March 31, 2011
In 1975, I decided to create a research institute here at the Arthur Temple College of Forestry at Stephen F. Austin State University aimed specifically at white-tailed deer. We named the new initiative the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research.
Thirty-five years later, we at the Institute are very proud of all we have accomplished and how our research has been received by the whitetail community. At least two of our discoveries have gone on to influence significantly the way we hunt and manage deer.
The first was the infrared-triggered camera, which, believe it or not, was not well received early on. They were expensive to build and took skill to use. Today, there are more than 200 makes and models on the market, and they are considered an essential component of the well-equipped hunter.
The other discovery went virtually unnoticed for more than 25 years -- electric fencing for whitetails.
THE ELECTRIC FENCE STORY
This story began about the time we founded the Institute. I was working with some great guys at what then was called the Soil Conservation Service. Bill Deaumann and Joe Daniels were local agents and they were involved with me in some new research on crops for deer.
Deauman was interested in less expensive fencing to contain deer. Together, we developed a 22-wire (high tensile) fence design that turned out to do the job nicely. The reason it worked was not the wire, but the type of energizer we used. It was a Gallagher-brand device that could push electrical current for miles. There was a fascinating story worth telling behind this new technology.
In the 1930s, Bill Gallagher Sr. was a farmer helping farmers in New Zealand. Gallagher encountered a problem on his farm. Seems his horse, "Joe," would not stop scratching himself on his family's car. He designed an electrical circuit that would charge the exterior of the car when Joe rubbed it. Needless to say, Joe quit messing with the family vehicle! It was no time before neighbors were asking for development of fencing with the same powers. In 1937 Gallagher built his first electric fencing system.
Around 1980, this fencing technology came to the U.S. Deer populations were starting to increase in eastern Texas, and our research on food plot varieties was beginning to show promise for improving deer nutrition.
Our focus was on cool season plantings such as oats, wheat and rye, along with a clover. Folks quickly came back to us requesting a warm season recommendation.
In the 1980s, we decided to test some varieties for possible use for deer. Dr. Billy Higginbothan, then my graduate student, was assigned this project for his dissertation research. One of the varieties we were looking at was cowpeas. We quickly discovered that deer liked them so much they were devoured long before they were needed.
Why not employ electric fences to keep the deer out until a more nutritionally stressful time? We focused on a simple design in electric fencing. We developed a three-wire fence that would make a deer stop and investigate.
An 18-gauge, high-tensile outrigger wire was positioned 18 inches above the ground. Three feet into the food plot side of the outrigger, we erected two more high tensile wires, the first of which was at 10 inches and the second 24 inches above the ground.
A deer easily can jump at least eight feet high and about 20 feet horizontally. So, how could a simple three-wire fence keep deer out of food plots? We knew deer were near-sighted, and with low visual acuity, they had difficulty judging depth. This would allow us to deliver a shock when they touched the outrigger wire.
The design worked perfectly. We were able to keep the majority of deer out of the plots. But putting up these fences involved a lot of work, since we were pulling a 1,200-pound pressure on the wires. This required deeply set, treated posts with braces at the corners and line posts every 25 feet. It was not practical and too expensive for the average landowner. Besides, who would want to keep deer out of a plot? We released the design for protecting crops and orchards from deer depredation and moved on to other projects.
Over the next two decades, two things increased at an exponential rate: deer populations and interest in food plots.
Our food plot research at NAW's facility at Ft. Perry, Georgia, and our research center here in Texas cranked out test results on a host of plant varieties. A cereal grain such as oats, coupled with a clover (red or white), became the management standard for cool season plantings in the south and warm season plantings in the north.
Summer varieties, however, had become increasingly challenging due to a host of issues, including deer depredation during plot establishment. The deer were moving off perfectly nutritious native foods in spring to eat up plots intended for later stress periods. That is when we returned to the original food plot protector electric fences.
The original food plot protector fence design proved very effective, yet the cost of materials and work required to erect such a fence was prohibitive to most people. By the 21st Century, however, Gallagher had solved most of these problems. Instead of heavy treated posts, braces and high-tensile wire, they now were using synthetic materials, with stainless steel wires imbedded, to produce light-weight wires and tapes.
They and other manufacturers also were producing fiberglass posts, simple tighteners and solar-powered energizers.
Whereas it formerly took us a day or more to fence a single acre, two men could now fence an acre in a couple hours!
RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT
Adam Osmun, a student at the Institute, was assigned the job of re-visiting our electric fence work. Together, we designed a study in Michigan and Texas that would put numbers to what we had observed in the 1980s. He would employ a typical scientific design, in which food plots would be planted, with half fenced and the other half open to deer use. He would compare growth and yield of both cool and warm season crops in these two geographic areas.
The study took place over two years, and the results again were impressive. From a statistical standpoint, yields within the fences exceeded unprotected crops at significant levels, making the fences cost-effective.
Once we saw the efficacy of our electric fence design, the next step was to decide how to put them into use in deer management and hunting.
The first solution was obvious. In order to get a crop up to a point where it could defend itself against deer browsing, we had to keep deer out until the plants reached a specific growth point -- usually six or more true leaves. The longer you keep deer out of your plots, the better they can stand heavy browsing. We fenced all of our plots until they were well established, then took down half of them for deer use.
In Michigan and south Texas, we took this a step further. We only exposed half the crop to the deer, then monitored use. When the deer ate 50 percent of the crop, we flipped the fence to expose the protected crop. This is tantamount to "rotation grazing" for whitetails.
The second application was a variation of what cattlemen call "strip grazing." We planted crops along rights-of-way, inherently making these plantings long strips. Then we placed our fence down the length of the strip.
Each month, we retracted the fence proportionally to expose the crop; hence, the name strip grazing. This worked both for warm and cool season plantings, depending on geographic location.
The next scenario was what we dubbed "forage banking." It is particularly effective in the north, where significant snowfall and cold prevent growing winter crops.
There, we keep fences up around some of the plots until we have sufficient snowfall to cover the crop into the winter. Temperatures below the snow rarely drop enough to kill the plants, or at worst the snow protects the "hay" beneath. When we take down the fences, deer quickly find the snow-covered hay and dig down to feed.
From a hunter's standpoint, electric fences afforded a very useful hunting advantage. Imagine being a bowhunter who has the only available crop for acres or even miles! In many states, baiting is illegal and I certainly never support anyone illegally feeding deer. However, food plots such as corn, oats, clover, chicory, peas and soybeans, protected until fall, are highly attractive food sources. They also provide valuable nutrition in the form of energy to help your deer make it through hard winters.
(Editor's Note: If you are interested in finding out more about electric fencing and forage management for whitetails, go to www.drdeer.com. Dr. James Kroll and Ben Koerth have produce a new video, Forage Management for Whitetails: The Dr. Deer System.)