Deer Habitat: Identifying A Property’s Strengths And Weaknesses Part 1

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a Southeast Pennsylvania Branch Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) event. Neil Dougherty gave two presentations on the topic of habitat and property management. Neil has a wealth of knowledge in this area, has written a couple of books, is the owner of North Country Whitetails (Neil’s whitetail property consulting company) and actively manages over 350,000 acres. Plainly put, the man is one of the leading whitetail habitat experts in the country. I thought I’d share what I learned during this event, and hope you find it as interesting and informative as I did. Below is part one of the two part blog series.

As information is more and more available on the web and through groups like the QDMA, there is a shift in who today’s deer hunter is. Deer hunters today are now, more than ever, engaged as land managers. The byproduct of this is the development of a new hunter called the “modern deer hunter.” The modern deer hunter is part-time biologist, and maybe even a full-time biologist in managing their property with the skill levels attained through resources like the QDMA. One of the most substantial challenges a land manager faces is trying to get the most out of a piece of property. Being able to identify a property’s strengths and weaknesses is critical in optimizing the land.

Not All Deer Properties Are Created Equal

This seems like an elementary statement given that certain states clearly have what many would consider to be better deer hunting than others. But this concept strictly considers the property’s natural ability to hunt, flow and provide opportunities for hunter success, not in what part of the country it’s located. In order to set a property up for success, you need to have a full understanding of your property’s attributes. The first step is to get an aerial understanding of your property. Google maps or Google Earth is a great free tool to familiarize yourself with a property’s features from the air. I know I get lost in reviewing aerial images in the offseason as I comb over different terrain features of the properties I hunt. Even if you’ve hunted a particular piece of land all of your life, it’s worth reviewing the aerial imagery to gain new perspective on the potential reasons deer are using the land the way they do.

Property Purpose

If you’re reading this, it’s pretty clear one of your primary focuses for your piece of land is to have great deer hunting , or better deer hunting than you currently do. With that said, it’s important to consider what other assets the land has beyond hunting. Whether you’re buying a piece of land or enhancing land you already own, it’s important to define what other variables may need to be considered as you develop your overall land management plan. Is the land a timber piece? Does the land have potential for wind leases or gas and oil leases? Do you plan to farm row crops? Owning land is an investment or a sort of 401k for many, and that’s perfectly fine. However, it’s important to define how the land will be used so your land management plan can account for all uses and still provide great deer habitat with a plan to keep the land profitable and enjoyable for years to come.

Assessing The Neighborhood

Just like buying a home, or evaluating your own home’s value, it’s all about location. Buying hunting property or assessing your current hunting property is no different. Ideally what you’d like to see around your property are larger tracts of land ownership (each landowner owning a couple hundred acres each). For example, if you have a 100 acre piece of property surrounded by 20 acre lots owned by neighbors, you’re likely going to experience increased hunting pressure. You could guess that each of those lots may have an owner who hunts, along with their kids, and maybe a relative or two all with deer tags to fill. This can impact everything from how pressured the deer herd is to the age structure of the deer on your property. If you have a piece of land in this environment, you can still create good hunting and enjoy the land—it just may take a little more work. In this scenario you’d want to be more defensive with your property layout, particularly decreasing visibility across your property line. Also, wooded lots are easier to work with than broken up farmland in these types of neighborhoods.

Most hunters’ intent in managing their property is to grow bigger deer and to manage their overall deer herd health while increasing age structure.There is a lot of discussion about “herd management” in the world of land management. The reality is, unless you own or control 1,000-1,500 acres, you will not be able to significantly impact a full herd worth of deer. However, creating a quality deer management (QDM) co-op could help string together enough neighboring properties to impact herd dynamics. Enticing neighbors to work together in harvesting animals ethically and only those within a certain age class could also help to diminish the negatives of a small parcel neighborhood. Over time, everyone could experience the benefit of the QDM co-op and enjoy hunting more mature deer. Building a QDM co-op is something I’m laying the groundwork for in the neighborhood I hunt most often.

