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Food plots can be the piece of the puzzle that takes hunting properties to next level. Food plots make up only a small percentage of the total acreage of a property but it is important that we get the most out of these designated areas. In recent years it seems we as hunters have drifted away from the core and primary benefits of food plots. Many hunters are now planting their plots in a cheap “throw and grow variety” instead of growing a food plot that is highly nutritious, attractive to the deer, and ultimately benefits the deer herd on that property. If we are going to set aside acreage as a “food plot” it is our responsibility to manage it in the best way possible. We must make our plots a “preferred” feeding area for our deer herd. It is imperative that we make what is growing in our plots more nutritious and more attractive than any other food source available on the landscape. If not, then why would deer want to feed in the food plots when they can get that level of nutrition anywhere else within their home range. One of the best ways to pull big bucks off your neighbor’s property is to have high quality food plots. This is especially important for smaller properties because it allows the property to hunt larger because the food plots are drawing deer from surrounding properties. The success of a food plot is directly determined by the attractiveness and productivity of that plot.

The two main food plot problems I see on most of my client properties are improper soil conditioning and planting generic seed blends that are high in poor quality cereal grains. For a food plot to reach its maximum productivity, the soil pH must be in the mid 6’s up to 7. If a soil has a substantially low or high pH the plant will not take up the amount nutrients needed to produce a lush, healthy plant that is nutritionally and tastefully attractive to deer. A simple soil test can be done and analyzed by a soil lab to give you the right fertilizer and lime regime for each specific food plot. Applying the right amount of fertilizer is also a key part in any successful food plot program. If I had to pick between seed and fertilizer in a plot, I would personally plant less seed and use more fertilizer. That’s how important fertilizer is. The next problem I see in 75% of client food plots is planting generic, low quality seed blends that are high in poor cereal grains such as rye. Even the generic “3 way blend” of rye, wheat, and oats is low on the deer preference scale for fall and winter food plots.  You must plant high quality varieties that are suited for your soil types and deer herd. Clovers, winter peas, forage oats, chicory and radishes are all solid choices for any food plot program. Experiment and plant different seeds in different plots to better narrow down what food plots species the deer on your property prefer.

Food plots are a great way to attract and hold deer on your property year around but they must be managed and maintained correctly. Just because a plot is green and pretty does not mean it is attracting deer and giving them the nutrition they need, when they need it. There is a direct connection between increasing the productivity of your food plots and hunter success. The better your food plot program is the better hunting success you will have. Good deer and habitat management involves constant monitoring and evaluation and a food plot program is no different. Don’t let food plots be the weak link in the management of your hunting property.

Today, many deer hunters agree with the idea of shooting does to improve their hunting experiences but this is usually where their knowledge of this concept stops. The reasons behind this concept are just as important as the concept as a whole. As hunters, if we do not know why and how to properly apply herd and habitat management techniques we run the risk of doing more harm than good to our hunting property and the deer herds on them. We must make smart management decisions that guide our antlerless harvests and gives us an obtainable goal to work towards. Antlerless harvest objectives vary from property to property and are dependent on each properties deer herd numbers, habitats, predator impact, neighboring hunting clubs, and much more. As deer managers, we must get an accurate population estimate number in order to have an accurate harvest objective number! There are four main reasons that explain why controlling your doe herd can benefit your deer herd as a whole:

1) Increases herd health – A deer herd is at its peak health when it is at approximately 50% carrying capacity of that property (each properties carrying capacity is different).  A deer herd that is highly skewed toward does can increase at a rapid rate and reach or even exceed carrying capacity quickly. When is happens disease, starvation, and very poor habitat conditions can over take your property and deer herd. A population that is in balance and not over stocked with does has better access to high quality nutrition. Fawns can be weaned on nutrient rich milk, letting them to grow stronger in less time making them better suited to deal with predation, injuries, drought, parasites, and disease. A property that shoots mature does is much more likely to have a balanced age distribution within their deer herd which is vital to herd health.

