I live and do most of my hunting near Branson, Missouri – about 20 miles from the Arkansas line. I live in the Ozark Mountains. Steep, rocky, and very low fertility soil. Low quality oak and fescue pasture make up the vast majority of habitat. There are no grain fields, combines, silos, etc., associated with production row crop ag and large bucks for many miles.
My favorite food plot crop here is soybeans! Clearly there’s a close association with soybeans and bucks producing larger antlers and does producing more fawns. Yearling, two, three, and older bucks tend to produce substantially larger antlers when they consume soybean forage during the summer and pods during the winter compared to only consuming native browse during the summer and acorns during the winter.
Larger antlers (per age class) are a great indication of herd health. I like healthy deer and the by-product of larger antlers! Soybeans are unquestionably one of the best food plot forages for deer.
The biggest limiting factor for soybeans is the total acreage of plots compared to the number of deer using those plots. For example, soybeans are not a good value for a ½ acre plot in an area with a lot of deer unless the plot is protected by a Hot Zone food plot protection fence. The fences are great to protect plots and allow soybeans to mature enough that deer won’t damage them by over-browsing the young plants.
I toured a farm yesterday that is in mountainous timber country! This area typically produces 110-120” mature bucks. The bucks are simply limited by nutrition. Saplings, acorns, and fescue pastures do not allow bucks to express their antler growth potential at any age class.
Over the past three years this landowner has converted some fescue pastures to food plots planted in soybeans. Yesterday we observed some great bucks! They were much better than average for that region!
I’ve seen the same thing in pine plantations in the South. I’ve commonly prescribed for clubs to plant the thinned rows in pine stands with soybeans (Watch GDTV 19) and have watched substantial increases in average antler size and the huntability of the bucks!
Soybeans are easy to grow just about anywhere and provide great nutrition for deer. Rather than wishing you could hunt deer like you watch on hunting shows filmed in the Midwest, create some soybean food plots and enjoy the same quality bucks at home!
Growing and hunting deer together,
We’ve been preparing for our annual trail camera survey! A trail camera survey has been shown to be the most accurate method to determine the number or deer, the age class of bucks, and the number of fawns per doe on a specific property. Detailed instructions of how to conduct a trail camera survey can be found at this link.
Placing trail cameras and attractants like Trophy Rocks and Record Rack feeds is the easy part of conducting a trail camera survey. Plus, it’s always fun to look at all the deer pictures. Looking at each picture close enough to uniquely identify each buck can be very labor intensive. We usually end up looking at the same pictures many times to confirm the buck is the same (or different) as in other pictures.
A very accurate estimate of the total population and herd demographics can be obtained after identifying each individual buck, the number of times that buck was photographed, and the total number of does and fawns appearing in the pictures.
With the hard work completed, there’s still lots more valuable information that can be gained from all these photos! For example, I pay very close attention to which mature bucks tend to be active more during shooting light! Those bucks will usually be much easier to tag than bucks that only show up at camera sites after dark.
I also pay close attention to how the bucks, especially mature bucks, respond to each other. I look for mature bucks that are more active during daylight than other bucks and show signs of being aggressive at the camera site. Signs of aggression may be that the buck is usually the first to show up among other bucks in the bachelor group. The aggressive bucks are often photographed chasing other bucks away from the camera site.
These aggressive bucks tend to respond much better to grunt calls, rattling, and decoys. I’ll gladly spend my time hunting for an aggressive buck versus a buck that has larger antlers, but shows sign of being totally nocturnal. Such bucks may be practically unkillable – at least that year.
Currently, I’m getting a lot of images of a buck that I believe is six years old or older (based on the Reconyx trail camera images). We call him Split Brow because two years ago he had split brow tines. We’ve only had a small handful of daytime pictures of Split Brow in several years (from 1,000’s of pictures). Currently he’s showing up in front of one of my Reconyx cameras during shooting light daily! If this pattern continues, Split Brow will be at the top of my hit list due to his age and tendency to move during shooting light.
