Category: Deer Management

Hunting Whitetails: How Will EHD Affect Hunting?

By GrowingDeer,

Literally 1,000’s of bucks, does, and fawns have been found dead during the past few weeks from South Dakota to North Carolina. The likely cause of death is EHD (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease) or BT (Blue Tongue).

Dead Whitetail Buck found near a water source. Likely cause of this buck's death

EHD likely cause of this buck's death

For more information about these viruses read the epizootic hemorrhagic disease fact sheet.

The only known method to stop the deaths from EHD is a killing frost that will kill the flies that carry the virus from deer to deer.

I’ve received several questions asking if hunting should continue given the extent of EHD. There isn’t a black and white answer that covers all areas. In my home state of Missouri, there have been no deer found that were suspected to have died from EHD or BT in some counties. In other counties more than 100 dead deer have been found.Missouri State Map Showing by County the reported EHD Cases for 2012

Dead deer tend to decompose or be consumed by predators/scavengers rapidly during the warm days of late summer. Hence, the number found and reported is likely a gross underestimation of the total killed by the viruses. It is doubtful state agencies will have the resources to survey deer herds in localized areas. Certainly they won’t be able to survey the herds before the 2012 season (which has already begun in some areas).

There are exceptions. South Dakota’s Game, Fish, and Parks department is offering a refund for 2012 deer licenses. They state they may make further adjustments as needed. However, this action won’t be required by most states. The impact of the virus will vary by location. This is why each hunter and/or land manager needs to assess the impact in their area and set their harvest objectives accordingly.

Whether there is a die-off or not, deer herd harvest objectives should be based on the ratio of deer to the amount of quality habitat available. If you hunt/manage deer in areas with lots of row crops, then food is rarely a limiting resource. If you hunt in areas that are primarily timber and/or pasture, then the deer population must be kept smaller so the number of deer doesn’t exceed the habitat’s ability to produce quality food.

I have a friend that owns and hunts 75 acres. He’s already found 5 dead deer (including the largest buck that he knew was using his property). Based on camera surveys and observations, probably 1/3 of the deer that used his property have already died. It is 20 days before it normally frosts where he hunts. It is very possible that another 1/3 of his herd could die before a frost kills the flies that carry the virus from deer to deer. It may be best for my friend to not harvest deer this year – depending on what happens during the next few weeks.

That prescription should not be automatically accepted for other areas. However, it should serve to make hunters and landowners aware that this year may not be business (deer harvest) as usual. I strongly recommend all hunters and landowners to observe the number of deer in their area. Visit with neighbors and other local hunters and get their observations.

My friend has already taken steps towards helping his deer herd recover. Yesterday while out checking for deer sign, he shot a coyote. Predation can have a larger impact on suppressed deer herds compared to those that are near the habitat’s capacity. If you’ve never been a predator hunter, this is the year you should seriously consider becoming one.

I’ll be using my Duke Traps and Fox Pro caller this year. I expect to have a busy year as I have a lot of friends that may need a bit of help removing some stress from their surviving deer herd.

Growing Deer together,

Grant

Antler Size and Food Plots

By GrowingDeer,

It’s certain that the quality of forage bucks consume is a huge factor in the size of antlers they produce.  If your goal is to manage deer to produce better antlers, you must improve the quality of their diet. Establishing and maintaining food plots is probably the most practiced method of improving the quality of forage available to a local deer herd.

The phrase “food plots” is a very generic term. It’s used to describe everything from very small hidey hole plots best used to attract deer into shooting range to large ag fields that are capable of providing most of the quality forage necessary for all the deer in that area.

Unfortunately the lack of a precise definition has created some unsatisfied hunters. Some folks plant a hidey hole sized food plot and are upset when they don’t see an increase in average antler size.

