When most whitetail hunters think about habitat improvement, the first thought that pops into their heads is planting food plots. Of course, that only makes sense. After all, in many settings the greatest return on a deer manager’s investment of labor, time and money will be realized through a well-planned food-plot strategy.
However, when you’re trying to boost deer nutrition, a robust system of food plots is only one component. To achieve the maximum benefit from this improved environment, you also must ensure that high-quality native forages abound.
Your habitat-improvement chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When constructing an environment that not only produces whitetails that consistently achieve their genetic potential but holds them on the property as well, every need must be met to inspire them to stay “at home.” This is as true for their seasonal needs as it is of their daily needs. They need prime nutrition all year.
Dr. Karl Miller, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia’s D. B. Warnell School of Forest Resources, agrees. “Yes, supplying quality nutrition during each season is very important in allowing deer to achieve their full potential,” he says. “Many hunters concentrate on summer and fall food plots, when antlers are growing and does are nursing fawns. While these are important, quality food sources during winter and early spring can be equally important.
“While deer don’t ‘grow’ during winter, quality foods will help bucks recover body condition following the rut and allow both bucks and does to enter the spring in better condition,” Dr. Miller says. “And better spring condition will likely translate into higher fawn survival and growth, as well as better antler production.”
Taking it a step further, to protect them and increase your ability to manipulate the sex and age structure of the herd, the more time they spend on the land you manage, the better. Having all their needs met during every season of the year helps greatly in those efforts.
Keith McCaffrey, a retired research biologist with Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, agrees. “If an area contains a superior level of forage and cover, when compared with the surrounding area, whitetails will be drawn to the area and spend a disproportionate amount of their time there during the non-breeding periods of the year,” he says.
Increasing the yields and quality of native forages is one way to help accomplish this. To do so, it’s helpful to view natural forages much as we do farm crops. As with farm crops, there are things we can do to increase productivity. In fact, just about every food source can benefit from a few simple efforts:
- reducing competition;
- providing optimum levels of sun-light;
- maintaining adequate moisture;
- ensuring proper soil fertility; and
- maintaining the crop itself.
In almost every case, we can see positive results from any of these efforts. Although there’s no way one article can cover every situation, by looking at three common examples, you should be able to see how these techniques apply to almost any native food source.
To begin with, let’s look at oaks. Most hunters realize that acorns are an important food source for deer in the areas that they exist. What some don’t realize is that we can have an impact on the mast crop.
Although there are many species of oaks, they all have one thing in common: They’re fruit trees. Thus, much like a fruit farmer, we can take steps to increase the size and quality of the oak’s fruit crop.
It begins by fertilizing selected oaks. This can be as easy as following the directions on a box of fruit tree fertilizer spikes. However, using granular fertilizer is often less expensive. When using granular fertilizer, the first step is raking the debris from the base of the oaks on out to the drip line. The drip line itself is the imaginary line that forms a circle around the tree. It’s the line on the ground that mirrors the outer tips of the branches. Once the raking is concluded, we then can apply a 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 slow-release fertilizer. Beginning a couple of feet from the base, a medium dosage should be spread evenly around the entire tree and out to the drip line.
Just like that, we’ve increased the nutrients available to the trees. This, in turn, can result in better fruit crop.
Whichever method is selected, fertilizing oaks should be done in the spring. Doing so provides extra nutrients through the developmental stages of the crop. Also, in northern settings, fertilizing in summer or fall can actually have detrimental effects. A late burst of fertility can prompt trees to spur new growth too late into the fall. The result can be frost damage to this tender growth and provide unnecessary stress.
Another technique that can be beneficial is thinning the canopy of less desirable trees. Trees require sunlight to perform photosynthesis (the act of producing food). Think about where most of the largest, healthiest trees are located. They’re generally found in open areas. Open areas allow them to receive adequate levels of sunlight.
This not only has the potential to result in increased growth but also helps to ensure that the lower branches receive adequate sunlight for survival. Removing some of the less desirable trees that shade our selected oaks brings on the same effect.
Finally, we can even aid them in maintaining soil moisture. After we’ve fertilized, we can rake extra leaves back onto the area. If sufficient leaves aren’t present, straw will work. This aids in moisture retention by providing a barrier between the ground and the baking sun to lessen evaporation.
Despite this section’s focusing specifically on oak trees, these procedures can be applied to any mast-producing trees (apple, cherry, beechnut, etc.). The net result will be the same. Healthier trees that are capable of increased crop production. As the effects of our efforts begin to pay off, deer will begin gravitating to the “healthier” trees. Because of this the deer benefit from increased forage, and the hunter is able to more accurately predict where feeding will occur.
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