Deer Land Management – Effective First Year Planted Wildlife Cover

My quest is finding the answers for a yearly successful and healthy fawn crop and recruitment of a majority of these fawns to healthy state at one year of age. This is where it all starts! After we get these fawns kick started, we want them to grow to their genetic potential, and then we manage them to stay in balance socially and with their habitat. Management includes efforts to have the best genes passed on, control excessive predation, year round nutritious forage and finally controlling deer density and having the pleasure of hunting them, which also controls deer density.

We will never create a stress free environment for us or wildlife, but we can try. Planting a Wildlife cover and forage blend addresses many areas of a deer’s environment. Where a fawn is born can make a huge difference between survival and early mortality. Just seeding a variety of switch grasses alone can be the difference, add a little forage and the odds improve for the fawns survival and health. Control predation with tall and dense cover and see a major change for the better in fawn survival. You want to see deer during daylight, give them security with tall and dense cover to use in their bedding area, in their travel lanes and surrounding their forage areas.

I have created a firearm annual food plot lane with a 12 foot wide wildlife blend lane on right side, which is used as a travel and security deer lane. Far end of lane ends at 225 yards into a wild grove of at least 50 apple trees, which was seeded by cattle over 50 years ago. Apples are at a peak this year. Food plot lane starts 75 yards from elevated firearm blind. Just beyond apple grove is a 10 year old five acre clear cut, which has been manipulated into scores of buck and doe family bedding areas.

This site is located in a six acre clear cut of late September 2009. I prefer the late spring or early fall forest cuts due to this not being ideal for the regrowth of aspen at least for the first year of second growth. This allows other bush and tree species to get established, which is preferred. This is exactly what happened here. Aspen grew no taller than five feet the first year of 2010 (they can grow to a height of 15 feet or more with a mid-winter cut). The second year of growth, 2011, shows aspen catching up, with some being 15 feet tall. Close observation shows many varieties of weeds, bush, and a variety of hardwood seedlings, (just what the doctor ordered).

About 125 yards from the blind to the right is a small hill then another similar hill close bye. A lane was created to connect the two hills to the food plot lane and beyond 75 yards to a small tag alder swamp. The food plot lane, the two hills and the lane leading to the swamp were bulldozed to clear out all debris and stumps, and then tilled. The two hills were topped off to about a flat area of 50 feet in diameter and top soil returned. Except for the annual food plot lane all tilled areas were seeded at 7-1/2 lbs. per acre with our wildlife cover and forage blend and 8-1/2 lbs. of forage sorghum BMR and 8-1/2 lbs. of buckwheat per acre in late June 2011.

The lane leading to the two topped hills and eventually into a tag alder swamp is 45 feet wide, which is minimum to allow the wildlife blend to grow even when the forest reaches maturity. This deer travel lane and the two topped hills are for the deer only. I will not be surprised to find bucks and does bedding in these small hills even this fall and within 125 yards of my firearm blind.

I mentored a youth, 14 year old Austin Anderson of Macomb County, at this site on the opening day of Michigan’s deer youth season 2011. By 7:30 a.m. we observed 15 deer, four of which were bucks. All deer but one nice older buck in the far end of the food plot lane and munching apples moved from the area of the lane leading to the two topped hills. Were they bedding in the two hills? I don’t know and didn’t check, remember, they belong to the deer. At 7:35 a.m. Austin took a five point yearling buck at 25 yards using a 25-06 rifle. This five pointer was in a group of three bucks, with the other two being forks. We could see glimpses of the three yearlings sparing within the tall forage sorghum BMR within forty yards distance for at least five minutes

Most of July was adequate for seed germination and emergence even with the constantly high eighty degrees. August was spotty at best with light rain, with September giving its best with timely rains of five inches and good heat units. There was a late September frost in the area, but fortunately it missed us, and with early October pushing eighty degrees the catch was impressive. Some of the forage sorghum reached 12 feet and what deer left of the buckwheat was still green. The cover of switch grass was evident along with the nine types of forage which grew up to 12 inches tall. This doesn’t happen all of the time, but we are thankful for our luck.

