Targeting A Plan for Bigger Antlers And Better Hunting (Episode 385 Transcript)

This is the video transcript. To watch the video for this episode click here.

GRANT: It’s springtime here at The Proving Grounds. Lots of wild flowers are looking great. It’s always a reminder to me of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. You know, it’s amazing to me that he used Creation to show us that period of dormancy, winter, and then spring to life as a lesson of His life and His gift to us. This year, don’t just enjoy turkey season and the beautiful wild flowers, but make sure you really take time to think about the Gift of Salvation through the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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GRANT: Recently, Daniel, Tyler and I headed to western Illinois to assist fellow landowner and the host of the Hunt Masters show, Gregg Ritz, with a habitat improvement plan for his property.

GRANT: Gregg has harvested some great bucks from this farm. But he wants to increase the quantity and quality of bucks using his land.

GREGG: So, the theory that we’ve been operating under – I’m not saying it’s right or wrong – so we don’t cull any bucks. I don’t – we don’t sit there and go, “That’s a cull buck; this is a cull buck.” What we do is what we talked about last night, is we look at the age structure of the herd. We have a five year-old deer on the property…

GRANT: Yeah. Yeah.

GREGG: …that we don’t feel is gonna make a significant jump. He’s 120, 140- inch…

GRANT: Yeah. Yeah.

GREGG: …deer. He’s been a slick eight for three years. But, at five years old, chances are he ain't gonna – you know, he’s holding a slot for a three or four year-old coming up.

GRANT: Antler development is determined by three things: age, nutrition, and genetics.

GRANT: Improving buck age structure requires that the hunters on that property are all committed to passing up those prime mid-age bucks that are showing a lot of potential and, hopefully, the neighbors are playing by the same rules. Or, you have to improve the habitat so much to encourage the bucks to spend most of their daylight hours on that property.

GRANT: In areas where great nutrition is available – such as ag country, where there’s lots of corn and soybeans – bucks often express more potential even to ages five, six, or seven years old. And it takes a lot of discipline for hunters to pass up a great looking four year-old. It’s got big shoulders, a big body and probably a good set of antlers. But to reach their maximum potential, it’s important to let ‘em get even older. And Gregg has shown he has the discipline to do just that.

GRANT: Based on my conversations with Gregg and studying maps of his property before we arrived, I assumed that we needed to tweak age structure just a little bit and really work on habitat quality – especially sanctuaries and, potentially, hunting strategies.

GRANT: Gregg’s farm is similar to a lot of property in ag areas. During the growing season, there’s plenty of high quality food and even cover. I call corn the annual forest. And after it’s a few weeks old until it’s harvested, it’s great cover. Deer will even use soybean fields as cover. But, once the harvest season comes and all those crops are gone, the areas become very stark and cover is a limiting factor.

GRANT: Gregg, we’re on a portion of farm that was a corn field, but it’s been tilled.

GREGG: Hmm. Hmm.

GRANT: And from a wildlife point of view, this is a biological desert right now. So, any spilled grain – or there’s not much anymore ‘cause combines are very efficient…

GREGG: Right.

GRANT: …has been tilled under.

GRANT: So, you know, maybe a deer track out there somewhere across in this big field, but really, there’s no reason for a deer to be here.

GREGG: No. And unfortunately, ten years ago, with different farming practices, this was a buffet for the deer late winter.

GRANT: Absolutely. Pheasants and everything else.

GREGG: Right.

GRANT: Used to be a lot of pheasant in this part of Illinois. Not so much anymore. But the grain sources and so – in the winter, of course, grain is a source of energy – critical for most wildlife species. But these farming practices have, have limited that. So, if you’ve got the food plot with some standing corn, now you can really bottleneck a bunch of deer.

GREGG: Right. So, really, our food strategy late winter, uh, has to be, has to take into consideration what the farming practices are.

GRANT: Absolutely.

