Four Season Deer Management Plan
February 04, 2011
The off-season is the time to be on your game. Here's a plan to put your deer in great shape for the fall season.
I really hate the off-season. I hate it in football, baseball, basketball and every other major sport I follow. For those of us who are really into spectator sports, the annual gap between seasons always seems to last forever.
Luckily, though, another off-season -- the one stretching from the end of this winter's deer-hunting period to the start of next fall's -- is easier to endure. Many deer-related activities can help a hunter pass the time. Maybe I can't accelerate the start of NFL training camp, but between now and the 2011 deer opener I can stay busy working toward my goal of hunting success.
For those who are into private-land deer management, the off-season is in some ways just as hectic as hunting season. Or at least it can be, if we immerse ourselves in a number of the activities that will help our herd, our habitat and ultimately, our hunting results.
THE BIG PICTURE
Any deer herd can be improved. Thus, so can anyone's hunting prospects. But don't go at it haphazardly. Especially when money and time are tight, it really pays to have a plan.
Developing one comes as second nature to true professionals in this field. Among them is Dr. James Kroll, founder and director of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research. Widely known in the whitetail world as "Dr. Deer," this biologist has worked with landowners and hunters across the range of the species, and he recognizes the critical need for a year-round approach to management.
"There's always something you can be doing for your deer," Dr. Kroll points out. "Even if you don't control much land, you can play an active role in improving the welfare of the herd, and that pays off in the fall."
Deer management includes a wide range of activities, enough to make it a full-time job for Dr. Kroll and other biologists. Luckily, we laymen don't have to go all in to reap benefits from sound management. With this in mind, here's a seasonal calendar of projects to help you get the most out of your non-hunting free time between now and year's end.
Any gap in forage production stresses an animal whose ideal diet consists of highly digestible plant matter. To maximize a deer's growth and overall health, it needs to consume around 5 percent of its live weight in quality vegetation daily. When plants aren't actively growing, providing that much good food can be difficult. And the more deer you have, the greater the challenge.
This is where cool-season food plots come in. Typically planted are one of several cereal grains (winter oats, wheat, rye or triticale), legumes (arrowleaf, red or white clover) or a broadleaf (chicory), such plots can lure deer for hunting and boost nutrition, both during open season and in the tough days that follow.
Of course, for plots to shine, they need enough food as well.
"For improving palatability and yield, top-dressing a cool-season plot with nitrogen can make all the difference in the world," Dr. Kroll notes. He recommend coming in with 50 pounds per acre after dormancy, and another 50 pound before green up. Use ammonium nitrate or urea. If the soil is deficient in sulfur, use ammonium sulfate.
Another winter project to put on your list is a browse survey. This is simply an analysis of how much woody plant growth deer in a given area are consuming. The answer will say a lot about the health of the habitat and the herd.
"If you're going to conduct a browse survey, I recommend you do it in February," Dr. Kroll said. "Look at second-choice browse plants on your land. The use they get is a good indicator of whether you're overstocked, understocked or have about the right number of deer. The simple rule of thumb is that if you see over 45 or 50 percent utilization of browse in this category, you're likely overpopulated with deer, relative to the food supply."
Figuring out how much browse deer have eaten is easier than it sounds. Just walk through a randomly selected area of deer habitat and count the percentage of second-choice browse tips within a deer's reach (ground level up to roughly 4 feet) that have been nipped off. While your results won't be scientifically valid, they'll offer a fair estimate of the percentage of utilization. Repeating the survey at the same time each year can reveal trends in habitat condition and deer numbers.
"American beautyberry, elm, dogwood and white oak are examples of browses in the second-choice category," Dr. Kroll said. However, he recommends that you ask a local biologist for a list of first-, second- and third-choice browses in your area. If you don't know these plants on sight, a field guide can help you put "faces" with the names.
Winter is also the time to finalize plans for warm-season plots. If you own a tractor and implements for plot cultivation, make sure they're in perfect working order before spring. If you'll be renting the equipment but haven't yet reserved it through some local source, it's time to do that.
Another thing: If you haven't yet done your soil testing for the warm season, get on with it.
"If the pH is too low, add enough lime to raise it sufficiently," Dr. Kroll notes. "And give it enough time to be taken up into the soil. I like to apply about 60 days before planting.
"If available, I'll use pelletized lime," he adds. "The problem often is finding a bulk source and someone to apply it. If you can get lime in bulk but can't find anyone to apply, have it delivered and dumped near the plot. Then use your own spreader."
For some landowners, timber cutting is another good winter activity for improving deer habitat. "January-February logging is great," the biologist claims. "In fact, that's often the best time to do it."
Finally, late winter is also a great time to have scouting cameras in operation. As one of the earliest developers of this technology, Dr. Kroll relies on it to help him literally get a snapshot of herd demographics.
"If you have cameras in the field just prior to spring green-up," he points out, "the photos can provide you with a lot of helpful data on buck survival and fawn recruitment."
As winter fades, many folks are eager to get food-plot seed into the ground. But don't let haste make waste.
