Building a Whitetail Mecca

On properties big and small, whitetails must have food and cover to survive, and a lack of hunting pressure will help them feel comfortable. Here’s how to get started on your land.

Building a Whitetail Mecca

Applying landscape fabric when planting trees conserves water and reduces weed competition. It costs more, but in the author’s opinion, it’s money well spent.

It had already been a productive morning. My father and I were hunting our property on the opening morning of the Minnesota firearm season. Before first light a small buck had walked below my stand in an American linden tree, and a couple does drift by just out of shooting range once the sun illuminated the countryside. Starting to relax against the tree, I was startled when I heard a grunt to the east of me. A fawn pranced out into the harvested cornfield in front of me, and a small buck darted out behind her. I quickly came to full draw, floated the top pin on his chest, and released an arrow. It was a perfect hit, and, after a couple wobbly steps, the buck fell into a shallow, muddy pool of cold autumn water. No matter the size, taking a deer on our land never gets old.

Wildlife flourishes where they have both food and cover. However, making that a reality can be done in many different ways.

The author’s home farm features a good mix of prairie and edge habitat, as well as forest. The improvements he’s made appeal to all wildlife. Offering a mix of food and cover is key.
The author’s home farm features a good mix of prairie and edge habitat, as well as forest. The improvements he’s made appeal to all wildlife. Offering a mix of food and cover is key.

Small-Property Habitat

Growing up on our small farm in south-central Minnesota, it was common to see a deer. However, most were does and fawns passing through, as the land wasn’t productive for deer to call it home. On the eastern side of the 45-acre property was what we call The Woods. It was quite open, with mature bur and red oaks, American linden, bitternut hickory and box elder. Further west, there were a few acres of swampy ground. The northern end consisted of oaks and a few straggly cedar trees. Small willows and tall grass grew in the wet areas, south to the county road.

Continuing west, sheep grazed in a large pasture. Mature bur oaks dotted the closely cropped grass, while silver maple and willow grew in the wetter areas. There was extraordinarily little natural reproduction, as the sheep kept any new vegetation closely cropped.

As the land use practices around the farm changed over the years, it became obvious that if we wanted to continue to hunt deer, we would have to make the property more appealing to whitetails. Fortunately, my day job is director at a soil conservation district, and we work with a myriad of landowners, farmers and ranchers every year by helping them put conservation on the ground.

Food — On our home farm, we simply don’t own enough land to produce large bucks every year. Dad and I realized that as we started to improve the habitat, and we both agreed that our goal was to provide a home for deer, furbearers, small game, and other wildlife. As neither one of us are what I would consider trophy hunters, harvesting a deer or two a year would make us happy.

The first task to address was food. Row crops of soybeans and corn are grown in profusion all over the Midwest, providing high-quality food for deer. The growing season is short, though, and the crops are harvested during fall. Without access to year-round food, deer will drift away.

Dad installed a couple food plots throughout the old pasture and along the hardwoods. When the fall weather is cooperative, he will plant winter wheat in at least one of the plots. As soon as the snow melts in the spring, the winter wheat greens up and provides important forage during a very lean time of year. Once the wheat matures, he removes it and plants a brassica food plot in the stubble to provide a winter food source.

Pumpkins are another food the deer consume with relish. Dad plants hills of pumpkins in another food plot, and the deer devour them during the late fall into winter.

Our land is blessed to have an abundance of oaks, both bur and red. Acorns are high-protein food for wildlife during the bleak winter months, and each spring I plant bare-root oaks. All tree plantings are long-term projects, and oaks are among the longest. It may take up to 20 years or more before an oak produces acorns.

On a cool, early October afternoon, I slipped up a Linden tree near a red oak that was raining acorns. As the afternoon turned to dusk, fox squirrels and doe/fawn families crunched loudly on the fallen mast. A soft crunch in the leaves behind my stand revealed itself to be a young buck. I had to twist around uncomfortably to find an open lane, but I was able to place an arrow in his chest. No doubt, a deer will walk through all sorts of crops to fill their bellies with acorns.

Cover — My parents got rid of the sheep when livestock prices no longer made it sensible to raise them. Without domestic livestock grazing, the pasture has exploded with woody biomass. Along with the oaks, there are now birch, willow, cottonwood and eastern red cedar. The cedar have grown into dense thickets, providing much-needed winter thermal cover. A deer or pheasant can slip into a cedar thicket on a raging blizzard and find a warm, safe location to bed.

Each spring I supplement the pasture with bare-root trees and shrubs. I simply dig a hole, drop in the tree and cover with soil and move on to the next. The upside to this technique is a large number of trees can be planted in a short amount of time. The downside is the survival rate is quite low.

On many properties, especially in the prairie and farm country of the Midwest and eastern Great Plains, trees and shrubs are in short supply. Landowners looking to improve their land with tree plantings should look no further than the Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Most Districts plant thousands of trees each spring using tractors and planters. On properly prepared sites, this is the best way to get trees started.

Taking it a step further is the use of weed barrier fabric. Woven plastic fabric mulch conserves water and reduces competition from weeds and grass. While the cost is more than the tree planting itself, it pays for itself in reduced human labor during the sizzling summer months.

The author and his father with a young buck from their home farm. Both men enjoy improving the habitat for all wildlife, whitetails included.
The author and his father with a young buck from their home farm. Both men enjoy improving the habitat for all wildlife, whitetails included.

