Deer hunters sure love their food plots. What was once a fledgling industry supported by a small number of dedicated whitetail hunters has grown into a multi-million-dollar business.
Food plots are just one part of the management equation. No matter how much land you own or manage, there’s a lot more you could be doing for wildlife. None of it involves a food plot. Whether it’s taking a chainsaw to your woods, setting your land on fire or controlling invasive species, you have lots of management tools that you probably aren’t using.
Cutting trees seems counterproductive, but it’s one of the most beneficial things you can do for your deer. Removing big trees allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. That, in turn, produces a jungle of young, dense undergrowth that is full of high-quality deer food. That thick cover also provides bedding habitat.
Figuring out which trees to cut and which ones to leave can be tricky. A dense stand of cedars can be a detriment to whitetails in the Midwest and South. They crowd out beneficial vegetation and swallow an entire landscape in just a few years. Cedars and other evergreens can be a vital part of the landscape in Northern states, though. They provide thermal cover during extreme cold and serve as yarding areas for large herds of deer as they wait out the winter. Cut them and your local whitetail herd will be vulnerable to severe weather, including deep snow and extreme cold.
Generally, though, any tree that doesn’t provide hard or soft mast can be cut with little risk of harming your deer herd. Save the oaks, hickories, beeches and various soft-mast trees like persimmons. Poplars, pines, sweet gums, sycamores and other species don’t help much. They can go.
Fire is also a great management tool. Dropping a match on your ground might seem like a frightening concept, and it should. Images of Western wildfires tearing through vast acreages and destroying countless homes are enough to make anyone fearful of starting a brush fire. Fire, however, is one of the most beneficial tools for reinvigorating poor wildlife habitat. Quality Deer Management Association director of outreach and education Kip Adams says a new study in Tennessee revealed a dramatic increase in new plant growth after the ground below a mature stand of thinned oaks was burned.
“Before it was burned, there was only 50 to 100 acres of forage per acre,” says Adams. “After it was burned, an acre produced 1,400 pounds of forage.”
Fire removes leaf litter and other debris on the forest floor, and it also removes accumulated undergrowth, which crowds out new plants. That, in turn, stimulates new herbaceous growth that feeds whitetails and a variety of other species. New growth comes up in a matter of weeks and wildlife returns just as quickly.
Most experts recommend burning on a three-year rotation. Instead of burning large areas, they suggest dividing your property into sections so you will have different stages of regeneration.
Burning might be out of the question for any number of reasons, but ridding your ground of unwanted plants can be accomplished in another way — with a sprayer and jug of herbicide. Selective herbicides kill only certain types of plants, grasses or broad-leaf plants, for example. They are a popular tool for food plot maintenance.
Herbicides aren’t just useful for controlling unwanted plants in food plots. They can be one of the best things you can use to improve wildlife habitat. All you need to know is what you want to remove from your landscape and the best herbicide for the job. If, for instance, you want to get rid of grass, look for something like Whitetail Institute’s Arrest.
Not all grasses are bad, but some are. Fescue and Bermuda grass are non-native, cool-season grasses that swallow entire landscapes, choking out beneficial native plants. They are called “cool-season” because they stay green throughout the fall, winter and early spring. Warm-season grasses, on the other hand, go dormant in the fall and often grow in clumps. That’s good for turkeys and quail.
Sprayers can also help you control non-native trees and shrubs, which crowd out the good plants, reducing available forage for whitetails. Many non-native plants like kudzu, ailanthus and Chinese privet provide no tangible benefits to deer or other wildlife.
After you remove bad plants, replace them with good ones. Adams is a huge fan of fruit trees like pears, crabapples, persimmons and apples. It can take several years before they start producing fruit, but in time, an orchard can provide months of high-quality food.
“If you plant different varieties with different fruit maturity dates, it’s not out of the question to have food available from August into November or December,” says Adams.
He also recommends planting various native shrubs that are beneficial to a variety of wildlife. Many state forestry departments sell wildlife-specific shrub seedlings in bulk, allowing you the opportunity to plant large areas for a relatively low cost.
Setting your land on fire might not seem like a weekend activity for a novice wildlife manager, but you don’t have to go it alone. Many state wildlife departments offer free technical help for controlled burns and other wildlife-friendly activities, including timber management. State forestry departments also have knowledgeable staff that will conduct an on-site evaluation and offer technical advice. In most cases, it’s free.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also offers free technical help. The NRCS doesn’t specifically offer whitetail management advice. Instead, they’ll help you convert fallow fields and cropland to high-quality wildlife habitat. Their technical advice ranges from the use of herbicides to prescribed burning. Much of their focus is on species like bobwhite quail, but what’s good for quail is often good for deer and turkeys. Even better, they can guide you through the process of obtaining financial assistance through conservation cost-share programs.
The QDMA has a website filled with articles about various management activities, as well.
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