January 13, 2016
By Don Higgins
It was nearly 30 years ago that I started working on my property to improve the whitetail habitat. At that time there were very few deer using the property and absolutely none after the rut. When winter would set in, the deer simply left and did not return until spring.
My goals were very conservative in regards to my property back then. When I started, it would have been foolish to even hunt on the property at any point during the season. There simply were not enough deer in the area to warrant hunting there. It was certainly not a property that any clear-thinking whitetail hunter would consider purchasing.
I just happened to fall into it because it was my grandparents' farm and after they passed away I had the opportunity to purchase it. I thought that with a lot of work, maybe someday I could actually hunt the property and maybe even see three or four deer in one sit.
This is one of those rare instances where reality far exceeded my dreams.
A couple of decades after starting my efforts to turn grandpa's farm into a whitetail mecca, I actually had more than sixty deer routinely wintering on the farm and have seen up to 17 antlered bucks feeding in one of my foodplots during a late season hunt. The story of how I turned a whitetail wasteland into a dream property provides some valuable lessons for any prospective deer manager.
During winter deer need two things to survive: food and cover. When I started working on my property, there was very little of either. It consisted mainly of open cattle pasture with a few scattered trees. A covey of quail would have had a tough time surviving the winter there.
If you are having trouble getting deer to winter on your property, I strongly suggest that you first look at the cover that you are providing. It needs to be thick and nasty; the thicker and nastier, the better. What you do to address this will vary based on what is there now and what you have to work with.
If you have open fields and pasture like I had, it might require you to plant a lot of trees, shrubs and tall warm-season grasses. If you have open woods, you might need to log it or do some timber stand improvements, maybe even hinge-cutting. In a nutshell, you need to do whatever it takes to make it as thick as possible.
As important as it is to have thick cover, there is something even more important. Your bedding cover and really your whole property needs to be free of human intrusion.
Deer need to feel safe or they just won't bed there. Stand locations should be on the edges where hunting them puts little pressure on the property.
As I travel around the Midwest consulting with landowners on their whitetail hunting properties, I continually see just how misunderstood whitetail nutrition and food-plots are. Many hunters seem to think that they can just throw out some seed in a plot the size of a house and by doing so they are addressing the nutritional needs of the deer on their land.
Simply put, many of the food-plot mixes being marketed and sold to deer hunters produce good early season plots, but do little or nothing during the late season.
Always remember greens early and grains late. During the winter, deer need the nutrients found in grains such as soybeans and corn. They also need a lot of it. Your plots should be large enough to feed the deer staying on your place all winter long.
When spring comes and the deer disperse back to their summer homes, you should still have some food left in your plots. If you don't, you need to expand your food-plot acreage the next spring.
My favorite food-plot crop is soybeans, hands down. Soybeans provide high quality browse to the deer on your property, from the time they sprout until the plants mature in the early fall. Then the deer are left with the soybean grain for the late fall and winter months.
In my opinion, there is nothing better during the winter than soybeans. When you consider that the same soybean plot that draws deer like a magnet during the winter also provides forage during the antler growing and fawning period, it is unrivaled as a food plot crop.
Even if you don't own or lease the land you hunt on, you can still help your deer herd through the winter with supplemental feeding if legal in your state. If this is an option, don't place your feeder too close to the thick cover where deer like to bed. You don't want to run them out of the security cover when you go in to fill your feeders.
During the winter, bucks are recovering from the rut and you can give them a jump start on next year's antler growth by providing nutrient-rich foods. Simply pouring out shelled corn may draw in the deer, but corn alone will not address a deer nutritional needs. It is far better to provide a complete balanced ration containing 16% protein and 3-4% fat.
Furthermore, by providing a high-quality deer mineral, you can help your deer to maintain good health and get the most antler growth and fawn production. Learn to read the analysis tags on these products and don't fall for the high-salt products with fancy marketing campaigns.
If deer aren't using your property during the winter months, remember their basic needs. You need to look at the quality of the cover on your land, make sure the cover is free of human intrusion and provide them with plenty of grain-based food sources. This formula has made my own property one of the best I have ever hunted on and changed my opinion about late-season hunting.