Velvet buck standing in Missouri food plot

Bucks Eating An Abundance of High Quality Forage Like Soybeans Grow Bigger Antlers

Deer will consume several pounds of forage daily. At one end of the spectrum, it’s easy for a few deer to consume all the forage in a small plot before it provides any measurable advantage toward the herd’s health. The other end of the spectrum is the large production soybean fields in the Midwest. There are so many acres of soybeans in many areas that deer densities of even 100+ deer per square mile still have plenty to eat. This is a primary reason that deer in these areas produce larger antlers and more fawns than in areas where the landscape is primarily covered with trees.

Research has shown that in areas with relatively poor habitat (all trees, no crops, limited early succession habitat), just 1-2% of land in high quality food plots can make noticeable increases in average antler size!

However, to have this type of success, it requires more than simply scratching the dirt in an acre or two for each 100 acres. To increase the average antler size the deer must consume the forage, the forage must be available throughout the early and mid growing season and year round is better. The forage must transfer nutrients to deer.

This means the forage must be high quality (Eagle Seed forage soybeans have tested among the highest in digestible protein of all forage crops by multiple universities), and produce enough tons of forage to feed the herd.

Food plots can be a great hunting and herd quality tool. However, like most things in life, you rarely get more out of them than you put into them. There is no magic recipe. Food plots designed to improve herd quality require time and effort to establish. They also require ample soil moisture – which is currently missing from much of the whitetail’s range. I hope there is adequate soil moisture where you plant food plots!

Growing Deer together,

Grant

Scouting Whitetails With N.O.A.A.

By GrowingDeer,

It’s been very dry throughout much of the whitetail’s range so far during antler growing season. For example it was the second driest May since records have been kept in Arkansas, fourth in Kansas, seventh in Missouri, and eleventh in Oklahoma. N.O.A.A has been keeping records 118 years. It has been very dry during the growing season in these states.

2012 United States Precipitation Ranking

2012 United States Precipitation Ranking

These rankings are based on statewide averages. I think it is drier at my place (just a few miles from Arkansas) than the Missouri average indicates. Likewise, I’m sure some areas in these states have received an isolated thunderstorm or two and aren’t as dry as indicated by these statewide averages.

Plants need water to transport nutrients from the soil and air into and throughout the plant. Without adequate moisture, plants are simply not as nutritious compared to more normal growing conditions. Remember plants are simply transfer agents and if plants are lacking nutrients, so are the critters that consume them. Deer in drought areas won’t produce as large of antlers or as many (or healthy) fawns compared to the same deer during better growing conditions (different years).

Therefore droughts have a huge impact on hunters deciding on where (which state or region) to go hunting and deer herd managers deciding on whether to harvest bucks during drought years. I use maps to plan where to hunt and data from N.O.A.A can be a very valuable scouting tool!

Is the primary goal of planning an out of state hunt is to chase deer with larger antlers than what’s typically produced near your home? Then studying the N.O.A.A. data and determining the severity and duration of droughts can be just as important as studying the average antler size from specific counties, etc.

For example, planning a deer hunt in Kansas might not yield the expected results if that area is experiencing one of the worst growing season droughts during the past 100+ years. This is always dependent on the local conditions. For example, if you were planning to hunt near an irrigated soybean or alfalfa field, the drought might make the hunting better! The local herd had access to quality forage and all the deer in the neighborhood will likely be feeding at the irrigated crop versus spread out in the drought stricken native vegetation.

For deer managers that manage and hunt the same deer from birth through maturity, droughts may cause a different decision. Consider if you and your guests have passed bucks waiting for them to express 90+% of their antler growth potential. These bucks reach 4.5 years of age during an extreme drought. Due to a lack of quality forage, those mature bucks only express a portion of their antler growth potential – maybe not as much as they did when they were 3.5 years of age. The manager then has to decide if he and his guests will attempt to harvest the bucks even though they are only expressing a portion of their antler growth potential. This is a personal choice – one that should be based on the reason you/the landowner hunts.

