Late Season In The Field: Shed Antlers And Habitat Improvement! (Episode 529 Transcript)

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

GRANT: It’s time to reflect on some great hunts, but don’t stop there. Start improving the habitat to have even better hunts and better quality deer herds next year.

GRANT: There are only a few days left of Missouri’s archery season, but already we’re getting some Reconyx videos and pictures of bucks that have shed their antlers.

GRANT: On December 30th we got a video of one of our hit list bucks we call Swoops eating soybean pods and he had shed one side of his rack.

GRANT: Several folks in our local deer co-op have also shared pictures of bucks that have shed on their properties. The timing of when bucks shed is controlled by photoperiod or the number of hours of sunlight in a given day. The increasing length in the amount of sunlight each day is what triggers a decrease in a buck’s testosterone level and one of the results of that level dropping is shedding of antlers.

GRANT: Other factors can cause a decrease in a buck’s testosterone including nutritional stress or injury.

GRANT: My wife, Tracy, really enjoys shed hunting, and recently, while walking with her dog, Crystal, who is trained to find sheds, they found the first shed of the 2020 season.

GRANT: It appears this antler was shed last year given the amount the rodents had already consumed. And it’s interesting that this shed still had enough calcium odor, the odor that attracts dogs, for Crystal to find the antler.

GRANT: This is a great illustration of why a trained dog is much better at recovering wounded deer than humans. If Crystal’s nose was able to find this weathered shed, imagine how well it would detect the sign from a wounded deer that’s only a day or two old.

GRANT: Tracy and Crystal will start shed hunting regularly, almost daily, as soon as Missouri’s archery season closes January 15th, and I’m sure we’ll be sharing some of Tracy’s tips and techniques on our social media pages.

GRANT: We’ll also be sharing a count of how many antlers Tracy and Crystal find. They typically find between 40 and 60 antlers each year and this year she’s trying to set a record. It may be easier this year as there weren’t many acorns here at The Proving Grounds and antlers should be concentrated around our food plots and bedding areas.

GRANT: This is also a great time of year to evaluate your habitat and start habitat improvement projects. We recently marked the boundaries of a couple remaining stands of eastern red cedar here at The Proving Grounds.

GRANT: One of these areas surrounds a small hidey hole food plot we call Hightop, and that plot has been a great hunting location.

GRANT: A few years ago, I tagged a hit list buck we called Tall Eight while hunting on the edge of that plot.

GRANT: (Whispering) Perfect. Perfect.

GRANT: I’m standing in Hightop. It’s a little, hidey hole hunting food plot; it’s not large enough to feed deer and you can tell it’s already browsed down to the dirt. This area was surrounded by a hardwood forest, but eastern red cedars had come in and choked everything else out. There was no sun reaching the forest floor.

GRANT: When we first established this plot, we would come in from the north, climb into the Summits right behind me and deer would come into the field to feed. But I gotta tell ya, you didn’t know they were coming until you saw them. The cedars were so thick in the hardwoods, they just appeared.

GRANT: This was a great hunting location because it was the only food in the neighborhood – but just for a couple of weeks. The crop would come up, it would get a little growth, deer would find it and they’d browse it to the dirt. You had to kind of be ready to hunt it when the crop grew.

GRANT: To improve the hunting on this portion of The Proving Grounds, the obvious next step was to remove all these cedars.

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GRANT: A great indication of how unproductive this habitat has been for many years is that many of the cedars had self-pruned. Down the stem, there’s no limbs and up here, they weren’t receiving enough sun, so they died. They’re just brittle even though the tree was just cut. That’s a real picture of how little sun was reaching the forest floor, but by laying these cedars over, you can tell there’s already more sun now and when we burn in a couple of years, it will be even more productive.

GRANT: I’m very detailed about the design of such projects and I left some tall cedars along the walkway where we approach that stand and right behind it, so we wouldn’t be silhouetted while hunting from that oak tree.

GRANT: Background cover, which keeps hunters from being silhouetted and helps cover any movement, is just as important as cover in front of the hunter or between the hunter and the game.

GRANT: I’m walking through an area I recently had a contractor cut cedars and I came across this tree that has a really small tight crown, but I look down and there’s cedar stumps literally all around it. This tree was being starved for nutrients and water and it couldn’t spread the crown. Now that it’s released and the cedars have been cut, that crown will expand and be able to make many more acorns.

GRANT: Research has shown that 40% of the precipitation that hits a cedar tree never reaches the soil. It either evaporates back into the air or is taken into the cedar tree. In an area like this where you had some pretty good hardwoods, including a lot of oaks and 40% of the rain never reaches the soil or can’t be used by those oaks, think about how much that decreases the acorn crop.

GRANT: The ground in this area was totally shaded out by the cedar trees – totally shaded out. There was no native grasses and no native forbs so no herbaceous food source for deer in this area.

GRANT: Eastern red cedar is starvation food only, so basically, a few acorns, a little food plot, and other than that, no food for deer and many other critters.

GRANT: Looking at this mess laying on the ground and you’re thinking, “Boy the cedars made great cover.” But that’s not true. When the cedars are standing, they’d shaded out down below. The bottom limbs had died and it was wide open. It was a biological desert for deer, turkey, quail and other forms of wildlife.

GRANT: Laying down, there’s some good cover now, but what will be great cover is we will use prescribed fire, and that will stimulate the seed bank in the soil which is full of native grasses and forbs and we’ll get food and cover right among the oak trees or a habitat type that is known as savanna. And savannas are extremely productive for deer and many species of game and non-game critters.

GRANT: I mentioned fire and a lot of our long-term viewers are probably saying, “Boy, we are going to see a big fire this summer. All that fuel Grant’s got.” But that’s not the case. I’ll wait and let the cedars dry through this entire year and then burn during the second year.

