Sunn Hemp for Whitetails

There’s no coincidence this tropical/ subtropical legume native to India doesn’t get much attention in the mainstream hunting industry as it only grows in the Deep South.  You’re probably not going to see a discussion on a whitetail tv show and you’re certainly not going to hear a “serial big-buck killer” on a top podcast dive into hemp hunting strategies.  

By no means is this warm season annual a silver bullet but it’s definitely an excellent addition for habitat diversity, wildlife security, protein forage and soil health in the Southeast.


  • Tall, dense cover.  Personally, I prefer that you may lose sight of deer when they disappear in a plot, however, some hunters may look at that as a setback.  Mowing, laying down strips or raising a bush hog to cut a couple feet high is probably the best way to combat this concern.  In our area of SC, the first frost is usually early November.  Hemp will continue to grow back when cut until then.
  • Hemp is not preferred over most agriculture crops, traditional food plots and native browse.  Why is this a benefit?  I’m glad you asked.  We’ve found that sunn hemp typically remains untouched until September when in close proximity (for deer) to ag fields, food plots and quality native forage. They’ll hit the other sites first and as hunter pressure increases deer will drift in the hemp.  However, deer will hit hemp early as the plant is sprouting up.  It all depends on deer density and available food options. For instance, if our ag fields are heavy in cotton, deer will hammer hemp earlier than if corn, beans or peanuts are planted. 

Check out this distinct browse line. Only leaves above 4-5ft are left. This photo was taken 9/19/20 in a small .5ac plot.

  • Very little testing has been completed but the estimated crude protein levels exceeds 25-30% per the National Deer Association.  As a comparison, in Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants, Dr. Craig Harper reports that soybeans offer 36.5% protein. Diversity is king, especially throughout the hunting season.
  • Sunn hemp possesses many soil-building traits, including high rates of biomass production — over 20 percent greater than crimson clover and hairy vetch in research trials. It is not only resistant to plant root nematodes but actively suppresses them. In as little as 60 to 90 days it can produce 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre and can suppress weeds up to 90 percent.
  • Sunn hemp grows well in sandy soils and is fairly drought tolerant which is a huge bonus in the SE. It thrives in hot, humid areas.

Roping off fields to allow browse resistant growth worked for about 4yrs. Look at the browse line snipped off up to the rope.

Instead of mowing, last fall I started laying over strips so deer could eat the leaves over 5ft. This field will be re-worked to create taller height around the food plot.

Draw backs:

  • Hemp will need more maintenance than most annual food plots as it grows about an inch per day until maturity. Mowed strips will grow back until the first frost.   
  • It will take deer a little bit of time to focus on hemp but they will hit it the first year. Activity and timing of browse will pick up every year after.
  • Too much hemp year one may result in deer focusing on alternative food options. I suggest starting off with a couple test plots and evaluate results before planting in year two.

Early sprouts are highly attractive for deer. Monitor and if necessary, rope off plots or add milorganite fertilizer to keep deer out until the plant reaches 2-3ft.

My suggestions after growing sunn hemp for 5 years:

  • Plant hemp as cover screens, plot borders or to create travel routes in larger fields.
  • Utilize in sandy soils.
  • Use sunn hemp in larger fields and plots where deer are not relatively close to soybeans, corn or peanuts.
  • Plant, wait and observe. Sometimes deer won’t touch our hemp until mid/ late September and then browse it down to bare stalks. That could be great timing for Georgia bow season or the opening of South Carolina doe season.
  • I would imagine that deer will pound sunn hemp quickly in heavier pine plantation areas where row crops are scarce.
  • Hemp is an excellent source of nitrogen for soil. Rotate into areas to build up healthy soil.
  • Post season, mow the standing stalks and let the organic matter breakdown into the soil bed.
  • Diversity matters. Add hemp into your plantings with soybeans, clover, etc.
  • Deer love the security and cover sunn hemp provides as they browse. It can pull deer out during daylight hours much more than lower height plots.

Young plants will continue to grow back after deer snip off the stalk. However, by Sept the stalk will become more fibrous and less desirable for deer.

I took this buck 8/20/18 in a sunn hemp field about an 1.5 hours before dark. We had a nice bachelor group feeding nightly in the field and it did become tough for a good clean shot within the hemp. I had not mowed strips or some of the height yet. It was a quick shot just as he crossed into the field edge.

Some people don’t like to leave lone trees in a food plot or field but they can serve a purpose for deer. This buck quickly high-stepped from the left side tree line and paused behind the lone, field edge oak assessing the food plot. His vitals were just barely exposed.

Pine Stand Mgnt for Natural Deer Movement

If you own or lease land in the southeast, most likely there are pine trees planted for income. Probably loblolly or longleaf.  Tree farms get a bad rap by hunters and often viewed as “wildlife wastelands”.  With proper planning and managed with a little TSI (timber stand improvement), pines can be a wildlife paradise offering safety, food and hunting opportunities. 

It’s not headline news that the dormant growing season is an excellent time for controlled burns to promote native plant species.  It’s an ideal and cost efficient mgnt practice to establish natural food plots, bedding and nesting cover.  There are plenty of in-depth articles and podcasts discussing prescribed fire that you can easily find.  I’m going to cover the advantages of hunting over burn sites and why I like it better than traditional food plots. However, a planted food plot is a key asset to create a destination feed site and to promote deer movement.

