Habitat improvements on the land that you hunt are a never ending chore. The good thing is, these chores are nearly as fun and exciting as the hunt itself. For any serious deer hunter, deer season starts over as soon as it ends. The off-season is the time of the year to evaluate your deer herd, plant food plots, improve habitat, and try to make this deer season even more successful than the previous one. But lets face it. Not everyone has the money to pour into extensive habitat projects. In this article we will cover a few ways you can improve your hunting land without breaking the bank. Here’s a look at some low-cost habitat improvements you should make before hunting season.
Natural Food Plots
When you hear the term “food plot” you probably think of planting something like soybeans, oats, turnips, rye, or some other type of seed that you have to buy at the store. However, planting a food plot the correct way can get expensive. But, for the cost of a little tractor fuel and a bag of fertilizer, you can create a natural food plot that will serve a number of purposes.
When you are getting ready to create a natural food plot, you don’t necessarily have to go through all the trouble of laying it out like you would a hunting food plot. Unless of course you plan on converting it to a hunting plot in the fall. Most of my natural food plots are along the sides of roads, or in some cases, an entire logging road itself.
The process of creating a natural food plot is really quite simple. Pick a few areas on your property that aren’t otherwise benefiting the local wildlife, like a barren logging road. Trim back some tree limbs to allow sunlight to the ground, disk the area, and fertilize it with a Nitrogen Urea (46-0-0).
Disking the soil will uncover a fresh seed bank and within a few weeks you should have tons of fresh, natural growth.
Eliminating Competition on Beneficial Plants
This practice is as easy as it sounds and can really make a positive impact on your local habitat. Studies show, that fruit barring trees where the competition has been removed, are 30-40% larger by the 4th year than trees where the competition was not removed. When you have a fruit tree, or any other beneficial plant that is having to compete with other plants for sunlight, nutrients, or water, it simply can not reach its full potential.
Eliminating competition can be as easy as terminating the plants under the drip line of the tree. This will allow the crown to better develop, which will result in a larger crop. For instance, if you are trying to kill a sweetgum under a white oak. The best method is to make a downward hack into the base of the sweetgum with a hatchet, then apply Arsenal to the fresh cut. This method is most commonly know as the ‘hack and squirt’ method.
Just recently, I stumbled across a honeysuckle thicket that was being shaded out by the local vegetation. Honeysuckle is a very sought after plant for whitetails and this particular stand was having trouble surviving, much less producing quality forage. I broke out my machete and within thirty minutes the honeysuckle was in full sunlight and all surrounding competition had been removed. It only took three weeks for this particular stand to bloom out and double its previous vegetation. This is an excellent example of promoting your local deer forage without having to go out and spend money on food plot seed or new fruit trees.
Improving Your Understory
Having an understory with plenty of browse is key to any QDM program. Deer are browsers, they do not stand in one spot and eat their fill before moving on. That’s why it is so important to have quality forage on all parts of your property. Often times, you will see people put all of their time and effort into food plots and then assume that will be enough forage for a whitetail herd. An average 100 pound doe eats about 9 pounds of food per day. Think about how big a 9 pound salad would be; that’s a lot of lettuce!
One way you can assure your deer have enough browse is by promoting the understory of your property. The understory is any plant life growing below the canopy of surrounding trees. The best way you can promote your understory is by cutting down, or killing trees to allow sunlight to the forest floor. However, you do not want to just go in blindly and start cutting down trees. A few trees with low wildlife value are: sweet gums, maples, elms, ashes, yellow popular, sourwood, and sycamores. Concentrate on eliminating trees with little to no wildlife value and you are well on your way to having a successful habitat management program.
This may possibly be the most over looked method of habitat management. However, transplanting saplings does not yield immediate results. It may take 7-10 years for a sapling to begin producing fruit or acorns, depending on the plants age when transplanted. This may be a turn off for someone that leases hunting property, as there is always a chance you could lose the lease at any time and your work goes down the drain. However, for property owners, this is a great way to ensure the future of your deer habitat.
I see young oak, black gum, and persimmon saplings every time I walk through the woods. However, most of these sapling will never produce quality food due to all of the surrounding competition. I eventually decided I would start carrying a bucket and shovel on walks through the woods. When I find a sapling that looks promising, I dig it up and put it in the bucket. I then transplant it to one of my already prepped tree plots.
When you dig up a sapling, it is important to remove the entire root ball to ensure survival. You also want to be sure not to re plant it to close to existing trees, as you don’t want competition to become an issue. You always want to leave 30ft. between hard mast trees and 20ft. between soft mass trees. For the first few years, you will want to keep an enclosure around the sapling to keep wildlife from damaging it. Tree tubes are great for keeping wildlife off of the saplings and promoting upward growth.
Keep in mind, just because you lease land, don’t let this keep you from planting new trees. Your property owner will appreciate that you are working to improve the habitat of his land. If you take care of your property owner, your property owner will take care of you.
Habitat improvement comes in various levels, but it doesn’t have to cost an arm and leg. Keep some of these simple tips in mind and always strive to leave your land better than you found it. Happy hunting!