I also created another firearm annual food plot in a finger of land jutting into a tag alder swamp. The food plot is surrounded with a wildlife blend lane of cover and forage. This wildlife lane varies from 12 feet in width on the near side, 45 feet wide on the far side, a 1/10 acre staging area on the right side. On the left a travel lane of 60 feet width and 100 yards long leading from a buck bed manipulated small tag alder swamp then along the finger of land and into the site area. The wildlife lane borders the swamp.

The objective of the wildlife lane of cover and forage is many fold. We are planting the same wildlife blend, same sorghum and buckwheat the same day of late June throughout the many sites seeded that day. There was a total of 14 acres seeded that day.

It starts with bucks living on your land during daylight. You get first crack not your neighbor in the evening. You need to encourage them to move about on your land prior to sunset. As in all sites we hope to entice deer to leave their bedding area during daylight as evening approaches to get a bite of goodies while the sun still shines.

Bucks tend to move toward their chosen bedding area up to one hour prior to daylight and be out of sight and resting at sun up. This normal ritual can be adjusted by giving your deer the feeling of absolute security while being on your land. The deer will then tend to be on your land in the a.m. prior to daylight. This again gives you the edge by encouraging them prior to siesta to take a final bite during daylight in the a.m.

Deer demand security when moving about during daylight. Any vegetation tall and dense serves this need. I have planted forage sorghum for many years and have found that deer just want to be in it and the taller the better. They munch on it occasionally but no big deal. They like the seeds just prior to maturity. Everyone knows that deer love buckwheat and that buckwheat can’t be beat as a soil builder. Deer will quickly choose a tall sorghum field as a bedding area and as small as 1/4 acre, same goes for tall switch grass or standing corn. A sorghum lane of 60 feet of width will have deer bedding within.

We are at the same firearm site as shown at picture one. In fact there are seven different observation areas available to me the hunter. We will not show or discuss all of them, they are similar and yet different and all are effective. Three are annual food plots, two are perennial food plots and two are maintained wildlife blends.

Annuals work best, but that doesn’t mean perennials or natural vegetation won’t work. Sugar beets work best but don’t get at their best attractiveness till late in November and better yet after a good snow in December, which means the muzzle season. Sugar beets will out draw corn and acorns in December following a snow storm. Just give them the tall and dense cover of security that they demand around the source of forage. Food plots within standing corn works big time. With the right environment a Wildlife cover and forage blend’s switch grass can reach six feet of height within three years and be the source of happiness with a food plot within.

Moral to the above; tall and dense cover is needed in order to encourage deer to move about during daylight. This includes their travel lanes, their bedding areas, and their water sources and chosen feeding areas be surrounded with tall and dense cover. It cannot be too tall but keep the real dense stuff for their bedding areas.

Bow site, with Bob Collins of Oxford standing next to a 45 feet wide deer travel lane of a Wildlife cover and forage blend that is also used as a kill plot. This is also a finger of land jutting into a tag alder swamp. In fact this is the same firearm blind referred to in the other two photos, but now used during the bow season. It also gives me some information on deer movement prior to the firearm season. The 45 feet wide travel lane starts at the end of the finger of land which serves as a bedding area and is now 80 feet wide with swamp all around and 80 yards from the blind. Yes, this bedding area is close to a blind but doable with adequate cover. The finger of land within the swamp along with the bedding area creates decent deer travel. Historically this is a hot bow site and doesn’t seem to affect the firearm action. This is not normally the case, (bow sites rarely fit as a firearm site). The deer travel lanes passes the blind and ties in with a bedding area 100 yards away which is another hill topped off and seeded with the Wildlife blend. This hill then has a seeded lane leading to the firearm food plot lane in the first photo, but on the left side, an attempt to connect the dots and get deer moving about.

