by Brian Grossman
When deer hunters discuss managing a property for whitetails, the conversation always seems to center around food plots: what to plant, when to plant, and how much lime and fertilizer to use. It’s not surprising, really, considering how the popularity of food plots has exploded over the last twenty years. So much so that it makes you wonder how white-tailed deer ever survived and grew big antlers before we started planting crops for them to eat. The reality is, though, that deer survived just fine before the food plot craze.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying food plots aren’t beneficial. Acre for acre, a well-managed food plot can — for a limited period of time — provide much more forage than even a well-managed forest or fallow field. Not to mention they can be a great place to hang a stand and ambush a deer! What I am saying is that food plots are only one small piece of a much larger habitat puzzle when it comes to managing for white-tailed deer. So while food plots are great, you can grow big, healthy whitetails without ever planting a single one. Everything a deer needs nutritionally can be provided by native vegetation. And even if you plant food plots, you can enhance your hunting land even further by improving the native vegetation in your woods and fallow fields.
About Native Vegetation
White-tailed deer feed on a variety of native vegetation throughout the year, including grasses, forbs (broadleaf plants), acorns, various fruit, tree leaves, tree buds, twigs and fungi. The key to managing these foods on your hunting property is understanding what the deer prefer to eat in your particular area and working to enhance those foods in both quality and quantity, while filling in any gaps that may exist.
These preferred food sources are going to vary by region, but often include the leaves and stems of plants such as blackberry, dewberry, grape vines, greenbriar, pokeweed, and two of every deer hunter’s favorites, poison ivy and ragweed — just to name a few. When it comes to fruit, deer prefer species like persimmons, blackberries, grapes, wild plums, and mulberries. Hard mast, a fall staple of the whitetail’s diet, typically consists of white and red oak acorns. Deer prefer the “sweeter” acorns of white oaks, but red oak acorns break down much more slowly, making them available later in the season after most of the white oak acorns have been consumed. This is why it’s good to have a variety of both on your property. Deer also browse the leaves, buds and twigs of many different tree species.
To provide year-round nutrition for deer, it is important to manage your habitat for as much diversity as possible. The ideal property will have a good mix of all the different food types described above — grasses, forbs, browse, soft mast, and hard mast. By managing your woods and open areas, you should not only be able to provide a variety of forage throughout the year, but you will also provide important bedding and fawning cover, creating an environment where the deer feel more secure moving during daylight hours.
Managing Fields for Native Vegetation
The great thing about managing fields for native vegetation is that often the desired grasses, forbs, and shrubs are already there. If not, there is a good chance their seeds are in the seedbank just waiting to be released. In some cases, all that’s required is to let them grow. However, there will be times when a little more effort is required to grow the desired vegetation. This is especially true in old pastures or hayfields that are often dominated by a monoculture of grasses like fescue or bermudagrass. In these instances, a herbicide application will be necessary to kill the grass and allow the native weed seeds in the soil to germinate. One to two treatments with glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup) will typically do the trick. You’ll want to monitor what comes up, as additional spot spraying may be necessary to control any noxious weeds lurking in the soil. While applying fertilizer to native vegetation is generally not required, it can improve the crude protein levels and digestibility of the native forage.
Once your fields are established in quality native forage, occasional maintenance will be necessary. This can be done by burning, disking, and/or mowing all or portions of the fields. Burning is the ideal option, as it removes the layer of dead vegetation, puts nutrients back in the soil and stimulates a flush of lush, new growth. If done correctly, it will also kill back any woody vegetation encroaching into the field. When managing primarily for deer, a three to four year burning rotation should work great. If you have a lot of open areas of one or more large fields, you may want to burn them in blocks over the course of three to four years. That way, you will always have recently burned fields, fields burned the previous year, and fields burned two and possibly three years ago. This burn rotation will provide a diversity of plants for the deer to eat.
If burning isn’t an option, then disking fallow fields can be another great way to set back succession and stimulate the growth of many beneficial plants. Like burning, disking should be done on a three to four year rotation and can be done in strips or blocks over the course of successive years to provide a variety of deer forage. When you disk, there is no need to work the ground up into a fine seedbed. You simply want to break up the sod and expose some bare dirt to release native seeds present in the soil.
A third alternative to manage openings is with periodic mowing. This is the least beneficial of the three maintenance techniques because it doesn’t break up the thatch and expose bare soil to stimulate new growth. However, it will at least keep young trees from taking over your openings and may control some undesirable weeds.
Managing Forests for Native Vegetation
Your property doesn’t have to have lots of fields to provide beneficial deer forage. If it’s mostly wooded, then timber management and prescribed fire may be just the ticket for providing plenty of good quality deer forage. One method is to thin out some of the less desirable trees in a stand, opening up the canopy so that sunlight can reach the forest floor. This will stimulate understory growth that will provide beneficial food and cover for white-tailed deer. Following a thinning with prescribed fire will further stimulate growth by removing the dead leaves from the forest floor and returning nutrients to the soil. Just like with fallow fields, the burn will stimulate a flush of quality forage.
If your woods currently lack the hard and soft mast species that deer love, then an alternative to thinning would be to clearcut one or more blocks of your timber. Clearcuts are best done in small blocks as part of a larger forest management plan. By removing all the trees, you are basically creating a forest opening that can provide several years of excellent early successional habitat for deer. Clearcuts can also provide you the opportunity to plant trees that are beneficial to deer and other wildlife. You should focus on native white and red oaks, as well as some of the soft mast species commonly found in your area.
Before doing any timber harvests or tree plantings on your property, you should consult with a licensed forester who is knowledgeable not only in timber production, but also about wildlife habitat so you can establish a plan that balances quality habitat with your goals for growing marketable timber.
While food plots are a great way to provide the deer on your hunting land with high quality forage, they are certainly not the only way. In fact, food plots are only one small piece of the overall habitat puzzle. Don’t overlook the benefits of managing your woods and openings in quality native vegetation. When done properly, the deer will have abundant year-round food and plenty of cover to avoid predation. This, in turn, will promote more daytime deer movement and better overall hunting.