Personally, I enjoy the challenge of hunting mature bucks and does. Given the extreme drought conditions at my place this year, I will focus on harvesting enough does to balance the amount of food available during these poor conditions. They will likely return again. During years with better growing seasons, each deer will have ample food to produce the best antlers and fawns they can.

I will also attempt to harvest a mature buck. I enjoy large antlers as much as most hunters. However, my primary satisfaction is being able to pattern and harvest a mature buck. My guests and I will only harvest a small portion of the mature bucks that our years of management efforts have yielded. I realize now that bucks will not express their full antler potential this fall. However, they will still be just as alert and skilled at avoiding predators (2 and 4 legged). The hunt will still score as much to me as if I was hunting during a year with average or better growing conditions.

I hope the growing conditions are good where you hunt. If not, I hope you still enjoy the hunt!

Growing Deer (during all conditions) together,

Grant

Big Bucks for Big Bucks

By GrowingDeer,

I’m returning from the Kentucky Proving Grounds as I write this. The Kentucky Proving Grounds is a tract of land owned by my friend, Mr.  Hamby.  His mission is to produce and hunt quality white-tailed deer and turkey and share those experiences with family and friends.

Load of wood on forwarder

Timber Management for Improved Deer Habitat

This week we started another project toward meeting Mr. Hamby’s mission. There are about 140 acres of loblolly pines in seven different stands that were planted 18 years ago at The Kentucky Proving Grounds. If pine trees are planted at a normal density (about 750 trees per acre), they will become so crowded that each tree will grow slower, be weakened and susceptible to disease and or insects.

Most critters or plants that are crowded don’t prosper for the same reasons. For example, deer herds that are overcrowded don’t express their full potential and are more susceptible to disease and/or insects.

When deer herds are overcrowded and damaging their habitat the best solution is to harvest excess reproductive units (does). The goal is to harvest some of the population to allow the rest to be healthier and not damage the habitat.

It’s the same with pine trees. By harvesting the excess trees, the remaining trees will grow faster and be less susceptible to most disease and insect threats. However a big difference is that the landowner can generate revenue by thinning trees! So when appropriate, thinning trees is a great way to improve the habitat, maybe clear food plot location, and make some revenue.

At The Kentucky Proving Grounds, Mr. Hamby has had me designate the flat and accessible locations to be clearcut (remove all trees) and establish new food plots. In the other portions of the pine stands, I instructed the loggers to remove the trees with less than desirable form, smaller diameter, etc., and insure that each residual tree has space around it’s crown so it can receive ample sunlight, moisture, and nutrients from the soil.

Good timber management is usually good deer management.

Growing Deer together,

Grant

Patterning Mature Bucks

By GrowingDeer,

I enjoy researching and managing deer. I’ve spent my career learning about deer – their behavior, how to improve their habitat, etc. However, my passion is driven by being a hunter – and learning how to pattern mature bucks. Patterning bucks simply means learning their habits, personality, and range.

Two tools that I use to pattern mature bucks are Reconyx trail cameras and Trophy Rocks. Even though it’s more than four months until deer season opens in Missouri, I’ve started patterning a mature buck I call Split Brow.

Mature Whitetail Buck with split brow antlers

A mature buck, Split Brow, in October 2011

This is a picture of Split Brow from last fall. He was one of the bigger bucks that I knew about at my place. My Reconyx camera captured lots of images of Split Brow, but almost all of them were at night. I didn’t hunt for Split Brow as I had no indication he was moving during the day with any regularity. To my knowledge, he maintained this nocturnal only pattern through the hunting season. That’s not to say Split Brow wasn’t occasionally active during the daylight. However, the vast majority of pictures of him were at night. Hunting in his core area would have likely alerted him and I would have had a very small chance of seeing him during daylight. So, I hunted a buck that tended to be active more during daylight hours.

Whitetail buck known as "Split Brow" is blind in right eye

Split Brow after going blind in right eye

During the late season Split Brow apparently was in a tough fight. He was blinded in his right eye and broke the G3 of the left side of his rack. Disney got it wrong — life is not fun and games in the wild.

