Five Keys To Helping Winter Deer

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winter deer
Each deer consumes nearly two tons of food every year. 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.

“That’s why I tell people to consider deer specific foods such as brassicas,” Dougherty continued. “Not only are brassicas high in protein, reaching the 30 to 40 percent level, but their palatability increases later in the fall as their starches convert to sugars. After the first frosts arrive, it takes about 30 days for brassicas to reach peak palatability. That’s when a planting like Biologic Maximum really shines. It produces about six tons of brassicas per acre, and deer usually start using it soon after the first frost. A 3-acre field will usually provide enough tonnage to get through winter.”

Dougherty said brassicas also work well with the deer’s digestive system.

“With brassicas, as deer clean up what’s out there in the field, they stop relying on it,” he said. “This lets their stomach adjust gradually to other late-winter food sources. When people keep resupplying corn piles, deer just keep hanging around. If the supply suddenly stops or people start feeding them something else, their stomachs don’t easily adjust to a different diet. That’s another reason we advise against feeding operations.”

Natural Health Food

Dougherty also suggests hunters work to improve native plants and trees to help deer make it through winter.

“Each spring, we suggest deer hunters treat mast producers such as oak and apple trees with a 5-10-15 fertilizer,” he said. “When acorns are available, it doesn’t matter what you plant, because deer will hit those acorns as long as they can find them.”

Dougherty also encourages people to create “living brush piles,” which means converting a tree with succulent branch tips into a multi-trunked “brush pile” whose food stays within reach of deer for years.

“We select a maple tree with a 4- to 6-inch trunk and cut about three-fourths of the way through it,” Dougherty said. “Then we bend it to the ground without breaking it off the stump. It will keep regenerating new stems and stem systems for years. All those leaves and branch tips stay within reach of deer and feed them a long time.”

During severe winters, if you believe deer need a hand to make it through winter, don’t give into temptation and start dumping surplus crops. Instead, Dougherty suggests limited cuttings of preferred natural browse such as maple, ash, hemlock and white cedar.

“Know where they’re bedding and cut down a couple of trees nearby,” Dougherty said. “Once you’ve made the cuts, monitor them. If some branch tips are out of reach, cut them as they’re needed so they drop into reach. This makes for better winter food because bacteria in the deer’s stomach is designed for breaking down wood browse in winter. It’s not designed for breaking down heavy volumes of corn. But if you need to do a lot of browse cuts, it could mean you’re not shooting enough does.”

Critical Thermal Cover

Some deer hunters become so consumed with trying to feed wintering whitetails they overlook the deer’s equally critical need: good thermal cover. The more protection deer find from the wind and cold, the less energy their bodies will need.

“Food and cover are both high priorities, and part of your overall plan must focus on creating, improving and maintaining thermal cover,” Dougherty said. “Thermal cover can be rows of Christmas trees, stands of pines and hemlocks, and other clusters of conifers that block wind and reduce snow reaching the ground.

“To create more thermal cover, keep a few things in mind,” he continued. “Keep it within 200 yards of winter food plots, choose terrain that provides extra protection from the wind, and keep the prevailing wind in mind. If you plan to hunt near thermal cover, you don’t want that bedding area downwind of your stand and the food plot. They’ll spook out of there as soon as you show up to hunt.

“You also want them to have a short walk to their food sources. Every moment they’re on their feet they’re burning energy. Just standing up burns energy because heat is escaping from under their arm sockets where their hair is lightest. So, the quicker you can get them to the food and back to their beds, the less energy they’ll use.”

Helping Winter Deer Conclusion

As winter loosens its grip and deer leave their thermal cover, start setting next year’s plan into motion. As Dougherty and Scott point out, a good year-round management plan takes the entire property into account and maximizes its ability to create a well-balanced herd that’s living within the land’s annual means.

Without the proper balance of perennial foods, winter foods, natural browse, thermal cover and aggressive doe shooting, a deer herd can’t achieve maximum health and productivity. The scientific literature is crammed with examples of deer herds that received all the surplus hay and corn they could eat each winter, yet they still fell prey to the stresses of crowding, malnourishment and cold weather. Even if they don’t die, they usually experience below-average growth, low body weights and inferior antler growth. Seldom, if ever, are such factors tied to genetics.

A comprehensive plan that keeps deer in line with their habitat ensures they won’t overbrowse their habitat and share contaminated food items that jeopardize their health. As a result, your whitetails will have a fighting chance to make it through North America’s most brutal winter months.

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