Natural growth — Native browse is important to deer

Acorns will retain high proteins for deer well into the deer season.

There’s more to feeding deer than planting food plots and filling feeders. Here’s how natural groceries should play into your deer management.

Every deer hunter wants to grow more deer, specifically more bucks, and, in particular, bigger bucks.

The truth is if you want to grow more bucks, then you also have to grow more does, since the antlerless deer contribute just as much to the genetics of the bucks as the male deer component of the breeding process. Ironically, some research suggests that the doe has an even greater genetic role than the buck. Either way, you have to have the does to get the job done. So, if you work to grow more deer, even does, then the result should statistically be more bucks as well.

OK, so how do you do that?

There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle including enhancing the existing native habitats where your deer reside now. One good place to start is with what you already have to work with.

“Even if you can’t do anything about the existing genetic structure within the deer population you have on the properties you hunt, you can still positively impact their habitats by taking a number of steps to grow more deer, healthier deer, and thus produce better deer,” says Scott Edwards, a deer habitat specialist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Advantage: Native browse

So, what do you suppose the deer ate before man got the idea to plant selective wildlife food plots just for them?

All else being equal, Mother Nature has always done a pretty decent job of feeding her wild game species. Sure, some areas of the state have better soils and thus better natural plants to help deer and other wildlife thrive, but for the most part wildlife gets along very well on the existing native buffet supplied for them.

That said, there are many things that we can do to enhance the menu that is already on the lands we hunt. If there is high quality good foods out there that deer will readily eat, then we can make more of it and make what is there higher quality forage.

“Cervids (white-tailed deer) are selective foragers; they sample and evaluate a variety of plant species to meet their needs,” says Dr. Steve Demarais, professor of wildlife ecology and management at Mississippi State University. “White-tailed deer will eat over 400 different plant species in the Southeast.”

Many of these plant species are probably growing on your deer hunting lands right now.

Deer have a natural instinct for knowing which native foods are their favorites and which ones contribute most to their beneficial development if these plants are available in quality and quantity. It’s no different when a bunch of hunters walk into a restaurant buffet heading for the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and other favorites while passing on the pickled beets, boiled okra and bean sprouts. If we’re hungry enough, we might eat the less desirable foods, but they would not be our first choices. Deer are the same.

In the fall we know that deer will hit the falling acorns big time. They like to eat these high protein nuts that apparently taste good to them, and will consume these first when given the chance over other available foods.

As hunters and land managers, we need to make more acorns available to them and improve the mast bearing trees we have now.

This is the same situation with all native browse options on any given hunting property. We need to determine what these food sources are and work to enhance them in every way we can.

Grazing selections

Wherever you hunt, it would be a good thing to know what native browse species are growing there and what your deer are eating. It is probably not practical to try to identify all of the potential 400 plant species deer may be eating on your place, but knowing the primary food choices would sure be a good idea.

As mentioned, we all know the value of mast bearing oak trees to the deer population. Cruising your hunting property to identify all the oaks is a good place to start. But in the process of surveying the land, note all other native wildlife food sources at the same time.

Wild fruits are prime deer food choices. Look for crab apple trees, pear trees, and other fruits especially in old abandoned orchards or around old farmhouses or barns. Persimmon trees are quite common and when the fruits start to drop, deer will eat them up, literally overnight in some cases. Wild plum is another example of fleshy fruits that deer love.

Other prevalent native wildlife food resources include honey suckle, oak leaf hydrangea, New Jersey tea, wild lettuce, green briar, verbena, bacchius, and hundreds of other common wild plants.

Look for native berries, too, including blackberries, blueberries, dewberries, and wild grapes. Deer love all of these succulent fruits and the leaves on the bushes as well.

Likely there are many other native forbs and grasses as well that deer will actively use as food resource browses. These need to be identified, too, so they can be further enhanced with additional habitat management practices.

Bolstering existing wild foods

Numerous habitat management practices can be easily deployed to help enhance native wildlife foods that will support a plan to grow more deer. First are the simple practices of soil and vegetation disturbances, altering the landscape to help produce more browse for deer.

Soil disturbances can simply be to disk an area of overgrown pastures, camp trails and roads, open fields, CRP lands as may be permitted, and similar spots on your hunting property. This can be done wholesale or by strip disking pastures and grasslands to turn under the existing plants to create an opportunity for new growth browse to develop.

Vegetation disturbances can be done by prescribed burnings, bush hogging, strip mowing, or sickle cutting grass pasturelands in order to bale the hay grasses to promote more plant growth.

Creating new openings especially in established forestlands is another good idea. If you have small openings now within your timberlands, then disk or mow them to cut back on unwanted tree or sapling growth. This will generate new grasses, forbs, and briars for deer to use.

Select timber harvests can also be used to open up darkened forest floors by letting sunlight shine in via open forest canopies. New light reaching the forest landscape will naturally develop new plant growth just like it does with timber cutover areas, though perhaps not with quite as dramatic an effect.

Adding commercial fertilizers to select native browses can also spur more growth with the existing plants. Simply use a small hand spreader to spin some cheap Triple-13 into bushes of honey suckle, blackberries, or around wild grapes or other plants like fruit trees.

Planting new trees can also produce additional food resources well into the future for other generations to come in some cases. Plant some oaks, Chestnut, various fruit trees, chufa, and many other varieties of plants to enhance the available food selections for deer in both quantity and quality.

One of the secrets to growing more deer is to have plenty for them to eat. Work to enhance the plant varieties already growing on your property by implementing management practices to improve native browse. Fertilize what you have and add new plantings for the future. With promoting high quality natural wildlife foods and plenty of it you will grow more deer.

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