Successful deer management to grow and hunt bucks in a free-range environment has taken a new twist over the last 10 years. Just following the play book for passing bucks and providing quality food, cover, and water may not yield the results you desire. Something has changed throughout much of the range of the white-tailed deer.
It’s the number of predators. When I was a boy during the 1960s and 70s, coyotes were shot on sight by farmers (almost every farmer I knew always had a rifle in his truck). Raccoon pelts were bringing $50 and anyone I knew that was any kind of hunter or outdoorsmen trapped and/or hunted raccoons as a source of additional income. Chicken hawks (any large hawk was called a chicken hawk) were also shot on sight. These actions didn’t cause any of these predators to go extinct.
In college I was taught to feel sorry for predators. My “book learning” taught the theory that predators were almost never an issue with game species. That might have been true then (although I had a hard time buying into the theory). I was also taught in college that all natural systems are very dynamic – always changing (I certainly have experienced and agree with that!).
Whatever the theories and realities were, the current impact of predators on deer, turkey, quail and other game species are real and measurable! I had a graduate student ten years ago study the impacts of coyote and bobcats on fawn recruitment (fawns surviving until hunting season) on a private property in northern Alabama. Briefly summarized, the results were stunning! He monitored fawn recruitment during year one, then had a trapper remove many coyotes and bobcats from the 2,000 acre property during the following fawning season. During the second fawning season there was a 150+% increase in fawns at the same property as a result of removing 20+ coyotes and 10 bobcats! It appeared the turkey and rabbit population also exploded!
Since that time, much more research has been conducted that supports predators are changing the dynamics of managing deer. Several of the researchers reported results of fawn mortality documented by the use of vaginal transmitters (VITS). This technology allowed researchers to capture does and insert a transmitter in their vagina. The VIT is pushed out of the birth canal when the fawn is born and alerts the researchers by changing the frequency/tone of signal. Researchers can often find the birth site and/or fawn within four hours or less after birth.
Dr. John Kilgo, a talented researcher for the Forest Service, has years of such data. He and his staff have documented that in recent years, 70% of the fawns were killed by predators at their research site (a 300 square mile area in South Carolina) during the first few months after birth! 62% of the total mortality was due to coyotes!! This is not a guess or a theory. At this level of predation, even without any hunting mortality, deer populations will decrease in number and quality (more on the stress of predation next week).
John and his staff swabed the kill site and used advanced techniques with genetic testing to confirm if the killer was a coyote, bobcat, domestic dog, etc. Using this technology, they can tell if it was a male or female predator and if it was the same predator that killed a fawn ¼ mile or 10 miles way. John’s research is fascinating!
He ended his abstract by stating “I predict that this pressure (coyotes) will require significant changes in how deer populations are managed in the Southeast in the future, because coyotes are here to stay.”
I agree with John, but know from my student’s work and my experience, that coyotes can be trapped and their impact on deer populations reduced. Trapping and calling coyotes are fun activities (GDTV 119). However, it requires time and effort. There is no easy method to significantly reduce coyote populations. Some managers will simply let their deer herds be significantly reduced by coyotes. I, and hopefully many others, will not sit by and watch deer populations be reduced significantly by predators. I will actively call and trap coyotes to keep their population in check so deer, turkey, and other game species can maintain a healthy population.
I enjoy hearing a coyote howl. However, I enjoy seeing and interacting with deer and turkeys more. When push comes to shove, I’ll be the deer’s best friend and the coyote’s worst enemy. How about you? Will you sit by and watch America’s favorite game species be reduced to the occasional rare sighting? Or will you join me in protecting the future of hunting?
The damage by coyotes and other predators to deer and other game species is not just direct mortality. Predators also can cause much stress to game species! Next week I’ll share strategies deer hunters/managers can use to fight this change and improve the odds of growing mature bucks on their hunting grounds. While you’re waiting on that blog to come out, watch some of the coyote action caught on video by our Reconyx trail cameras here.
Growing (and protecting) Deer together,
I’ve been discussing how to manage land to produce mature and huntable bucks. It’s relatively easy to produce mature bucks. Simply don’t harvest them until they are 4+ years of age. I define mature for whitetail bucks as being four years old or older because by that age most bucks have expressed 90+ percent of their antler growth potential.
