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Deer Habitat Improvement

A Deer Management Article

Written by T.R. Michels


The bucks may be traveling to food sources together and by the end of the month they will be getting ready to shed their velvet. You should be done clearing deer trails, shooting lanes and stand sites for the hunting season. If you haven't already begun, it's time to begin archery practice in preparation for the hunting season.

Habitat Improvement
One of the ways to attract more deer to your property, hold them through the hunting season, and improve the health of the herd is by improving the habitat.

Improving Wooded Areas
To improve the quality of forage in forested areas you can selectively cut unwanted trees so the remaining trees grow and produce better, or you can clear cut some areas to provide re-growth of desired species and create more openings. You can also plant desired trees and shrubs to provide more forage.

Mast Production
To provide better mast crops for the deer you can plant oaks (Burr oak, zone 3-9, tolerates poor soil; White oak, zone 4-9, the best mast; Sawtooth oak, zone 5-7, vigorous growth) and beechnuts for future use. To increase mast production of the existing trees select the best trees and spread 15-15-15 fertilizer under them as far out as the crown. Cut the inferior trees and eliminate low growing nearby shrubs that compete for water, sun and soil nutrients. You can plant maples (Silver maple, zone 3-7, needs well drained rich soil, fast growing, heavy re-growth; Red maple (Swamp maple), zone 3-7, tolerates wet conditions, good re-growth) for mast and browse. A planting of maples for their mast and leaves can offer a nutrient rich food source for deer in the fall.

Browse and Berries
Plant dogwoods (red osier, grows wild, hardy; Grey and Silky zone 4-8, Grey produces heavy berry crops, silky is best for browse) for browse and berries. You can also plant apples (Lodi, McIntosh, Red Rome, Northern Spy, Spigold for northern areas; McIntosh, early Baldwin, Staymen Winesap, Jonathan red, Yellow Delicious for southern areas); and crabapples (Sargent, good browse, fruit dries and hangs on trees) for winter fruit.
In northern areas deer rely heavily on cedar fronds to get them through the winter. Cedar stands also offer thermal cover in cold weather. For best production of cedar stands a third of a mature stand should be strip cut every 30 years to produce lasting cover and forage. Saplings of all trees must be protected while they are small or the deer will over browse and kill them.

Forest Openings, Meadows and Prairies
Deer also need open areas where they can graze. One of the best ways to get deer to use primarily wooded or brushy areas is to provide more open habitat through set-aside programs. If you are going to create more open areas, plan on keeping them that way for several years. Annual set-aside programs (for 1 year only) are detrimental to deer management because farmers often wait to plant those areas until late in the spring, which destroys needed habitat and food sources. Annual set aside programs also don't give the land time to develop into good feeding areas, because the land is often placed back into farm production within one or two years.

Multi-year set-aside programs, like CRP, are one of the keys to producing good deer, because CRP fields provide one of the major components for deer production, open areas. Not only do open areas benefit deer; they also benefit several other species. CRP fields made up of warm season grasses such as switchgrass, big bluestem, cane and Indian grass; and warms season legumes like AlyceClover, Cowpeas and Velvetbean, provide winter cover and for pheasants and rabbits. CRP fields of cool season grasses such as smooth brome; and legumes like alfalfa and clovers, provide nesting cover for waterfowl, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, turkeys and songbirds.

Ground Cover Foods
You can also plant perennial ground cover Forbes for food in your open areas. Most deer books tell you that deer eat forbes. But what are forbes? They're wildflowers. Good perennial forbes for deer include Birdsfoot Trefoil, Cicer milkvetch, Crownvetch, Lancer Perennial Pea, Lathco Flat Pea, Lespedeza (Bi-color, Kobe, Korean, Serecia) and Sainfoin. If you want to have more people interested in CRP and habitat restoration, plant annual wild flowers in your CRP; landowners, farmers, nature lovers and non-hunters will love it.

Food Plots
The traditional food plantings for deer are corn, soybeans, rye grass, oats, and legumes. Cool season perennial legumes for wet soil include Alsike, Ladino (Regal, California) Osceola, Tripoli and White Dutch clovers. Cool season perennial legumes for well drained soils include Alfalfa, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Red Clover and Tripoli Clover. Cool season annual legumes for wet soil include Ball Clover and Berseem Clover. Cool season legumes for well drained soil include Arrowleaf, Button, Crimson and Subterranean clovers, and Hairy Vetch and Cowpeas. Warm season annuals for well drained soils include Alyce Clover, Cowpeas and Velvetbean. You can also plant Dwarf Essex Rape, Kale and Small Burnett. Even if there is already adequate forage in the area the deer soon discover food plots and begin using them in the spring, and continue using them through the hunting season. This makes it much easier to pattern the deer in the fall.

Specialty Food Plots
I am a firm believer in planting pumpkins and squash to attract deer. Deer love these large, carbohydrate rich vegetables so much they will dig down through frozen soil and snow to get to them. During the growing season you will have to enclose the area with a fence high enough that deer can't jump, or use an electric fence to keep them out. Once the vegetables are ripe and deer season opens, take down the fence or turn off the electricity and watch the deer flock in. Every deer within two miles used my 2 acre pumpkin patch well into January.

Edges, Dispersion and Diversity
In order to achieve the best possible results from the land you need to create interspersion, diversity and edges. Good deer habitat is interspersed with meadows/prairies/CRP fields for grazing and bedding areas, agricultural fields/food plots and herbaceous cover/brushy/wooded areas for feeding areas and shelter. Inter-mixing these vegetation types creates edges. The different types of vegetation should be near each other so that the deer don't have to travel too far for any of their needs. When you plant, use a variety of plant species that mature at different times of the year, so the deer will have their choice of foods, and food all year long.

Soil Preparation
Before you plant you need to prepare the soil, which you can do in a number of different ways; burning, plowing or disking, spraying, mowing. Consult with your conservation agent about the best way to prepare the soil within your budget. Burning is usually the least expensive, but it can be dangerous. Fire can be used to set back succession on a variety of plants and habitats for better habitat. Most prairies and meadows can benefit by controlled burns, which often cause long dormant natural annual seeds to germinate. Be sure you find out the local regulations before you burn.

If you want to break up stands of sod forming grasses that are choking other forms of vegetation you can plow or disc the soil. Then you can let the area grow back naturally, or you can plant more desirable vegetation or food plots. If you want to completely start over with a new CRP plot or food planting, you will probably have to kill the existing vegetation with Roundup or Plateau.

Small to medium stands of grasses and forbes make great deer habitat. You can improve a stand of grass by mowing it in strips to manipulate the existing vegetation, to provide easier movement for the wildlife, to increase habitat diversity, and to enhance the food and cover value of the habitat.

Make sure you do a soil test, to find out if you need to improve the soil before you plant. Most legumes require a pH factor in the 6.0-7.0 range, some will tolerate factors as low as 5.0 and as high as 8.0.