Ask these questions in a room filled with deer hunters, and you can sit back and enjoy hours of debate and countless opinions on how to best accomplish these goals. Few subjects will generate more interest and discussion among deer hunters, and it’s easy to understand why.
Let’s face it: most people hunt because they enjoy it and want to put meat on the table for their families. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t enjoy sitting in the woods for hours or days on end without seeing much game. I do everything possible to my property to ensure that there are plenty of deer living on it and that they are visible in daylight hours.
There are literally dozens of different things that can be done to accomplish the goals of having more deer and bigger bucks. A whitetail’s basic needs are food, water and cover.
Before we get into things we can do to improve security cover, we need to understand what good cover is and how important it is for mature bucks. Good cover is thick. I want to have areas on my farm that are so thick I can’t walk through them. This is the cover whitetails love because it provides visual protection, escape routes from predators and physical protection from the elements.
There is a huge difference between does, yearlings, young bucks and mature bucks. After bucks reach 4.5 years of age or older, they become reclusive survival machines and will seek out the thickest cover they can find in their home range. If sufficient cover doesn’t exist, they will move to a new home range where it does exist.
I’ve seen this several times on my farm. I have one block of relatively open timber that always seems to hold some does and younger bucks. I’m also a fanatic about trail cameras, and have many of them going all year long. Over and over I’ve seen bucks abandon bedding in this open block of timber once they reach 3 or 4 years of age. They invariably move to other parts of my farm or to neighboring farms that have thicker cover.
Mature bucks also won’t put up with much human disturbance, so it’s very important to establish thick sanctuaries for the deer. To consistently hold big bucks on your land, you’ve got to have the kind of thick habitat that they desire and some areas that you stay out of.
Now that I’ve established what good cover is and how critical it is to holding big bucks, I’d like to share some things that you can do on your hunting property to improve the habitat.
Timber Stand Improvement (TSI)
TSI is a process of evaluating a timber stand and selectively killing certain trees to improve the habitat and to possibly increase future timber value. By eliminating trees that don’t provide much wildlife benefit, you are often eliminating competition for a tree that does. For example, if a maple tree and a white oak of similar size are growing too close to each other, the white oak will grow slower and will produce fewer acorns due to competition for sunlight.
Oaks of course provide acorns, one of whitetails' most important fall food sources, but they need full sunlight to germinate and grow. If you have mature, fully canopied timber, it’s likely that you won’t have any new oaks growing.
One of the goals most people have when doing TSI is to release the highest quality trees. As a result, the long-term benefit is that the tallest, straightest, most valuable trees will grow faster and be worth more when the property is logged.
TSI is so important and beneficial that the government often provides cost share money for it. In order to get cost share for this work, you’ll need to work with a forester and your local NRCS office to develop the plan and get the funding approved. They will also be able to recommend contractors to do the TSI if you won’t be doing it yourself. Typically, the cost share will cover around 75 percent of the overall cost of having the TSI work done.
This is taking TSI to the next level. By clear-cutting or dropping a majority of the trees in a small area, you can create bedding areas within your timber. I’ve done this on numerous occasions, and it’s nice because I get to decide where these bedding areas will be. I have one hardwood ridge in particular on my farm where I’ve had great results. It was a little too open and deer didn’t use it much, but there was a great funnel beside it. Last summer I spent an afternoon with a chainsaw cutting down every undesirable tree within a 2-acre area and the result was a tangled mess that I struggled to walk through. The deer however, loved it. This fall, I watched buck after buck walk right by my strategically placed stand and cruise through this jungle checking the does that were bedding within it.
Select Cutting Timber
As I mentioned above, timber eventually needs to be logged if you want it to remain healthy. The primary benefit of logging timber is obviously the paycheck. The secondary benefit is significantly improved habitat. Logging works just like TSI. When trees are cut down, there is instant cover created by the treetops and over time, the increased sunlight will allow new growth to occur. Some of the best whitetail habitat you’ll find is timber that has been logged in the recent past. Select cutting a property is often part of a long-term forestry management plan, and it’s very important to work with a forester. A forester can help you decide which areas to cut, which trees to take, when to cut, how to access the timber, etc. If I have timber on my farm that is ready to be logged and the timber market is good, I don’t waste any time having it done.
Planting Tall Native Grasses
There is nothing that provides better visual cover for wildlife than a thick stand of native grasses. If you’ve ever watched a big buck completely disappear when walking into a native grass field, you know what I’m talking about. Deer love bedding in tall native grasses and will often pile into such fields when pressured. There are a variety of different types you can plant, but the most popular are switch grass, Indian grass and big bluestem. Since there are numerous varieties of each type of native grass and because they can be tricky to get established, I advise working with your local NRCS office or a wildlife biologist to develop a plan before getting started.
Limit Fall Mowing
If you have areas that need occasional mowing, it’s best to do it in the late winter or early spring before the nesting season begins for turkeys and does begin dropping fawns. If you mow grasses, CRP fields, edges, etc., in the fall, there likely won’t be sufficient time for the cover to reach its maximum height, which in effect reduces the quality of the habitat. The only reasons I will mow in the fall are for native grass fire breaks or for access trails to my treestands. In the fall of 2007, I was delighted to see a neighboring landowner mow a 50-acre CRP field next to my farm.
This field had always provided great bedding habitat for deer, and I’d frequently see big bucks traveling and bedding in it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hunt it so all I could do was watch and try calling to them. But when they mowed that field, it was so short that the deer completely avoided it that season, and many of them moved onto my property.
Develop Bedding areas on South-Facing Slopes
If you want to hold deer on your property and have good late-season hunting when the weather turns bitter cold, it really helps to have thick bedding cover on south-facing slopes. South-facing slopes are much warmer in the winter due to the low angle of the sun. North-facing slopes receive little sunlight in the winter months and are much colder. South-facing slopes also block the north and northwest winds that tend to usher in frigid weather. Given a choice, deer will invariably spend most of their time on south-facing slopes in the winter. Obviously, if your property doesn’t have south-facing slopes, there isn’t much you can do about this. If you do have south-facing slopes, you should make sure that you’ve got some good bedding cover on them.
This by no means a comprehensive list of everything that can be done to improve the habitat and hunting on your property. But these are things that I have seen work on my properties and clients’ properties and would recommend to anyone who wants to hold more deer and bigger bucks on their farm. The most rewarding part of the land management experience for me is the time I spend working on my farm to make it the best it can be. Working on habitat improvement is not only lots of fun, it will certainly pay big dividends come hunting season.
Editor's Note: This was originally published on July 27, 2016.