In previous blogs, I’ve also discussed management strategies which allow bucks to express their antler growth potential. Just because a buck is allowed to live until he is 4+ years of age doesn’t mean he will produce antlers to his full genetic potential. If he hasn’t had access to a quality diet and experienced minimal stress, he will not produce antlers to his full genetic potential.
After discussing several aspects of managing deer so they can express their full genetic potential, I’d like to discuss how to harvest mature bucks.
I really enjoy finding sheds. Those shed antlers are specific proof that a buck was using that area. However, finding where a mature buck has been is not the same as being where a mature buck is – within shooting range! Predicting where a mature buck will be during daylight hours and being there at the same time – especially year after year – requires a lot of skill and preparation.
Wonder why so many whitetail hunters go to areas that produce commercial row crops year after year? If you look at a map of the whitetails’ range, the portion of the area that produces commercial row crops is relatively small. Yet, the majority of Boone and Crocket and Pope and Young entries come from areas where commercial crops are produced.
There are two simple reasons and they both relate to flat ground. Flat ground, especially in the Midwest, is almost always better quality soil compared to where the topography is steep and the topsoil has been eroded. However, years and years of producing and harvesting commercial crops have significantly reduced the amount of nutrients and beneficial bacteria in the soil. Without adding fertilizer and beneficial microbes back to the soil, it would not be nearly as productive. These elements are rarely added back to the soil unless it is commercially farmed. Hence they are rarely applied to areas with steep topography.
The Proving Grounds is a perfect example. It has very steep terrain and was extremely eroded from exceedingly poor timber harvest and agricultural practices decades ago. There literally was no topsoil – only rock. I never disc a plot at my place because it would only shuffle rocks around and cause erosion of the limited amount of organic matter that is present.
However, by adding poultry litter that has been composted with beneficial, soil building bacteria added I’ve significantly improved the quality of crops produced in my food plots. I can now grow quality crops, even on the rocky soil where I never disc! Quality forage and grain crops are only nutrient transfer agents. They serve to transfer nutrients from the soil and air (air is roughly 78% nitrogen – capture that and never pay for nitrogen again!) to deer and other plant consumers.
Over the past few years we have been testing different cover crop varieties and planting methods here at The Proving Grounds. We do this to continue learning how we can improve the soil. Food plots are fun to hunt over, but food plots are tools. These tools work to transfer nutrients from the soil to wildlife. Plants take nutrients from the soil and air then produce vegetation that is consumed by wildlife.
Some excellent research (watch episode #296 here) has been published confirming that better soil and nutrition means bigger and healthier deer. So, as you may have guessed by now, cover crops are used to improve your soil! There are many ways that cover crops or, in our plots, Eagle Seed Broadside, improve the soil’s health. Some of the benefits are immediate while others occur over time. Nevertheless, these improvements help to increase the quantity and quality of the nutrients that are available to the plants (watch episode #288 here).
Some plants are better at capturing nutrients and transferring to consumers (deer, cattle, humans) than others. Those plants typically are the crops grown in commercial ag – to feed humans (and deer). Oak trees transfer nutrients – but the vast majority of the nutrients they transfer are tied up in the wood or the structure of the tree.
Soybeans also transfer nutrients but a much higher percentage of the nutrients they transfer from the soil and air are deposited in the soybean leaves and eventually the soybean pods. Deer readily consume soybean leaves and pods. Deer rarely consume the trunks of oak trees – and never express their full antler growth potential when oak leaves and acorns are most of their diet. This is a primary reason bucks of the same age class living where soybeans are commonly grown will have larger antlers compared to bucks living in areas that are primarily forested.
Healthy soil contains essential nutrients and minerals. These elements are taken up by plants through their root systems. Plants transfer those nutrients and minerals to deer that consume them. Our Eagle Seed soybeans are transfer agents for those elements contained in the soil. Poor soil will limit the amount of genetic potential a deer can express. This is why we take soil samples each season to continue improving our soil, ultimately growing larger antlers and healthier deer
Some of you are already yelling “acorns.” Acorns are much lower in nutrient content than soybean leaves or pods – there is no comparison between the nutritional quality of acorns and soybeans – or the antlers produced by bucks that primarily consume either crop.
