This presentation will cover techniques for
improving deer habitat. Our objective is to teach you how to create
a diversity of habitats that will feed and hold deer on your property.
Specifically, we will discuss wildlife management, and the types of habitat deer utilize including,
forests and woodlands, old fields, edge habitat, native grass and forbs, and finally food plots.
Wildlife management can be defined as “manipulations of habitats or populations to meet some human
specified goal”. The management of white-tailed deer generally
comes down to harvest and habitat management. This presentation will focus on habitat. Habitat
management is simply, soil and plant management. When managing habitat for deer our goal is
to create “natural plant communities in different stages of successional development”.
So what is successional development? It is simply the natural changes in plant communities
through time. Let’s imagine we are going to take a typical disked soybean field in
Missouri and we are not going to disturb that field in any way for 200 years. The first
plants to grow in that field would be annual grasses and forbs. A few years later we would
see perennial plants and grasses starting to grow. In a few more years we would expect
to see some shrubs and woody plants growing. Within 10-15 years we could expect some pioneer
species of trees such as cedars, shingle oak, and locust. Eventually, given enough time
without disturbance, we may find an oak-hickory forest where the bean field used to be. However,
disturbance can disrupt this natural cycle. Frequent disturbance will give us early successional
species, while little disturbance can give us late successional species. So which stage
of plant succession is good for deer? The answer is all of them. The more diverse your
habitat, the better your habitat will be for deer.
Unfortunately, we usually just see two stages of plant succession. We often see fields with
introduced perennial cool season grasses and closed canopy forests. We need to remember
to look at our property through the eyes of a deer. Well-manicured fields such as this
provide little value to wildlife. Fields like this have no cover and very little if any
food in them, and closed canopy forests do not create near the amount of food they could
produce if properly thinned. It’s important to strike a balance between visual aesthetics
and wildlife needs. With proper management we can create a lot
of food and cover for deer. Deer need a diversity of habitats and diversity creates edge with
food and cover. Good food and good cover will hold deer on your property. The next segments
will go into greater detail on how to improve habitat for deer on your property.
Forests and woodlands are very important habitat for deer. They provide an abundance of food
and cover. We can usually make them much more productive through proper management. Next
we will discuss some techniques to improve our forests and woodlands, but first let’s
discuss the difference between the two. In forests the trees form a closed canopy
and the trees are relatively tall and straight . There is often a well-developed mid-story
and understory leaving sparse vegetation on the forest floor due to a lack of sunlight.
You will notice this photograph was taken on a sunny day yet very little light is reaching
the forest floor. Forests are generally found on East or North facing slopes or bottom ground.
These sites are cooler, more moist, and have more fertile soils. Fires were historically
less frequent here, because these sites were wetter.
Compared to forests, woodlands have a much more open canopy allowing sunlight to reach
the ground. The canopy height is shorter in woodlands. Woodlands have open crowned trees
comprised of fire tolerant species. They also have diverse herbaceous ground vegetation.
The understory and midstory are very sparse. The trees have limited timber value since
they are short and often have too many limbs. Woodlands are generally found on warmer and
drier sites such as south and west facing slopes. Because of this fire was historically
a regular occurrence. Here is a good example of a woodland. Notice
the abundance of herbaceous vegetation. This is excellent food and cover for deer.
So how would we restore a woodland or thin a forest? First we would inventory your land,
then Identify potential restoration sites. Next, we may conduct a timber stand improvement
project by thinning the trees. TSI weeds out less desirable trees and increases
the health and vigor of crop trees. In comparison to gardening, timber stand improvement is
like weeding and pruning away unwanted vegetation to let vegetables or flowers flourish.
Thinning trees reduces competition from sunlight, nutrients, and water. This allows oak trees
to produce more acorns…a staple food for deer.
The increased sunlight hitting the forest floor can also help shrubs and vines grow
such as coral berry, fragrant sumac, gooseberry, black berry, and wild grapes. The chutes that
grow back from untreated stumps also provide excellent woody browse for deer. These are
all important foods for deer and a number of other animals.
Here is an example of a woodland that was thinned. Notice how many trees are in photo
number 1 compared to photo number 2. The first photo was taken on March 30 before any cutting
took place. Photo number 2 was taken 5 days later after the TSI project was completed,
and photo number 3 was taken on August 15 the same year. As you can see, a lot of food
and cover can be created in just one growing season.
By dropping trees for a woodland restoration or TSI project we immediately create excellent
cover for bedding and fawning. It also creates excellent nesting and brood rearing cover
for turkeys and other ground nesting birds. If a doe were trying to hide her newborn fawn
from predators she would certainly do better to hide her fawn in the restored woodland
on the right as opposed to the overgrazed woodland on the left.