White-tailed Buck Known as "Split Brow" aftr shedding his antlers

Split Brow after shedding his antlers

Split Brow shed his antlers soon after he received these injuries. I was worried he wouldn’t survive due to a secondary infection or internal injuries. Knowing that Split Brow had just shed, Tracy and Crystal (her lab) went hunting for his antlers. Since we had a Reconyx image of him that morning at a Trophy Rock with both antlers and another that evening showing he had shed both antlers, I knew Tracy and Crystal would have a relatively small area to search. Within an hour they had found both of Split Brow’s sheds.

Shed Antler Hunting: Antlers from Bucks Seen on Trail Cameras

Tracy and Crystal find the sheds from Split Brow

Bucks aggressively seek trace minerals during the spring and summer (when antlers and fawns are developing) time of year so it was easy to see if Split Brow was alive by putting a Trophy Rock and Reconyx in his core area. It will be very interesting to watch his antlers develop this year and see if his antler configuration changes substantially.

New Trail Camera Photo of Whitetail Buck "Split Brow" Spring 2012

Split Brow at Little Cave

Patterning bucks throughout the year helps me as hunter! It also teaches me much about how bucks use the existing habitat and what I need to do to improve it from a manager’s and hunter’s point of view. Stay tuned and I’ll keep you posted on how Split Brow develops this year and if his pattern changes to include more activity during the daytime. If it does, he’ll be at the top of my hit list.

In the mean time, grab some Trophy Rocks and dust off those trail cameras. It’s time to start patterning bucks where you hunt!

Growing (and patterning) Deer together,

Grant

Are You Seeing Antlers?

By GrowingDeer,

“Are you seeing antlers?” This time of year that question almost always means seeing bucks that have started growing a new set of antlers. However, that’s not the case this year. Due to the record warm winter and significantly lower than normal stress levels on deer, many bucks throughout the whitetails’ range are still holding antlers from the 2011-12 season.

Whitetail Buck still with last years antlers at a trophy rock on 03-30-2012

Buck with Last Years Antlers at a Trophy Rock on 3-30-2012

Whitetail Buck with New Antler Growth at a Trophy Rock Mineral Lick April 2012

Buck with New Antler Growth at a Trophy Rock on 4-10-2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At The Proving Grounds we got Reconyx images last week of bucks still holding antlers from last season and bucks that have shed and are starting to grow new antlers. I’ve even had a report of an image from Iowa of a buck that still has his antlers from last year and is starting to grow new antlers off to the side. That has happened before – but it is very odd.

I don’t know (and I doubt anyone does) what all this means as far as antler growth this summer. I strongly suspect the growing conditions this summer will be more of an influence on antler production more than the odd shedding pattern that is occurring. I’m very eager to see how antlers develop this summer! I would appreciate seeing trail camera images of bucks that haven’t shed as of today (April 13th). I’d also really appreciate any trail camera images of bucks that are growing their new antlers while still holding antlers from last year. (You can upload the images directly to my Facebook page.)

Odd years produce odd results. I’m eager to see how the average antler production during 2012 turns out!

Growing Deer (and learning) together,

Grant

Pt. 10: Top 10 Recommendations for Managing Land to Yield Mature, Huntable Deer

By GrowingDeer,

Part 10: Putting it all Together

I wrote this series to address several questions recently posted on my Facebook page. The questions were timely as there is a huge interest in hunting mature bucks. Folks are realizing that to hunt mature bucks, mature bucks must exist. For example, hunting mature bucks on properties where a majority of the yearling bucks are harvested annually is very frustrating.

Grant and friends with a mature buck harvested in Kentucky

There must be mature bucks present to be harvested.

