Part 3: Cover
Next on my list of top 10 recommendations for managing land to yield mature, huntable whitetails is the need for cover. I define cover as areas where deer are likely to feel more secure compared to surrounding areas. In the Deep South cover may be shade, or in a colder climate 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 to be in balance with prey species.
Quality cover serves to reduce stress levels of deer and therefore 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, one without the other means the deer herd likely won’t express 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. To maximize the reduction of the level of stress it is best to combine the structure of cover while also making it a sanctuary (prohibit entry by humans during most of the year).
Sanctuaries are the least expensive form of cover to create. It simply means not entering an area. Sanctuaries 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 insure each deer has a place where they believe they won’t be seen. This is not a totally unselfish act by hunters. Sanctuaries should result in a healthier herd, and one that is easier to hunt as deer that feel secure are not as alert.
My third recommendation for managing land to yield mature, huntable bucks is to create areas where they are “un-huntable” – create some sanctuaries!
Growing Deer together!
Part 2: Nutrition
Last week I started addressing a question posted on my Facebook page about how to manage land to yield mature, huntable deer. The subject of that blog was how important age is to allowing bucks to express their antler growth potential. In addition, by allowing more bucks to mature, there will be more bucks to harvest – more bucks 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. This often occurs in areas where hunting is not allowed and no habitat management activities occur. These areas include preserves, parks, etc. For bucks to express their genetic antler development potential, they must be allowed to 1) mature, 2) and have access to quality forage.
I remember visiting years ago with a wise gentleman when another person entered the conversation and shared an image of a very large buck recently harvested for that area. My friend instantly said “I bet that buck was harvested within a mile of one of the few soybean fields.” The gent with the image said “how’d you know?” My friend simply said, “All the big deer killed in this county are harvested by the soybean fields.”
My friend knew that big bucks are usually seen where the combines roam. His statement was not only correct for that county, but throughout the whitetails’ range. Compare the following maps. The first shows the distribution of soybeans grown throughout the continental states and the second shows the distribution of B&C and P&Y bucks harvested up to 2005. 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 green on the soybean map. Notice that it’s a long way to any green on the map from where I live (Stone and Taney counties, MO). Even so, I grow great soybeans (and deer) using the combination of Eagle Seed beans, Antler Dirt fertilizer, and no-till drill techniques.
To have huntable mature bucks requires allowing bucks to mature and have access to good forage so they can express their antler growth potential. Good forage serves two purposes of allowing deer to express their potential and serving as an attractant so mature bucks can be patterned.
Insuring quality forage is available year round is #2 on my top 10 list of managing land to yield mature, huntable bucks.
Growing Deer together,
Part 1: Age
Earlier this week I received a very good question on my Facebook page. Dan Dealy asked “Dr. Woods, what are your TOP TEN recommendations for managing land (and wildlife) to yield mature, huntable deer?”
One of the keys to Dan’s question was the second to last word –“huntable.” Most managers and hunters consider food, cover, and water, but they don’t consider how to make a property “huntable” or hunter friendly for mature bucks.
For a property to be huntable for mature bucks – for a hunter to have better than average odds of harvesting a mature buck – there are several factors that must be considered. To discuss all of these in detail would require a book (like Deer Management 101). In my next few blog posts, I will share some thoughts about my top ten recommendations to produce a huntable population of mature bucks. I apply these strategies and techniques to my property and have applied them to those of my clients for 20+ years. They are not deep secrets or magic recipes. They are proven and practical.
Having realistic expectations is the first step to satisfaction. It is important to understand that having huntable mature bucks doesn’t mean there will be Boone and Crocket class bucks behind every tree. A buck is mature to me when they are 4 years old or older. This is when bucks grow the largest antlers because most of their skeletal development is complete and they can use most of their excess resources to produce the biggest antlers of their genetic potential. Few free-ranging bucks express their genetic potential. In my opinion, many hunters, writers, etc., waste way too much time talking about whitetail genetics.
First, it’s very difficult to alter the gene pool of a free-ranging herd of whitetails. Second, there is probably nothing wrong with the genetics, but ample room for improvement of the habitat and herd structure.