This photo shows what we are trying to accomplish and want to see after thinning our forests
or woodlands. A more open canopy. This allows plenty of room for the canopies to expand
and sunlight to reach the forest floor. Oak sprouts require a lot of sunlight to get going.
They do not do well in the shade, so opening the canopy is an excellent way to promote
oak regeneration. TSI projects can be done on small tracts of
land and large tracts. Here is an example of two small projects that were around 4 acres
each. Notice the closed canopy in this photo. Compared to the more open canopy after the
stands were thinned. Stand 1 was thinned lightly while stand 2 was thinned more heavily. It’s
nice to stagger these projects over years and by the amount of thinning done to get
a greater diversity in the amount of brush created. Both of these stands will have more
sunlight hitting the forest floor and have more food and cover for deer.
So what trees do we cull when thinning? We generally select against sugar maple, locust,
elm, hackberry, hickory, black cherry, and cedar in favor of oaks. Again, we are not
trying to eliminate any native species, but rather make room for more desirable oaks.
We also select against deformed or multiple branched trees in favor of straight trees
with a large canopy. It’s very important to treat any invasive
species before or during a TSI project or woodland restoration. We do not want to open
up the forest canopy and let invasive species thrive on the forest floor. Bush honeysuckle,
prickly ash, and multiflora rose are a few species to watch for. Everyone’s forest
and woodlands are unique, and at your request private land conservationists and foresters
can write plans specific to your woods based on your goals and objectives.
The bottom line is timber stand improvement and woodland restoration creates earlier successional
habitat that provides excellent food and cover for deer. Additional forest and woodland management
practices include the use of prescribed fire. Should I burn my woods? ….Well…. it depends…
Prescribed fire can benefit wildlife habitat, oak regeneration, natural community restoration,
invasive plant control, and fuel load reduction. However, prescribed fire is not always warranted
in the woods and can result in scarring of marketable timber.
The availability of forage in forests and woodlands can be increased by thinning
and burning…. (read slide)…. Additional
forest management practices include temporary group openings.
Occasionally we find forests with very few if any oaks in them. This is usually the result
of past grazing in the timber. Livestock are quick to eat oak sprouts and this leaves lots
of hickory trees. Hickory nuts provide food for squirrels, but if we are managing our
land for deer and turkey, we would rather have a diversity of oaks. Many more wildlife
species including deer and turkey can eat acorns.
So if we find a forest with few oaks and lots of hickories we often create temporary forest
openings. A temporary forest opening is an area typically ranging in size from a half
acre to two acres where we cut down everything that is not an oak. Ideally we try to find
a nice oak and create an opening around that oak to promote oak regeneration. By dropping
all the trees that are not oaks we create a lot of cover. The sunlight that hits forest
floor creates an explosion of vegetation. All the native shrubs and sprouts that pop
up create a feast for deer and other wildlife. Notice the one bur oak in a sea of hickories.
Notice the lack of cover and food available on the forest floor. This is not good wildlife
habitat. We greatly increased the amount of food and
cover in this forest by making a one acre temporary forest opening. What was once relatively
unproductive forest now has a very productive opening in it.
Here is an example of what a temporary forest opening can look like 5 years after it was
created. These areas are very productive for years after they are disturbed. Timber stand
improvement, prescribed fire, and temporary group openings are all beneficial management
practices that can help diversify the stages of habitat succession on most properties.
Now that we have discussed management techniques for forests and woodlands we will now talk
about our more open lands. Old fields provide excellent habitat for deer.
So what is an old field? Well it’s just that. An old field that has become overgrown
with trees, shrubs, and native grasses and forbs.
Old fields provide a lot of food for deer. Common old field plants include giant ragweed,
sumac, pokeweed, old field aster, and blackberries. Take the time to compare the crude protein
levels of these common old field plants with those found in your favorite food plot mixes.
I think you will be surprised to find them very comparable.
Here is an example of an old field. In this photo we can see sumac, black berries, old
field aster, mint, and goldenrod and these are a free perennial food plot.
Old fields provide great cover too. Do you see any eyeballs staring back at you in this
photo? Unfortunately many old fields are covered
with introduced grasses and invasive shrubs. These introduced cool season grasses such
as fescue and brome can create a carpet choking out native grasses and forbs. Fescue and brome
provide very little in the way of cover or food for wildlife. These grasses can be set
back with the use of prescribed fire and herbicide or both. It is also important to remove invasive
shrubs such as autumn olive, and multiflora rose. There are a number of invasive species
to watch out for. We recommend having your local private land conservationist visit your
property to offer guidance specific to your land.
