By Noel Gandy
Welcome to a brand-new year! You made it. As always, whitetail deer are on my mind and the first month of the year is no different.
So often, January is a month that finds us making (and sometimes breaking) New Year’s Resolutions. One resolution that I have is to help create the healthiest deer herd that I possibly can for the 2022 season on the farms where I hunt. Healthy does raise healthy fawns. Healthy bucks turn into bigger bucks. The cycle is endless and can be positively affected by some things that I can do now.
In order to fulfill any resolution it is a good idea to take an honest assessment of whatever situation you find yourself in. This will really give you a good foundation and help you decide where you need to spend the most time, effort, and resources to get your local deer herd in tip top shape. There are two types of goals: attainable goals and unrealistic goals based on things beyond your reach. Let’s take some time and use it wisely to explore some realistic goals.
My assessment begins with my hunting properties and the deer that call those properties home or at least use them with some frequency. I look at each farm and the unique traits to that particular piece. Some of my farms are simply crop fields with a ditch and a few hedge type trees for cover. These don’t generally hold many deer during the “growing” periods but can offer great hunting during the rut. I likely won’t need to make many improvements to these pieces because improvements aren’t necessarily needed when it comes to fostering great deer health.
However, a couple of the farms I hunt are both timber and crop mixed together. They might have great bedding cover or at least hold the potential to host this cover. These generally tend to have more resident deer and this gives me a great canvas on which to work. I’ll spend my time during this portion of the year making improvements to these pieces.
Thinking Back to Think Ahead
What were some things that I noticed about the deer on my property during this past hunting season that I would like to change, improve, or maintain? If I noticed that the buck to doe ratio seemed way out of balance then I’ll try to make a note that we likely need to harvest more does during the upcoming season. Heck, if there is still season left now, I will not hesitate to use any unfilled doe tags that I may have or may be able to purchase. Thinning the herd of does where there is an over population will serve these deer well when competition becomes heightened for food, cover, fawning space, and water. Again, this idea is not to just grow bigger trophy bucks (which will likely happen if they are healthier) but is to improve the overall health of your local deer population.
One stark reality that I had to come to grips with last year was the fact that my property was not holding deer during the more brutal winter months. If I find that the deer are needing to leave my place to get the calories or cover they need to survive the brutalities of January and February then I might consider looking ahead and planning the best strategies to implement these things for them. Traveling during tough conditions naturally burns more calories and therefore causes deer to have to consume more. The more food we can have on hand, many times this looks like planted resources or enhanced natural browse, the less our deer have to leave the property and the less stress they must endure. Once the season is over and supplemental feeding is allowed then this is also a great option to help the deer herd recover lost body mass quicker before fawning and antler growth occurs.
Deer need about six pounds of food per day in order to maintain health. While crops are in fields this is not a problem. It’s during times like these where having browse and “extra” food is fruitful. One way we can begin working to create food for our herd is by frost seeding food plots. While January is still a bit early to frost seed, now is a good time to begin researching potential plants you’d like to create through the frost seeding process that will likely begin in February.
As the deer become more vulnerable during these colder months, and cover becomes limited, it is important to participate in helping control the predator population. Coyotes have been studied and shown to kill more whitetail fawns than nearly any other predator. Keeping a good handle on the predator population through hunting and trapping can definitely lower the pressure on the whitetail herd. While you cannot completely eradicate predators (nor would you want to because that would throw the natural ecosystem out of whack) you can certainly take measures to lessen the stress that deer go through during these cold months with efforts to control predators. Persistence is the key here. Coyotes in particular are very territorial so if you remove one then another will eventually take over that territory. Therefore, a consistent effort to move predators along is beneficial especially during the growing seasons.
One way to help lower predator pressure without necessarily hunting or trapping would be to create thick cover for deer to use where they are not as exposed. Efforts in hinge cutting trees can help greatly with this. By cutting trees approximately three quarters of the way through about chest high and laying them over, you will begin to create bedding cover that will only “thicken” up over time. Leaving the trees partially intact gives them the ability to create new foliage and browse that is easy for deer to consume (food) while it also gives them a place to hide (security). Opening up the canopy a bit allows more sun to penetrate the forest floor and therefore creates even more growth for browsing. This is a win-win by creating food and cover.
So, what am I doing during January that is deer related?
1.) I’m debriefing from the long season that has just passed. I’m asking myself questions like “what did I learn, what can I do differently, and what do the deer need.”
2.) I’m starting to work earnestly on predator control. I’m going to make a concerted effort to minimize the predator pressure on my deer herd during these next few crucial months to their growth. They’ve got enough to worry about besides becoming something’s next meal.
3.) I’m encouraging cover and browsing through hinge cutting. Not only will cutting a few trees help create cover for the predator control but it will also give some crucial growth to allow browsing to help the deer access their six pounds of food per day that they need.
January may be the end of the hunting season, but managing and conserving your area herd never really ends. January is a time for reflection on your past hunting season, and how you can improve it for the next year.
While you are out making these improvements on the property where you hunt you will possibly run into things like trails, rubs, scrapes, and even shed antlers. Take time to take advantage of this most recent information and make some notes as to where you find them. I particularly like to take a look at heavily used trails in the snow. I prefer to get down about eye level to a deer and see what he sees as he’s traversing an area. As I’m noticing things from his point of view I will almost always notice where improvements can be made as far as food or security go. I also usually find a good spot for a treestand or two!