Land management for deer a puzzle

By James K. Joslin Published April 8, 2012 at 2:40 a.m.
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— If you’re more likely to be found in a tree stand than a tree house, you’ve probably heard terms such as quality deer management, cull bucks, food plots and buck-to-doe ratios.

The phrases related to improving a white-tailed deer herd are as endless as the opinions of deer hunters with regard to where, when and how to hunt whitetails.

Research by James C. Kroll - aka Dr. Deer, Steve Demarais, Karl V. Miller and others has eyed ways to improve the size, herd health and antler quality of whitetails. Such efforts at schools such as Mississippi State University, the University of Georgia and Texas A&M-Kingsville have led to many of today’s commonly held conceptions about building a better deer - and deer herd.

Hunters and landowners with interest in whitetails are constantly looking for the magic seed that will help them cultivate deer of better quality, quantity or both. So, to that end, what should they do with the land they control?

Closer to home, Dick Baxter and Cory Gray of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission are charged with such questions as they handle management of the state’s deer herd. The pair serve as coordinator and assistant coordinator, respectively, for the AGFC’s deer program.

“Provide everything deer need on an 80-acre grid: bedding cover, water, mast-producing trees, food plots and plenty of browse,” Baxter wrote, replying to an email soliciting information about land management for deer.

“Typically, blocks of woods in Arkansas are left unmanaged, meaning that they turn into closed-canopy forests.Landowners could harvest less desirable species, like hickory and sweet gum, and leave deer friendly, mast-producing trees, like persimmon and white oak. More importantly, thinning woods allows the sunlight to reach the forest floor, encouraging the growth of forbs and browse,” Baxter said, then adding, “Remember that acorns are only available to deer for about two months a year, and they rely heavily on browse at other times.”

Baxter further stressed the importance of cooperation among landowners whenever one person does not control several thousand contiguous acres.

“Deer management is most successful on tracts over 1,000 acres,” he said.

Still, he holds firm to the belief that a landowner can effectively attract, hold and enhance a local deer herd with work done on an 80-acre grid.

“While deer have home ranges that are much larger than that,” Baxter said, “you can optimize your property by making sure that everything a deer needs can be found in every 80 acres of land.”

Food plots are one way to provide for deer through forest habitat management. However, Baxter said he recommends only about 2 to 4 percent of an area’s acreage be dedicated to food plots. This number, however, can vary depending on how the land steward is managing the property.

With more intensive habit management, the need for food plots - with the possible exceptions of hunter harvest and observation data - may be totally removed.

Meanwhile, Gray said, “I like a mixture of grains and legumes for fall plantings,” then listed oats and wheat as his preferred grains; and crimson, ladino and arrowhead as his preferred varieties of clover for food plots.

“Personally, I like a combination of both,” Baxter said of mixing food plots and habitat management to enhance natural food sources.

Those natural forages that Baxter listed include hard and soft mast such as acorns, persimmons and blackberries; forbs such as ragweed, trumpet creeper and poison ivy; and browse like the young, woody growth found in small ash and elm sprouts.

“Natural forage is hard to beat - you can’t outdo what God plants,” Gray said. “Managers understand that there is more to habitat management than food plots and corn feeders. I would consider food plots and feeders as attractants, which have their purpose, but they are not habitat management. Natural forage management can be complex, but it can also be as simple as applying fertilizer to preferred deer browse at spring green-up.”

Gray said fertilizing should focus on honeysuckle, dewberry, pokeweed, greenbrier, blackberry, and tree species such as oaks and persimmons.

“Managers should view food plots and supplemental feedings as pieces to the puzzle, but not the complete picture,” Gray said.

As evidence, Gray noted that corn has only a 7- to 9-percent protein content. Corn does not have the protein or other nutrients for deer to reach their potential with regard to body and antler growth.

Taking his preference of mixing management practices one step further, Baxter said he recommends a combination of persimmons and white oaks as a mast planting that can enhance habitat.

One important factor to keep in mind is that the optimal digestible protein content for forage is around 20 percent, Baxter said.

Also, while acorns and corn attract deer because of their carbohydrate content, deer do not need carbs as much in spring and summer as during fall and winter. Instead, nutrients such as calcium and phosphorous are more integral when it comes to the periods of antler development for bucks, and fawning and lactation for does.

Baxter then pointed to the Mike Freeze Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area as a “showcase for deer habitat management,” noting the timber management performed at the WMA that goes hand in hand with factors such as “age and nutrition” and “bedding cover and water” for producing opportunities for hunters to harvest better bucks.

Furthermore, he said that a sufficient doe harvest and age-class protection play into the equation, as well as the closeness of a herd’s numbers to the “ideal buck-to-doe ratio of 1:1.”

Ultimately, though, the effects of age structure, buck-to-doe ratio and other factors in deer-herd health are all rooted in one key piece to the puzzle - the land.

“I believe the soil is the true limiting factor” in deer herd health and potential, Gray said of the land.“Wildlife is a direct byproduct of soil fertility. Arkansas is very diverse in soil types and physiographic areas. The Ozarks and Ouachitas are considered poor soil types with very thin topsoil. Of course, the Delta has the highest soil quality - why we see our biggest body [deer] and biggest antlers come from this region.”

So, owning land or hunting land in the Delta will put you ahead of the game because of the “fertile soil and plenty of high-quality food,” Gray said.

Still, work to improve land anywhere in the state can pay off for both the deer and the land steward.

Observation data can tell a hunter or landowner if such efforts are effective, but Baxter said biological data (e.g, age structure and antler measurements) and harvest data are more important in determining land management success.

It is always a good idea to use soil tests, which can be picked up for free at extension-service offices, as a baseline for what needs to be done to improve the land and forage base. However, if a person is unsure of what to do, the AGFC offers some guidance through the Deer Management Assistance Program and consultations with local private-lands biologists.

“We have private-lands biologists scattered throughout the state to assist landowners in bettering their property for deer and other wildlife,” Gray said.

For more information on improving your land for deer, visit www.agfc.com, call the AGFC’s Baxter or Gray at (800) 364-GAME, or call a regional AGFC office and ask for the area private-lands biologist.

Staff writer James K. Joslin can be reached at (501) 399-3693 or jjoslin@arkansasonline.com.

> Land management for deer 411

Each of these publications from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service offers information on land-management techniques that can help improve a deer herd:

◊FSA 2035 - Forage Legume Inoculation

◊FSA 2117 - Forage Clovers for Arkansas

◊FSA 2148 - The Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycle in Soils

◊FSA 2153 - The Soil Test Report

◊FSA 2160 - Value of Nitrogen Fixation From Clovers and Other Legumes

◊FSA 3110 - Seeding and Fertilization Rate Conversions for Wildlife Food Plots and Small Areas

◊FSA 5009 - Why We Burn: Prescribed Burning as a Management Tool

◊FSA 9083 - Managing Pastures and Haylands for Wildlife

◊FSA 9092 - Establishing Wildlife Food Plots

◊FSA 9096 - Grass and Forbs for Wildlife: Fall and Winter Food Plots

◊FSA 9100 - Light Disking to Improve Wildlife Habitat in Grasslands and Old Fields

◊FSA 9105 - Aging Whitetails

◊MP 47812 - Wildlife Habitat Tips for Small Acreages

◊MP 483 - Wildlife Habitat Management for Arkansas Landowners

For more information, call a county extension service office or visit www.uaex.edu/Other_Areas/publications/ publications_list.asp .

Zoned Editions Editor James K. Joslin can be reached at 501-399-3693 or jjoslin@arkansasonline.com.

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