Habitat Management: Managing Grasslands for White-tailed Deer

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.

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.

White-tailed Deer Management: Habitat on the Edge

Deer Management: More Edge for Better Habitat

White-tailed deer do quite well in a variety of areas. They’re always found in association with forests or woodlands of some type, but the plants that make up their habitat vary quite substantially across their range. While out searching for sheds this morning, I noticed a family group comprised of an old doe, a middle-aged doe that was probably one of her fawns from a few years back and a couple of last year’s fawns (now yearlings). They had a fair amount of plants at their disposal, but they were feeding at a point where the woodline butted up against grassland, an edge.

We all know that a huge component of deer management is creating, having and maintaining good habitat. Habitat is kind of a big idea. Although property owners and hunters that manage for deer want to have good habitat for the animals in an area, I’m not sure deer think about it the same way we do. Habitat is made up of a variety of plant communities, such as woodlands mixed with pastures or grasslands, riparian areas and maybe even agriculture fields and the such. No matter the types of plant communities, white-tailed deer are always attracted to the edges. Continue reading “White-tailed Deer Management: Habitat on the Edge”

Mid-Winter Deer Management Practices

Whitetail Deer Habitat Management Practices & Techniques for Better Deer Hunting

The white-tailed deer hunting season has closed on most hunters, but there is a new season among us, something I have termed “mid-winter deer habitat management season.” Admittedly, it’s kind of a long name and unfortunately it’s not a hunting season, but the deer and other wildlife found on your property will definitely benefit from it. It’s during this mid- to late-winter time that many landowners and hunters put whitetail deer out sight and out of mind, but the animals that you will be hunting next year are still out there, right now. If you have ever needed a reason to stay out in the field during late January and February this is it.

The time from late January through the month of February is one of the best periods to perform on-the-ground deer habitat management. The practices performed during this time will positively impact the deer on your property throughout the year. These practices include prescribed burning, brush control and tree thinning, and protecting bottomland areas. These management practices will not only improve the health of the plant communities found on your property, but also increase the quantity and quality of deer foods for the whitetail that live there. Other deer management activities that can be performed during this period include spring food plot preparation and predator control. When combined, all of these practices will lead to improve deer hunting on your land.

Whitetail Deer Habitat Management Practices & Techniques for Better Deer Hunting

Habitat Management Practices for Whitetail Deer

Prescribed Burning – This is one of the least expensive deer habitat management practices out there on a per acre basis, but it’s also one of the least used. The benefit of prescribed burning and well-applied fire on habitat for deer and other critters had been well documented. The time to burn for increased cool-season forb production was months ago, but you still have time to pull off a late winter burn that will promote native grasses. Grass comprises very little of a whitetail’s diet, but they will readily utilize nutrient-rich grasses following post-fire green-up. Native grasses also provide valuable fawning cover later in year. Burning as a habitat management practice should be completed before mid-February.

Brush Control & Forest Thinning – This is one of the more popular deer management practices, but sometimes the word “brush” is over-applied. Make sure that the brush being removed is not a browse plant that the whitetail in your area rely on. Most of the brush species out there do provide some benefit, whether it be from leaf or fruit, but not all. These undesirables should be the target of removal, making space for forbs and better browse plants and to decrease competition for water. Complete removal of brush can occur in small patches, but avoid the desire to open up huge blocks of land (i.e. 100 contiguous acres) in the name of deer management. Smaller clearings take more work, but they also provide more edge. Whitetail deer are edge species, so limit patch clearings to 5 to 25 acres in size, do not clear more than 50 percent of your property, and think ahead. Make sure to leave a network of wooded corridors so that deer feel secure traveling within your property.

Brush management or even forest thinning is not a one-and-done management practice. Brush management not only includes the removal of “old-growth” plants, but also the removal of those trying to establish or re-establish. Open and recently-cleared areas must be monitored at least every two to three years so that unwanted regrowth can be removed.

Riparian Fencing – It’s always a good idea to keep livestock at proper numbers for a property, but it’s especially important to limit their access to riparian areas. The term “riparian” is just a fancy word for the area immediately adjacent and around a drainage such as a creek, stream or river. Riparian areas typically have the richest soils and the highest plant diversity on a property, so fencing livestock out of these areas for the majority of the year means the high quality browse and forbs found in these areas ends up in the mouths of antler-growing bucks and fawn-rearing does. Help deer and the plants they eat on your place, take advantage of the cooler temps, and build riparian-protecting fences during late winter.

More Management Practices for Deer

Food Plot Prep – Food plots are not the be-all, end-all cure for deer management, but they can help substantially in areas where they will grow. Deer located in more arid areas are out of luck, unless irrigation and the money to do so are in place. Late winter is a great time to start prepping deer food plot sites for spring planting. Food plots are not necessarily habitat, but they can supplement it. Avoid the urge to plow under fall and winter food plots. Many will continue to grow into May or June, providing leafy forage and seeds for deer and many other wildlife species.

Predator Control – It’s tough sledding when it comes to finding food in late winter. This is true for whitetail and all other wildlife, including predators. Animals that are hungry tend to move more often, cover more ground and increase their daylight activity. All of this makes predators more susceptible to shooting and trapping during mid- and late-winter. Clean up on coyotes and feral wildlife, especially wild hogs, to minimize their impact on native animals and the habitat they need. This will not only help white-tailed deer, but also help all ground-nesting birds such as quail and turkey.

Deer Management Strategies for Burned Properties

Whitetail Deer Management - Habitat Management Techniques Post Wildfire

All wildlife species need food, cover, water and space to survive. White-tailed deer are no different. Most regions of Texas have been pretty thin on food and water for wildlife this year due to pitifully low amounts of rainfall, but many properties have been impacted by wildfires too, consuming dry vegetation (food and cover) and completely setting back white-tailed deer habitat. Burned lands can look bad, real bad at first. However, the benefits of fire on native habitats have been well documented.

Fires used for habitat management purposes are always prescribed fires, not wildfires. Prescribed burns differ greatly from wildfires in that planned fires can be set to accomplish specific objectives. This is not the case with wildfires, which can also destroy homes and other valuable infrastructure. But from a habitat perspective, fire is fire. The plant communities found in Texas are well-adapted to fire. But what can properties impacted by recent wildfires expect? Continue reading “Deer Management Strategies for Burned Properties”

Deer Habitat Improvement Through Burning

Deer Habitat Improvement: Prescribed Burning for Wildlife

The wildfires plaguing various parts of Texas have got me thinking an awful lot about prescribed burning over the past few days. Prescribed burning, prescribed fire, controlled burning or however you want to refer to it is a tool used for many purposes. It is commonly used for white-tailed deer habitat improvement, but it can also be used to prevent, contain and extinguish wildfires. In recent years, prescribed fire for range and wildlife habitat improvement has increased substantially. Granted it’s not for everyone, but many understand the utility of this management practice.

Prescribed burning is a tool used by landowners for increasing forage quality for livestock, reducing and controlling invasive brush species and for actively managing wildlife habitat. In fact, prescribed fire can accomplish many objectives simultaneously. For example, one fire be used to reduce brush cover, eliminate fine fuel loads, increase forage quality for wild and domestic animals, and improve wildlife habitat for deer, turkey and quail. Fire sets back many woody species and eliminates fire intolerant ones such as ashe juniper (cedar). Continue reading “Deer Habitat Improvement Through Burning”