Camera surveys are a great tool for deer managers – and very useful to learn the characteristics of individual bucks! This info has served well to make me a much better hunter!
Growing and hunting deer together,
Removing stress from wildlife allows them to express more of their genetic potential. As managers we don’t improve genetics of free-ranging wild creatures. That requires knowing the pedigree (the sire and dam for several generations) which is totally impractical in free-ranging wild populations.
The best we can do is manage the population and habitat so each individual can express their full genetic potential. For example, a mature buck that’s limited to consuming hardwood twigs and fescue won’t produce as large of antlers or body size as that same buck if it was consuming soybean forage during the summer and soybean pods (and other forages) during the winter.
Managers can reduce the stress deer and other forms of wildlife experience by improving the quality of food, cover, and water and reducing the number of predators (should the predator/prey populations be out of balance). The natural world is dynamic. That is to say the balance of the number of critters in relation to the amount of quality food, cover, water, and predators is always changing!
We’re expecting a significant change later this week at The Proving Grounds. There’s a good chance of snow in the forecast! I heard on the radio that snow hasn’t been recorded in May in my area for more than 100 years. The cold conditions that are associated with this storm will certainly be very stressful for deer that have begun to shed their winter coat and replace it with the shorter, thinner summer coat. Staying warm will cost critters a lot of energy.
There are probably a couple of newly born fawns at my place. Most fawns are born during late May/early June, but there are always those that are born a few weeks earlier or later than “normal.” Freezing wet conditions will make survival very tough on newborn fawns.
Likewise there are probably a few turkey poults that have hatched already. Cold wet conditions will likely result in a 100% loss of those early born poults.
We can’t change (or even accurately predict) the weather. We can manage the habitat to provide quality food, cover, and water to help wildlife survive such storms. It’s critical to manage the wildlife populations so that there is more food than required during good conditions – as bad conditions will always occur.
We manage for very high quality native forage and cover at The Proving Grounds. There’s plenty to eat, fresh water to drink, and great cover for wildlife to seek during this arctic blast. Such storms have probably occurred before weather records were kept and they’ll probably occur again. That’s why quality habitat management is critical for allowing wild, free-ranging deer to express their potential. As managers, we can have an impact on the habitat quality and the amount of genetic potential the local herd expresses. We can’t impact the genetic quality of wild, free-ranging deer. I’m glad we can’t – that’s what makes them wild!
Growing Deer together,
It’s Friday February 22nd and Grant and I just returned late last night from a coyote hunt in Hamilton, Illinois with Jason Gilbertson and Mike Stock from Winchester Ammunition. Along with their friend Tyler Sellens of Riverview Outfitters. As most of you are aware there was a large winter weather front sweeping across the Midwest on Wednesday and Thursday, so Grant and I headed up on Tuesday hoping to get a couple days of hunting coyotes in before the winter weather hit.
With the threat of wintry weather Grant and I thought it would be a great time to catch some predators trying to find a quick meal before the storm hit. Plus, we would also spend some time with our friends at Winchester Ammo doing something exciting like chasing coyotes! On Wednesday Grant was busy working on a property near Princeton, Illinois so I teamed up with Mike and Tyler for the day. We had a fun day chasing coyotes. At the end of the day Mike headed home just as Jason and Grant arrived to hunt the following day. Before I give away the outcome of our success, you can catch this two day coyote hunt on the upcoming episode of GrowingDeer.tv (GDTV 171)! During this hunt I noticed some different techniques that I'll share with you now.
- Approach. You often hear Grant talk about MDE (minimal disturbance entry) for deer hunting, this is also important to coyotes. Our most successful trips happen when we use a hill or slope to our advantage. Approaching from a backside of a hill and just breaking over the top so we’re not alerting anything when approaching is a great way to sneak attack coyotes!
- Crosswinds. Of course when deer hunting, a wind that is consistently in your face is ideal, but sometimes with coyotes they can hang up out of sight because the situation is too risky for them. We typically want our wind direction to be blowing across a field or open area so when a coyote does approach downwind he’s in sight and you can take the shot!
