Reducing deer numbers is not the only way to balance deer with their habitat.
Biologists use the letter K to denote carrying capacity — the number of animals, in this case deer, that existing habitat can support. Think of the food resources available on the land as a pie. Biologists love to use the pie analogy. No matter how you slice it, there is only so much to go around. The more deer you have, the smaller piece each one gets.
As food resources become scarcer, things like body weight and antler quality decline. Does become increasingly less productive, birthing single fawns instead of twins. If conditions don’t improve, those single fawns are born sick and won’t survive. Eventually, if they’re not getting enough nutrition, the does won’t have any fawns at all.
In bucks, antler quality, particularly mass, declines, which is why biologist use yearling antler beam diameter to index where deer populations are in relation to habitat.
The quickest, simplest and most common remedy is to reduce the number of deer on the land. Most enlightened hunters are willing to help, knowing that reducing deer numbers means those that remain will be healthier. But that doesn’t always get you where you want to be. Who among us really wants fewer deer?
There is another way to balance deer with habitat — a way we and the deer can have our cake, or pie, and eat it, too.
Instead of reducing the number of seats at the dinner table, bake a bigger pie. By providing supplemental feed through land management and other techniques, you can increase the carrying capacity of your land.
First, I’ll clarify what I mean by supplemental feeding. To most folks, deer managers included, this means putting out processed food or minerals, usually in some type of feeder. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m going to expand that definition to include any food that does not currently occur on the landscape.
Today, the most common means of providing this expanded definition of supplemental feed is by creating food plots. Replace a stand of pines with a wheat field and you’ll increase the carrying capacity of the land for deer.
Where many folks fall short in their food plot plans is by not providing year-round nutrition. Most food plots are intended to attract deer during hunting season. When the season ends, we leave the deer to fend for themselves.
That cycle fails to address the two most stressful periods of the year in terms of whitetail nutrition. It’s okay for humans to gorge ourselves at Thanksgiving and Christmas and diet the rest of the year, but deer need somebody to bake pies for Valentine’s Day and Labor Day, too.
Traditional hunting plots feature annual plants that grow rapidly, produce a large amount of biomass and reach their most palatable state in the fall. The whitetail’s nutritional requirements are shifting toward the carbohydrates they need in order to lay on fat for the winter. Popular plants include brassicas, winter oats, wheat and rye, forage soybeans or corn. Residual crops like standing corn and turnips can help provide nutrition through part of the winter.
Feeding plots have a much broader application. While they provide foods that are attractive in the fall, their main purpose is to meet the whitetail’s year-round needs, particularly during times of nutritional stress.
One such period is late summer. Deer feed largely on soft green vegetation through spring and summer. As the days grow shorter, herbaceous plants mature and their nutrition value drops off.
Meanwhile, nursing fawns are nearly grown, placing much greater demands on maternal does, particularly the need for protein.
Bucks are in the final stages of antler growth, increasing their need for protein, as well. To meet these demands, you need to establish a high-protein crop early. Clovers and other legumes are perfect.
The other peak stress period is late winter, when natural food is scarcest and deer have exhausted their fat reserves. They desperately need protein, and unless you provide supplemental feed, they won’t get it until the first green-up. That requires a perennial crop that is ready to sprout come spring, when it’s needed most.
In some ways, orchards are the ultimate perennial food plot. Depending on what you plant, orchards can take anywhere from a few to a dozen or more years to mature and begin producing fruit. But once they do, they should continue to do so indefinitely, often with little additional work.
Mast can be divided into two general categories. Hard mast is essentially nuts like acorns, beechnuts and chestnuts. Soft mast includes fruits, drupes, and pomes like berries, apples and persimmons.
There are two methods of creating orchards. One is planting, the other is releasing. We’ll start with the latter since it’s often the quickest and easiest way to improve mast production.
The first step involves locating mast producing trees that already exist on the land. Like the deer that compete for food, plants compete for soil nutrients, water and sunlight. Reduce the competition from undesirable species, and preferred species grow faster and become more productive.
In many areas, particularly abandoned farmsteads, soft mast producers like apples and persimmons grow wild. Remove overstory trees that block out sunlight, and thin out undesirable understory species that take away water and soil nutrients.
Two of the best bucks I’ve taken in my home state were killed under an old apple tree that was naturally released when a windstorm knocked down several overstory pines. One of the hottest stands I’ve ever hunted was a patch of persimmons that had been allowed to grow up in an old field in Kansas. In one afternoon, I watched more than a dozen racked bucks visit the site.