2) Increases habitat health- A hunting property that consistently has too many does on a year to year basis will inevitably begin to see a decline in suitable deer habitat. An over abundant deer population, which is the result of too many does, can browse down and eliminate sensitive plant species, many which are highly beneficial and in the “preferred deer browse” category.  By keeping your deer herd in check, and within a population window that fits your property, you insure the dynamics of your hunting property such as bedding cover, native browse, food plot acreage, and escape cover can serve their purpose adequately.

3) Intensifies the rut –The main goal of most intensively managed properties is to shoot big, mature bucks and we all know the rut can be one of the best times to accomplish this goal. By shooting does, we can begin the process of shaping the sex ratio of our deer herd to as close to 1:1 as possible.  A doe to buck ratio of 1:1 encourages a shorter more intense rut on your property. This increase in rut intensity is due to an increase in competition between bucks for breeding causing them to chase, fight, and grunt more often which help your chance at successfully harvesting that buck. Properties with sex ratios near 1:1 are less likely to experience the familiar “trickle rut” because the does are getting bred on their 1st and maybe 2nd estrous cycle instead on the 3rd and 4th cycles that we see in trickle rut scenarios. A trickle rut can also hurt the buck population on your property; Bucks will chase for 3-4 months because of the high number of does and the various estrous cycles, this causes bucks to wear down to an alarming stage and makes them much more prone to predation, starvation, and the rigors of the late winter months.

4) Allows for more high quality nutrition for bucks – No matter what the food situation is on your property, as deer and land managers it’s near impossible to manipulate whether a buck or doe feeds in that particular food plot, feeder, or burn block. There is only so much high quality protein filled food or browse available across a landscape. In order to maximize the number of top end, mature bucks on a property it is in our best interest to make as much of that food available to bucks as possible.  An adult doe will eat approximately 8 lbs of food a day. By shooting just one doe we release nearly 3,000 lbs of food a year that can potentially be consumed by bucks for antler development, fat storage,  body mass and more. Not every property needs to have a liberal doe harvest. Deer herds in many places are on
the decline, and not pulling the trigger on does is one way to help that herd rebound. The only way to have a good idea of the doe population on your property is to have a population estimate (camera survey) of some kind done to guide your harvest objectives. Always have a purpose behind your antlerless harvest plan. Does are the reproductive engines of our hunting property. As you begin to practice good, consistent deer and habitat management techniques on your property, there will come a time that you must shoot does to keep your herd and habitats in balance. Understanding the why’s and how’s of antlerless harvest can make the process much simpler.

As deer season winds down in January, many hunters are disgruntled by their lack of success in the previous months. We often start gearing up for turkey season and fishing trips. Although it may be necessary to step back and recharge our deer hunting batteries, hunting properties can make huge improvements in the 9 months between January and October. When it comes to quality deer and habitat management, every month counts and they are all critical in really changing the overall health of a deer herd and hunting property. Often times we as deer hunters attempt a crash course of habitat management a month or two prior to the opening of deer season when in reality these battles were lost in the months prior. There are many factors that affect your deer herd, and these factors can vary from year to year. Factors such as spring/ summer rainfall amounts, predation, timber harvest and actions of neighboring hunting clubs can all have a direct effect on the deer herd on your property. This is why applying a general blanket of deer management with the same harvest and habitat objectives year after year does not work. We must always evaluate our land and deer herd and make sure our management objectives are geared toward making the best management decisions possible. Evaluating your property and deer herd on a yearly basis is a must.

I like to break the 9 month off season period up in to 1/3’s. These thirds are January – March, April- June, and July – September, they are all equally important and hold critical times for optimal habitat manipulations and herd monitoring. No matter what the objective is for mine or a client’s property that particular off-season, I like to focus on the plan a third at a time. A general idea and direction is always good to have when starting, but looking ahead can cause crucial steps to be missed and could ultimately contribute to the overall downfall of your off season plan.

