Everyone hopes to experience an exciting hunt when they go afield, and one way to increase the odds of that happening is to manage habitat and influence your decisions on harvest choice when they arise. Habitat management for white-tailed deer in particular has been popular for decades, and when you think about the habitat needs of deer, it’s pretty simple. They need food, cover, water and space to roam. Interestingly though one of the first things folks want to do when diving into habitat management is plant a tree or food plot. They’re fun and relatively easy to implement, and they work. In a way, they also fit into our society’s all too often “silver bullet” mentality. And while these efforts certainly have the potential to draw deer and exponentially add food resources for wildlife to utilize, most don’t provide an element of something else that deer need: cover. At least not in large quantities.
Early successional vegetation communities – think a fallow or overgrown field – are an important habitat component for whitetails; the dense thickets of shrubs, weeds (forbs), grasses, vines, and emerging seedlings provide ample food and cover for deer, at almost no expense. These communities occur naturally if we let them. They don’t require lime or fertilizer, they grow on a variety of soil and terrain and do so in copious amounts, and are relatively drought resistant. These areas can provide 400 to 4,000 pounds (with proper management) of high-quality deer forage per acre, and they provide it during spring and summer when deer need it most. Many hunters consider fall food sources, but good managers realize antlers start growing and does begin lactating in spring. So, if you want to maximize body and antler growth and milk production, then the land needs to be “rocking” with high-quality forage way before soybeans, oats or brassicas are providing anything in your food plots.
So, which is better? Ideally I’d want both elements on the land I hunt, and I’d manage my forests as well. However, if I had to pick, I would choose more acres in food and cover at a lower cost every day of the week. Converting acres to early succession helps meet the annual nutritional demands of deer, reduces your food plot budget, and provides outstanding new hunting setups since deer move more freely in early successional communities during daylight than in forests or food plots.
QDMA’s mission is to “ensure the future of white-tailed deer, wildlife habitat and our hunting heritage” – the way I see it by creating and managing more old fields in areas that lack it is a way to help serve that mission. So if you’re lucky enough to have a spot to manage habitat, give it a try shot and let Mother Nature show you what she’s capable of.
Matt Ross is a certified wildlife biologist, a licensed forester and the Assistant Director of Conservation at the Quality Deer Management Association. A core First Lite Partner in Conservation, the QDMA works tirelessly to ensure the future of white-tailed deer, wildlife habitat and our hunting heritage.