With that said, my number one factor to improve the yield of huntable mature bucks is to have more mature bucks. To get more mature bucks, immature bucks must be passed and allowed to grow. Rule #1 the in Woods’ Book of Deer Management is that “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 were allowed to express their genetic potential to produce large antlers! Bucks typically produce larger antlers as they age. University 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 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. That’s #1 in my top 10 recommendations for managing land to produce huntable mature bucks. The more bucks that are allowed to live to 4+ years of age, the easier it will be to harvest a mature buck. I’d much rather hunt a property that has three mature bucks per square mile than one or no mature bucks per square mile.
The least expensive form of deer management is trigger finger management. It simply costs less to pass immature bucks than any other form of management for establishing a hunter friendly population of mature bucks.
During 2012 – if you want to tag a mature buck, be prepared to pass immature bucks. Yes, others in your area may kill immature bucks. However, 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.”
Growing (huntable mature bucks) Deer together,
Ben Hampton, Prostaff on Midwest Whitetail, recently shared the pictures of this super buck with me. He found the buck’s sheds last year and they grossed 154 4/8 (172 4/8 with an 18′ spread) as a typical 6×6 and this year he grossed 174 3/8 as a 6×5, with an additional 10 non-typical points he didn't have last year, for a total gross non-typical score of 191 6/8. Ben asked me if it was typical for a deer to make this big of jump between 5 and 6 and if the bad drought they experienced in the summer of 2010 could have suppressed last year's rack.
Bucks, just like humans, are individuals. Some bucks produce larger antlers earlier than others. I was the tallest kid in 1st grade. Folks wanted me on their basketball team. By the time I was in high school, I didn’t make the team. Some bucks grow early, some mature late.
On average (averages represent populations – but almost never an individual) bucks express 94% of their antler growth potential by age 4.5. However, most wild deer don’t have access to quality forage year round. There have been bucks in research locations that barely scored 120 and then blew up to 200+ once given a better diet.
By being allowed to mature and having access to better forage created a perfect scenario for the buck Ben harvested to express his full antler potential. His timing was perfect.
So – in general, the better the year round forage, the later in life bucks will express their full antler growth potential.
Congratulations Ben, that’s a fabulous buck!
Growing Deer together,
Adam called me two days ago with a bitter sweet message. He had found a shed from Giant 8. It was bitter because I had used some Reconyx cameras to understand Giant 8’s post late season feeding pattern. I had a Muddy hung, and felt I could tag him when the temperatures dropped and he needed to feed more during the daylight to gain calories to maintain his body weight. That plan is now canceled.
The sweet part is that his shed was found in one of two food plots that I had determined where Giant 8 was feeding. My scouting was spot-on! In addition, I’d rather the shed be found and confirmed it was a clean shed (no sign of injury, brain abscess, etc.) than he simply disappear.
I host an annual shed hunt during March. Even though March is relatively late for many shed hunters, we always jump a buck or two that still has antlers. However, I have multiple images of bucks that have shed early this year. In addition, folks from throughout the whitetail’s range have commented on my Facebook page about bucks shedding early in their neighborhood.
I expected bucks to shed earlier than normal this year – but not this early. Bucks will shed early when they are stressed. It was the fourth driest summer on record where I live. In addition to the lack of moisture, several months were recorded as the hottest or some of the hottest on record. Those hot and dry conditions caused a huge amount of stress to Eagle Seed beans planted in my plots. I was shocked they grew as well as they did – my other crops perished.
To a deer manager, forage plants are simply nutrient transfer agents. They simply transfer nutrients from the soil and air to the consumer (deer). No matter how many nutrients are available, plants can’t transfer nutrients without water. Soil moisture was so limited this year that the plants simply couldn’t transfer many nutrients. The heat directly and indirectly caused a huge amount of stress to bucks in my area this year.
I was shocked that the antler production was as good as it was during 2011. This was confirmed by comparing some sheds we found last year to some mature bucks that were harvested here this year (most notably Giant 10). I was pleasantly surprised that they actually produced larger antlers than during the previous year when the growing conditions were much better! This is a great testimony of the relationship between age and antler development. If you wish to harvest bucks with larger antlers, allow the bucks where you hunt to mature and provide the best nutrition you can afford. Food plots are relatively easy to produce and can definitely yield great results in allowing bucks to be healthier (larger antlers) and easier to hunt.
