough to give specific numbers, but after we spent the first 10 years explaining what a food plot is the growth has exploded. Without getting too specific, our business has grown approximately 500 percent in the last 10 years.
Like some other prominent wildlife nutrition companies, Whitetail Institute is based in the Deep South. How have you worked to develop a national clientele?
Probably the most influential factor in going national has been "word of mouth"-our customers are our best promoters. Beyond that, we build our products to perform in different climates. When we develop seed varieties and specific products we work with hundreds of satellite field testers. We have them in Vermont, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Georgia and virtually every state throughout the eastern half of the country.
How do you respond to those who equate food plots to baiting or suggest they are somehow unsporting?
Food plots are legal in every state, and while we don't badmouth baiting where it's legal, clearly they are different. First, a food plot supplies deer forage for as long as the planting remains productive. Annuals usually produce three to nine months and perennials may produce for up to five years. The deer utilize plots along with wild foods that are seasonally available and as a result herd health is greatly enhanced. A relatively small plot that's vigorous and offers quality forage can produce a far greater tonnage of nutritious feed than could practically be supplied through baiting. Quite simply, food plots are part of the habitat-before, during and after the hunting season.
Certainly our customers have had great success killing big bucks in and around their food plots, but anyone who thinks a food plot can automatically make someone a great hunter is mistaken. Mature bucks that use food plots can be as difficult to kill as mature bucks anywhere else. Bucks that tend to be nocturnal simply come after legal shooting time. To tag trophy bucks consistently on food-plot properties you have to learn how to hunt them.
Conservation and the Future
How would you sum up the conservation role of food plots and wildlife nutrition?
We'll never overlook how important hunting is to our customers, but we also want them and everyone else to see that food-plot benefits don't stop there. Deer and all other wildlife get more nutrition and better nutrition. Wild turkeys, bears, rabbits, groundhogs, ducks, geese, songbirds and virtually all wild creatures benefit from the efforts of hunters who plant food plots. Our customers get a sense of satisfaction knowing they are helping to sustain our country's wildlife resources, and everyone who appreciates wild animals shares the bounty.
Educating the non-hunting public about the unmatched wildlife conservation achievements of the food-plot revolution can help give hunters greater credibility in our society. Do we need to care? We believe so. Because hunters are in the minority, we must present a positive image whenever and by whatever means possible. As hunters, we need to brag about our efforts and show the public how much we care about animals, and not only game species. We are backing up our ideals with money and effort.
Info and Instruction
Where can planters who lack farming know-how obtain instruction about factors like soil testing, seedbed preparation, planting and weed/pest control?
Whitetail Institute works as hard to educate customers as it does to formulate top-notch products. Our one-hour DVD, "Producing Trophy Whitetails," has been watched by somewhere around 1 million hunters. It does a marvelous job of explaining everything from A-Z on how to choose the best food plot product for every situation, as well as how to plant and maintain a plot. We now have a special offer exclusively for NRA members, who can get the DVD and seven seed samples free. All they will pay is $6.99 for shipping and handling. Our Whitetail News tabloid has been published since 1991 and is read by an estimated 500,000 people three times a year. It covers the most up-to-date information available anywhere for food plotters and deer managers. Subjects range from weed control to tilling equipment to property development plans, and can be found archived at whitetailinstitute.com. Furthermore our expert consultants are available to answer questions at 800-688-3030 from 8-5 CST Monday-Friday. The call and the consulting are free.
What role do supplied minerals play in deer nutrition?
The mineral needs of a deer are greater than for livestock, and even though farmers are extremely cost conscious, they routinely provide minerals to their cattle. But a deer's mineral needs are quite different than a cow's, especially in terms of antler development. Hardened antlers contain 55 percent mineral. That mineral comes from the skeleton, but a deer's natural physiology won't risk overall health for antler development. The amount of mineral a buck's body allocates to antler growth is limited by the amount his diet can replenish.
Quality mineral supplements can provide the "right stuff" for optimum antler development. Unfortunately, many products are mostly salt, and while deer will dig a hole to get it, the nutritional benefits are minimal. If a hunter is providing mineral for nutritional purposes, make sure the salt content is no greater that 40 percent and, ideally, much less.
Is it true that mineral supplements can contribute to: a) general herd health; b) antler formation; c) prevention of antler breakage?
This is controversial. Biologists typically say that there are no studies that prove the benefit of minerals. Yet we have tens of thousands of customers who are convinced otherwise because they have observed the improvements in herd health and antler size since providing minerals.
Let's just say that hardened antlers are made up of 55 percent mineral, and that mineral has to come from somewhere.
What role has research served in Whitetail Institute's success?
Research is the reason we are here today. Our team includes agronomists, biologists, ruminant nutrition experts and land managers. All told they possess 15 college degrees and more than 150 years experience in deer nutrition-related work. We spend a great deal of time and money on product development. We make sure the product is as good as it can be before it is ever introduced, and we don't use the marketplace as a guinea pig.
It's easy to throw seeds together and put a deer head on the bag, and though the end result may grow and may attract deer, more needs to be done. Extensive testing slows down the marketing process, but it has helped us maintain the No. 1 position in the food-plot category. We could reduce our cost on Imperial Whitetail Clover over 50 percent by changing raw materials, but we know that's not what our customers want. They want the best.
Can you share a few of the most significant considerations that influence the development of new products?
Many of our products are developed through customer feedback. We continually try to improve existing products through genetics, and we constantly field-test anything and everything we can find. We also try to develop new products that may fill a hole in our current product line. For example: Imperial Whitetail Clover didn't really suit for well-drained soils, so we began work on an alternative in 1992 and four years later introduced Alfa-Rack. This alfalfa-based blend did really well for us, but we kept looking for improvement and in 2005 introduced Alfa-Rack Plus.
Briefly, what is involved in developing a new product?
The R&D process is painstaking. For seed products, we start by planting test fields of dozens of varieties and carefully observe numerous traits, including nutrient/protein content, drought resistance, cold tolerance, seedling vigor, digestibility, growth rate, yield and attractiveness to deer. The best varieties are then cross-pollinated and the testing is repeated several times until a genetically superior variety emerges. The initial development of Advantage clover, for example, required seven years. Supplement products are evaluated not only for nutritional benefit, but also for palatability and digestibility. This requires time-consuming observation of deer in pens, in large enclosures and in the wild. The findings have resulted in a product like Cutting Edge, which offers unique seasonal formulations that meet a deer's changing needs throughout the year. We were several years bringing Cutting Edge to market and then needed to educate customers on the seasonal concept. But we've never underestimated their dedication and, ultimately, it caught on.