Say you can’t create a QDM co-op—neighbors won’t buy in. You can still create good hunting on your property; you just need to recalibrate for attracting and holding deer versus growing mature deer. If you have 75-150 acres, can you grow and hold a 3 1/2 year old  buck? Answer is, maybe not. In Pennsylvania, statistics show that if you have good deer habitat that is thick and diverse on 75-100 acres, you will hold maybe one 3-year-old buck or older. This number could decrease depending on the quality of the neighborhood. This doesn’t mean you can’t grow good deer, but you may need to set realistic goals for the quality of deer that can be produced in your area. A great way to determine your goals is to look at the top 10% of bucks harvested in your county. If you’re producing deer that fall within the top 10% of your county, you are doing well by most standards.

Planning

After having a solid grasp of a property’s available resources and the neighborhood liabilities, it’s time to assess the food resources. The primary components of any whitetail management plan are food, cover and huntablity. The goal is to have more food, better cover and hunt more strategically than your neighbors. The downside to land management is the amount of pressure put on a property by the type of work it takes to manage the land. I know I’m hitting the timber every free weekend I have to plant food plots, cut timber and hang game cams. Think about how many deer/human interactions are taking place while this work is being done (an interaction is any time a deer sees/smells/hears a human). Think of this versus your neighbor who lives out of state and visits their property only four weekends out of the year to hunt. Whose property has more pressure? If you’re a deer, what property is safer 99% of the year? Your neighbor’s. You may have better food sources, but your neighbor has no pressure. If I’m a deer, I’m eating your food at night and living on your neighbor’s property during the day. You’re essentially feeding the deer your neighbor will harvest during hunting season. This is where the idea of huntablity comes into play. If you’re a person who is putting increased pressure on your property, you’ll want to show some restraint in some cases so you don’t overuse a piece of property. I typically try to undertake much of my habitat management over the winter and early spring, so I can let the property rest during late spring through hunting season. During hunting season, I try to hunt when I have the right conditions versus hunting every day I have free. This is to help reduce the overall pressure on my hunting property—I’ve not yet mastered this but, I’m working on it.

Food and Food Plots

Deer are slaves to their stomachs. Their entire world revolves around food. Above and beyond all other habitat updates, having adequate food will always trump in status anything else provided in your neighborhood. Food isn’t only referring to row crops and food plots. It’s all about providing the mineral resources deer need in any number of ways—acorn mast, thinning the woods to open up the canopy to encourage undergrowth, etc. Supplemental feeding is an option, however it’s the least desirable way to provide food. It’s expensive and there are plenty of natural ways to provide adequate deer forage particularly in the north and midwest. Contrary to popular belief, there is not a significant increase in antler growth attributed to supplemental feeding and it also contributes to a 200 yard loss of surrounding natural habitat in and around the area where deer are feeding aggressively. The habitat loss is due to large numbers of deer attracted to a small area and destroying all the natural browse in a concentrated area. This loss of habitat is all the more reason for your deer to live on your neighbor’s property and not yours.

Food plots are an increasingly enticing option to enhance a property’s food offering for many land managers, especially given the food plot prevalence in many of today’s Outdoor Channel hunting shows. Before deciding food plots are the right way to go, it’s important to determine if, and why, you need a food plot. On average, every deer consumes about 2,000 pounds of food a year. Roughly 1,400 pounds of that food should be brushy/forby type of food you’d find in pastures. Maybe 40% of a deer’s food intake will come from row crop type foods. According to Neil Dougherty, he has yet to implement food plots onto a property and then document a noticeable increase in antler growth. Body weights have increased, but antlers have not been impacted. A food plot makes sense if you have an over concentration of deer and the habitat is being hammered to a point that it can’t support the deer herd. In this scenario, a property could use an increase in available nutrition. If you would like to create a hunting plot to concentrate deer during hunting season–this is fine too. However, determining how a potential food plot will be used is important to the overall layout of a property and ensures the appropriate type of plot/seed is planted. To have a good property, you don’t need a $3,000 a year agriculture bill and a bunch of equipment to compete with local farms. Quality natural habitat, balanced deer sex ratios and healthy deer are the key. Food plots do have their place, but their place should be defined and be part of your overall land strategy.

Read part two of the blog series here!

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