"Never plant warm-season plots until you have the right soil temperature for that crop to germinate," Dr. Kroll
warns. "Some seeds will rot in the ground if the soil is too cool.
"If it's been dry as normal planting time approaches, you have to be on 'go,' ready to plant," the expert says. "Then, when you do get a good rain, you'll be able to plant in a reasonable amount of time. Procrastinate two or three weeks and the native forage will have deteriorated to the point deer will hammer the plots before they can get established. If you have some holdover chicory and red clover from the previous year, though, you should be in good shape."
One innovative way to control deer browsing pressure on vulnerable plots is to use a fencing system. Dr. Kroll has been experimenting with one unique solution in several locations. This highly portable system, which originated in New Zealand, uses a solar-powered energizer to deliver a specific type and level of electrical charge to thin, conductive ribbons surrounding the plot. It doesn't hurt deer or other wildlife that come into contact with it, but it keeps them out -- even though the wires are so low to the ground that even a fawn could hop over them.
(To learn more about this system and its potential applications for deer management, check out Dr. Kroll's feature in the Spring 2011 issue of North American Whitetail magazine, now available on newsstands.)
While the right fence can keep deer out of a plot until you want them to use it, it has no effect on some other intruders: namely, unwanted grass and weeds. While some "trash plants" are good deer forages, others are simply competitors for space, water, sunlight and nutrients, thus hurting forage yield.
"As the weather warms and you see a weed problem developing, we've found you can use glyphosate to help crops such as clover, chicory and cowpeas," notes Dr. Kroll. "Our recent research has shown that if you dilute the application to around 22 ounces of glyphosate per acre, it will knock back the competition without overly damaging the desirable plants. This really will help your plot."
If you haven't done so already, now is the time to put out mineral supplement. Their use by whitetails goes up rapidly as the weather warms. While Dr. Kroll says he can't prove such supplements actually boost deer health or size, he continues to provide them. His position is that they certainly don't hurt. Just be sure you go easy on the salt.
"Deer don't need much salt," the researcher explains. "But that's what the main ingredient in many mineral supplements, because it's cheap. Get one that has no more than 30 percent salt, and look for a 1:1 or 1:2 calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.
"Don't provide deer minerals in block form," Dr. Kroll adds. "A deer's mouth isn't made for gnawing on a block. Granular is much better. I put it in a galvanized trough, not on the ground, to minimize chances of disease transmission. The trough should occasionally be cleaned with bleach and water."
Finally, if you want to plant conifers to provide deer on your land with more escape and thermal cover, spring is the time to get those trees into the ground.
During the summer, it's easy to be distracted by a host of leisure activities far from the deer woods. But don't lose sight of the fact that this is perhaps the most stressful time of the year for your whitetails. In this part of the world, summer is harder on them than most winters are. Fortunately, you can reduce that stress.
One management priority all too frequently overlooked is ensuring there's enough surface water on your hunting land. Although whitetails can satisfy much of their need for hydration through eating lush forage, they also need to drink water every day if possible. (A half-gallon or so is the average intake.) If you don't have water on your land at a given time of year, deer might move off to a neighboring tract to find it.
"Deer are like cattle, in that they'll use a piece of land based on the availability of water," Dr. Kroll says. "Try to have at least one year-round water source for every 100 acres. In drier places, I've seen people do innovative things to provide water, including buying poly troughs and filling them with water from portable tanks. If you have a little poly trough and float valve, you might have $250 tied up in the whole thing."
Naturally, in winter one of the main problems in providing surface water is keeping it in liquid form. Some livestock-watering systems have heated elements to keep standing water open for animals to drink. Of course, that requires a power source.
By late summer, have your soil tested for cool-season food plots, so that if any liming is needed, it can be incorporated into the soil well ahead of fall planting.
With the days growing shorter, a deer hunter's thoughts naturally turn toward hunting. But this is also a key season for habitat management.
In this part of the deer world, one common autumn error committed by hunters and landowners is improper timing of planting food plots.
"Most locations need to be planted in mid- to late August," Dr. Kroll says. "That's early enough. Monitor the rain on your property. When you get 1-2 inches of rain, then plant."
If you're worried this could force you to wait too long to get the plot up and running, Dr. Kroll has some reassuring words. "Cereal grains planted in the fall need only 30 days or so of good growing conditions before dormancy sets in," he explains. "As long as you plant in time to get that, you should have enough of a crop for your deer."
While most hunters' autumn efforts with trail cameras are geared toward patterning a buck to hunt, the biologist reminds that valuable herd data also can be obtained from them, both in the fall and on through the winter.
"There are deer you'll have on your land all summer and on into September and October, and then they'll disappear," Dr. Kroll says. "Meanwhile, others show up for the first time. If you can afford to have enough cameras out there, put them out in a grid pattern to see how deer patterns are shifting around during hunting season and the post-season."
This is hardly a comprehensive list of ways to spend your non-hunting free time between now and the end of 2011. Nor is there space here to get into every detail of every management activity. But perhaps Dr. Kroll's advice will give you some ideas for improving your herd and hunting prospects and will help you have more fun along the way. After all, isn't that really why we're out there?