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Habitat Management: Managing Grasslands for White-tailed Deer

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There are numerous methods for land managers to improve the value of the wildlife habitat found on their property. Hunters and land owners often contact me to ask about ways to enhance habitat for white-tailed deer, but that is a wide-open question with an answer that will vary widely between properties. If the plan is to help deer and other wildlife on your land then the very first thing should be to take inventory of what you do have. What assets does the property currently provide for deer, other animals?

More often than not, the plant communities found on a farm or ranch offer more than one might expect. There is value in just about every plant when it comes to wildlife in general, but obviously some specific plants are better for deer than others. Before we get too far along, let me clarify a couple of the terms that I’ve already used. Plant communities and habitat are two different things. Most animals, whitetail included, require a number of plant communities to comprise the habitat that they need.

Plant Communities, Habitat and Deer

Examples of plant communities would be forest, grassland, marsh, riparian (river/creek) area. The collection of plants that comprises each plant community is often different from one another (though some plants can be found in different communities). We could even get more specific and have oak forest and pine forest or tallgrass prairie and shortgrass prairie.

Wikipedia: Plant community is a collection of plant species within a designated geographical unit, which forms a relatively uniform patch, distinguishable from neighboring patches of different vegetation types. The components of each plant community are influenced by soil type, topography, climate and human disturbance.

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Now that we are on the same page, let’s talk specifically about grassland communities in terms of habitat management for white-tailed deer.

Managing Grasslands for Deer Foods

Whitetail are not cows. Grass does not make up a large part of a deer’s diet. Whitetail really only eat grasses when the grasses are very young, palatable and often most nutrient-rich. This is even the case in food plots that are planted to small grains such as oats an wheat. Deer use them readily when the plants first begin grow. As long as deer continue to feed in the plots they are steadily provided with new growth, but will shy away from them once the plants become more mature.

So grasslands are of little value, right? Wrong. Although grasses tend to dominate grasslands (that’s obvious), grasses are not the only plants found there. Forbs (weeds) are also found in these areas and are typically in high supply during the spring and fall or just about anytime when there is enough rain. When we see deer in a pasture it is often the forbs they are eating, not the grass.

Deer habitat management should include manipulation of native grasslands and pastures to promote more foods. Plant succession is the change in species structure of an plant community over time. Low succession plants offer a higher food value for deer and other wildlife, namely seed eating songbirds, Bobwhite quail and doves. Managers can promote early succession forbs within un-grazed grasslands by disking and/or mowing at least 10 percent of their open land each year, either just before Spring or Fall.

Managing Grassland Habitat for Whitetail Cover

If deer do not eat grass then why have it at all? Well, it does provide decent screening cover for adults and it’s used heavily by fawns. Grass is a commodity that is, unfortunately, not always readily available on on properties. On lands that graze cows using a continuous grazing system composed of one herd and one pasture then often there is just not a lot of grass cover at all. A rotational grazing system is best for the habitat when it comes to the management of white-tailed deer.

Cows are an automatic, biological mower and disk combined. Not only do cows consume much of the grass but their hooves disturb the soil, both actions that promote forb growth. As long as the cows are rotated off the forbs have their day in the sun and then the grasses grow back.

The problem with a pasture that is only a few inches tall is that it neither provides screening cover for adults nor resting cover for fawns. In some areas, tall grasses (~3-feet) can provide a significant amount of screening cover for deer. Think of areas like the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and western Kansas. This is also true in farm country, especially during the winter months, when deer need just a little cover to facilitate movement.

Grass Cover, Fawns and Deer Hunting

It’s mid-May and there have already been a number of reports of fawns on the ground. Good grass cover is critical for their survival as well as future deer hunting opportunities on your land. Proper management of grassland communities should be a part of an overall habitat management plan. Deer need a little bit of everything and healthy grasslands add both food and cover. Small changes can make big differences when it comes to managing for white-tailed deer and other wildlife species.

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