- Be ready! A lot of times coyotes can run into your setup in under a minute of turning on the caller. This happened numerous times during our Illinois hunt. Once the caller had only been on for 36 seconds! With that being said, when the caller is turned on be ready!
- Timing. Coyote breeding season here in Missouri is typically mid to late February so its prime time to call coyotes. Coyotes are very vocal during this time so don’t be afraid to make a few howls either, it might be the only temptation you need to bring one within range.
It’s a slow time of year for deer hunters but an exciting time of year for predator hunters! It’s a great way to ease your cabin fever during these slow months between deer and turkey seasons.
That winter storm swept cross Missouri it dumping everything from freezing rain, sleet, to snow in northern parts of Missouri. Reports of up to 17 inches in places, but in Branson, Missouri there was primarily just sleet and freezing rain. Conditions were very hazardous when we made our venture home; generally it’s a 6 hour drive from Keokuk, Iowa where we were staying to Branson. Last night it took just over 12 hours. Today we are thankful for making it home safely with memories stored away of exciting and challenging days hunting those wiley coyotes!
As always – stay safe and good luck removing predators!
Dreaming of Giant Whitetails,
It’s been a busy week here at The Proving Grounds. Missouri trapping season is coming to a close and we’re also in the middle of our post season camera survey. These days are usually busy for the GrowingDeer.tv Team as we check our Duke Traps every morning and replenish the Record Rack feeding stations. It was during this time when I received a phone call from Mrs. Tracy saying she had found a “sure enough big buck.”
As many of our loyal viewers know, Mrs. Tracy loves to shed hunt with her dog, Crystal. Grant, Brian, and I are leaving January worn down from the long haul of deer season but Mrs. Tracy is just getting fired up! With the close of archery season on January 15th Mrs. Tracy heads to the woods to start looking for sheds and skulls of the bucks who didn’t survive the season. Especially after this year, with the outbreak of EHD (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease), as the shed hunting enthusiasts start their search for those treasured antlers, they will have their hands full of EHD stricken deer remains. There are a couple reasons why I feel this will happen.
We are beginning to switch out of hunting and back into the management side of things. We are starting to enter into parts of the property that have been left untouched during the hunting season. As we’ve started doing these projects we have been finding carcasses, both recent and from months ago when EHD hit the hardest. For example, Monday we began collecting soil samples and in a few hours of work we had already found two carcasses by the creek we were working by.
As the season progressed here at The Proving Grounds we noticed that some of our bucks had come up missing. First there was Bean Flipper in late August, then Tightwad in mid-September, next Giant 8 in late September and finally Pumpkin face (after a firsthand encounter in early November). Typically bucks are not as easy to pattern during the rut but as we enter a late season feeding pattern we would expect to see them on our Reconyx cameras. We’re now almost into February and still haven’t seen “hide nor hair” from these bucks, until I got the phone call.
I could hear the excitement in her voice and I was just hoping she couldn’t hear the disappointment in mine. She had found a large buck dead and now my only thought was, “Who is it?” She sent a picture to my phone and based on what looked like split G2s my instincts told me it was Bean Flipper. After we hiked down the valley to her and the buck, I put my hands on the antlers and crossed Bean Flipper of the MIA list. You can catch the entire recovery on next Monday’s episode at GrowingDeer.tv (GDTV 167).
As we make our way into the post season/shed hunting time of year, the GrowingDeer.tv Team will start focusing on who survived and who still remains MIA, and we’ll bring it all to you right here semi-live!
Good luck to all of you planning on hitting the woods searching for sheds!
Dreaming of Giant Whitetails,
This morning I toured a 280 acre tract of land recently purchased by the owners of Redneck Hunting Blinds. The property is in west central Missouri. It’s about 50% tillable land and 50% hardwood forest. A power line and a gas right of way cross the property. Basically the timber is on the west of the property and the crop ground on the east.