GREGG: Because on the east side of my farm we drove through earlier, that’s all no till. Right? So I have…

GRANT: And there’s more out there. Yeah.

GREGG: Right. And we have more out there. Whereas now that we’re on the west side of the farm, as you can see, there’s, there’s nothing.

GRANT: While we were working with Gregg, we watched a group of deer cross a large agricultural field that had been tilled after harvest. And it was a big reminder of the calories spent and how much deer expose theirselves to predation in those ag areas once the crops are harvested.

GRANT: Probably a quarter mile, half mile and I don't know where they're going. They may end up going a mile or two.

GREGG: Yeah. They're burning a lot of energy.

GRANT: A lot of energy. We’re having a mild winter. But just imagine if there was, you know eight inches of snow and the wind’s whipping 20 miles an hour.

GREGG: Yeah.

GRANT: Think how many calories they just burned going across there.

GREGG: Right. And how much food it’s gonna take to replace those calories.

GRANT: That’s right. And how exposed they are to predators. Now, they're tired and they're putting off a lot of scent. There’s probably some coyotes in over that head of woods they're gonna drop into over there.

GRANT: So, when we get these big, big production ag areas – which feeds the world. I’m not knocking ‘em. But it’s not so good for wildlife habitat. And that’s where you stepping up to the plate and creating these microcosms of wildlife habitat – really high quality – can not only have excellent hunting, but provide a lot of benefit for wildlife year round.

GREGG: No question.

GRANT: Because of the farming practices, there wasn’t much food in the ag fields at Gregg’s farm. So, I was curious what we’d find when we stepped into the timber.

GRANT: So, one of the first observations made when we got out here in the woods, is I’m seeing multiflora rose, a pest species and an, you know, an invasive species. And I’m used to the little tips being tipped off. You know, that’s pretty good food – just a little in there. That’s pretty high quality.

GRANT: But, this is almost a quarter inch across. And when deer are eating on a quarter inch across of a woody stick, they're hungry.

GREGG: Hmm. Hmm.

GRANT: Now, obviously, you know, nine, ten months out of the year, we’ve got beans growing or corn standing or something and there’s plenty to feed. But, what about this late winter? You know, March, April, February – depending on the winter- bottleneck. And we want our deer gaining – or at least staying stable – but we don’t want ‘em decreasing. So come spring, they’ve got to build back up before they start growing antlers or getting that last trimester of producing a fawn. We want ‘em stable or increasing all the time and when I see deer eating on a quarter inch multiflora rose, they're not doing that.

GREGG: They're stressed.

GRANT: I’ve been assisting landowners professionally for 27 years and I've never walked a property where I’ve seen multiflora rose browsed that hard by white-tailed deer.

GRANT: Imagine eating a quarter inch rose bush stem. That’s about like chewing on the edge of a 2×4. There’s not a lot of nutritional value and, clearly, deer are hungry during a portion of the season at Gregg’s property.

GRANT: So, one of our objectives as we go out through the day is evaluate the whole property to see if this is just a fluke event or it’s all over.

GREGG: Umm-hmm.

GRANT: And how can we design more food? How can we get more food in the late winter months?

GREGG: From a tonnage standpoint.

GRANT: Tonnage and quality.

GREGG: And quality.

GRANT: So, I’m looking at quantity and quality, positioned where you can hunt.

GREGG: Umm-hmm.

GRANT: Based on this and other observations, it’s clear the bucks at Gregg’s farm are not expressing their full potential. They simply don’t have enough quality groceries to get ‘em through the winter season.

GRANT: At this point, we knew at least one low hole in the bucket that we could plug to bring the quality of hunting and antler production up on Gregg’s farm.

GRANT: We continued touring the entire property throughout the day and then returned to Gregg’s place, pulled out some maps and started designing a plan that would not only improve the amount of forage, but some sanctuary areas and make hunting a bit easier for him and his guests.