Whenever one uses a Wildlife cover and forage blend as a killing food plot or a doe fawning area there is a need for maintenance. It isn’t exotic but necessary to keep the cool season grasses under control and the balance between the switch grasses and perennial forages. Depending on the soil type either the switch grass or perennials of Kura clover and or Birdsfoot trefoil may dominate. This doesn’t happen overnight but needs observation and can be controlled. Food plots should be fertilized for increased attractiveness and this applies to the Wildlife blend when used as a food plot.

A friend of mine created an interesting kill plot using the Wildlife blend as a travel lane of 100 feet width. This travel lane connected a bedding area to another bedding area which is around 200 yards apart. As mentioned deer start to use seeded cover, (tall switch grass) as a bedding area when the width reaches 60 feet. Well, we have 100 feet and this is what they did. Close to the middle between the two bedding areas of this travel lane they cleared out a kill plot forty feet wide and 150 feet long in the center leaving a 30 feet wide path of the Wildlife blend on each side of the kill plot. It just so happened that there were two perfectly positioned evergreen trees ideal as bow blinds, one on each side of the travel lane.

This cleared out forty feet strip was planted in what I refer to as the ‘Ultimate food plot’. It was seeded with soybeans and Austrian winter peas in early July, four weeks later an over seed of a brassica blend, then around the first of September over seeded with a grain blend of oats, winter rye and winter wheat. They fertilized it with seriousness along with the sweetening thing. Big action here! See our web site, for more information. This Ultimate food plot works for all seasons and with the large variety of forage pulled in deer big time. Deer felt very secure traveling this wide lane and entering the kill plot wasn’t a problem a bit. Remember this forty feet wide kill plot is surrounded with tall cover.

The open field that Bob Collins is standing on the edge of was an early attempt in creating a small doe fawning area using timothy and a few perennials. It is still growing after more than a dozen years and now serves more as summer bedding area for bucks. It is around 1/3 acre and has a decent hill within it.

Close observation of my bow kill plot shows the rows of forage sorghum BMR, which also has buckwheat in the same row. These are 14 inches apart and due to the seed openings being duct taped every other opening, (seed openings are seven inches apart in most grain and small seed drills). Note the switch grasses, perennials and occasional rape plant which appear to cover the soil surface completely. These seeds were also seeded at 14 inches apart and placed in the smaller front seed hopper with the same tape operation but in adjoining seed openings to create a finer seeding operation. Normally one can easily see that the perennials are growing between the forage sorghum rows but not here. This is about as good as it can get. I noted that all seeds germinated and emerged well. Well begun is half done, (let’s hope so). The sorghum growing here is easily 6-1/2 feet tall on average, some reach ten feet tall.

The right amount of tall cover seed for an effective first years growth is critical. Too much sorghum seed and there is too much competition for the switch grass and perennials. Do not trust your skill in broadcasting the sorghum or buckwheat, do use a drill and follow the instructions as shown in the planting instructions exactly. We recommend a seeding rate of only 8-1/2 lbs. each of forage sorghum BMR and buckwheat. For standard type drills, set the back large seed hopper flute opening no more than 5/32 of an inch and of course duct tape every other seed opening. Mix equal amounts of forage sorghum and buckwheat and pour into the large rear seed hopper. This is not an expensive deal but much positive results. Note the cover afforded to the delicate perennials and switch grasses. We had little rain in August and temps pushing 90 degrees much of the summer. The cover blend of sorghum and buckwheat helped the perennials and switch grasses establish their presence not hurt it. Old time farmers know this well. I see too many failures due to inadequate planting instructions.

It is possible to get six feet tall or taller cover the year of seeding, the second year of growth and if all things turn out in your favor even the third and every year after that and for decades. First year cover is doing what is advised here, second year is possible by drilling the same sorghum and buckwheat the same way as mentioned here but nothing else and at the end of June. If nature cooperates it is possible the third year to get switch grass, (Cave in Rock) to reach six feet of height. I said possible, I didn’t guarantee it.

It is possible to get six feet of cover even the year before the seeding year of the Wildlife blend. Reading the planting instructions posted on our web site it is highly recommended that site prepping take place the year before seeding the Wildlife blend. This important site prepping could include a light seeding of a brassica blend and the cover blend of Forage sorghum BMR and buckwheat using the same formulae as shown here and seeded close to the first of August. But that’s another story for another time.