Here is an example of a field that was covered in introduced cool season grass. We burned
the field on April 4, and then sprayed the field with a grass only herbicide on April
24. A month later we found a number of native forbs, shrubs and trees were there were none
before. With a few easy steps this field went from being nearly useless to wildlife, to
providing very productive food and cover. Woody cover control is usually necessary in
old fields too. Woody cover control is the removal of undesirable trees or shrubs such
as honey locust, cedar, and shingle oaks. Again, each site is unique and its best to
have a professional evaluate your property with you to give site specific guidance.
Indiscriminate mowing can be very detrimental to wildlife habitat. Unfortunately many people
see old field habitat as unsightly or untidy. To make it look better, some people mow without
thinking of the wildlife habitat they are destroying. Brush hogs can destroy nests,
remove cover, eliminate browse, and may even harm or injure wildlife. Brush hogs can promote
cool season grass and monocultures. However, brush hogs can be useful for fire break construction,
food plot prep, and creating access trails. If you are interested in creating wildlife
habitat, its best to manage old fields with fire and herbicide. Give the brush hog a break.
Here is an example of a field many people would mow. However, this is an excellent old
field in the making. It just needs a well-timed prescribed fire to promote native vegetation,
not a brush hog. By properly managing old field habitat, we create another level of
plant succession and increase food and cover for deer.
Edge is another important habitat for deer and a number of other wildlife species. Edge
habitat is any area where two different types of habitat meet, such as where a field meets
the edge of timber or an overgrown fencerow in a field.
Many field edges change quickly from grass or crops to mature trees. We use a technique
called edge feathering to soften this transition. To edge feather an area we chemically treat
any cool season grass under any trees we are going to cut down. Then we simply cut down
selected trees along the edge of a field or in an overgrown fencerow. This creates dense
woody cover along the edge of fields. Usually we edge feather multiple locations and try
to make each spot at least 30*50 feet. Ideally we will have at least 1/10th an acre of brushy
habitat per 40 acres. The felled trees will eventually decay and
break down. With time the trees will be replaced with shrubs. The shrubs will provide excellent
food and cover for deer and small game for several years.
Here is an example of an area that was edge feathered then had a prescribed fire run through
it. There is a lot of giant ragweed present which is excellent food for deer. The blackberries
where top killed by the fire but rebounded a year later and they too provided food and
cover. We can also plant shrub rows to create edge.
Shrub plantings are a great way to create edge in areas with little cover. Shrubs also
provide food for a number of animals. There are a number of native shrubs that can be
planted to provide food and cover. Shrubs can be ordered through The Missouri Department
of Conservation’s George O White State Forest Nursery. You can visit our website or contact
your local Private Land Conservationist or Forester for details.
Here is an example of what an ideal edge would look like. Notice there are tall trees in
the middle that gradually slope down towards a field of native grasses and forbs with native
shrubs in between. Here is a photo of good edge habitat. Notice
there is no abrupt change from the field to the tall trees. The change is gradual so the
edge is wide and creates good habitat for deer and other wildlife. By developing or
managing edge habitat we soften transitions from one type of plant succession to another.
One of the earliest types of plant succession is fields of native warm season grass and
forbs. These fields are great habitat for deer, providing both food and cover. In fact,
over 70% of a deer’s diet in the spring and summer is forbs.
So what is a forb? Forbs are herbaceous flowering plants. They are not grasses, sedges, or rushes.
They are not woody plants. Forbs are weeds and weeds are good for deer.
So why are native grass and forbs important for wildlife? Bunch grasses allow more mobility, especially
for small game because they grow in clumps with space between.
Provide canopy cover. Stand erect over winter months to help create
thermal cover for deer and other animals Attract insects that are a high protein food
source for quail and other birds. Provide seed that is a source for high energy
needs. Adapted to MO soils.
Provide nesting cover. Plants are perennials that don’t require
planting each year. Unfortunately this scene is all too familiar
in Missouri. We have seas of herbaceous monocultures usually made of introduced cool season grass.
Fields like this have no diversity. These grasses create a carpet that lays flat in
the winter. This provides no food and no cover to wildlife.
Fortunately we have some management techniques that can change this. All open fields and
prairie require some form of disturbance to keep them at an early stage of plant succession.