  • January- March: Once deer season ends, I like to look back and evaluate the things I did well along with making notes on things I can improve on. For example, did I get busted by a mature buck? If so why? Are my stands in the best locations possible that will allow me to be successful?
  • Every deer season is different and there are answers to every good and bad thing that happened, you just have to find them. January is also the best time to run a post season camera survey which will allow you to determine exactly the deer herd you will be managing for the next 9 months. In this period I also like to pull soil samples and apply lime to food plots, the sooner the better, giving lime enough time to alter soil pH. Removing undesirable hardwoods and other habitat types deer do not prefer should be done in this 3 month period. Doing this will open up areas for a spring green up full of nutritious deer browse, legumes, and cover. February and March are also acceptable months for prescribed fire which is one of the most valuable management tools a deer hunter can use.
  • April-June: How successful was the first 1/3. Do you have a good idea of the deer herd you are managing for? Did you open up areas to create more preferred deer habitat? Are your food plots in adequate shape for planting? All of these are questions to ask yourself once April arrives. The only action I really like to take in this period is my spring plantings, which can be an absolute game changer for your deer herd moving forward. I do however think this is the most important time for evaluating and planning ahead. Having a few nice, large strategically placed food plots of soybeans, clover, or iron-clay peas can provide nutrients and protein for a healthy fawn crop and big gains in buck antler development. If weather was not ideal for prescribed fire in the first 1/3, you can still burn into April but I would not recommend going much further than that especially in areas that are not frequently burned. By this time you should have a good idea of the green-up on your property and can possibly increase spring and fall plantings if green-up is not at a desirable level. But remember, just because it is green does not mean it is a desirable plant species for deer and provides them with the nutrients they need. Familiarize yourself with deer preferred browse and legume species and look for them on your property. It is possible to have an excellent green-up that is good for nothing but escape cover. If escape and fawning cover are not at high levels, coyote trapping should start toward the end of this third and run periodically throughout fawning season. Even if adequate cover is available, trapping is still a solid option. Always evaluate and be willing to adapt.
  • July-September: This is the last third and by now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and deer season is fast approaching. We should have a good grasp on how our property and food plots are responding to the previous management activities and hopefully we have the right amount of habitats to support our herd at the present time. Spring plots should be producing at a high level and the majority of our fawn crop should have already dropped. Running trail cameras at this time is a good idea so we can begin monitoring our deer herd to look for any abnormal trends in the population. For example, if we estimated our population to be at 25 deer per square mile post season, and suddenly we are only getting a few deer pictures a week, we may want to take a deeper look and see what is happening. We want to make sure we monitor summer weather patterns for drought or other weather activities that may severely decrease our native browse and food plot production. If this is the case we may implement a supplemental feed program to insure adequate nutrition. Our clovers, radishes, and cereal grains should be planted toward the end of this period. If cereal grains are going after our spring plantings, it is acceptable to stretch that planting out until mid-October depending on spring production. We should also be ready to implement our fertilizer regime, not all plots and species are fertilized the same. Legume species produce nitrogen therefore a fertilizer mix for them will be different than that of cereal grains. At the end of September I like to look back and evaluate my entire 9 month plan, how did I do? Give the plan an honest grade. No matter how good our intentions, sometimes Mother Nature wins and there is nothing we can do about that. However successful or unsuccessful the off season plan was, make your harvest objectives for the approaching season accordingly. If deer food appears minimal and recruitment low, drop your antlerless harvest to reflect these trends.