In the case of hard mast producers like oaks, you might have to reduce stand density by removing some oaks in favor of larger, more productive trees. This can be done in conjunction with other thinning operations.
The other method of creating mast orchards is planting. It’s more expensive and is time and labor intensive, but planting can be more productive.
Start at or near ground zero, either a field or an area that has been completely cut and sprayed.
Be selective about where you establish an orchard. The best sites will be elevated so cold air can flow downhill and away from the trees during spring frosts. Try for a southern exposure that warms up faster in spring when trees come out of dormancy. Also look for soil that drains well. As with food plots, it’s important to do a soil test and treat according to the results.
Native trees adapted to local conditions will grow better but can take a long time to mature, often a lifetime. If your goal is attracting and feeding deer, you’re probably better off going with exotic varieties (like sawtooth oaks) or hybrid nursery stock engineered to produce mast at a young age. And you’re better off planting a single species throughout the orchard. Otherwise, one species might outgrow and out-compete another. The general rule of thumb for what size to plant is to get the largest seedlings you can handle or afford.
Another species that’s been gaining, or more precisely regaining, ground in recent years is the chestnut. American chestnuts were once among the most common trees in North America, making up an estimated 25 percent of the eastern hardwood forest. A blight, which started in New York in 1904, all but wiped them out, decimating an estimated 30 million acres of trees from Maine to Georgia.
That was unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that chestnuts are far superior to oaks as deer food. They contain approximately 40 percent carbohydrates, compared to about 10 percent for white oak acorns; 10 percent protein compared to only 4 percent for white oak acorns; and 8 percent fat, compared to 10 percent in acorns. They grow faster and bigger, sometimes bearing nuts in two to five years, where a white oak might not bear for 20 years. They can grow 60 to 80 feet tall, becoming prolific producers of the caloric carbs deer are so dependent on for their winter survival. They also lack the cyclical nature of oaks and the resultant acorn failures and starvation years.
Most nursery stock is derived from Asian chestnuts, but researchers have been trying to back-cross with native stock to produce purer strains.
There is plenty you can do aside from food plots and orchards to improve your carrying capacity for deer. A simple firewood cut or a selective cut for a timber sale will automatically reduce competition for the plants that remain, like mast-producing oaks. The immediate effect is the downed tops provide a short-term source of woody browse.
Creating an opening in the canopy then increases the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor, increasing the amount and variety of plants that can grow there. Throw down some no-till plot mix on areas of exposed soil, including skid roads, and you’ve got an instant food plot.
Or you can let the area regenerate with natural vegetation like brambles and intolerant hardwood sprouts. Cutovers, particularly hardwood stumps, will regenerate with coarse woody browse, which is an important food source for deer, especially in winter, when herbaceous vegetation is scarce or absent. You can further enhance these areas by applying a time release native plant fertilizer in the spring.
The easiest, but often the most expensive method of increasing carrying capacity is providing what most folks refer to as supplemental feed. In addition to providing extra nutrition and energy, it can improve digestive function so deer can make better use of both supplemental and natural food.
The key is to provide a mix of the right food. Corn, everyone’s favorite, is a good source of quick energy but provides little of the nutrition deer need during times of stress. It can also create an environment in the deer’s stomach that is unfavorable to winter microfauna, the microorganisms that digest coarse woody browse, often the bulk of a whitetail’s winter diet.
The best supplemental feed is a block or pellet formulation that contains at least 14 percent protein. It’s even better if it contains additives like OptiFermXL, which enhances rumen enzyme function and fiber digestion.
If you feed deer in winter, start early or incrementally. Begin by slowly introducing supplements, allowing deer time to build up the required type and amount of microfauna.
Much the same applies to spring supplements. Nutrition is poorest at a time when a doe’s unborn fawns and a buck’s antlers are growing rapidly. You can provide protein from blocks or pelletized feed, and minerals like calcium and phosphorous.
Once you help your deer over this hump, the other enhancements you provide, like spring food plots, will kick in, and the annual cycle begins again.
How much you do is limited only by the amount of time, effort and money you can devote. But every step you take toward improving habitat and deer nutrition helps. If you coordinate your efforts with neighbors, you’ll both enjoy results you couldn’t get working on your own. In the end, you’ll not only have more and healthier deer, but you’ll realize a greater sense of accomplishment in knowing you played an important role in improving the health of the whitetails in your area.
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• Smart Scouting: Have a plan when heading to the woods in the off season. This article was published in the July 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.