However, a buck’s antler growth potential (genetic potential) can only be expressed if the buck is allowed to live until it reaches older age classes AND has access to quality nutrition year round. It seems my buck hunting may be over soon even though the legal season where I live extends to January 15th. I learned some very valuable lessons about managing for and hunting mature bucks during the drought of 2011. I’ll be a better manager during 2012. I will continue sharing what I learned in this blog and each week in the video episodes of http://www.GrowingDeer.tv. Thank you for being part of the http://www.GrowingDeer.tv team and for sharing what you’ve learned and observed with us. May you be blessed with a great 2012.
Growing Deer together,
Iowa State probably does more research about growing corn than any other university. I have learned much about growing corn from their publications and staff. Iowa State’s Extension department publishes a great E newsletter titled Crop Management News.
The issue today does a great job of explaining how temperature and soil moisture availability impact the productivity of corn. As I’ve referenced frequently on recent episodes of GrowingDeer.tv, when growing conditions cause stress on forage or grain crops the critters are stressed also.
It is easier to monitor the impact of stress caused by drought on a corn crop. Researchers can simply sample many aspects of the crop on a daily basis. In fact, some of these factors (amount the leaves are twisted, tassel development, etc.) can be estimated from the comfort of a pickup.
It’s much more difficult to monitor deer. They are mobile and tend to be nocturnal. They don’t like to be held or measured. Capturing deer is not necessary to know that they are stressed when crops are not expressing their full potential. I’m not aware of an exact index that compares bushels of corn produced per acre that equates to inches of antler development per age class of bucks.
However when corn, soybean, alfalfa, etc., production is limited by harsh growing conditions, it is certain that deer won’t express their full potential. For example, today there was an Associated Press article posted on Fox News that quoted the Texas AgriLife Extension Service as reporting that pregnant does are having difficulty carrying fawns to term and other fawns are being born prematurely due to heat stress. Likewise the agricultural crops are very unproductive or a total failure in many parts of Texas. Tough growing conditions impact all living things!
That’s one reason I enjoy reading Crop Management News. It provides great information for growing quality food plots, and also provides a real-time index of the growing conditions for crops and deer in Iowa. In addition, the information is useful no matter where I wish to grow crops or deer!
Information is the most valuable tool for any profession. I hope this source of information helps you become a better deer manager.
Growing Deer together,
It has been and continues to be very harsh growing conditions at The Proving Grounds. This spring the conditions literally changed from colder and wetter than normal to hotter and drier than normal. That pattern hasn’t changed. Plants don’t grow as much and are less nutritious when they are stressed due to not having enough water. At the Proving Grounds we are experiencing a double whammy with the above normal temperatures. This causes stress in the critters that consume the plants.
The results of this stress are shown by less than average antler development, less and lower quality milk production, and therefore smaller and slower developing fawns. The amount of reduction in antler development is related to the severity of stress the plants are experiencing.
There are some practices deer managers can do to reduce the stress caused by lack of rainfall. The most practical is to use soil moisture conservation practices when establishing food plots such as reduced tillage or no-till. The soil at my place is extremely gravely and conserving soil moisture is critical to producing healthy plants and deer. Disking plots is rarely the best practice – and never the best practice at my place because it allows moisture in the soil to rapidly evaporate.
Establishing food plot crops as soon as the conditions (soil temperature and moisture) will allow during the spring is another practice that can offset stress caused by drought. Soil moisture evaporates much faster when the daytime temperature is higher. If the crops have matured enough to shade the ground, there will be much less moisture evaporated when daytime temperatures increase. This is another reason to plant warm season food plot crops as soon as conditions permit during the spring.
Healthy food plots are a great tool to maintain a healthy deer herd. To allow the deer at your Proving Grounds to express most of their potential, start by allowing the forage crops to express their potential.
Growing Deer together,
It remains very dry at The Proving Grounds. In fact, it’s so dry the native vegetation seems to be going in water conservation mode and as such is not palatable to deer and several other species. This means that food plot crops that are heavily fertilized are probably the most palatable forage available. This usually occurs during late summer after the crops have produced tons of forage. During that time excessive browse is rarely noticed if the number of deer and the quality of the habitat is appropriately balanced.
