The next time you visit the local feed store, take a look at the back shelf. I bet the shelf is full of deer clover mixes, big buck oats and turkey chufa. As popular as deer forages have become, they might be on the front shelf--no surprise since nearly every hunting show says something about deer forages and food plots. In the United States, deer food plot mixes have grown into a multimillion-dollar business. To no surprise, landowners work feverishly to plant new food plots each. Many landowners plant wheat, clover or turnips. Some go to great lengths to plant Roundup Read corn and soybeans, alfalfa, chicory, lablab, cowpeas or other interesting seed mixes. Unfortunately, this is usually the extent of their management plan when they could be doing so much more for deer and other wildlife.
After nine years of college, I finally graduated from the University of Missouri - Columbia with a M.S. in Fisheries and Wildlife Management. My thesis was on the value of food plots and habitat management for white-tailed deer in the Missouri Ozarks. My job was to plant a variety of different food plots and then sit in a deer stand for 10 evenings a month for three years (life was tough). When in the deer stand I listened to a lot of Cardinals baseball games and tracked which forage plots deer preferred (ladino or white clover and wheat were the best choices).
We also conducted prescribed burns in old fields and woodlands to compare the nutritional value of native green browse like blueberry, asters and native lespedezas. We also compared the nutritional value of browse in burned areas to unburned areas. We found native forbs and legumes and some woody browse had good crude protein levels (above 15 percent) and were highly digestible during the spring and summer, especially in areas that were recent treated with prescribed fire--no surprise here since fire will stimulate new plant growth. In summary, we could produce good browse and a lot more deer food in well managed old fields and woodlands than in food plots.
So after three years, what did I learn? First, I learned you can't drive very far on tractor with two flat tires, never weld when wearing shorts, never underestimate how fast crabgrass can burn, four-wheel drive doesn't mean you can drive through everything, and don’t forget bug spray when walking in the Missouri Ozarks.
On the study I learned planted food plots are very nutritious and are a great way to attract deer for hunting or wildlife viewing. However, a landowner could also produce a lot of high-quality food by managing old fields and woodlands. Here are a few quail management practices that can help deer hunters produce more food and cover for whitetails.
Old Field Management
I stumbled across a great article from the Quality Deer Management Association that does an excellent job of explaining the benefits of old field management for whitetails. Read the article and replace "white-tailed deer" with "bobwhite quail." Old field management for bobwhites provides ideal cover for fawning and browse habitat for whitetails.
Strip-Disking and Prescribed Burning
These disturbance practices are two of the most effective and cheapest ways to maintain and improve old field habitat for wildlife. Strip-disking is often described as the “poor man’s food plot” since there are few inputs (you just disk part of the field). The end result is a carpet of annual plants and legumes (green browse). Prescribed burning and strip-disking will encourage a variety of herbaceous plants including clovers, annual lespedeza, asters and native lespedezas. All are great quail foods and important deer browse. Strip-disking can also be used to funnel deer past your stand. The disked strips are much easier to walk than thick, rank grass.
Timber Stand Improvement
The Quality Deer Management Association had another good article on the value of timber stand improvement. Think of your forest or woodland as a garden. With Timber Stand Improvement you are simply "weeding out" the unwanted and poor developing trees. A healthy tree means more soft mast (persimmon and dogwood) and hard mast (acorns) for deer and turkey. A thinned forest also means more sunlight on the woodland floor, which will result in a green buffet of native plants like green briar, wild grape, dogwood and wild lettuce. These plants provide excellent deer browse during the early summer when antlers are growing and lactation peaks. A healthier forest usually means faster growing trees and bigger trees, which equals more money at harvest time. Yes, timber harvest is an excellent management practice and something landowners need to consider.
Other management choices include temporary forest openings and edge feathering. Both practices result in a flush of green browse and excellent hard cover. I know several deer hunters who often place their bow stands next to temporary forest openings or clearcuts. Two or three years after the cut, the site is full of nutritious woody and herbaceous growth. Edge feathering also provides green browse and is an effective way to funnel deer past your stand. If you have ever tried to walk through good edge feathering, it is nearly impossible to do.
Here's the plan. Edge feather the entire edge of a field or at least a 100- to 150-yard section. Do not edge feather a 40- to 60-yard section around your deer stand. The edge feathering on both sides of your stand should act like a living fence. The opening around your stand will provide deer an easy access to the field. This strategy should funnel a few more deer past your stand.
Natural Community Restoration
Restoring open woodlands, glades, savannas and prairies is beneficial to deer for the same reasons old field management and timber stand improvement are beneficial--green browse and bedding habitat. In fact, landowners often use the same management techniques--first thin woody cover and second disturb the site with prescribed fire. Typically, glades and woodlands occur on south- and west-facing slopes. During the winter these sites provide better thermal cover (warmer and drier) than north- or east-facing slopes.
Establish Native Warm-Season Grasses with Legumes and Native Forbs
Several years ago I worked with a landowner in north-central Missouri who was a die-hard quail and deer hunter. During our first visit I recommended converting a large fescue field to native warm-season grasses and wildflowers for better quail habitat. I told the landowner that native warm-season grasses provide good cover for quail and excellent bedding and fawning habitat for deer. I recommended planting a mix of little bluestem and wildflowers. What sold the landowner was that the grass would be just tall enough to hide deer and short enough for a deer to see over the top, and, by the way, it would be excellent quail habitat. He converted more than 60 acres of fescue that year.
The other day the landowner called with a few questions about spraying sericea lespedeza. He was amazed by the number of deer beds he found in the warm-season grass field. "Nearly everywhere I look there's deer sign in the warm-season grass field," he explained. In the past the field was a hay pasture that provided little cover during the summer and absolutely no cover during the fall and winter. Now the warm-season grass is about 4 feet tall. Notice in the picture above how most of the warm-season grass is waist high, perfect for loafing deer. The landowner sees a lot of deer in the field during the hunting season. There are also a few coveys in the field. Consider establishing native warm-season grasses and wildflowers for better fawning and bedding habitat.
Deer habitat management is big bucks in Missouri and throughout the nation. Many landowners only plant food plots, when they could be doing so much more. Next year, go ahead and plant your deer food plots, but also consider managing old fields, establishing native grasses and/or restoring natural communities for quail and white-tailed deer. What’s good for quail is good for most other wildlife.
Aaron P. Jeffries
Habitat is the Key!