Deer hunters sure love their food plots. We’ve become so enamored with them that many of us think it’s virtually impossible to kill a buck without planting a patch of clover or wheat. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, a growing number of biologists and habitat managers agree that in order to provide your herd with everything they need, hunters should spend less time planting food plots and more time looking at the big picture.
“What you want to do is create diversity. That’s key. In some ways, a food plot does increase diversity, but there are a variety of habitat improvements that last much longer than a food plot and provide a wider benefit that just a single source of food,” says Virginia-based habitat and forestry consultant Aaron Bumgarner. “Food plots aren’t as economical as doing other things, either.”
Kill The Fescue
One of the best ways to stimulate high-quality plant growth where none grows now is to remove existing non-native plants that provide no benefit to deer. There’s no better example than fields filled with fescue and other cool-season grasses. Although it’s common to see whitetails feeding in pastures and other fields consisting primarily of cool-season grasses, they are likely feeding on other plants growing within the grass. Removing the cool-season grasses allows those good plants to flourish. It also benefits a wide variety of game and nongame species.
Bumgarner recommends spraying the field with a nonselective herbicide like glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in the fall after the good plants have gone dormant. Cool-season grasses will continue to grow late into the fall, so spraying them will kill the grass but not the beneficial plants, which will thrive the following year.
“In most cases, there is a large bank of native plant seeds in your soil. They just need a little room to germinate and grow. Removing the fescue is a good start,” he says. “Remember, deer ate a wide variety of native plants long before there was ever a food plot. If you can increase the beneficial native plants, you’ve created a viable, long-term, natural food plot with a wide variety of native foods.”
Burn, Baby, Burn
There’s more to converting grass fields into deer magnets than spraying, though. You’ll likely need to burn them. That clears out the built-up thatch and the existing dead growth. Removing the dead plants stimulates new growth and adds a shot of nutrients to the soil. Burning is also beneficial to quail and a variety of other game and nongame species because it clears out the ground clutter, allowing the birds to move through the cover.
Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, but burning can be a risky undertaking, especially on small tracts of land. You are responsible if the fire jumps across property lines. There are professionals who plan and undertake controlled burns, so if you don’t think you can handle it alone, hire a professional. They assume all risk. If nothing else, consult your local wildlife biologist or hire someone like Bumgarner, who has extensive experience in fire protocol.
“I recommend burning to clear out the ground in forests, as well. The same principles apply,” he says. “When you remove the leaf litter, you allow seeds to germinate, and that creates a whole new source of food.”
Most native plants, including those within a forest, need at least some sunlight. Many plants need extensive sun, so burning alone won’t necessarily create a flush of high-quality growth. That’s why it’s a good idea to thin your trees. In fact, aside from an annual acorn crop, a mature forest provides little in the way of food for whitetails or many other wildlife species. Thinning your timber opens the canopy and allows sunlight to reach the ground. A combination of burning and thinning is a fantastic way to create a whitetail buffet. Not only will that new sunlight stimulate native grasses, shrubs and vines, but it also will create an explosion of tree sprouts. All of those are excellent deer browse. The new thick growth will also serve as bedding and escape cover, two vital ingredients for keeping deer on your land.
Don’t just cut any tree, though. Bumgarner recommends taking out such species as poplars, sweetgums and maples, along with other species that provide no direct benefit to deer and other game animals.
“If you have enough timber, I also like patch clear-cuts, which are smaller clear-cuts within a forest or along the edge of a forest. The new growth that comes up will create excellent bedding cover. It’s also great nesting habitat for turkeys and quail,” he adds.
The good news is that you can actually make money from a timber sale — as long as you have enough acreage. The bad news? There really isn’t any. You will, however, have to find a qualified logger who understands your goals. That’s where a wildlife habitat consultant can benefit you. Bumgarner built a relationship with a logger who knows how to thin trees while maintaining the land’s integrity for wildlife habitat. He will walk the land with his clients and mark individual trees slated for removal prior to any cutting. He’ll then consult with the logger before the first tree is cut.
