Regardless if you live in the North, South, East or West, you need to plan for winter to ensure your whitetail herd doesn't have a bumpy ride. Winter equals a nutritional pause in most of whitetail country. In the North it can include feet of snow, ice-covered landscapes and subzero temperatures. Even in the South the growing season takes repose. Leaves drop, vegetation withers and crops are long gone to market. It can be a rough few months for whitetails unless you meet the challenge of a winter survival plan for your herd.
Greg Gilman is a 30-year veteran whitetail hunter and today focuses his efforts on wildlife property management working with ClubHouse Reality in Manhattan, Kansas. Gilman understands that a successful whitetail property begins with keeping the herd healthy and happy at home. Winter prep is a key ingredient to meet this goal.
Food is the obvious first ingredient to consider when planning for a successful whitetail winter. Food for whitetails can come from a variety of sources. In fact, the average whitetail browses on more than 20 different plant species a day, sometimes more and sometimes less depending on seasonal, and regional availability. That's why food plots, forestry and even supplemental feed play a critical role in whitetail winter health.
"The most overlooked thing is keeping a consistent food supply available," notes Gilman. "In some locations you may be surrounded by abundant feed and not need to worry about it, but in most locations having a variety of winter food sources available ensures deer survive winter and won't leave looking for a meal."
To guarantee food throughout the year Gilman designs properties to include food plots that deliver during every season. Crops like turnips, winter wheat and brassica are excellent winter food sources. Plus Gilman looks to a quick spring green-up from winter wheat to provide a critical boost after winter.
Corn and soybeans are also great food sources. Soybeans shine in high protein and corn is a natural body heater that deer crave when temperatures plummet. Unfortunately these two "candy" food sources can be difficult to keep on the shelf as deer will raid these pantries repeatedly until depletion occurs.
In Kansas hunters have the legal option of baiting deer so supplemental feed can be added, but Gilman warns about making it your sole food option. Food plots strategically placed throughout a property diminishes herd competition for food and bunching of deer to make them an easy predator target. It also decreases the damage to browse in a targeted region. Even over an average winter Gilman will continue supplemental food options.
"Many property managers quit filling feeders or providing supplemental feed right after hunting season," says Gilman. "You don't want deer to rely completely on your generosity, but keeping corn in your feeder or placing fresh alfalfa bales in existing food plots is extra insurance, particularly if severe winter weather persists for an extended period."
Lastly, good forestry practices can play an important role for winter deer survival. Gilman recommends consulting with a professional forester on plans to manage timber. These efforts open up canopies and ultimately create more browse options for deer as sunlight to the ground spurs timber vegetation growth.
Evolution has instinctively equipped whitetails with a "stay-put" attitude for survival. In some northern areas whitetails may bed up to 70 percent of more of the day. This faux hibernation allows deer to conserve more energy. Anytime a buck is up and moving it burns calories and burning calories means burning fat. An unintended consequence of this stationary attitude is that food intake also decreases by 25 percent of more so having refuge on your property so deer can escape winter conditions is essential. If you don't have refuge deer will look elsewhere to escape.
Refuge could come in the form of cedar swamps, cattail wetlands, briar thickets, rolling grasslands and even deep coulees. It should be close to food, a mile or less and it should be as stress-free as possible. Limiting human activity, keeping out stray dogs and even supplementing winter cover by using dead timber to create windbreak walls boosts refuge quality.
"What you'll discover is that deer will begin to bed closer to food sources in the winter so it is important that you place food plots as close as possible to excellent winter cover." Gilman responds. "I watch deer bedding within 100 yards of some of my best food plots. They conserve energy by not traveling as far to feed and still have a place to escape from wind and snow by bedding in the steep timber above my plots."
Kansas' diverse terrain provides a variety of winter cover, but one unique aspect Gilman has discovered is that in the Flint Hills he routinely sees deer bedding just under rim rock outcroppings. They find a downwind, grassy ledge below the rims and have a view of upwind terrain with the downwind scent advantage at their back.
In closing you should also try to control predators in winter with both trapping and hunting. Predator control needs to be a year-round and continuous management element, but it plays an important role in winter. First, packs of coyotes can influence how safe deer feel on your property and constant harassment raises stress, or the chance of having them move off of a property.
Second, removing predators now increases your fawn recruitment in the spring. During fawning season numerous state studies indicate a coyote's diet may consist of up to 70 percent fawn makeup. Lastly, any predators you remove in the winter can be sold for fur value and possibly pay for some fuel expenses in the management pursuit.
Winter is no friend to the whitetails on the property you hunt, but you can make it a bit less threatening with a winter survival plan.