In the old days, hunters used to divide their year into two key parts — deer season and the long, insufferable off-season. These days, savvy hunters know that the idea of an offseason is a myth. We’re more focused than ever on the planting of food plots, hanging of treestands and placement of game cameras, just to name a few chores.
For those interested in managing their properties to improve deer herds and hunting, now is the time to put in some sweat equity for a big antlered payoff later this fall.
According to Dr. James C. Kroll — longtime deer management guru for the North American Whitetail magazine and television franchise — as well as a retired wildlife professor from Stephen F. Austin State University, there is much work to be done between now and those first fall hunts. And that’s true no matter how much land you’ve got at your disposal.
“The basic (management) activities are fairly consistent for all landowners, regardless of size of property,” said Kroll, known affectionately to millions around the whitetail world as “Dr. Deer.” “These include the two primary activities — planting and vegetation control/management. These have to be done during specific windows of time and should be considered critical to the success of management.”
In layman’s terms, that means be ready to push some dirt around for the betterment of your whitetail herd.
“Planting involves site preparation, soil amendments, seed bed development and proper planting,” explained Kroll. “Vegetation control and management involves reduction in competition of your crops with native plants, through mechanical and/chemical treatments. Spring plantings involve assessment of over-wintering cool season crops.
Keep in mind that when it comes to proper food plots, there are two goals here.
“There are two types of plots, nutrition and harvest,” said Kroll. “Nutrition plots should have both warm and cool season strategies to even out deficiencies in nutrition needs of both bucks and does. Harvest plots are smaller plots planted to the most attractive plant varieties; most often cereal grains such as oats and wheat.”
Warm season plots — the kind that are planted in spring and early summer — help provide nutrition earlier in the year as does give birth to their fawns and bucks begin to develop their antlers.
Cool season plots — the so called “harvest plots” — are planted later in the summer or early in the fall to help provide nutrition for deer as fall turns into winter, the native food resources begin to die away and hunters return to the woods in search of the big antlered buck of their dreams.
“The goal of any management program should primarily be aimed at improving nutrition, followed by improving harvest,” said Kroll. “It does you no good to just have (harvest) plots and ignore producing more and better bucks.”
To accomplish your ultimate whitetail goals, Kroll says that a good management plan needs to be in place, a task usually best accomplished by enlisting the help of a wildlife biologist, either with a state agency or a private firm.
Once you have a solid management plan prepared, then it’s time to go to work to make such goals a reality. Some of that work will be relatively easy, but not all of it will be.
“The most complicated activities (here) are food plot establishment and vegetation management,” said Kroll. “You will have to use professional equipment operators to clear land.
“For example, a good bulldozer operator should clear two acres per day,” he added. “We recommend planting 2% of your land to food plots; 2 acres per 100 acres of land.
“We schedule 3-4 days for planting plots, once they are established. Other activities such as improvement (mechanical or chemical treatments to adjust species composition) in forest stands can take a day per acre.”
Once land is cleared and ready to plant, that’s where whitetail managers will want to have access to their own tractors and equipment to do the work that constitutes the heart and soul of a piece of property’s whitetail management plan.
“The basic equipment is pretty simple: tractor, rotary cutter (also known as a bush hog), disk or harrow, spreader/seeder and herbicide sprayer,” said Kroll. “A width of less than eight feet should be the rule, since you will be working in small places.”
Kroll says that should land managers decide on bigger implements, the width of roads and gates on a piece of property need to be considered. For the most part though, the work being discussed here is going to be smaller than it is bigger.
“Most deer habitat management involves relatively small plots (a quarter to one acre),” said Dr. Deer. “So, the size of tractor used in most operations is less than 40 horsepower. Once you have your needs established, visit several dealers searching for equipment packages to go with the tractor.”
The right tractor is key here, something solid and dependable like Kubota’s Standard L Series tractors — the L2501, L3301, L3901, and L4701 — and the smaller Kubota BX80 tractors — the BX1880, BX2380, BX2680 and BX23S — all of which can help a whitetail land manager get the job done and then some.
“Usually, most of the hunters we sell to are jumping up to the L Series since they’ve got bigger tires and get around in the woods a little better,” said Rob Hamm, a Kubota dealer and salesman at the Farm Shop in Edna, Mo. “We also sell some of the BX Series tractors. It’s a bit smaller and more of a home owner’s size.”
According to Hamm, getting a good tractor can be as easy as going to your local dealer, especially when that dealer asks the right questions to ensure that a land owner and whitetail manager gets a tractor that is neither too big or too small, but just right for the task at hand.
“When you pay good money for something, you want to be able to get the project done that you are planning on,” he said.
As with most purchases, doing your homework goes a long way in getting the right equipment.
“Be sure that you do enough research,” said Hamm. “One of the biggest mistakes I see people making is buying the first thing you see. And ask (plenty of) questions since there can be dealers out there that will put a low price or a certain deal out there, but they don’t tell you about hidden costs and such.”
Kroll agrees, noting that it’s easy to fall for gimmicks when it comes to buying equipment for managing a piece of land for whitetails.
“Falling for gimmicks is one of the greatest problems we encounter when working with landowners,” said the renowned East Texas wildlife biologist.
“When we first began researching the potential of food plots back in the 1970s, we went to the folks who plant forages the most — dairy farmers — to find out what they do,” added Kroll. “Not much has changed from the aspect of equipment and plant varieties since that time.
“However, there have been useful developments in small-scale equipment, allowing work in smaller areas.”
In addition to finding the right tractor and equipment for your land management needs, Kroll said to pay close attention to the service that you can expect from the dealer you purchase a piece of equipment from.
“Do some homework on the quality and speed of service offered by the dealer,” he said. “Trust me, equipment problems always happen at the worst time! Some dealers will take two weeks or more to fix even the most minor problems.”
Speaking of time, there is little to waste when it comes to preparing a piece of land for better whitetail nutrition and increased hunting success. And one of the best ways to save time between now and the fall is to buy good equipment — and then take care of it along the way.
“The greatest time-saving tip is to keep your equipment maintained; which can best be done in the off-season,” said Kroll. “It is optimum to have your equipment stored in a barn or similar structure, where you can work in the colder times if the year.
“And lastly, have ALL of your supplies — seed, fertilizer and chemicals — on hand before you begin any project.”
Such projects may take a little sweat equity, dirt work and homework now. But the payoff this fall will be the deer hunting that dreams are made of.