So, if you want to hunt mature deer that have expressed most of their antler growth potential, you need to hunt where the soil has plenty of nutrients and plants that efficiently transfer those nutrients from the soil and air to deer. This can be in regions were commercial crops are grown (flat land) or where quality food plots are maintained.
For example, there isn’t a commercial soybean or corn field for many miles from my property. However, over the years, I’ve converted the few flat spots among the hills where I live to productive, nutrient-rich food plots. The results have been more than pleasing! My family and I have been blessed to produce and harvest several large, mature bucks.
If your objective is to harvest mature bucks with large antlers, you can go to flat, crop producing ground or grow the same crops where you hunt. Big antlers start in the dirt – and it usually requires well fertilized flat dirt to grow good nutrient transfer agents (crops like soybeans) to allow bucks to produce their best antlers!
Growing Deer together,
What are bottlenecks? They are physical barriers that limit deer movement to a relatively small area. You might call these features pinch points, funnels, etc. Typically, the longer the barrier the more utilized the bottleneck.
Cropland in the Midwest is full of bottlenecks. Wide open crop fields, especially after the crops have been harvested, tend to funnel buck movement into narrow wood lots or CRP fields. Where the whitetails move is much more predictable in those areas compared to land that is basically one habitat type (e.g. all woods). To put the odds in your favor, scout and hunt those bottlenecks. Now you are in the best location to observe the increase in deer activity.
My property is large patches of hardwoods with a few food plots mixed in. It is very tough to pattern where bucks will travel on my property with any certainty. This is called homogenous habitat. My property is also mountainous habitat. Hunting areas like these require hunters spend the bulk of their time scouting – looking for fresh sign and general travel routes. Within these travel routes concentrate on bottlenecks such as steep saddles in the mountains or bluffs that force deer to travel within a specific area. These areas will provide quality hunting unless the deer sense danger and change their patterns.
If your hunting grounds have few bottlenecks (or pinch points) don’t worry! Bottlenecks can be created! I’ve used discarded round bales of hay, snow fence, etc. Sometimes low value trees can be felled to make bottlenecks. I don’t like this approach as well as others because trees tend to decay rapidly and it’s tough to fell trees in a line with no gaps.
If you are like me and primarily hunt areas where there are very few natural bottlenecks, consider using a readily available resource and creating some. Consider how to approach the stand, wind direction, etc.
Bucks are not very predictable during the rut. I suggest hunters study an image of the property and look for bottlenecks if they can’t get boots on the ground without disturbing the deer or if they are hunting public land. I like stands by ponds as they act as a barrier and create a bottleneck. Deer will swim ponds, but don't want to unless forced. Look for the largest pond on the property. See if there's sign and a potential stand/blind location where the wind will carry your scent across the pond. Additionally, hunting a bottleneck such as a downed fence or saddle between doe bedding areas is a great stand location during the rut as bucks troll between those areas searching for hot does.
It can be very difficult or impossible to pattern a buck in areas where there are acorns almost everywhere. If there are no obvious bottlenecks I hunt the most sign that can be approached without alerting deer.
It’s often easier to grow mature bucks than it is to harvest mature bucks. Creating a bottleneck is an outstanding tool to reap the benefits of your deer management efforts.
Growing (and tagging) Deer together,
The answer to this question has implications for deer hunters that they may or may not want to hear. Why? Because after a lengthy, scientific answer (see below) the bottom line is that to know how many bucks to harvest, hunters will need to spend more time in the woods hunting. Why? You can only know the answer to this question through repeated observations and analysis. Ultimately it may also mean more time in the stand using the best tool that deer hunters have at their disposal: the trigger finger. If you aren’t seeing mature bucks it is time to implement trigger finger deer management.
Deer hunters that want to have the best hunting possible on their hunting ground need to know that reducing stress on the local deer herd is one of the most important factors for better deer hunting and mature, huntable bucks. An equally important herd characteristic that should be managed is the adult sex ratio. The adult sex ratio is calculated very easily: it’s the number of bucks to does that are at least 1.5 years old. For example, if a herd has five bucks and ten does that were 1.5 years old or older, that herd’s adult sex ratio would be 1:2. I consider a buck to doe ratio of 1:1 to be the best for challenging, rewarding hunts. This is a “balanced” ratio for whitetails.
