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Habitat Land Management

Analyzing Whitetail Habitat

by Dr. James C. Kroll   |  September 22nd, 2010 5

Would you like to improve the productivity of your hunting land? Want to have more good deer food, better cover and fewer poaching problems? If so, you are in good company. Most other folks who hunt whitetails on private land have the same hopes and dreams

Fortunately, all of them are attainable . . . if you take the right steps. Problem is, most hunters and landowners are unsure just what those steps are. As a result, they plod along year after year with no clear management plan. The end result is wasted time and money, not to mention a lot of frustration.

There is no “one size fits all” strategy for growing healthy deer; every piece of land is unique and must be analyzed and managed according to its own variations. This is particularly true in regard to habitat. Thus, the first step in assessing a piece of deer land is to get your hands on an up-to-date aerial photograph of the area.

Acquiring such photos once presented a problem, as sources were fairly limited and obscure. But today, aerial photos are available from local resource-management agencies, such as state forestry services and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (the old Soil Conservation Service). For many areas, fairly recent photos also can be obtained over the Internet, through such Web sites as

The next items you will need are a soils map and a topographic map, both of which can be obtained either commercially or through the same agencies noted above. While soil and topo maps often are not as accurate as aerial photos, they are indeed useful for an initial analysis of deer habitat.

Whitetails perceive their world in simplistic terms. The first and foremost life requirement is food, which is why we at North American Whitetail have spent so much ink over the years discussing what we call “food-source management.” As the deer food on a property goes, so goes the health of the herd.

It is important to understand that, for their size, whitetails are ravenous feeders. Your own stomach will hold about a pound or two of food, which might seem like a lot. However, a whitetail has a series of “stomachs” that, in total, can hold as much as 10 to 12 pounds of food!

Deer need larger stomachs for two reasons: (1) Plant matter is not dense in nutrients, so it takes a lot of it to provide a deer with what it needs; (2) Being prey animals, deer need to gather as much food as they can, as quickly as they can, and then return to hiding to digest their meal.

Pinpoint not just the obvious agricultural food sources for deer in your area, but also native plants of value. This is American beautyberry, a choice browse species in parts of the U.S. Photo by Gordon Whittington.

Under the best of conditions, the average native habitat produces only a few hundred pounds of usable whitetail forage per acre per year. Food plots greatly expand this value, with a single acre of food plot sometimes growing enough forage to match the production of 100 acres of unplanted land. This is why a system involving year-round food plots and other food-source management methods pays such tremendous dividends for the manager.

The first step in analyzing your deer landscape is to assess how much food you have on the property and exactly where it is. An aerial photo can help you come up with a rough idea, but in the end, this is one area of management that takes an investment of old-fashioned shoe leather.

Using your photo, walk around the property, stopping periodically to ask yourself, “What and how much food is available here for my deer?” A good rule of thumb is that prime foraging areas are those that are hard to walk through but do not exceed 6 feet in height. Of course, not every area of short, thick cover will be made up of good deer food, but this at least will give you a starting point for analyzing the forage supply. As you walk over the land, keep your aerial photo handy and draw in those areas (if any) that are providing adequate deer food.

You probably will find that most areas of low, thick vegetation in your hunting area have only a light canopy of trees, if any. A heavy canopy inhibits the growth of understory vegetation by blocking out too much sunlight. A forest made up of taller trees can supply adequate amounts of deer forage, but it can do so only if the canopy is open enough to permit light to reach the forest floor. This is why we often recommend thinning or even clearcutting timber as part of a management program.

The average deer woods will supply about 300 pounds of forage per year, while a clearcut or natural opening can provide up to 1,500 pounds per acre. But not all of this is good forage; in fact, in most cases, no more than 50 percent is good forage, so the available portions quickly reduce to 150 to 750 pounds. Further research has shown we cannot permit deer to eat more than half of this amount without potentially causing habitat damage, meaning we now are down to 75 to 375 pounds of forage per acre per year.

The whitetail evolved in an environment that does not provide equal nutrition throughout the year. Those of us involved in research generally agree that whitetails can get by fine on 210 days of foraging per year, with the rest of the year being rounded out with assorted fruits. Thus, it takes a little over a ton of forage to get an average deer through an average growing season.

What this leads to is that on the average property, it will take around 25 acres of native woods or 5 acres of openings (re-growth) to support a single deer in good health. Food plots, on the other hand, produce as much as 5 tons of food per acre, thus supporting several deer per acre.

Using this analysis, divide the native woodlands on your property by 25 and the natural openings by 5 and then multiply the food-plot acreage by 3. The number you get when this has been done is roughly the number of healthy deer that can be supported by the food supply now on that land.

Although the amount of food a whitetail eats each day depends on a number of factors, research has shown that with abundant forage available, the average whitetail will consume roughly 5 percent of its live weight daily. For example, a buck with a live weight of 240 pounds normally would consume roughly 12 pounds of vegetation in a 24-hour period.

For example, let’s say the property is 235 acres: 177 acres of woods, 52 acres of woods openings and 6 acres of productive food plots. Roughly how many deer is this land now likely to provide enough food for? The answer is easy enough to calculate. Dividing the 177 acres of woods by 25 gives us 7.1, which we would round off to 7. Dividing the 52 acres of openings by 5 gives us 10.4, which we would round off to 10. Multiplying the 6 acres of food plots by 3 gives us 18. Without knowing any more than this, we can come up with an extremely rough estimate of 35 deer (1 per 6.7 acres) as the productive capacity of the land.

But does this mean the property will in fact provide for all the needs of 35 whitetails on a year-round basis? Not necessarily. For one thing, the food supply could be seasonally limited, forcing deer to leave the property to forage in tough times.

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