Deer and other wildlife can wreak havoc on young trees and shrubs. There are a couple ways to combat damage. The first is to plant only a few, high-value trees. A small patch of oaks, apple trees or other slow-growing, high-value trees can be protected with wire cages or plastic tree tubes. The other method, which we employ on our farm, is to plant a lot of trees and shrubs. The deer will undoubtedly destroy some of them, but won’t get them all. Shrubs can withstand more damage than trees, exploding in new growth the year following the damage.

Planting trees by hand is common on small parcels. If you want to ensure deer don’t harm them, you must protect them with wire cages or plastic tree tubes.
Planting trees by hand is common on small parcels. If you want to ensure deer don’t harm them, you must protect them with wire cages or plastic tree tubes.

The last component of habitat improvement is perennial grass. Even in wooded areas, perennial grass can provide food and cover for a wide variety of animals. On our farm we converted cropland to a native mix of grasses and forbs and were able to enroll it in the Conservation Reserve Program. I designed the planting mix to not only contain warm and cool season grasses, but also forbs that bloomed during the spring, summer, and fall. The thick, dense grass has made our property even more appealing to the local wildlife.

Our native prairie planting took off the year after planting. Just the right amount of rain and heat allowed the natives to grow as fast as the weeds, which is not always the case.

The local deer incorporated the new edge habitat into their routine. I was able to take advantage of the new movement the next gun opening day, as a large doe meandered down the edge between the grass and forest. After my arrow struck, she made two bounds into the prairie and then expired.


Large-Property Habitat

Owning or managing large properties may seem like a dream, with giant bucks frolicking like rabbits behind closed gates. However, there are many properties, that, despite their size, have very little appeal to wildlife.

My friend Craig Wendt owns a beautiful farm in North Dakota. I have gotten used to seeing pictures of his successes on Facebook each fall, and I couldn’t help but pick his brain on how he is able to produce such wonderful deer.

Cover — One of the first things he did after purchasing the farm was to reduce hunting pressure. While he was growing up, the usual way of hunting deer was to push cattail sloughs, prairies and tree claims each rifle season, shooting deer on the run. This practice pushes deer around the countryside like a ping-pong ball. Rather, he and his friends began to hunt only from treestands or blinds.

There were a few large conifer tree plantings on the farm when he purchased it, and he was quick to make those areas off-limits except for spring shed hunting excursions. The deer need a place to feel safe and secure, and the dense evergreen thickets provide that. If deer aren’t pressured, they won’t have any reason to leave.

Craig has tried adding more trees and shrubs with marginal success. The first year after he had a large tree planting installed it was unseasonably wet and he lost almost half of the trees. What the water didn’t kill the deer ate that fall.

He has had much better success planting perennial vegetation. Working in the Conservation Reserve Program, large areas of marginal cropland have been converted to tall-grass prairie. Rather than fighting with nature and trying to plant trees, sometimes it’s best to plant what works best. Similar to our little farm, the tall-grass prairie Craig has implemented provides cover and food to deer, as well as a wide variety of other wildlife.

Food — All the cover in the world won’t keep deer on a property if they don’t have food. Craig’s farm is in a heavily agricultural area, and there are thousands upon thousands of acres of corn and soybeans all around him.

Food plots don’t work if deer don’t feel comfortable using them. Craig selected areas that are remote enough that vehicular traffic doesn’t bother the deer and planted more than 20 acres in corn, soybeans, brassicas and alfalfa. With plenty of nutritious food available all year, the deer have little reason to leave. In North Dakota it’s legal to feed deer, and Craig makes sure there is supplemental food available during the winters as well.

Dad and I are not trophy hunters, being satisfied with a buck or doe. With lots of land to work with and strong trophy hunting ethic, Craig passes up many deer each year while looking for the right buck to fill his tag. He prefers not to shoot a deer until it as least 5 years old. By keeping numbers of deer on his property, with low pressure and plenty of food, deer have the opportunity to age. You can’t shoot a large deer if they aren’t there. By allowing deer to age, Craig is able to harvest mature deer each season.

Craig Wendt with a big buck taken from his North Dakota farm. He passes on smaller bucks and waits for a shot opportunity on one that is at least 5 years old.
Craig Wendt with a big buck taken from his North Dakota farm. He passes on smaller bucks and waits for a shot opportunity on one that is at least 5 years old.

Bringing It Together

Improving land and habitat is a fulfilling endeavor, regardless of whether you are a trophy hunter — waiting to harvest a mature buck each fall — or an opportunity hunter — desiring any deer for the freezer. A healthy, functioning ecosystem not only provides a home for deer, but also everything from micro invertebrates up to large mammals. If the only objective is to kill a large buck, then it’s much easier to go on guided and outfitted hunts each fall. Managing land is a year-round task, and spending time working with nature is often the best part of improving habitat.


Sidebar: Helpful Habitat Advice — for Free!

Planting trees and perennial vegetation that aren’t suited for the climate and soils is a waste of time and money. What works on our small farm in south-central Minnesota may not even grow on a property in southern Missouri. The first step to any habitat improvement should be visiting a professional. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Soil Conservation District (SCD) and Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) know the local land and soils intimately. (Simply Google these names and you’ll find their websites and contact info.) Conservationists in those agencies can put together soil maps, topographic or LIDAR maps and appropriate tree, shrubs, grasses, and forbs mixes that will work best. There may even cost-share opportunities that will reduce the overall expenditure. Best of all, their services are free!


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