This 9 month off-season plan is simply a guide to steer the management process in the right direction. There is no exact science to deer management, but it does take commitment and patience. I encourage you to take a look at your property and develop your own 9 month plan; every property and deer herd is different and must be managed as such. Always have a plan with a purpose. Know the deer herd structure you are aiming to have on your property and the habitat requirements it takes to support and sustain that population. Make sure you set realistic goals for yourself and your property, maximizing the potential of a hunting property does not happen in one year. It often takes many years of evaluating and site specific management to reach your goals. An increase in herd health, population, and mature bucks usually only occurs when we see an increase of deer preferred habitats across a property’s landscape.   Deer are very adaptive animals, just because we observe them using certain habitats does not mean that habitat is beneficial and improving your deer herd. A deer season can only be as good as your off season management plan.

As many deer hunters in Georgia and the Southeast are constantly attempting to improve their property and grow bigger bucks, one factor that is often mentioned but rarely addressed is predator control. The main predators of white-tailed deer in southeast United States are coyotes and bobcats. Predation studies have shown that deer remains occur in 30-40% of coyote scat and approximately 2% of bobcat scat. Many deer hunters feel as if they do not have a coyote problem on their land because they rarely see them while in the stand or on trail cameras. I have removed up to 20 coyotes from a 600 acre property that the owner thought had no coyote issue at all. Just think, if only half of those coyotes predated a deer, that means 10 fawns that would not be recruited into that deer herd, that’s a big deal! The impact these predators have on your deer herd can likely be reduced with good habitat and herd management practices.

When we, as hunters, hear the term “predator control” the first thing that usually comes to mind is trapping. Although trapping, when done during the fawning months (May, June, July) can be an effective predator control the best methods may be to control the affects of predators on your deer herd. Trapping may only provide a temporary fix to a permanent problem. Good habitat management and herd monitoring can provide a long term buffer to coyote predation on your deer herd. These methods are:

  • Adequate fawning/escape cover – dense thickets of grasses, vines and shrubs 6-7 ft tall and shorter. 5- 7 acres per 100 acres. The closer these areas are to good, high quality food sources, the better.
  • Maintaining a healthy deer herd/ age structure- limiting antlerless harvest and implementing harvest guidelines that are specific just for your deer herd. The guidelines for your property should change almost yearly, based on camera surveys, recruitment, etc.
  • High level, year round food plot production- not just planting a food plot, but planting with a purpose. Proper lime and fertilizer regime along with planting food plots that are an adequate size full of highly nutritious plants such as clovers, legumes, and cereal grains. 3-5 acres per 100 acres.
  • Abundant native browse – using prescribed fire, seasonal disking, and mowing to create new, lush native plant growth during the spring and summer months that will provide does with the nutrients they need to prepare for fawning and give the bucks plenty of protein to allocate to antler growth and development. Prescribed fires, on average, create 2,000 lbs of deer food per acre! Native browse is usually a good indicator of overall deer habitat quality.

The effects predators have on your deer herd can be devastating depending on the condition of your property. A property that is severely lacking in the four bullets mentioned above, or even just a few of them should be very cautious of predators and what they could do to your deer herd. For example, a property with very little fawning cover, is lacking deer food in the spring and summer, and has a deer herd that has just about reached or exceeded the properties carrying capacity because of poor habitat could almost have an entire fawn class wiped out by coyotes.   On the flip side, a property that has practiced good deer and land management for a few years or more could probably take the hit of coyotes eating a fawn or two and you, the hunter, would never notice once deer season rolled around.

There is no doubt coyotes prey on deer and the coyote is here to stay. We as hunters must account for them and manage our hunting land and deer herd accordingly. Good deer and habitat management not only protects against predation, it also provides a buffer from a summer with a severe drought, a neighboring property with a “brown it’s down” policy, and it also benefits turkey, quail and other wildlife on your property. The deer herd with the most deer is not always the healthiest. A deer herd is at its healthiest when it is around 50-70% carrying capacity, this means enough food, cover, and space for bucks to grow big and adult does to have healthy fawn crops year after year. Remember, deer management is all one complete circle, if a part of the circle breaks, it will not connect, and will inevitably fall to pieces!