The balanced adult sex ratio has benefits throughout the life of a whitetail. Bucks will often attempt to tend a doe before she is receptive and remain near her for 24-48 hours. While he is tending that doe, other does may also be receptive. In fact, if the herd’s adult sex ratio is skewed heavily toward does, some does may cycle through their receptive period without being bred.
Those does that were not bred during the first cycle become receptive again about a month later. This means she will produce fawns a month later (or more if she cycles multiple times). Fawns that are born later will likely struggle as the conditions for fawning are probably not as favorable: as the summer progresses forage quality tends to decrease, insect loads become higher, the temperatures become higher, etc. Restated, the conditions for prospering as a fawn tend to decline as the summer progresses.
It is more difficult for deer to express their full potential at maturity if they didn’t have all the required resources as a fawn. In addition to providing good quality forage (nutrition) and cover, it is just as important to ensure the adult sex ratio is balanced so the majority of fawns will be born during the optimal time for growth and reduced stress.
The adult sex ratio impacts the herd’s health and huntability, especially for mature bucks. It is very stressful for mature bucks to participate in the rut. It is well documented that captive bucks in relatively small enclosures (less than five acres) with access to all the supplemental feeds they can consume often lose +/- 30% of their body weight during the rut. Given this, imagine the cost of participating in the rut for free-ranging wild bucks. These bucks must search for quality food, be constantly alert for two and four legged predators, and face all the daily challenges that captive deer avoid. In addition to the challenges of surviving, if a buck is part of herd where he is one of the “few” bucks around to breed the available does he will have to work that much harder and longer to breed the does when they are receptive. When the adult sex ratio strongly favors does, the duration (days, weeks or even months) that a buck will seek, chase, and tend does is greatly extended simply because some does will not be bred during their first receptive cycle.
That breeding stress is not limited to mature bucks. Yearling bucks that are not fully mature will seek, chase, and tend receptive does when mature bucks are occupied with other receptive does. The energy that these yearling bucks used for chasing does would be used for developing antlers and body weights. These young bucks would be dissuaded from breeding by the presence of mature bucks (and their pheromones). Immature bucks need a huge amount of resources simply to maintain skeletal and body growth. The resources expended by participating in the rut may well limit the resources available for skeletal and body growth.
The does are also affected by an unbalanced sex ratio. It takes resources for does to cycle through their receptive period multiple times and then nurture a fawn or fawns past the prime fawn rearing season.
Bucks, does, and fawns simply do best when they are born and rut during a natural timeframe and cycle. The best tool to ensure your herd is breeding and fawning at the optimal times is to manage the herd for a balanced adult sex ratio and ensure the population doesn’t exceed the habitat’s ability to supply quality forage.
In addition to a healthier herd, another huge benefit to managing for a balanced adult sex ratio is that that competition for breeding will likely be more intense. Bucks may be more active. Most likely hunting strategies such as calling, rattling, using decoys, etc. may be more effective than in herds where there is not as much competition during the rut.
A great tool to manage your land to yield mature, huntable bucks is to establish and maintain a herd with a balanced adult sex ratio. Trigger finger deer management is essential to balance the ratio. Does will most likely need to be harvested. Hunters seeking to balance the adult sex ratio on their hunting grounds will have a longer, more challenging hunting season. It also means more free range meat for the freezer or meat to share with friends and family!
Growing Deer together,
Third on my list of top recommendations for managing land to yield mature, huntable whitetails is the need for cover. Cover is specifically areas where deer are likely to feel more secure compared to surrounding areas.
In the Southern portion of the U.S. cover may be shade. In colder climates it might be native grass that serves to block the wind but allow the sun’s radiant energy to reach the deer. Cover may be areas where predator populations (such as coyotes) are reduced and the deer are less threatened / stressed.
