Small Tracts Can Yield Big Racks

By Kevin Sturm

Small farm owners are faced with a constant juggling act of income vs. habitat. In most cases, there has to be a happy medium of both to make a small farm work, not only from the checkbook stand point but also by what is hanging on the trophy wall. It can be very challenging to layout a farm that is 120 acres or less and make it hunt like 300 acres of farm or larger. I am going to be straight up honest, and tell you the location of the farm and structure of the farms surrounding your parcel have a lot to do with the amount of deer traffic you can expect. Also it is good to know the hunting practices of your neighbors, what they do during hunting season can greatly impact your hunting and deer traffic on your farm. In this article I am going to talk about different methods and tactics you can use to help hold and increase deer traffic to your small track of hunting heaven.

One of the first things I do when looking at a hunting property is I try to identify the travel corridors of the property. I try to understand where are the deer coming from, where are they going and why? Are they traveling to or through my property to food, water, or bedding? By understanding these few things, you can quickly understand what you can expect for deer traffic, it will also give you a good idea what time of day to expect the deer to move through your farm. For example, if deer are bedding on the neighboring farm on one side, and traveling through your property to another neighboring farm on the opposing side to a food source. Immediately you know your property is a staging/transition property. At that point you know you should see deer movement in the evenings and mid to late morning movement as the deer move through your property on their way to and from the food and bedding areas. The key is knowing what type of property you have, is it a transition property, bedding, or food source property? The goal is for small track land owner to have all, bedding, staging/transition areas, water and food.

The second thing I look at is the habitat and layout of the property. I begin to understand how to hunt the farm. What is the best wind direction for the property? If the wind is out of the north, south, east or west where would I hunt? Where is my scent cone going? Are there certain wind directions I should not hunt? How do I get in and out of my tree stand or blind with little to no impact to the property? How do I hunt the property so the deer do not know I exist? This is my thought process every time I walk through a property no matter if it is my first time or hundreth time walking through the property. BUT, this is where you lucky land owners have the ability to stack the deck in your favor!!!

This is where the rubber meets the road.

Now that you know how the deer are using your farm and why, it is time to get busy!!! The first step is print out two aerial maps of your property. Make sure to include the adjoining properties on the map as well. On the first map mark out the current deer movement patterns through the properties to the best of your knowledge. Understanding the travel corridors and patterns of the deer is key to better laying out your farm. This can also help you understand the best locations for tree stands along with travel paths for you to get in and out of sets without impacting the deer.

Study the current deer movement and travel patterns, really look at what they are doing and try to understand what the deer are doing and why. Pull out the second map and start brain storming on how to create more of what is needed on your property whether it be bedding, food or water. What I mean by that is, if the deer are not bedding on your farm what are the things you can do to create bedding areas? If the deer are not feeding on your farm how you do create more food sources? And one of my favorite keys to success is water!!! How do you isolate water sources and create hunt-able travel patterns?

Bedding Areas:
“How do I create a bedding area?” Well one of the first mistakes many hunters make when owning small tracks of land, is they do not leave or create a sanctuary for deer. As a rule of thumb, I always want to have a sanctuary area for the deer. I never hunt this area of the farm although, I may walk through it once or twice while shed hunting, other than that this area is off limits. Most of the time the sanctuary is the thickest cover on the farm which in most cases makes it almost impossible to hunt, which in turn, should help to detour you from entering or hunting this area. This is a very important practice that needs to be followed if you want to constantly keep deer on your farm. When creating, a sanctuary I prefer for it to be in the center of the farm if possible. By creating the sanctuary in the center of the farm it gives you a lot of options to hunt the edges of the sanctuary no matter what the wind direction. This also helps with entering and exiting strategies, it may be as simple as walking the edge of your property line to your set.

“Alright what if I do not have structure/habitat on my farm?”, is the next question that will be asked. My answer to this is fairly simple, create it!!! The first thing I would do to create a sanctuary area is plant some tall prairie seed mix or some sort of tall grass that can create instant cover for the deer. I would also plant a series of evergreen and cedar trees along with, some fast-growing trees like silver maple, cotton wood and Hybrid poplar. The goal is to create structure for the deer that allows them to get out of the elements and plain sight as much as possible. As a rule of thumb, I would try to make a sanctuary area about 5 to 10 percent of the farm. So, what I mean by that is this? If you own 100 acres you would have about a 5 to 10 acre sanctuary. Ultimately it comes down to what works best for each parcel of land and the check book.

Food Source:
I am a firm believer that you should have multiple food sources on your farm. Deer are no different than humans when it comes to the mind set of food. Would you want to eat macaroni and cheese every night? Neither would the deer!!! Whitetail deer eating habits change as the seasons do so you should have a food source for every season. The first food source I think about is, what food can be offered to the deer coming out of winter. This food source is the most important for the deer herd than any other food source throughout the year. This food source kicks off the new antler growth for the bucks and gives the does the vital nutrients needed to support their prenatal period. Wheat, winter wheat, chicory, and several types of clover are great food plot mixes for this time of year as they grow in cold soil and offer early needed protein for the deer. I also have mineral sites started during this time and maintain the mineral sights all the way into early august. Be sure to not create a mineral sight near your tree stands or blinds as this is consider baiting and follow the state guide lines of baiting. It’s not worth losing your hunting rights!!!!

For late spring and summer, I look for a seed mix that contains kale, clover, legumes, and for early fall going into winter kale, clover, wheat, winter wheat, turnips and radishes. When I look at food plotting, I try to offer different food types than what is readily available to the deer in the area. Here in Iowa, deer do not have to travel very far to find corn, soybeans or alpha. You may have these crops on your small track farm, not only to produce income but also provide another source of food for the deer. One other thing that is often overlooked when dealing with food plots, and is essential to having successful food plots is taking the time to do soil testing for your food plots. If your soil is too acidic your food plots are going to be bitter and the deer will not eat them. If they are too alkaline you will have issues with plant growth. Take the time and do the soil testing it will make things a lot easier in the long run.

If you do not have water on your property or close to your property you will not hold deer no matter what you do. Water is a lot bigger key to success than most people give it credit. During the rut bucks will regularly go to water to rehydrate especially if it is warm. This in return can make them pattern-able in the most unpattern-able time of year. With a properly located water source you can change your hunting success over night. Also with advancements in solar power a person can set up a water pump and solar panel with little investment and quickly create a sprinkler system for food plots or feed water to a pond that would not normally hold water. Heck there are also products out there that allow you set up or create your very own small watering hole.

In Iowa small hunting properties are becoming the norm. While a lot of us still hunt larger properties of land, most who own land have less than 120 acres. That is why it is so important to know how to hunt your property and just as important how to add to your property so it holds more deer. It isn’t easy, but it can be done if you do your homework and find out what specifically your property needs. The bottom line comes down to year-round discipline, low human intrusion, proper exit and entrance routes, and knowing what to add to your property.