Record-breaking rainfall across the United States during the spring of 2012 created a false sense of security for deer hunters. Reliant on precipitation for antler development, natural browse and food plot growth, hunters had reason to believe this would be a banner year.
Little did they know, 55 percent of the contiguous United States would be classified as under extreme drought conditions by June, and that Mother Nature was going to wreak havoc on deer and the way they hunt them.
Quantifying the current drought illustrates how historically bad it is right now. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 1,000 counties across 26 states are disaster areas. That makes nearly half the country eligible for federal disaster aide because of the drought, and the affected areas are now officially the largest disaster area in American history.
Unmercifully, experts say it isn’t over yet.
“Like last week, this week substantial drought relief will be confined to the Southeast. The outlook for next week (July 22-28) calls for a hotter- and drier-than-normal weather pattern to persist nearly nationwide,” reported Brad Rippey, meteorologist for the USDA.
The statistics and outlook for crop conditions are as ominous as the drought numbers, according to Rippey.
“Thirty percent of the U.S. corn crop was rated in very poor to poor condition on July 8, 2012, according to USDA/NASS. Not since 1988, when half of the U.S. corn crop was rated very poor to poor, have corn conditions been lower in July. The last time at least 30 percent of the U.S. corn was rated very poor to poor was September 2002,” he added.
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This is especially bad news for deer hunters, who understand the direct link between plentiful agricultural fields and a big, healthy deer herd.
Feeling it in the field
For deer and deer hunters, last spring’s moisture won’t be enough to help, especially for trophy hunters.
Deer can get all the moisture they need to survive from the vegetation they eat and as a byproduct of digestion in drought years, but a lack of rainfall in the early summer months is linked to stunted antler development.
Additionally, natural browse like honeysuckle is not as readily available for deer this year, and food plots will not produce near the tonnage of food they normally would have.
Perhaps the worst side effect of a dry, hot summer for wildlife, however, is the increased possibility of disease and exposure to toxins.
Though deer get moisture from food, they still like to drink when possible. The record heat has intensified the need to drink freestanding water.
Free-flowing water sources are rare now, forcing deer to drink from stagnant pools. This greatly increases their exposure to blue-green algae. It is a seasonal occurrence in some waters that is fueled by summer heat, sunlight and fertilizer runoff from lawns and farms.
Some blue-green algae produce toxins that can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, nausea, stomachaches and tingling extremities. Animals are particularly vulnerable to blue-green algae because they may drink the contaminated water or swallow the algae as they clean their coats.It is also harmful to humans.
In addition to increased toxins, disease is a concern. Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease happens every year, but it is always worse in a drought year. It used to be confined to the southern states, but in recent years has been showing up in places as far north as Michigan.
Midges that reproduce and thrive in hot, dry weather transmit EHD. One good frost generally kills the pests and stops the outbreak for the year.
Dry weather also will speed up the grain harvest where available. Deer that would normally hide in a sea of standing corn until November will find themselves confined to woodlots and fencerows much earlier than usual. As a result, they will be much easier to see much earlier this year.
Though he regrets it, Mark Trudeau is getting used to advising deer hunters on how to cope with drought. He works for Whitetail Institute, one of America’s biggest food plot seed production companies.
“The first thing I tell guys is to put the seed in the ground, regardless of the weather. It’s gonna eventually rain. It’s got to,” he said.
At the same time, he advises them to plant smart.
“Most seeds are fine in the soil until the right amount of moisture falls to germinate them. Some seeds, however, handle dormancy better than other,” Trudeau said.
“Hard seeds” such as brassica and clover are better suited to sit in the soil for long periods of time. “Soft seeds” such as rye and other cereal grains don’t hold up as well.
According to Trudeau, soft seeds should be planted before a rain if possible.
But even when enough rain falls to properly germinate cereal grains, a subsequent return to drought conditions invariably kills them. This pattern is common this year, leaving most cereal grain plots with dead, withered plants and nothing to start once the fall rain finally arrives.
To guard against premature germination, Whitetail Institute inoculates their hard seeds so they will not germinate without enough moisture to sustain the plant. They also added Rain bond to their seeds this year. Once wet, it absorbs and holds 200 times its weight in moisture around the seed. Other, less expensive bulk seeds are sold without the coating and Rain bond, and those will germinate with just exposure to morning dew.
“That is bad in a drought year since even new brassicas and clover plants can’t get enough moisture to sustain them from dew alone and will quickly die,” Trudeau said.
The good news is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes the current drought has no bearing on weather patterns beyond this year, and that this is probably not part of a decade-long pattern.
Deer and deer hunters can only hope and pray they are right.