The area has much potential as we found both sheds to the buck in this picture. However, it’s a long way from finding one set of sheds to producing and harvesting two mature bucks annually.
My goal is to design a habitat management and hunting strategy that will yield an average of two mature (4+ year old) bucks to harvest annually – or a mature buck per 100+ acres. That’s a very tall order! However, the habitat is conducive to that objective. I’m not sure about the neighborhood yet.
I always begin by assessing the availability and quality of food, cover, and water. It seems most folks focus on food – either row crop or food plots. However, deer, especially mature bucks, spend the majority of their time during daylight hours in or near cover. This is especially true in areas where row crop ag is the primary land use – especially after the crops are harvested.
The Redneck Proving Grounds has some cover, but no sanctuaries. That’s to say there were no areas where there wasn’t sign (treestands, ATV trails, etc.) of hunting activity. One of my first thoughts during the tour was that I need a plan to encourage mature bucks to spend a majority of their time on the Redneck Proving Grounds. I will accomplish this by creating three sanctuaries in different corners of the properties!
Let me know if you’d like to follow this project closer and I’ll share step by step my plans and the progress.
Growing Deer together,
There are a few more days of archery season in Missouri and a few other states. Grant and the boys still have a few days to fill their tags here at The Proving Grounds. Once archery season ends, Grant will give me permission to start my season – shed hunting! Late winter is the time that I enjoy most here in Missouri. The woods are free of ticks and snakes. The brush has died back so that the hills and glades are easier walking. Best of all – Crystal and I can find special treasures while walking these Ozark Mountains – shed antlers! (Crystal is a Labrador Retriever that I have trained to find and retrieve shed antlers.)
Shed hunting in the Ozarks is not like shed hunting in the states that have flat land like Iowa, Kansas, or Illinois. I envy the folks that can go shed hunting and spot one 300 yards away! Finding a shed in these hills is akin to an Easter egg hunt where the eggs are well hidden. When you find a shed you consider it a special blessing!
My first objective will be to initially walk the valleys in search of deer that may have died during the fall from EHD. Our valley contains a creek that although it isn’t a perennial, flowing source of water, it does have certain deeper holes that held water even through this last summer’s drought. Those are the targets for my initial hunts. Crystal and I will be looking, but not necessarily hoping, to find the bucks that were lost due to the disease. Our fear is that we will find many more like the one Grant recently found pictured below and the one shown in the GrowingDeer.tv video back in September (GDTV 147).
On the brighter side, hunting in the valley has an additional benefit – it is relatively flat which will be the beginning of conditioning for both Crystal and me for the harder exercise of searching the hills!
Once the water sources have been hunted I will move on to the rest of the property. Grant and the boys will still be using the Reconyx cameras to monitor the deer herd to determine which bucks made it through the season. As soon as bucks start to show they are loosing antlers, I will develop specific areas to canvas based on the travel patterns shown by the Reconyx MapView software. Perhaps we’ll get lucky like we did last year (see it here in GDTV 116) and the Reconyx will capture images of one of our hit list bucks the night that he sheds his antlers!
Grant and I will be sharing some other tactics to help you find shed antlers in future blog posts. In the meantime – get out there to get some exercise and enjoy Creation! Enjoy the shed hunting season and share when and what you find on our Facebook page! I look forward to hearing about and seeing all the great treasures you find in the next few weeks.
Enjoying Deer together,
Throughout the whitetails range I am receiving reports and photos of bucks that are already shedding their antlers. Since early December 2012 I’ve gotten several Reconyx trail camera pictures of bucks that have already shed one or both antlers here at The Proving Grounds. It’s common for an occasional buck to shed early due to injury. However, I suspect about 10%+ of the bucks at my place have already shed.
Early shedding is a sign of stress. I’m sure deer at my place are stressed. During the 2011 growing season we experienced an extended drought followed by a record drought (the driest July during 118 years of record keeping) during 2012. Plants can’t transfer nutrients without water. Therefore forage quality was most likely severely decreased during the past two years.