Quality cover reduces stress levels of deer. This allows them to express more of their antler growth and fawn producing potential. Cover can be just as beneficial to a deer herd as quality nutrition, depending on the sources of stress. However, they are co-dependent. One without the other could lead to the deer herd not expressing its potential.
The best cover is not only a particular type of structure (shade, native grass, etc.), but also an area of reduced predation. Hunters are predators. Those areas set aside for cover should have limited human activity to ensure that deer feel safe from human predation. By making those cover areas a sanctuary (prohibit entry by humans during most of the year) it will maximize the reduction of stress. Sanctuaries combined with desirable cover are very beneficial to deer.
To benefit the deer herd where you hunt, don’t just think about ways to attract them and make the deer easier to see, but think about managing enough of the habitat to ensure each deer has a place they feel safe. This is not a totally unselfish act by hunters. Deer that feel secure are not as alert and are easier to hunt.
Create some sanctuaries! Make that “un-huntable” buck drop some of his defenses, lower his stress, and line him up in your sights next deer season!
Growing Deer together!
Last week I shared the importance of allowing bucks to mature so they can express their antler growth potential (read The First Rule Of Deer Management here). By allowing more bucks to mature, there will be more bucks in the area which usually equates to better hunting.
However, there are lots of areas with a relatively high density of mature bucks, but very few bucks with good antler development. Where does this occur? It is often in areas where no habitat management activities occur. For bucks to express their genetic antler development potential, they must:
- be allowed to mature
- have access to quality forage throughout the year
Big bucks are usually seen where the combines roam. Soybean country. Compare the following maps.
The first shows the distribution of soybeans grown throughout the US and the second shows the distribution of Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young bucks harvested. The correlation is not perfect, but it’s close enough to make the point.
The good news is that soil can be improved anywhere – even if the land you hunt is not shaded on the soybean map. Notice that it’s a long way to any color on the map from where I live (Stone and Taney counties, MO). Even so, I grow great soybeans during the summer and cool season crops during hunting season. This combination has produced some great bucks on my mountainous, rocky property.
Good forage serves two purposes:
- allowing deer to express their potential
- serving as an attractant so mature bucks can be patterned
Ensuring quality forage is available year round is #2 on my top 10 list of managing land to yield mature, huntable bucks.
Growing Deer together,
It’s important to consider how to make a property “huntable” or hunter friendly for mature bucks. For a property to be huntable for mature bucks there are several factors that must be considered.
Have realistic expectations. This is the first step to hunting satisfaction. It is important to understand that having huntable, mature bucks doesn’t mean there will be a Boone & Crockett class buck behind every tree. A buck is mature to me when they are four years old or older. This is because most of their skeletal development is complete and they can use most of their excess resources to produce bigger antlers. Few free-ranging bucks express their genetic potential due to limitations in habitat quality.
Have more mature bucks. To get more mature bucks, immature bucks must be passed and allowed to grow. Dead deer don’t grow. It sounds simple, but some hunters still don’t understand. They harvest a good looking two year old buck and then complain that they never harvest a “monster buck.” They’ve probably harvested several monster bucks. They just shot them before they matured and produced large antlers!
Bucks typically produce larger antlers as they age. Research shows that two and three year old bucks produce, on average, about 50 and 75% of their antler growth potential. It’s not until bucks mature to four years old or older that they express, on average, about 94% of their antler growth potential. To have an opportunity to harvest mature bucks, you must hunt where bucks are allowed to mature. The more bucks that are allowed to live to 4+ years of age, the easier it will be to harvest a mature buck.
Trigger finger management is the least expensive form of deer management. It simply costs less to pass immature bucks than any other form of management for establishing a hunter friendly population of mature bucks.
If you want to tag a mature buck, be prepared to pass immature bucks. Yes, others in your area may kill immature bucks. But, the trend must start somewhere and it is most likely to start with you. Share the education with other hunters in your area. You don’t have to convince all of them, but you won’t convince any of them when gathered around an immature buck you just harvested.
Remember, the first rule of deer management, “Dead Deer Don’t Grow.”
Last week we finished planting! The cereal rye was successfully crimped by the Goliath and Eagle Seed beans are already germinating through the terminated rye! During the following months, the Eagle Seed forage soybeans will supply our deer herd with quality forage. Not only do we plant quality forage to promote healthy deer, it is a great way to attract deer and create a great hunting location this deer season!