It bears repeating. The secret is tall and dense cover.

The first and most important area in deer management is a secure doe fawning area to insure a successful and large fawn crop year after year and having a large percentage of them survive in a fine state of health to one year of age. When this happens it is an indication that land management of a high order is also in place. If the fawn story is good so too should be the story for the rest of the herd health wise. You can only have a large recruitment of fawns in an excellent state of health to one year of age if the security is there to protect against excessive predation, year round nutrition and cover. I have developed a 3-1/2 acre doe fawning area using a Wildlife Cover and forage blend.

I recently talked to a large deer preserve manager in mid-Michigan and his story went from historically having an adequate fawn crop yearly to an obvious drop in the fawn crop starting a couple years ago to a devastating problem in the 2011 spring fawn crop, with many adult does alone and hardly any twins.

The acorn crop in 2010 was awesome and this almost always guarantees a following year bumper crop of fawns. If one walks this enclosed deer preserve it becomes obvious the maturity of the forest throughout the property. You can see a long way with minimum cover of any kind visible. The manager reports many holes dug under the fence.

I didn’t have to suggest the cause; he knew the problem he had, coyotes by the dozen. The manager said that they are going to get into a serious predation control program. I suggested that at best it would be an unending problem with coyote elimination only. Their main problem is lack of sufficient tall, dense and secure fawning cover and until that is addressed the excessive predation will continue. It isn’t here yet in excess in Michigan but it is coming, (the long and loud howl of the dominate coyote answered by dozens of his competitors).

Adult does normally claim 10 to 20 acres as their fawning area and they defend it vigorously. Does will push out last year’s fawns to the point of harassing their yearling bucks. This is the period when one will see a disproportionate number of dead yearling bucks laying alongside the road. They are pushed out of their familiar home range and now are out in strange territory and looking for a home. If they wander into an area of an excessive number of does the message they get is “Hit the road Jack, there’s no room here.” So they hit the road and the car hits them. The doe fawn is welcomed back in a couple of months.

When giving these does a fawning area that has everything in excess that they and their fawns desire we find that this fawning area can be much smaller in size. My personal experience shows a 2-1/2 acre of prime fawning habitat is more than adequate for a doe and her twins. It works even better if there is a natural divide between fawning areas such as a ditch, a creek or a road. The 3-1/2 acre fawning area as shown in the picture may be adequate for two fawning does, I intend to watch this area closely for the result.

It bears repeating, coyotes need to see their prey and they tend to circle large fields of tall and dense cover and enter if their nose tells them to. Fawns are born nearly scent free and kept that way for a time by their mothers consuming the fawn’s excrement. They are moved to another fresh area after nursing and conditioned to stay still until Mom returns for the next nursing period. This adds to the scent free story.

Fawns start to sample the same forage as mom within two weeks of age and within a month of age natural forage becomes a more important part of their diet. Fawns are conditioned by mom to sit and stay still until the next nursing period, and they do but by one month of age they wander a bit in search of natural forage.

By using radio collars on fawns, studies show a minimum predation for the first several weeks of age, then it changes around three weeks of age to a substantial increase in fawn predation until they reach around two months of age, which at this point they can run like a deer and fawn predation drops.

Having a fawning area that includes delicious and digestible forage addresses the above predation to some degree. We have been working on this theory since the mid-eighties. We and hopefully others will continue to address and research the fawn predation problem. We see significant improvement by giving the fawns no reason to move about looking for natural forage outside of their fawning area. At times I have noted a fawn bed in my experimental areas where the fawn reached out as far as their neck allowed and ate the surrounding planted forage. At this point in time my observations show an adult doe to fawn ratio exceeding 1.5 fawns per doe in early spring. That’s the important time to estimate fawn recruitment.

Ed Spinazzola, Associate, Tony LaPratt’s Land Management. For more info see our web sites or or call 586-784-8090.