GRANT: One of my recommendations to Gregg was to make sure that during the winter months, he has both grains and greens. Simply put, we prescribed a plan where he can leave grain standing – corn and soybeans. Those are sources of high quality energy through the winter months.

GRANT: But when it’s warmer temperatures or in the spring, deer are gonna switch to needing greens. They want high quality protein. So, on those warmer days, I want to hunt where there’s grains and greens. And we told Gregg about how we often just broadcast seed in the standing grain – primarily soybeans – let that germinate. So in the wintertime on cold days, deer are eating the grain and on the warmer days, they're eating the greens – turnips, radishes, brassicas, forage wheat and other crops that are growing right in the standing grain.

GRANT: Gregg and I both felt very confident in the plan we prescribed for his farm. Clearly, it will provide more nutrition for the deer herd, probably allow the deer herd to expand a little bit and make hunting a little better by making deer more patternable during the late season.

GRANT: Overall, our goal is always to listen to our clients and design plans to help them meet their objectives. And Gregg’s objective was more mature bucks expressing more of their antler potential. And that’s exactly what we targeted with our plan.

GRANT: I expect we’ll all learn from and enjoy seeing the results of Gregg’s plan once he implements it and shows us those hunts on his show.

GRANT: While we were in Illinois, I couldn’t help but notice the vast majority of the fields had been tilled and left bare all winter. There’s a huge amount of research that shows tillage is not the best way for maximum production or conservation of resources. There’s great farmers out there using no till techniques paired with cover crops and they're doing a much better job of conserving soil moisture and soil nutrients, therefore reducing their input cost, having larger yields and doing a much better job of conserving our resources.

GRANT: When fields are left bare, two events commonly happen. Either it’s dry and you get a lot of erosion and soil particles due to wind or it’s really wet and it leeches the soil nutrients so deep in the soil profile that plants can't get to ‘em. Either way, cover crops is a much better form of soil management.

GRANT: Here at The Proving Grounds, there’s extremely low quality soil throughout the area. But we’ve spent years using cover crops and no-till techniques to improve the soil and antler size.

GRANT: Many folks are surprised when they come tour The Proving Grounds that we don’t even own a disc. And none of the fields have been disced in 14 years.

GRANT: This spring, we’re gonna slow down and share our exact food plot establishment techniques so you can replicate it at your Proving Grounds.

GRANT: Our first step in establishing food plots, whether it’s new or an existing food plot, is during the late winter we collect a soil sample. We’ve shared our techniques in the past of how to collect a soil sample, but what’s important is monitoring those results. And what we’ve seen here at The Proving Grounds is during the last several years, the amount of nutrients available for plants has increased.

GRANT: Well, that may not surprise you, but what will surprise you is that for the last four years, we haven’t applied any fertilizer. We’re increasing nutrients without the expense or time of applying fertilizer.

GRANT: We accomplish this by how we take care of the soil, never discing it, and the specific crop rotation we use. And we’ll be sharing all those steps each week throughout the season.

GRANT: In addition to food plots, we’ve worked hard on improving the native vegetation here at The Proving Grounds. And one thing we use a lot is prescribed fire. Here in southwest Missouri, cedar glades is a common term. And basically, on the south or southwest facing slopes, areas that used to be glades or native grasslands, have been filled up with cedars because of the lack of prescribed fire.

GRANT: We couldn’t kill the large cedars with prescribed fire and keep that fire in control so we cut those cedars, let them dry for a year or two, and then used prescribed fire to convert those areas back to native grasses and forbs.

GRANT: We’re standing in an area that’s extremely productive for wildlife now. But that wasn’t the case 14 years ago when Tracy and I purchased The Proving Grounds.

GRANT: This area was covered with mature cedar trees like this one. It’s so steep and rocky, that there wasn’t any way to use machinery to cut the trees and not that big a market here. So we came in by hand, felled the trees, let them dry for a year or two – so dry that when the needles were hit with your hand, they’d shatter off. That way, when we use prescribed fire, we get better consumption versus leaving large cedar skeletons all throughout the glade.