Therefore it’s very important to have realistic objectives based on a property’s recent buck harvest. For example, if there have been an average of three bucks harvested per square mile on the property and/or neighborhood where you are hunting, there won’t likely be many bucks reaching maturity on that property.  The bottom line is there must be mature bucks present to be harvested. Obviously, the more mature bucks in the area the better the odds of having an encounter with one. A higher percentage of the total buck harvest is usually composed of mature bucks in states with a more restrictive bag limit for bucks. Kentucky and Kansas are good examples of states with a restrictive buck bag limit and a trend of producing great mature bucks annually.

This is simply a trend. I’m aware of individual properties in most states that produce great mature bucks. These landowners or deer management cooperatives usually establish more favorable deer harvest guidelines than imposed by the state’s regulations. This is to say that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence (or border).

Simply allowing bucks to reach maturity doesn’t mean they will express their full antler growth potential. Bucks need an excellent source of nutrition throughout their life to express their full antler growth potential – in addition to living to maturity. Even further, the better health (good food, limited stress) the buck’s dam was in has an impact on the buck’s health.

This means that simply significantly increasing the quality of a buck’s diet for a year or two won’t necessarily allow him to express his full potential. The overall health of a buck (or other critter) is substantially impacted by their development years. When Tracy and I purchased The Proving Grounds, it was a horribly overgrazed cattle ranch. We’ve now owned it nine+ years and spent a lot of time and resources improving the habitat. However, the five year old bucks that are currently on our property were most likely from does that were raised in very stressful conditions. To determine the true potential of bucks at The Proving Grounds will require maintaining quality habitat long enough for does to be born from does that were raised with access to quality food and limited stress. Those does will need to have fawns, and then allow those male fawns to reach maturity. Let’s consider this three generations of deer – or 12+ years.

This process can be short cut if the property is in an area where quality nutrition has never been a limited factor, and the only missing piece of the deer management puzzle is allowing bucks to reach maturity. In other words, the lower the quality of habitat, the longer it will take to allow the herd to express its full potential. However, such land usually costs much less than row crop land where good nutrition has been available year round for many years.

I really enjoy the process of managing and hunting for mature bucks. I like going on suitcase hunts – hunting properties that I show up for a week or so a year and my only management activity is deciding to pass or pull the trigger. However, my passion is growing and hunting mature bucks. If you share my passion, we’ll keep learning together.

Growing Deer together,

Grant

Pt. 9: Top 10 Recommendations for Managing Land to Yield Mature, Huntable Deer

By GrowingDeer,

Part 9: Predator Induced Stress

Last week I shared with you a summary of Dr. John Kilgo’s long-term research about the amount of fawn mortality primarily caused by coyotes to deer in South Carolina. The results were that 70% of the fawns were killed by predators before the first hunting season after they were born. At that rate of mortality, even without any harvest by hunters, deer populations will decrease. This problem is not everywhere yet. However the number of coyotes, bobcats, black bears, cougars/mountain lions, etc., is increasing rapidly in many areas.

Several of my fellow researchers besides Dr. Kilgo have reported similar findings of predator caused mortality on young deer and even adult deer. Predators are a significant factor on deer populations in many areas!

Dead whitetail deer carcass

Whitetail deer are prey for predators

However, direct mortality is only part of the picture. Even healthy adult deer that are not as susceptible to being killed by predators still can suffer because of high predator populations. Great research on elk in Yellowstone National Park has shown that elk that haven’t been killed by wolves are averaging fewer calves per cow, lower body weights, and the males have smaller antlers on average than before wolves were reintroduced. How can this be? Fewer mouths competing for the same or more food should result in more calves per cow, heavier body weights, and larger antler for each age class.

The answer was found by comparing the levels of specific hormones in elk before they were exposed to wolves and then again five years after wolves had been released into Yellowstone. These hormones are produced and released in critters that are stressed. The levels of these hormones were several times higher in the elk after being exposed to wolves!

This is not surprising. The medical news is full of studies reporting how damaging stress is to human health. Dairy, beef, and even poultry farmers attempt to reduce stress in their stock so they will be more productive. The same is true with game animals. Being chased or even living where they need to be constantly vigilant to avoid predators results in increased stress.

