Five Keys To Helping Winter Deer

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helping winter deer
A balance of perennial foods, winter foods, natural browse and thermal cover allows bucks to maximize their potential.

Deer in Northern habitats fare better in brutal conditions if deer hunters keep herds in check while providing good cover and self-sustaining foods. Deer hunters in Northern states who want to help whitetails make it through winter in peak condition should never forget their No. 1 priority is to feed the herd regular servings of well-placed bullets and broadheads each autumn. That might sound harsh, but wildlife biologists and habitat specialists say doe shooting must be emphasized in most Northern deer woods, and it’s nearly impossible to overdo it. When deer hunters keep whitetail numbers in check so they don’t overbrowse their habitat, it’s much easier to stay on top of the other vital components of herd management. Those factors include improving thermal cover and natural forage, and maintaining perennial food plots and cold-weather food plots. When those five factors work together, each deer is more likely to attain maximum growth and experience peak health.

On the other hand, if you spare the bullets and arrows, you’ll soon discover no amount of forage, food plot and habitat work can keep pace with the herd’s ever-expanding size and appetite. In that case, all you’ll experience are the frustrations of quantity deer management, not the enjoyment of quality deer management.

Spare the Bullet, Hurt the Herd

“In terms of cost and cost efficiencies, the best thing you can always do for your hunting property is to spend an extra $10 to $15 on bullets,” said Neil Dougherty, a wildlife consultant for NorthCountry Whitetails in upstate New York. Dougherty recommends that once you have enough ammo, find some friends and family members, and shoot all the does you can legally harvest.

“It’s far more cost-effective than clearing more land, planting more food plots and trying to feed all those extra mouths,” Dougherty said.

Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute of North America, agrees. “Because of disease risks and habitat destruction, controlling the whitetail’s population has become one of the biggest problems we’re facing in many areas,” Scott said. “Everyone likes to see deer, but we now have areas where they’ve created serious long-term problems for their habitat. In most cases, deer hunters could and should go out and shoot every legal doe they can harvest. Population control is vital no matter where you hunt, whether we’re talking about habitat destruction, disease risks or helping deer cope with severe winters. We all need to check our egos at the gate and forget about trying to shoot the group’s biggest buck every year. Take your kids, and anyone else who wants to learn how to hunt, and shoot does. By sharing the hunt with others, people discover a whole new element to hunting.”

does and fawns
If you don’t shoot does and fawns, you’ll soon discover no amount of food-plot and habitat work can keep pace with the herd’s growth and appetite..

Dougherty said deer hunters can better understand the importance of shooting does if they visualize how much food each whitetail requires annually.

“Each deer consumes nearly two tons of food every year,” Dougherty said. “Picture how much clover, alfalfa, twigs, leaves and small branches you’d have to pile into your pickup truck to make two tons of deer food. When you shoot that adult doe, you’re not only sparing the two tons she would eat during the next year, you’re also removing two fawns she would drop next spring. With one bullet or arrow, you reduce the herd’s food dependence by nearly six tons the next year. Shoot two more does and you reduce the food demand by nearly 18 tons. Now consider that one 3-acre food plot can produce about 18 tons of food each year. When you compare the cost of a few bullets to the costs of planting and maintaining a 3-acre food plot, you see why you can’t find a more effective way to spend your time and money.”

Year-Round Food Sources

Dougherty and Scott said they stress doe shooting because sound deer management requires comprehensive year-round planning, not just seasonal projects. That’s also why they say a healthy winter herd requires solid nutrition throughout the year, not just during times of obvious stress.

“Every time you focus your deer management efforts on one particular time of year, you run into all sorts of ‘buts’ and ‘what ifs,’ and that’s even more true when you’re managing small properties,” Scott said. “The farther north you go, the more difficult winter will be, but you won’t do those deer much good if you only worry about them in winter.”

Dougherty agreed, and said deer hunters are making a huge mistake if they buy and spread bulk quantities of corn and other surplus crops during fall and winter.

“The objective is to manage deer year-round, and you can’t do that when you concentrate them in small places where they gather for handouts,” Dougherty said. “When you put out food, you not only create problems for the deer’s digestive systems, you hurt their habitat. Habitat depletion will be visible for 200 yards around the food, and even though it won’t be as obvious farther out, it will be severely hurt for about 500 yards in all directions. Once whitetails ruin their habitat, it takes native vegetation years to recover.”

Instead, Scott and Dougherty stress the importance of year-round planning and self-sustaining food sources, which include perennial plants.

“Unless you have lots of land for a variety of food plots, you’re probably best off planting a long-lasting food source, something that will regenerate on its own for about three to five years,” Scott said. “Perennials make a good base crop, whether you own 10 acres or 1,000 acres. A good perennial will provide food as long as deer can reach it. And if you control lots of land, you can start with the perennials and then add something like corn. If you don’t harvest the cornfield, deer will have access to it all winter.”

Cold-Weather Offerings

For larger properties, Dougherty suggests a food plot program that consists of 60 percent perennials and 20 percent winter foods, with the other 20 percent being autumn food plots set up specifically for hunting. Of these three types of food plots, winter food plots are often the least efficient and require more individual space.

“For winter food plots in most Northern areas, you’re talking about corn or brassicas — which includes kale, rape and turnips — and they need to cover some ground to do any good,” Dougherty said. “You need a lot of tonnage to get through January, February and March. For corn, it is recommended to have at least seven to 10 acres because you’re going to lose 50 to 60 percent of it to crows, squirrels, turkeys and raccoons. In some areas, deer might get only 30 percent of it.

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