There was also a major outbreak of EHD at my place (as in many places from Florida to Wyoming) last fall. There are two forms of EHD, acute and chronic. Deer with the acute form of EHD usually die within 24 to 36 hours. Deer with the chronic form may or may not die. If they do die, it often takes months.
We’ve found bucks that probably died from both forms of EHD (GDTV 147). The good news is that Mrs. Tracy will likely find a lot of sheds this year! The bad news is that she will also find a lot of skulls of bucks that died before they shed their antlers. I’ll keep you posted as Tracy and Crystal begin shed hunting. They will start just as soon as the archery season closes in Missouri (January 15, 2012).
I’ll begin a supplemental feeding program using the high quality feeds from Record Rack. I’ve never used supplemental feed before at The Proving Grounds. However, given the drought and amount of stress the herd is experiencing at my place, I think supplemental feeding is a very smart management strategy. I’ll keep you posted on our feeding program through this blog, on my Facebook page, and on GrowingDeer.tv!
If you’ve never used supplemental feed before, stay tuned and I’ll show you how and why I opted to use this strategy from a biologist’s point of view.
Growing Deer together,
Grant Woods, Ph.D.
The rut is tough. It’s probably like playing professional football without pads! Certainly some players would get hurt. The same is true with deer. Some bucks get hurt (gored, kicked, etc.) during the rut.
Bucks shed their antlers when certain hormones, primarily testosterone, drop below minimum levels. A buck’s testosterone level can drop earlier than normal if he is injured or sick. A few bucks are injured every year during the rut so it’s common to hear of a buck or two that someone saw or got a trail camera pic of during early December that has already shed.
This year may be a bit different. The largest outbreak of hemorrhagic disease that’s been recorded in 55 years occurred. Record droughts occurred throughout much of the whitetail’s range resulting in decreased forage quality and production. In short, many deer herds experienced a LOT of stress during 2012.
I knew all of this, but wasn’t prepared for all the reports, trail camera pics, etc., I’ve already received from folks about bucks that have already shed! The subjects of my recent blogs were about why I like and the techniques I use to tag bucks during the late season!
I’ll still hunt until the end of season (January 15th at my place in Missouri). However, the number of hit list bucks that hold their antlers till then will be slim. The good news is that I can begin shed hunting January 16th!
Growing Deer together,
I just shot a doe three hours before writing this. I saw her and a yearling buck. They were feeding on acorns. It’s October 25th and I’ve been hunting with three other guys for three days. None of us have seen a mature buck. I think it’s easy to explain why. The temperature each day has peaked at 80+ degrees.
I’m sure there will be some that will say deer are breeding late due to the drought, etc. However, that’s not the case. Years ago several researchers and I compared 1,000’s of conception dates collected from does harvested during the late season. The data was collected over several years and represented several states.
The strongest factor that predicted when the rut occurred was when it took place the previous year – not the phase, declination, etc., of the moon or any weather pattern. Timing of deer breeding is based primarily on genetics – not day to day factors.
Timing of breeding and daytime deer activity are not necessarily related. Several of my buddies have arrowed some whopper bucks during the past week in the western states – where the temperatures have dropped below normal. I was hunting at The Kentucky Proving Grounds early this week where the temperatures have been above normal. Even though the deer herd at The Kentucky Proving Grounds is a well managed deer herd, even healthy deer remain inactive during days with high temperatures.
From 20+ years of keeping records, there’s a strong trend that once deer start putting on fat along with their winter coat they simply don’t like moving during daylight, especially when the temperatures are above normal during daylight hours – no matter the date on the calendar.
I hunt when I can, but I expect more success when the daytime temperature is 10-20% below normal. I watch the weather forecast much more than moon phases or the state of the rut. The daytime temperatures are predicted to drop 30 degrees the next couple of days. I’ll let you know next week if the big bucks begin moving during daylight after the temperatures drop!
Growing (and hunting) Deer together,