As the most popular game species in America, whitetail deer boast a huge following and, as a result, attract a massive amount of financial support for research and management.
For 43 years, deer researchers and managers have annually assembled to discuss the state of whitetail-deer management. Before I get into some of the highlights from the 2020 meeting of the Southeast Deer Study Group, I’d like to acknowledge the states that regularly participate: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia
Slot Limits for Bucks?
While it is possible for a late-born fawn to “catch up” with its peers in future years in terms of antler development, there seems to be some evidence that we can use antler-size comparisons within age classes of younger bucks to impact the antler size of bucks when they reach maturity.
I’ve written in depth about how slot limits, high-grading and perpetual protection of bucks can impact the average antler size of bucks in future years. It can be frustrating to intensively manage habitat and allow bucks to reach maturity only to be disappointed with the antler size of your mature bucks. In other words, we can increase the size of our bucks at maturity by deciding when to shoot and when to pass.
Don’t confuse this management strategy with altering the genetics of your bucks! We’ve established in past issues that genetically altering the antler size of free-ranging bucks simply isn’t possible. Instead, we’re pulling individual bucks out of an age class (in this case, 1 ½ years old) to give the bucks that show greater potential access to more resources and more time to utilize them for growth.
The idea is that smaller-antlered, yearling (1 ½ years old) bucks could be removed from the cohort (group of similar-aged animals) since they may also possess smaller antlers when older. Although this management strategy is more advanced than popular quality-deer-management practices, it tends to pique the interest of deer hunters/managers who have been practicing QDM for a decade or more. Many of them report hitting a plateau in buck size at maturity and seek the “next level” of buck management.
Researcher J. Pierce Young from Mississippi State University aimed to home in on this topic by capturing and tagging 182 bucks on a free-range, 27,407-acre research tract in Mississippi. Young and his peers sought to determine antler size and growth rates for free-ranging bucks of known ages from 1 year old to maturity; specifically, males of similar ages with below- and above-average antlers. Their results showed the bottom third of yearling bucks, when grouped by antler size, will average approximately 20 inches smaller than the upper third when the cohort reaches the older age classes. In other words, shooting young bucks with smaller antlers, in comparison to larger-antlered bucks within a given age class, is a viable management approach ensuring that bucks with greater antler potential survive to maturity. I should stress the importance of learning how to group bucks of varying antler sizes within the same age class for an apples-to-apples comparison. If you’re not confident aging whitetails on the hoof, you’re not ready for this style of advanced buck management. Similarly, if you have very low numbers of yearling bucks to select from (traditional deer management), this approach isn’t for you, as you will significantly lower your buck population.
As a deer nut who was a bowhunter long before he was a wildlife biologist, I’m always interested in how my harvest decisions impact the size of the bucks I hunt in the future. Although food plots and habitat management are fun and impactful, not every bowhunter is able to perform these management actions. However, we all come to full draw on a buck eventually, and it’s my hope you will ask yourself, “How will killing or passing this particular buck impact the antler size of the bucks I’ll be hunting three or four years from now?”
Cut the Mower & Save Money
As long as I can remember, food-plotters have insisted on mowing their perennial plots in the name of revitalizing their nutritional quality. The theory is that all plant regrowth is more nutritious and palatable, and thus, more attractive. This makes sense, but is the increase in forage quality really worth the loss in forage biomass?
Researcher Bonner Powell of the University of Tennessee sought to quantify any increases in nutritional quality and attraction to whitetails after mowing. Looking at alfalfa and red clover, Powell discovered a 23 percent and 30 percent decrease in alfalfa and red clover biomass after mowing, respectively. Meanwhile, mowing failed to significantly increase the nutritional quality of either crop. The fact is, the nutritional content of both forages, whether mowed or not, fully meets the demands of whitetails — including a doe with twin fawns! While it’s hard to argue against spending more time on a tractor, I just can’t see the return on investment here. Perennial food plots cost money. Stop mowing them!
Stump Sprout “Food Plots”
If you read my column regularly, you know I’m a fan of actively managing deer habitat. Whitetails respond well to habitat disturbance. Two popular habitat-management activities are the mechanical cutting of timber to produce stump sprouts and food plots. Although food plots get an awful lot of attention, many bowhunters tell me they are unable to develop them for one reason or another.
What if you could do both by cutting trees to produce stump sprouts in a micro-defined area that serves the same purpose as a food plot? Unlike perennial food-plot forages, cutting mid-story trees brings more forage down to deer level and increases its nutritional quality. I’ll take that ROI!
Rainer Nichols and his peers from Mississippi State University titled their talk “Stump Sprouts: The Closed-Canopy Mini Food Plot.” Since several woody plant species are able to re-sprout after their tops are cut off, cutting those that are out of reach of deer would put browse biomass at deer level. While this isn’t news, land managers have always wondered how these managed areas compare nutritionally to food plots. Researchers discovered that crude protein and phosphorus content of stump sprouts were significantly higher than the same measurements in mid-story tree foliage! In other words, toting a chain saw to your stand sites to cut mid-story trees can create localized foraging sites in areas where warm-season food plots aren’t feasible. These micro-foraging destinations are guaranteed to positively impact your early-fall bowhunting success.