“A lot of logging companies are not at all concerned about damaging the remaining trees. They are more concerned about efficiency. They’ll run over roots or they’ll tear up trees with their equipment to get to the trees they want to take out,” he says. “They may not know which trees are better for wildlife and which ones aren’t.”
Kill The Invasives
There’s no question some trees provide little benefit to deer and other game. Non-native trees are some of the worst. Your land likely has a wide variety of non-native plants. Some ended up in the United States with the intention of providing forage for cattle or as ornamental plants for homes and gardens. Others were unwanted hitchhikers that managed to end up here through a variety of means. No matter how they got here, plants like kudzu, ailanthus and phragmites have been gobbling up the landscape for decades or even centuries. They take up valuable space that once belonged to native plants that served as cover and food for a variety of wildlife. Kudzu, for example, swallows acre upon acre of fields and forests, leaving a sterile jungle of homogenous plant life. It climbs and kills trees and blankets the ground where it grows. Ailanthus, also known as tree-of-heaven, also grows in dense colonies, crowding out native vegetation.
Find those plants and kill them. You’ll need to use a nonselective herbicide on the actively growing leaves, or in the case of trees, you’ll have to hack through the outer bark and spray undiluted glyphosate into the cuts. Chopping down the trees only coaxes them to grow more sprouts from the stumps. It’s hard work, but it’s worth the effort.
Be careful, though. Some non-natives are actually beneficial. Japanese honeysuckle, for instance, provides high-quality browse through the toughest part of winter. In fact, some biologists credit the plant with the high populations of whitetails in parts of the Northeast where winter kills used to decimate deer numbers. Like any invasive plant, honeysuckle can become a problem if it starts to choke out native plants. It and other beneficial non-natives can be kept in check through mowing or spraying when needed.
You’ll need some skill in identifying invasive plant species in order to know which ones to kill and which to leave alone. It also helps to know the various native shrubs, vines, grasses and other plants. While many native plants are good for deer and other wildlife, some are clearly better than others.
You can learn to identify trees and other plants best when they have leaves on them. There are a number of guidebooks that include drawings or photographs of various plants and the features that set them apart from other plants. Take a book with you the next time you go for a walk. Make it a goal to learn two, three or even five new plants every time you walk your land. The more you know, the better you can manage your entire property for deer and other wildlife.
You don’t need to know everything. That’s where professional help can be beneficial, particularly when it comes to burning, thinning or spraying. If you aren’t sure, consider hiring a professional habitat manager. He can not only walk you through the various activities, he can actually find you professionals to do the work for you. Many will even have the necessary equipment and do the work themselves. He might even be able to point you to state or federal cost-share programs that provide financial assistance. Even if you don’t qualify, consider doing something besides planting food plots. The key to excellent deer habitat is diversity. Land that has a variety of native plants and habitat that varies in age is better than land that consists of a homogenous oak forest and fields of fescue that end abruptly at the edge of the mature timber. Adding a food plot isn’t helping much. The rougher and more unkempt your land appears to your eye, the more appealing it will be to whitetails and other wildlife.
Don’t be afraid to make drastic changes, insists Bumgarner. It’s virtually impossible to go overboard with management activities that don’t involve a food plot. If you do mess up, which is nearly impossible, remember that something will start growing right away. It might not be clover or turnips, but there’s a good bet deer will eat it, anyway.
Up until recently, the federal government ran a number of conservation programs that offered technical assistance and even financial assistance to landowners interested in converting farmland into wildlife habitat. Although several are no longer in existence, a few important ones remain, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. The program is overseen by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s available to landowners in all 50 states. A technician, usually a trained biologist, will visit your land and create a plan for improving the habitat and walk you through the cost-share application process. Not everyone qualifies, but if you do, you’ll get lots of valuable information.