Most fields will require disturbance every few years, however not all fields are the
same. We encourage you to have a professional evaluate your property to give you site specific
guidance. Here is a photo of a native prairie planting
during establishment and then another photo of the same field 5 years later. Notice how
the field transitioned from mostly forbs to mostly grasses. Why did this happen? Remember
this is how natural plant succession works. If left unmanaged perennial grasses will usually
dominate a field in a few years. Grasses provide excellent cover but provide little in the
way of food. It’s best to have a mix of both forbs and grasses. That is why we usually
disturb the fields with our management techniques every few years.
Disking is an easy and effective technique for disturbing open ground and promoting annual
forbs. We generally recommend disking between 1/3 to 1/2 of your open fields at a time.
It is important to disk along the contour of the land to avoid erosion.
Can you tell where this field was disked at? It’s pretty easy to see isn’t it? Notice
how the area disked on the left is growing up in common ragweed and foxtail. Ragweed
is great food for deer and quail. By simply disking a strip in this field the landowner
has created a lot of food. The area next to it is cool season grass and has very little
if any food value in it. This field was solid brome. By using a few
well timed fires this field has transitioned to a very productive prairie that provides
food and cover to all kinds of wildlife. Timing is critical when burning. Consult your
local private land conservationist for guidance on burning your property.
Fortunately, converting cool season grass to productive wildlife habitat is not too
difficult or expensive. If the land was never plowed there is a good chance there are many
seeds from native plants lying dormant beneath the cool season grass. A well timed fall application
of herbicide can set back or eradicate the introduced cool season grass and allow the
native forbs and grasses to come back. To do this we simply hay, graze or burn cool
season grass fields in August then spray the regrowth in November. In these photos we can
see legumes, common milkweed, and common ragweed where the cool season grass used to be.
This field was a complete monoculture of brome. With one well timed herbicide application
it became a productive prairie full of food and cover for wildlife. Projects like this
are relatively simple and inexpensive. The previous techniques we discussed create early
successional habitat that is very important for deer and other wildlife. Now that we have
discussed natural plant communities we will briefly talk about food plots.
Food plots are a great way to attract deer and provide supplemental nutrition.
There are generally two primary purposes for food plots…hunting and nutrition. Hunting
plots are usually smaller with highly palatable foods for attracting deer. While nutrition
plots are larger and focus on year round dietary needs. Especially in the leaner times such
as late summer and late winter. These plots are planted with foods to provide optimal
nutrition and they may not provide as good of hunting opportunities as the smaller hunting
plots. As with everything concerning deer habitat,
diversity is important. Generally, 3-5% of a property should be in food plots and contain
both green browse and grains. Of course this depends on what is available on and around
your property. If neighboring properties have a lot of grain you may plant more green browse
and vice versa. It’s also important to think about the time of year the plants will be
eaten and hunted over. For example most green browse will be unavailable during the late
deer season and most grain will be unavailable during the early season. So what’s good
to plant? There are many options and seed can be purchased from local ag dealers and
commercial vendors. We recommend having a private land conservationist visit your property
for site specific instructions on what and when to plant.
Food plots can be expensive so it is critical to make sure your soils have the nutrients
they need to grow what you will be planting. The most important soil characteristic to
address is the acidity. In the lower right hand corner of this soil test you see the
recommendation for the effective neutralizing material which is lime to correct the pH.
If necessary, lime should be applied the fall before you plant your food plot to give it
time to properly increase your soils pH. The location of food plots is important. Ideally
food plots will be near cover and in good soil. Sometimes ridge tops and odd field borders
make good locations for food plots. It’s best to keep food plots away from roads too.
Don’t make your food plots too small. If you plant a quarter acre food plot, it may
be eaten by the time deer season rolls around. Small food plots can lead to social stress
on deer as well. You don’t want your deer fighting over the available food.
It’s a good idea to leave half of your food plots fallow from one year to the next. These
areas typically grow up in annual weeds that are great food sources for deer and other
small game. Food plots are a great tool for attracting
deer and supplementing their nutrition. However food plots do not replace the management of
natural plant communities on your property. Remember it would be ideal to have around
3-5% of your property in food plots. Don’t forget about the other 95-97%.
The individual habitat management techniques we discussed are like pieces of a puzzle.
The more pieces we put together the better our habitat picture will look. This is where
we can help. The Missouri Department of Conservation has
many professionals available to help you manage your property and provide technical assistance.
Visit our website at or contact your local private land conservationist for
more information. In conclusion, managing land for a diversity
of natural plant communities provides cover and food for deer, and good cover and good
food will hold deer on your property. And good deer habitat is great for most of
Missouri’s other wildlife too.