However, when drought conditions occur during the spring and early summer, crops can’t produce normal amounts of forage. Likewise, the native vegetation that usually serves as a buffer while forage crops are becoming established is also unproductive and potentially unpalatable. These conditions can result in food plot crops being damaged by over-browsing. In turn, this results in bucks that don’t express their full antler growth potential and fawns that don’t reach their potential because the quantity and quality of does’ milk production is decreased.
In these circumstances competition for the available quality forage is a concern to hunters and habitat managers. That’s why we have removed several groundhogs near our food plots this summer. They are literally making crop circles in several of my food plots. Groundhogs are good to eat and require skill to harvest. They have a great sense of smell and good vision. In short, they require many of the same skills necessary to harvest a deer. I often hunt them from my deer stands up until August or so. Then I like to reduce disturbance by the food plots and stands as much as possible.
Get your rifle sighted in and grab your safety harness and go groundhog hunting! It’s great practice for deer season while protecting forage in your food plots. Or help a farmer by removing groundhogs from his fields. By providing this service, you may gain access to some great hunting grounds!
Growing Deer together,
While in college, I was taught about the circle principle. Simply stated, the principle is that our knowledge base is like a circle. As the circumference of a circle increases, the border of the circle gets bigger. Likewise, the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. I’ve been a practicing wildlife biologist for 20+ years. My firm, Woods and Associates, Inc. was incorporated during 1990. Throughout this time, I’ve worked primarily with white-tailed deer and turkey throughout their ranges. Even with this level of experience and opportunities to learn, I have more questions now than when I started and my desire to learn is probably at an all time high.
Because I’m now a husband, dad, etc., I have less time I can dedicate to learning, research, etc. That’s why I really enjoy learning from others that share my passion for hunting, wildlife, and habitat management. One of the best ways to meet such folks is at events such as the Land and Wildlife Expo to be held in Nashville, TN during August 12th – 14th. There will be speakers talking about the many aspects of deer management and current topics such as predation. There will also be field demonstrations and the ability to visit directly with manufacturers. This is a great chance to ask wildlife managers and folks from the hunting industry direct questions face to face.
I look forward to learning and hopefully sharing information with fellow hunters and wildlife managers. If you plan to attend, let me know. Several of the GrowingDeer.tv gang are talking about planning a time we can visit about our personal hunting and management plans for this fall. I plan on learning and preparing to be a better hunter this fall. I hope we can visit there.
Growing Deer together,
I receive a bunch of emails, Facebook posts, phone calls, etc., asking “What should I do to become a wildlife biologist?” Some of the comments that accompany these notes indicate that some folks believe all that is necessary to become a wildlife biologist is a strong desire to hunt or be outside.
There are probably as many answers to “What should I do to become a wildlife biologist?” as there are wildlife biologists. Here are some of my thoughts on that topic.
- Wildlife biologists usually work more than hunt during hunting season. Opening day is usually spent collecting data from deer that other hunters harvested.
- To be an effective wildlife biologist, it is critical that we can communicate technical information to folks from a wide variety of backgrounds. That means talking and writing to folks with all levels of understanding about wildlife. The need to have good oral and written communication skills is a constant!
- When selecting a field of study or career, take time to determine what you really enjoy. For example, I enjoy eating. However, I don’t enjoy cooking. It’s easy to pick a career based on misguided choices.
One of the best ways to know if you would enjoy and be productive at a career is to give it a test drive. I volunteered to work with a wildlife biologist that managed mule deer habitat on federal land in Nevada. I thought I’d be working with mule deer. However, I identified plant species and distribution in the winter ranges of mule deer during the summer. I rarely saw deer as I worked where mule deer spent the winter while they were typically at a higher elevation during the summer. However, the experience cemented to me that God built me to be a wildlife biologist. It could have just as easily confirmed to me that I’d rather hunt during my vacation days in the fall and forget the ticks and snakes that are present during the summer.
The image to the right is of Hunter and Nathan – two interns helping at The Proving Grounds this summer. Hunter will be a junior at the University of Michigan this fall. He’s trying to decide whether to orient his degree toward wildlife or pre-med. I think Hunter was wise to spend a summer working with a wildlife biologist to see if he truly wants to be working in this field.
It is sad to me that some folks research cars they consider purchasing more than a career choice. You can check out my thoughts on future deer managers and becoming a wildlife biologist to learn more.
Growing Deer together,