Deer and deer habitat varies considerably between the northern and southern parts of the white-tailed deer’s range. In the southern U.S., starvation of deer is generally not a problem because of the mild winters that occur throughout the region. With that said, winter–especially late winter–can be a stressful time for whitetail in terms of food quantity and quality, particularly when the deer density is above the carrying capacity of the area. When it comes to winter and native deer foods, browse is the most important class of plants. Because browse plants are of utmost importance during stress periods, such as summer and winter, this article discusses habitat management activities that can increase browse production and take your native forage production and deer management program to the next level.
As discussed here previously regarding what deer eat and their need for proper nutrition, whitetail consume a plethora of woody and herbaceous plant species. However, natural winter forage is often limited to browse, available cool season forbs, and hard mast such as acorns. During years with good mast production, deer can use this forage well into the winter. However, mast quantity can be quite variable from year to year, forcing deer to rely on alternative food sources. Cool season forb availability can also vary by latitude and can be almost non-existent in freeze-prone areas. Locations at the northern part of the whitetail’s range are typically short on cool season forbs, but so are southern areas during winters receiving low amounts of precipitation. So how can deer managers increase browse production?
Browse plants are the most stable component of a white-tailed deer’s diet. Year-in and year-out, browse can be relied upon by deer as a staple in their diet. Why? Well, browse consists of the stems, twigs, and leaves of woody plants (and vines) and these species tend to be long-lived perennials. Many perennial plants lose their leaves each winter, but immediately grow new leaves and stems each spring and throughout the summer. This makes plants such as elm, poison ivy, and greenbriar great emergency summer time grub should a lack of rainfall fail to produce any succulent forbs. Perennials with established root systems have an advantage over short-lived forbs when it comes to their need for water/rain. In addition, some browse species–such as important juniper species in the north and live oak in the south–are evergreen. These browse species are available for deer during the winter, as well as the summer.
Habitat management that increases summer and winter browse availability is not very expensive or time consuming and should be a component of every white-tailed deer management plan. In just about every case, increasing available deer browse is a simple, straight-forward task. Thinning small blocks (3-5 acres) in forested areas is one way to increase browse availability and plant production. Removing some older trees allows sunlight to reach the ground. And I said “blocks” because square-ish is the way to go here. Narrow strip thinning will not permit enough sunlight for optimal browse growth. Sunlight is needed to allow browse seeds and seedlings to take off, creating more forage for local whitetail. Wooded areas with totally enclosed canopies offer little for deer in terms of browse, except along the edges. Opening up the canopy and allowing increased sunlight will spur browse plant growth, increase food, and up the number of deer using the area.
Another way to increase browse production for deer is through the use of fertilizer. Adding fertilizer to recently thinned patches substantially increases the productivity of browse plants. Imagine a garden with fertilizer; it does much, much better! In addition, fertilizer can be used around the edges of established browse plants, too. Fertilize the edges of woodlines, along roadways, and even along utility easements. Not only will the plants be much more healthy and produce bigger, darker leaves, but deer will find fertilized leaves much more palatable. It’s kind of like an unfertilized food plot versus a fertilized one. Deer prefer fertilized areas because they can literally taste the increased nutrition.
Browse is an important food source for whitetail, especially during stress periods. These habitat management tips are just some of the techniques that you can use to increase native forage and browse production on your property. Browse management should be considered an important part of your deer management program because browse plants produce year after year, and especially when you need them most!