Season End Analysis + New Year Projects

Deer season has wrapped up in most of the Southeast and it’s time to analyze last year and plan for 2022. I’m going to run through several habitat and herd management objectives to employ right now.

2021 Season:

Food Plots – What worked & what didn’t?  Evaluating and assessing each year is crucial to save both time and money. Seed, fertilizer and chemical cost should be up this year.

1. Was there over browse to prevent full plant development?  This is often overlooked and likely a signal to either create additional food options and/ or thin the herd. Different tactics have worked for us to keep deer at bay until the plot is browse tolerant.

Sunn hemp needs about 24″ before it becomes browse tolerant. At that point, we’ll remove the rope and scent for deer to feed. Similar to forage soybeans.

2. Is the plot a supplemental food source or a kill site? Warm season plantings should be managed to feed wildlife for many months and cool season plots could be either a kill site or offer winter long nutrition. Both have benefits and it’s imperative to understand each option prior to burying seed and praying for rain.

3.  Did hunter observation on fields increase or decrease from 2020?  This could show signs of a shift in bedding or declining stealth like stand access.   Whitetails quickly identify stand sites and human presence during the season.  Sometimes, you may need to relocate the stand or just simply stash it deeper in the woods or brush it in better with cut limbs and trees.    

3. Were deer utilizing food plots during daylight hours? Were they at ease and felt safe or pour in at dark? It doesn’t take much to create safety in a wide-open space for whitetails. Incorporating edge feathering, tall transition areas or cover screens are all easy tools to increase daylight movement. Furthermore, transition areas and cover screens can be planted or native food for wildlife and that’s a win-win!

Antlerless deer – Was there sufficient doe tags filled on your property?  For that answer, you need a grasp on the local herd density.  Talk with your neighbors, farmers, ag extension services, state game biologist and DNR agents.  You’ll get many opinions but there should be a common theme. 

Without a doubt, practicing QDM (Quality Deer Mgnt) can become tricky. As more mature bucks are harvested and captured on trail cameras, it’s very easy to lose sight of the doe population. We fell into this scenario many years ago. Even one season of insufficient doe kills may take years to correct the buck to doe ratio.

Summer & early fall are great times for doe surveys. Many hunters underestimate the number of does that should be harvested annually.

In my opinion, the standard 25-30/ deer per square mile is way off in many pockets of the Southeast.  Specifically, areas of vast pine farms and agricultural land. As you increase bedding thickets and food, you’ll increase the carrying capacity. Therefore, you must ramp up doe harvests. Better habitat = more tags to be filled for a balanced herd. This is a whole post in itself for another day which I’ll cover soon.

Taking does early before the rut is an excellent tactic to meet harvest goals. Waiting until after the rut can be a challenge. Get a jump start early and enjoy a better rut.

Hunter Observations – Hopefully, you’re keeping a hunting log and recording each sit. If not, you need to start! The data can be compiled and uploaded to a variety of management software platforms.

Below are data examples to analyze. You can further breakdown stats by stand location, food source, temperature and many other figures. Without these data points, it would certainly be arduous to maintain a healthy, balanced herd. Now is the time to evaluate and plan for upcoming habitat and hunting projects.

  1. Total # of hunts
  2. Total # of does, bucks and fawns (separated by seen and killed)
  3. Avg does, bucks and fawns seen per hunt
  4. Fawn Recruitment Rate (is the population trending up or down? You think there’s a coyote predator issue but is there really?)
  5. Buck to Doe Ratio (paramount data point significance)
  6. Avg weight (past years showed a drop in doe weight so we increased harvests. This could also show signs of nutrition deficiency)
  7. Sightings & Harvests by moon phase (after 16 seasons of statistics, there is no major swing in movement based on moon phase – Shocker!!)
  8. Sightings & Harvests for a.m. and p.m.

Are you seeing adequate mature bucks for your property?  We went through a phase of low buck sightings.  Aggressive doe harvests and better stand rotation boosted buck kills over the past 5 seasons.  I will add that more older bucks are seen hunting off destination food sources.  6 of the last 7 bucks I’ve killed have been out of a mobile stand. 

Too many does?  For instance, if you’re observing 10-15 does for every buck, you may have a problem. Are all stands on a destination food source? If so, you should definitely incorporate hunting sites outside bedding and within timber blocks.  Tracking jawbone age and weight data will help monitor the doe population.  I will be sharing our hunting log and harvest data from the past 15 years soon.  I’m hoping to generate a real discussion on deer densities and the issues we are seeing at our farm.   

Letting young bucks walk doesn’t mean your stands will be crawling with prime, well-aged antlers within several years. With age comes wisdom. If you aren’t killing bucks that mature on your land, it’s time for a habitat and/ or hunt setup overhaul.

2022 Immediate Attention –

Prescribed Fire – Burn areas should be identified asap and firebreaks cut.  
Certainly, this is the best management habitat tool for the SE.  Food, cover, and safety for deer, turkey & quail.  Keep in mind, you can’t just burn any timber block.  It has to make sense with the property layout, and you need adequate sunlight to make a difference. Controlled fire can be accomplished easier than you may think.  Contact your state forestry commission or a property manager/ land consultant. We run a 3-year burn cycle at the Farm.

Compared to food plots, fire has very little cost involved to stimulate the native seed bank for acres of food and cover.

Bedding – The ever-revolving cycle. It’s what keeps me up at night!
This is how I annually assess:  What will I be losing in bedding within the next 2-3yrs and how will I replace it seamlessly?  An ever-revolving cycle of new bedding thickets is key for hunt-ability on your land.  Trying to kill a buck on a food plot is challenging without close bedding.   Thickets can be created on leased land without disrupting pine plantations.  Remember the best defense against predator fawn mortality is thick, nasty bedding cover.  Not trapping ‘yotes.

Diversity is King. Smaller clear-cut sites are killer for deer bedding and fawning cover.

Fragment the land and you’ll be able to control where deer bed. Plan ahead and establish thickets where you want deer. A location away from human traffic where you won’t easily bump them. A checkerboard approach around thinned timber and/ or food plots will offer safety and solid buck movement during breeding season. When the mythical “October Lull” arrives, hit the woods between bedding sites and you’ll find whitetails.

Early Successional Food Plots – A tractor and harrow can create acres of natural wildlife food over the next several months. It’s an awesome tool if you’re unable to burn. Hit firebreaks, logging trails and field edges. Anywhere with good sunlight. Disturb the earth and let the native food bank germinate.

Blackberries from early successional light disking. Deer love them and they are loaded in most seed banks!

Please feel free to drop a line with any questions. Management tools and tactics are not one-size-fits-all. It mostly depends on your neighborhood, property size and your goals as a land steward and hunter. You can always make a difference and leave the land better for the next generation.

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