Don't Forget the Native Forage!

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.

Putting Greens On The Table

Now lets look at the overgrown meadows that are found on so many properties. These often-overlooked food sources are the backbone of many habitats' food production capabilities. Keith McCaffrey studied the importance of these forest openings during his time with the Wisconsin DNR and fully appreciates the role they play in a whitetail's diet. "The cool season grasses and forbs found in relic forest openings (old fields or camps) provide critical deer forage in northern Wisconsin," Keith said. "These grassy openings are especially important in the absence of mast crops."

Beyond simply having or creating these openings, we can increase their desirability. Greenery does not output the same levels of digestibility and nutrition throughout its growth cycle. Much like a farmer's alfalfa crop, as grasses and forbs reach maturity their cell walls harden, making them more difficult to digest. At the same time, the protein levels they had produced while rapidly growing spiral downward as they reach maturity. The more digestible plant matter is the more nutrition deer are able to derive from it. Because of this, digestibility can play as key of a role in the value of a plant as nutritional content. Steps may be taken to improve this situation.

To begin with, a safely conducted spring burn can be a good first step. In order to safely perform a controlled burn, firebreaks should be created along the boundaries of the burn area. This can be accomplished in several ways, but I have found that thoroughly disking a 10-yard swat around the burn area is an effective tactic. Also, it is highly recommended that the burn be supervised at all times. Burning down the entire forest may eventually result in better habitat, but the firefighters can get testy.

Next, we can apply a lawn fertilizer in the same manner we would to our own lawns. As with the oaks, this can result in healthier plants that are capable of increased production. However, this act should be conducted both in the spring and early fall. This act alone increases the plants' nutritional values and yields.

To increase both further, we can mow them as they begin to reach maturity. Doing so will keep the plants from reaching maturity and suffering the drop in forage production that brings. The combination of these acts result is a dramatic increase in quality and production. Mowing two or three times a year is usually sufficient. Once the plant life nears maturity, it's time to mow again.

These simple procedures can produce an increased level of high quality forage. As Dr. Miller states, "While there has not been a lot of research on the subject, in some cases both the yield and nutritional quality of native forages can be manipulated. Fertilizing native forages often increases the production and nutritive quality of deer forages, particularly if it's done in an open area. Seasonal disking or bush-hogging of fields also works to stimulate production of deer forages, but results will vary from area to area and region to region."

Not only can these acts benefit deer, they can be a huge benefit to us hunters as well. In most of the whitetail's range, at least part of hunting season overlaps a period when fresh greenery is woefully lacking. By prolonging the growth cycle, these meadows are able to keep producing until cold weather or drought finally drives them into dormancy. Before that occurs, there's often a period where our treated meadows contain the only native grasses and forbs that still hold substantial drawing power over deer. This can result in great stand sites.

A final consideration is often that we're striving to focus deer activity and retain a diverse habitat, as well as increase forage production. Thus, it's not prudent to treat a 40-acre field in this manner. Not only will that have a negative impact on game bird nesting and fawn rearing, it provides the deer with too large of an area in which to feed. That can be a drawback when trying to bowhunt a meadow. It's often better to have several patches of 1 to 5 acres each than one big one.


Lastly, let's look at woody browse. As many studies have shown, this constitutes a substantial portion of most whitetails' diet. (They eat a fair amount even in agriculturally rich areas, though productive year-round food plots greatly reduce their intake of woody browse.) Thus, it stands to reason that increasing the yield and nutritional value of woody browse in your hunting area will be of benefit to both you and the herd.

As with everything else we've covered, applying fertilizer will aid in increasing woody browse. We also can remove mature trees, thus giving browse plants more sunlight. Finally, we can trim the browse plants, much as we might a hedge. This extends the time in which the browse is within reach of deer. It also causes the plants to send out more shoots, thus providing even more useable browse.

In mature woods, where ample woody browse doesn't exist, proper logging techniques can increase the amount of good deer food per acre. "Certainly, some type of timber-stand manipulation will stimulate understory browse production," notes Dr. Miller. "I'd suggest you contact a biologist from your state agency for the best techniques in your area. Perhaps even better, why not go out and experiment on your own?

I've done that myself, and it can work. My favorite method is to employ a clear-cut/selective-cut hybrid in mature sections of woods.

The goal is to supplement the existing food sources, not replace one with another. Because of that, I'm always hesitant to remove mast trees unless they're in such abundance that they dominate the area.

In a typical scenario, removing all but mast-producing trees, desirable trees for seeding and selected ones for use as tree stands works well. To maintain diversity, I've found that areas of 5 to 10 acres are ideal. This approach creates pockets that allow for increased mast production and open the forest floor to sunlight. The increased sunlight spurs all sorts of new growth, ranging from grasses to berry vines to saplings. The result is a dramatic increase in forage production on a year-round basis.

As the regrowth in the clearing matures, we can apply the same trimming and fertilizing principles to extend the area's forage production. But eventually, the block will need to be cut again.

What we've just done is create a circle of actions that can be repeated over and over. Through proper planning, a series of these areas can be maintained, each in a different stage of regrowth. With this regimen in place, we eliminate the "boom and bust" cycle that occurs when the entire area is at the same point in the growth cycle.


Although native forage is just one of the factors that must be addressed in creating a whitetail utopia, it's an important one. We can boost the productivity of these plants by using many of same methods crop and fruit farmers do. In the process, not only can we increase the amount of nutrition the land has to offer, we also can help to fill in seasonal gaps. The more of these gaps we close, the better.

Lastly, we must remember that a diverse habitat has the ability to be far more productive than one that's the same throughout. Granted, certain agricultural crops are sources of great nutrition, but they need complements. A piece of land that contains food plots, meadows, mature woods, saplings, thick tangles and thriving mast crops, along with a good water source, almost always will support more deer than will homogenous habitat. Promoting a variety of types of native forage takes us one step closer to creating that perfect piece of hunting ground.

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