Increases in the number of predator populations (increasing coyote, bobcat, bear, hog, etc.) certainly results in increased stress for several species of game animals.

In addition to reduced health caused by predator induced stress, there is another negative to allowing the predator population to increase significantly.

Deer and turkeys that are constantly vigilant against four-legged predators are also constantly vigilant against two-legged predators. It will likely be more difficult to observe game species on properties that have an abundance of coyotes and other predators. I’ve worked on a few properties that had an abundance of predators. We called and trapped to reduce the number of predators and the observation rate of mature whitetail bucks increased within weeks! These bucks didn’t mature into the population. It is doubtful they moved into the population. They simply became less vigilant.

To have more mature bucks to hunt, there must be more fawns recruited into the population. It’s noticeably easier to have encounters with mature bucks when they are less vigilant. Significantly reducing the number of predators will likely have a positive impact on deer herds. Due to increasing predator populations and decreasing numbers of trappers, predator management is rapidly becoming a significant part of deer and turkey management.

Growing Deer together,

Grant

Pt. 8: Top 10 Recommendations for Managing Land to Yield Mature, Huntable Deer

By GrowingDeer,

Part 8: Predators

The past seven entries for this blog have been on the subject of managing for and killing mature bucks. However, in recent 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 across much of the landscape.

It’s the number of predators. When I was a boy (I was born in 1961), coyotes were shot on sight by farmers (almost every farmer I knew always had a rifle in his truck). Raccoon pelts were bringing $50.00 +/- 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.

I went off to college and was taught to feel sorry for predators. I was taught 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 measureable!

This last statement is not simply my observations. I had a graduate student five 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 result of removing 20+ coyotes and 10 bobcats! It appeared the turkey and rabbit population also exploded!

35th Annual Southeast Deer Study Group

35th Annual Southeast Deer Study Group

When Cory VanGilder (the grad student) presented his resultsat the annual Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting, there wasn’t much excitement among the 100’s of scientists in attendance. Fast forward five years, I just returned from the 35th Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting. Just to give you a hint of the change in attitudes among some of my fellow deer biologists, the theme of the meeting this year was Shifting Paradigms: Are Predators Changing the Dynamics of Managing Deer in the Southeast? Twelve of the 35 presentations were on the subject of coyote predation on deer!

Several of the researchers reported results of fawn mortality documented by the use of vaginal transmitters (VITS). This technology allowed researchers to captures does after they’ve been bred 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 rapidly in number and quality (more on the stress of predation next week).

John and his staff swab the kill site and use 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 saying “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 more about this issue.

Growing (and protecting) Deer together,

Grant

Pt. 6: Top 10 Recommendations for Managing Land to Yield Mature, Huntable Deer

By GrowingDeer,

Part 6: Flat Ground

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+% of their antler growth potential.

Eagle Seed beans food plot

Food plot with a utilization cage

In this blog series 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 throughout his life and experienced minimal stress, he will not produce antlers as large as his genetic potential.

Now that we discussed several aspects of managing deer so they can express their full genetic potential, I’d like to discuss how to harvest mature bucks. Last week I shared that I’d found several sheds in bottlenecks or pinch points while laying out a habitat management plan on a property in central Missouri.

I really enjoy finding sheds. 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 accomplishing this on a year after year basis – 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 whitetail’s range, the portion of the area that produces commercial row crops is a relatively small portion of the whitetails range. Yet, the majority of Boone and Crocket and Pope and Young entries come from the 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.

My property, 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 – literally – only rock. I never disk 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 (Antler Dirt) 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 disk! Remember that 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!) and transfer those nutrients to deer and other plant consumers.

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.

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 (The Proving Grounds). However, over the years, I’ve converted the few flat spots among the hills where I live to well fertilized food plots and usually plant Eagle Seed forage soybeans. 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!

There is another HUGE advantage to managing and hunting deer where the land is flat. I’ll discuss that next week.

Growing Deer together,

Grant