GRANT: Right across the valley here is an area that we haven’t cut yet. It’s full blown cedars. There’s not much growing underneath here. But, when you remove the cedars and let the sunshine get down, now we get all these great forbs and native grasses – creates wonderful habitat.

GRANT: Cedars weren’t native to this area – at least to this density. Before European settlement, there was frequent wildfires and native Americans set fire and young cedars, of course, they were killed by that fire.

GRANT: But when European settlers got here, they stopped a lot of that wildfire and put their cattle on these slopes because that’s where the best grass was. The hardwood trees on the north; these open areas are called balds, were on the south.

GRANT: This is pretty common in a large area of the central United States. So, when we stopped fire, the cattle ate the preferred species – the species deer want now; the native grasses and forbs and the cedars had no enemy and they overpopulated and took over the site.

GRANT: After we cut the cedars on these south facing slopes and did the original burn, I thought that using fire every couple of years would be enough to keep the hardwood saplings from taking over the area.

GRANT: We've used prescribed fire during both the spring and fall on this particular site. And you notice we haven’t killed the hardwood saplings. The reason the spring fires don’t work is because during the fall the tree moves all of its carbohydrates or energy down to the root system. That’s how it survives the winter. And then late spring, it will pull it back up to the top of the tree.

GRANT: If you burn before then, you may girdle the tree and kill the top portion, but you're not damaging all that energy and the tree simply puts out more sprouts and starts again.

GRANT: Growing season fires – late August/September – are usually slightly better at killing hardwood saplings. However, most of the times the roots have enough energy to survive the winter and push out stump sprouts even if a growing season fire occurs.

GRANT: After 14 years, I've certainly proved I was wrong on that assumption. So, last year, we had the guys from Flatwood Natives come in and use specific herbicides that kill the hardwood saplings, but actually encourage other native grasses and forbs to grow and treat some of our glades.

GRANT: We followed up the herbicide treatment with a prescribed fire during the late winter. We’ve now had enough days of warm temperatures and some moisture to go check out the results of those treatments – combining herbicide and prescribed fire.

GRANT: By a quick treatment with a herbicide, a safe herbicide, we’re already starting to see native grasses and valuable forbs starting to colonize this area. The seed bank is there; it’s just been suppressed by the shade or the crown of this hardwood sapling and it robbing nutrients.

GRANT: Now, this is just one little area. But imagine thousands of those on a few acres. Well, it makes a big difference. This will grow up before nesting and fawning season and provide critical habitat for a critical time of year. But in addition, it’s not only cover, but a year round fairly drought resistant food plot. There’s all kinds of native plants out here that are adapted to this site. Many of ‘em highly sought after by both deer and other forms of wildlife.

GRANT: It was obvious from the tracks and browse, that deer are already using these areas. And as I walk around checking the saplings, they're just crunchy, dry and brittle. I mean, these things are dead. They're not coming back out even a month later. So, I’m very satisfied that the one-two punch of Flatwood Natives, followed up by a prescribed fire the next spring, is gonna have a permanent – or at least a very long lasting impact – on this site.

GRANT: Youth season opens this weekend, so we’re putting together some new Redneck blinds and patterning turkeys and we can't wait to share some of those hunts with you.

GRANT: We recently received some new of the soft side Redneck blinds, which are perfect for turkey hunting. Combining those with the patterns we’re getting from our Reconyx cameras, well, we’re all excited to be out chasing toms soon.

GRANT: I’ve always enjoyed the cut and run style of turkey hunting. But I gotta tell you – I even more enjoy taking my dad and other people hunting. And sometimes a blind is a great tool to let those folks enjoy the hunt.

GRANT: We hope you keep watching each week as we share our food plot and turkey hunting techniques. But most importantly, I hope you take time every day to get outside and enjoy Creation and slow down and listen to what the Creator is saying to you. Thanks for watching GrowingDeer.