GRANT: We know from experience we need to wait before using prescribed fire until we can walk up to some of these cedar trees, slap a limb and watch the needles fall down. If we can walk up, slap a limb and not many needles come off, it’s too early and we will not get good consumption when we run a fire through the area.

GRANT: Now, you think about it, some of these cedars are 30, 40, 50 plus years of age and they’ve been pulling nutrients out of soil for decades – slowly, but it doesn’t take much and you multiply that times 50 – a 50-year-old tree – and that’s a lot of nutrients in each tree. Well, we will use prescribed fire and release those nutrients right there on the spot – right under these oaks and where the native grasses and forbs are gonna grow.

GRANT: We will not come in mechanically with a dozer or some equipment and bunch ‘em up. We’ll leave ‘em all spread out and at the appropriate time – about two years from now – we’ll run a fire through the area.

GRANT: There’s a lot of fuel on the ground, so the fire will kill some of the oaks. But if you look up in the canopy, even with the leaves off, you can tell they’re pretty thick. And I want to make sure we open that canopy just enough, so the oak trees don’t stop all the sun from reaching the soil and we get that savanna effect with a tree every 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 feet throughout the area.

GRANT: There’s another reason that I want to wait two years. You can imagine there’s not only a great seed base of native grasses and forbs from before cedars encroached in this area, but during the last five or six decades, there’s a huge seed base of cedars.

GRANT: These cedars have been making seeds and dropping them for decades. If I burn right now, scarify the soil, remove the duff, thousands of young cedars would pop up. But by waiting two years, several of the cedars will pop up and be six inches, a foot, maybe two feet tall and I run a fire through there, I’ll clean ‘em out. And that way, I’ll get rid of a bunch of that cedar seed base.

GRANT: Some of the native grasses and forbs will start growing in the areas where sun is reaching the soil right now, and these cedars actually act as a utilization cage, almost like in a food plot. Deer won’t be able to browse ‘em if they’re deep in the cedar there. And they’ll make a seed base to repopulate the area.

GRANT: Now that the cedars have been felled, we can actually move around the area a bit easier than when they’re all standing up making a jungle.

GRANT: And you can see the forest floor looks almost bare – there’s very little native grasses, no forbs growing in here. But you can see the amount of sun already reaching down now that the cedar canopies have been tipped over. And I promise you – this spring, in all these gaps, will be a huge amount of grass and forbs coming up, and that actually helps not only feed deer and turkey and all kinds of cool critters right now but two years from now when we go to do a prescribed fire, there will be grasses and forbs in here and it will carry from that group of cedars over to that group of cedars making it much easier to do an even burn throughout the area.

GRANT: Now, we’ve done this in the past. We’ve converted a lot of areas where cedars have encroached back to native habitat here at The Proving Grounds, and we know it creates super high-quality habitat and provides us with excellent hunting opportunities.

GRANT: Creating these areas that have really high-quality native forage and cover is a magnet for deer and turkey throughout the year.

GRANT: Another advantage of felling the cedars around a food plot that may not be obvious is these cedars have a long, shallow root system. And on the edge of this plot, the forage never grew well because the cedars were removing much of the moisture.

GRANT: With the greater visibility, especially during the pre-rut and rut, if you’ve got a buck cruising the downwind side of the plot, he’s not coming there to eat, he’s scent checking for does. But now we can see him, and we know he’s there, we can throw a grunt out there and probably bring him into shot range.

GRANT: (Whispering) He’s coming. He’s coming.

GRANT: You can tell I’m super excited about this habitat improvement project and we’ll be giving you updates throughout the next couple of years as natives start growing in between the cedars where sun is reaching the ground and then, finally, we get ready to use prescribed fire.

GRANT: When cutting cedars, it’s very important to cut below the lowest limb. If the tree is cut above some limbs, those limbs will grow and create a bushy mess.

GRANT: When a cedar stem is cut below the limb, that stem will not sprout back and that cedar is done.

GRANT: This technique is much different than when you cut hardwoods and you don’t want the hardwoods to sprout back. In that case, you’ll need to treat the stumps with the herbicide.

GRANT: This crew did great work and I’m very pleased with the result.

GRANT: Already, there’s more sun reaching the forest floor than when the cedars were standing, and you may wonder why that is. But if you think about it, a cedar standing up has multiple layers of limbs and that design is so any sunlight that the first limbs don’t capture are caught by the second, third, fourth, fifth limb down.

GRANT: The cedars that have been felled now have limbs up and down and sun can penetrate through the frame of that tree.

GRANT: Seeing these cedars cut and more light already reaching the forest floor makes me very excited. I’m eager to monitor and share with you the progress of this project.

GRANT: Better habitat almost always means better hunting and more venison for the freezer. And certainly this project will make hunting near the Hightop food plot much better.

GRANT: If you are interested in having the GrowingDeer Team assist you with designing a habitat improvement project, or you want to learn more about the crew I hired to implement this work, just write me at

GRANT: We will be sharing lots of updates about this project on our Facebook and Instagram pages.

GRANT: If you’d like to learn more about our hunting techniques, I’ll be speaking at the First Baptist Church in West Plains, Missouri, January 25th. There will also be antler scoring, a chili cook off and great door prizes. The doors open at 4:00 p.m. and you can learn more about this event at the following information.

GRANT: If you would like more information about habitat improvement projects or the turkey hunting strategies we’ll be using this spring, please subscribe to the GrowingDeer newsletter.

GRANT: Learning about native habitat and working to restore it in areas is a great way to be outside and enjoy Creation. But more importantly, I hope you take time every day to be quiet and listen to what the Creator is saying to you.

GRANT: Thanks for watching GrowingDeer.