Every year we protect a portion of our Eagle Seed beans during the summer months with a Non-Typical Hot Zone Fence in select locations. This ensures that even though deer may browse outside of the fence, they do not consume all the forage in the area. When season rolls around, we can simply open the fence and have a great food source to hunt over!
Here are the steps to take when setting up your Hot Zone fence:
1. Create the fence with your hunting strategy in mind. Think of where your stand or blind will be located in relation to the fence/food source. Consider which wind to hunt and how to enter and exit without alerting deer.
2. Build the fence as soon as beans begin to germinate. You do not want deer to associate the beans inside the fence as a food source. This will decrease the chances that deer will try to jump the fence to feed inside.
3. Make sure it is set up correctly. The Hot Zone electric fence works because it is designed as a two fence (3 strand) barrier. The outside fence has a thick, tape-like polyline that should be strung 18 inches from the ground. Three feet inside the outer fence there should be another fence that has two stands of polyline. The lower wire should be 10 inches from the ground and the top wire 24 inches from the ground.
4. Keep the electric fence turned on ALL summer. If the fence is not on during a portion of the summer, deer will learn that they can jump it with out consequences and will do so even when it is turned on.
5. Open the fence when the conditions are right for hunting! If you open the fence when it is hot and deer are feeding during the night, they can easily lick the field clean during several nights (depending on the size of the field). Or if there is not a suitable wind forecasted for hunting, deer can browse it quickly before you are able to effectively hunt.
If you’re a small food plotter and wish to save quality forage for early deer season or wish to allow beans to mature so that you can hunt over standing grain this winter, the preparation starts now! Stay tuned this summer as we share updates about our food plots and hunting strategies as we prepare for fall!
Sadly, Missouri’s turkey season recently ended. However, we feel much better knowing antlers are growing and fawns are dropping! Before long, it will be deer season. With deer season in sight, it’s important that all of our Trophy Rock stations are refreshed and ready for the upcoming growing season.
We keep many of our Trophy Rock sites out all year. Why? Because deer need minerals all year. We want does to be healthy in the winter when fawns are only a few weeks into development. We want to help bucks make it through the rut and the harsh winter conditions. However, deer tend to require larger amounts of mineral during the antler development, fawning and milk producing season (late spring and summer). During this time, it is especially important that all our Trophy Rock stations are full and there is plenty of mineral available to deer.
We prefer Trophy Rock because it has 60+ natural micro and macro nutrients! Deer may only need very small amounts of some of these minerals. However, if these trace minerals are not available to deer, it can keep bucks, does, and fawns from reaching their potential. If you want your deer herd to be healthy and reach their maximum potential this growing season, Trophy Rock is a great start!
I hope you are able to get Trophy Rock out on your property and begin monitoring the results with trail cameras. It won’t be long before it’s time to pattern deer and create the 2017 hit list.
Here at The Proving Grounds it seems like summer is just around the corner. Antlers are growing, fawns will be dropping any day and Eagle Seed soybeans are being planted. Soon we will be hanging Summit Stands, trimming lanes and beginning several habitat projects. That means a lot of time in the woods.
As many hours as we spend in the woods, we come across lots of ticks! Ticks can carry many diseases. We help protect our deer herd from these by feeding Antler-X-Treme which reduces ticks and other parasites, but what about us? Tick-borne diseases can be harmful, and in some cases, fatal to humans. Tick-borne diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease are serious and precautions need to be considered before heading into the woods this summer.
Before we enter the woods, we spray all our clothes with Permethrin. Permethrin repels and even kills ticks. One treatment will often last up to two weeks and several washings. However, Permethrin should not be applied to your clothes while wearing.
We lay out all our clothes that we will be using in the field, spray them with Permethrin and then let them dry before wearing. This has greatly reduced the number of ticks that we find after being in the woods. Fewer ticks mean there is less of a chance of contracting a tick-borne disease.
If you are planning to be in the woods this summer, start preparing now. Treat your clothes with permethrin or find another tick repellant and enjoy Creation without having to worry about ticks.