Frequency of prescribed fire results in various results.  So much depends on soil and the amount of available sunlight through the tree canopy.  We typically burn blocks in 3 year intervals but may be scaling back in some of the big timber sections to maintain a little more cover.  The food diversity options for deer is crucial when hunter pressure increases and the mythical “October Lull” is thrown around.

Fire checks many boxes for wildlife diversity in the Southeast. Both dormant and growing season burns will produce different results.

By staggering out your age classes of planted pine stands, you can create a “checkerboard” type design on your property.  This will provide more frequent future income and will also maintain diversity on your landscape.  See example below.  By clear cutting smaller 5-30ac blocks, you will produce high quality deer bedding thickets within 1-3 years whether you replant pines or let it grow up wild.  The timeline depends if the soil is low or high ground. These pine thickets can last for 8-10 years on low ground and a little less time for higher, well drained soil. After that, it’ll be too open for bedding until the canopy is opened by the first and second thinning.  At that point, TSI work can produce tender, highly digestible food sources for deer. Early, cold weather bedding starts within 1-2 years, while warm season bedding may take 3 years to begin.  

The “checkerboard” design promotes deer movement with easy, safe transitions from thickets to forage within cover.

Climbing in big timber over control burn areas next to pine thickets, aka, whitetail bedding are some of my favorite places to hunt at the farm.  In Whitetail Tracks , Valerius Geist details how security is more important than food.  Think about that; deer will choose poor food options with better cover over premium food and insufficient cover.  Safety is above all for the species and it’s how they’ve survived for nearly 4 million years.  I always think about this when laying out hunt setups.  A deer will be at ease and if they can vanish in a couple bounds.  Always keep this in mind when establishing supplemental feeders, food plots and any type of forage created by fire or ground disturbance. Deer feel safe moving through vegetation height created by fire or early successional disking and can vanish quickly with pine thickets close by.  

It looks deceiving but the vegetation height is 2-4ft tall. Ideal for deer to browse within cover and be a couple bounds from safety.

 The first picture was right after a burn in February 2019. The second is the same block in May.  

Right after a controlled burn February 2019
May 2019 after 3 months of growth

As the season progresses and hunters blow up the woods with activity on food plots and agricultural fields these areas will draw in deer movement during daylight. Especially, as deer plan to arrive at destination food sources after dark watching defeated hunters leave the area. Furthermore, rut hunting these blocks with bucks checking various pine thickets for hot does can produce results!  

These bucks were killed 8/28/19 about 2 minutes apart.  They were in a bachelor group of about 12.  The story is for another time but I cut them off at first light coming to bed in a thicket. A designed planted pine hunt. No food plots or corn piles. Creating destination food sources, TSI and ample bedding thickets made this possible.      

For an in-depth, comprehensive breakdown on prescribed fire check out the below podcasts. All are legit and incredible resources.

  • Land & Legacy Podcast
  • Mississippi State University – Deer University Podcast

My Story

The whitetail hunt is 365 days for me. I’m not a “professional influencer” slinging product that promises state record success. I’m an average hunter wanting to share my experiences and journey managing my family farm in South Carolina. Everyone’s hunt is different and what works for me may not jive with you.

My passion for whitetails started 26 years ago. After several missed opportunities I connected on my first deer harvest at 11. Since then, deer have been my favorite game to pursue.

Over the past 15 years I’ve dialed in on wildlife habitat. Specifically, ways to incorporate timber management with hunting strategies.

New hunter recruitment has always been on the forefront at the farm. Since 2006, 20 new hunters have harvested their first deer. Ages 10-60. 10 women and 10 men.

October 2019 we hosted a QDMA (now NDA) Coastal Empire Branch mentored hunt. The following year we were nominated and won the QDMA Al Brothers Non-Professional Deer Manager of the Year award at Whitetail Weekend. It was truly an honor to be nominated and awarded by the founder and national treasure, Joe Hamilton.

Late September 2020 we hosted another mentored hunt in collaboration with Hunt to Eat and the Coastal Empire QDMA Branch. Three out of the four new hunters killed their first deer.

My style of hunting may not be for you. My management style may not suit your land or you may simply know a better way. Either way, maybe you’ll be inspired to take a new hunter in the field or embrace a venison carpaccio dish.


If you have interest in improving wildlife habitat or designing effective hunting setups, please reach out to me. Goals can range from seeing and holding more deer to growing larger headgear. It all depends on your hunt and what you enjoy.

It doesn’t simply have to be “growing big giant bucks”. Habitat practices will not only benefit whitetails but also, turkeys, bobwhite quail, dove and other wildlife.

Over the past 15 years managing our farm I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, I can share realistic results for whitetail management in the Southeast.

  • Create natural deer travel routes
  • Develop & maintain sufficient thickets/ bedding sites
  • Integrate forestry & wildlife practices
  • Increase hunter observation sightings
  • Boost deer holding capacity
  • Improve deer stand setups
  • Pine stand & hardwood TSI (timber stand improvement)
  • Better food source options. Native plants & food plots
  • Doe mgnt/ herd balance/ fawn recruitment
  • Improve trail camera surveys
  • Supplemental feed program

Instagram: @southeast.whitetail | @markhaslam

The Average Conservationist Podcast

June 2020 I recorded a podcast with Marcus Ewing, owner of the Average Conservationist. The episode details the majority of the conservation work we do at the farm. It also opened the door to collaborate with Hunt to Eat for our second annual mentored hunt.

The podcast features normal people with real jobs that give back what they can to conservation and wildlife.

Give the episode a spin and visit their website below.

the average conservationist

%d bloggers like this: