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6 Winter Deer Habitat Improvements You Should Be Doing

Winter Deer Habitat Projects to Improve Your Herd

The long hard grind of deer season is now behind us in most of the whitetails range. Aside from a few southern states, the season has closed, however, that doesn’t mean the work should stop. If you’re a property owner, lease land, or have permission to work on a property, the winter months serve as an important time period to get ahead of the game. Ultimately, a lot of the habitat projects you start now will have lasting results, some of which just might help you bag a buck next season. So before you put your nose to the ground in search of shed antlers, consider doing a few of these off-season deer habitat improvement projects this winter. 

#1 Plan and Set Goals for the New Season

Every project needs a plan, and every good plan has a specific set of goals to attain. Before diving right in and getting crazy with a chainsaw or bulldozer, carefully write down what it is you hope to accomplish with regards to your hunting property this season. From there, break it down and rank which are the most crucial to get done and when. From there, you can organize your to-do list and put a solid plan of attack in place. Now, let the real work begin!

#2 Timber Stand Improvement

Improving the cover provided by native habitat resources is critical for future success and winter is the perfect time to get to work.  If you have a property with homogenous stands of hardwood forests you may consider doing some chainsaw work. In an open stand of timber there is very little ground cover for deer. Remember, security cover for deer exists between ground level and approximately three feet up.  

While timber stand improvements can achieve multiple goals, the core emphasis is often to open up the canopy and to selectively release preferred trees. By opening up the canopy you will see an immediate change this spring with new growth of forbs and ground vegetation. This new growth helps with nutrition and cover, so it’s like killing two birds with one stone.

#3 Hinge Cutting

Hinge cutting is the popular timber stand improvement process in which you saw half-way through a tree and then bend it over to the ground in order to provide living cover and browse for deer.  While you can really hinge cut trees during any time of the year, winter is the best time.  For one, the trees are dormant during the winter, thus, you’ll experience a better survival rate.  Secondly, it’s comfortable working conditions – it’s not too hot out, and there’s no bugs and leaves to annoy you all day.  It’s also a lot easier to see what you’re doing and where the trees are falling in winter compared to the green jungle of summer. Lastly, hinge cutting during the winter allows time for deer to find and utilize these new sanctuary thickets and browse areas.

#4 Post Season Trail Camera Survey

The best times to conduct camera surveys are during August and in January before bucks begin to shed their antlers. Conducting an annual trail camera survey will provide an invaluable amount of information pertaining to the deer herd.  Sex ratio, deer density, buck age class, antler development, and fawn recruitment numbers can all be evaluated by conducting a trail camera survey. Studies have shown one bait/camera site per every 75 to 100 acres of land will provide a survey with >90% accuracy. For a full rundown on how to conduct a post season trail camera survey check out this link: How to Run a Trail Camera Survey

#5 Food Plot Planning

As was stated earlier, it’s never too early to start planning. It always seems like food plot season sneaks up fast.  One minute you’re searching for sheds and the next you’re throwing seed in the ground.  Taking the time in February and March to figure out a few key details of food plotting will go a long way in the spring and ultimately impact your hunting season. 

  • Collect soil samples in time to add amendments prior to planting.  
  • What type of forage will you be planting in your food plots? And where?  
  • How much seed will you need to purchase? 
  • Are you creating any new food plots this year?  
  • What kind of site prep is needed? 
  • Who is planting the food plots? And when?

#6 Frost Seeding

While we are on the topic of food plotting, don’t forget about frost seeding this winter.  It may not feel like it now, but planting season is less than a month away.  No, not your typical spring time planting of annuals like soybeans and corn, but rather using the planting technique known as frost seeding as a means to plant clover.  Frost seeding relies on the freeze-thaw cycle and early spring showers to establish quality seed to soil contact.  As spring approaches, the soil awakens and actually begins moving up (freeze) and down (thaw).  That up and down movement causes tiny little cracks, which ultimately suck in the small and hardy clover seeds. Clover seed is very hard so it can withstand the potential to rot much better than other larger less hardy seeds like most warm season annuals.  Thus, it’s common to see food plotters spreading it over the top of a thin layer of melting snow.

Frost seeding makes nature do your dirty work.  It essentially works the seed into the soil, eliminating the need for disking and/or dragging.  It’s an effective planting method, one that saves you time and money. The timing can certainly vary year-to-year depending upon how long ‘Old Man Winter’ hangs around, but as a general rule of thumb, the best time to frost seed is when there are approximately 4-5 expected frosts remaining. 

Wrap Up

Let’s not wait until the last minute this year when it comes to deer hunting projects.  Make this year the year of preparedness and try to get as much done during the winter and spring.  If you do, you can bet you’ll have a more successful hunting season come fall, not to mention the fun and memories created working out in the field along the way.

Deer Food and Deer Feeding in Winter

Deer Food | Feeding Deer in the Winter

By: Weston Schrank, BuckScore Specialist and Biologist

As deer hunters and land managers, we worry about our deer herds in the winter. With freezing cold temperatures, snow, ice storms, and a sun that doesn’t often show itself, it’s a miracle deer can make it through such conditions. While deer are built to handle these tough situations, it’s our job to ensure the habitat and herd are in a healthy state for any type of weather. One question that often comes up during this time of year is “should I be feeding my deer?” In most circumstances the answer is no. However, the answer depends upon the situation as both the terms “deer food” and “feeding deer” can have different meanings. Understanding the right and wrong way to feed deer this winter is your job as a deer hunter and more importantly as a deer steward.

There are three sections below, carefully read and watch the videos in this blog to get a full understanding of the right and wrong way to feed deer. There is a wrong way to feed deer, a better way to feed deer, and “the best way” to feed deer during the winter months.

Feeding Deer in the Traditional Sense

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “feeding deer”? I bet that 90% of hunters think of deer corn. Corn or deer feed pellets are the most common foods that hunters refer to when they talk about feeding deer. So what is the problem with this? Feeding deer large amounts of corn in the winter in an area where they don’t normally get it can be a disaster. The video below explains why this can be a problem.

Feeding Deer with a Better Understanding

As the video above explains, this does not necessarily mean that all feeding is bad. There is a way that you can start feeding deer on a supplemental feeding program during the winter. The secret is feeding in the right amount and at the right times. The video below covers how to properly provide supplemental feeding.

The Best Way to Feed Deer

While many deer hunters and land managers might successfully incorporate a supplemental feeding program on their property, there is a better option. Through habitat management, food plots, and timber management plenty of deer food and nutrition will be available to the deer herd. Food in the form of food plots, early successional growth, woody browse, and downed trees should always be a higher priority for a deer manager than a feeding program. Unfortunately, there may not be enough natural food or habitat to sustain a herd throughout the winter. If this is the case, it might be time to create some emergency deer food and cover through hinge cutting. The video below covers hinge cutting and how it creates food and cover for deer.

When it comes to the terms “deer food”, “deer feed”, and “feeding deer,” it’s important to understand what each means to your management plan. There is a right way and a wrong way to provide food for your deer herd. Which will you choose and more importantly how will your choice affect the future of your herd?

Looking to read more deer hunting and deer manager related articles? Check out the link below!

Salvage Your Deer Season With These Late Season Camera Tips!

Late Season Trail Camera Tips

By: Weston Schrank, BuckScore Specialist and Wildlife Biologist  

The first two weeks of December can be a rough and confusing time for any deer hunter. Personally, if I have not tagged out yet I’m very unsure what to do with myself. Usually I am already focused on coyote hunting or just spending more time with family and friends… but again only if I am tagged out. The weather and deer activity are in a weird place and deer hunters are caught in the middle of it all. Before the cold temperatures of winter arrive, and after the intense rut action, a lot of deer hunters can catch themselves in this period known as the December lull. The only thing that I have come to know is that trail cameras can be a saving grace during this lull period. I aim to give you some solid trail camera strategies and tips for the late season. But I know reading this will also give you a better understanding of what is actually going on during the late season!  

Late Season Strategies

While I might completely ignore my cameras around the rut and focus more on just getting time in the stand, this ideal completely shifts during the first weeks of December. Unless you are a fan of throwing “Hail Mary” hunts together, trail cameras are the best strategy for the late season. While it might be obvious to some readers, the main reason why trail cameras are your best bet for the late season is because of deer patterns. The late season is the second time period where hunters can accurately pattern mature buck movement down to literally the minute!

Late Season Patterns

Mature bucks focus on recovery and staying warm during the late season. This is similar to their focus during late summer when they are busy feeding on protein. Naturally, their late season patterns fall prey to the same opportunities that their previous summer patterns do. This means that with some simple scouting, and some well-placed cameras a hunter has the ability to pick up on a pattern and plan a hunt based off the intel.  

The buck will be noticeable in only one location… a food source. He will spend morning to early evening hours held up in his warm thermal bedding. This is often a southern slope, a spot where sun can reach the buck but also where the cover blocks the cold wind. Early successional spots and native grass fields that are southern oriented are perfect spots for mature bucks to bed. When the buck does get up he will be headed to a nearby food source. This food source will be most likely one of the 4 most attractive food sources a deer can feed on during this time of year.

Late Season Food Sources

There are 4 food sources that you should take notice of, or plant next year specifically for the late season. Some are quite easy to establish and hunt, and others take quite a bit of investment.  

  1. Brassicas – the fancy name for turnips, radishes, and rape. If enough acreage is planted, the green sugary tops and robust buried treasures can be a potent combo for cold winter days.   
  2. Cereal Grains – winter rye, winter wheat, and oats (winter hardy) can be a great green source of food that will stay green all winter long. They make great cover crops if you are managing soil properly.  
  3. Standing Corn – standing or freshly cut or mowed over corn can be a major attraction during the late season.  
  4. Standing Beans – standing beans, just like standing corn, can be a great late season food source, but it offers summer protein, something that corn cannot. This makes beans a better option if you have enough acreage to have standing beans throughout the season and into early spring.

The Occasional Hot Doe 

Now before I dive straight into trail camera strategies and setups based on the information below ,I do need to talk about the occasional hot doe. Some people refer to it as the second rut, but the more correct term would be the fawn rut. Now, Midwest and Northern states can see an upwards of 75% of all breeding occur during the peak rut week. Some does do come in if they are not bred in the first round, especially if sex ratios are skewed towards more does than bucks. However what I am talking about here is what I commonly see on well managed properties. When doe fawns have great habitat, great food, and as a result great nutrition, they can reach the magical weight of 60-70 lbs. What happens then? If 6-7 month fawns reach this weight they can become sexually active and come into estrous. This is why you might have seen a small doe fawn being chased by 2 or 3 bucks in a late season food source or cut corn field. The one difference here of course is that these bucks are chasing an uneducated fawn, not a smart mature doe!  

This is not something to rely on, just a word of caution that the mature buck you are hunting is not completely safe with a late season pattern on your property. There is still a chance that he could cross the property line.  

Late Season Trail Camera Setups

Obviously the most successful trail camera strategies will be based around the most important aspect of the late season… food! This means creating camera setups that will either inventory the food source location. Or will catch deer movement and behavior around or in route to the food source. Now I have tried multiple setups, on multiple properties, and over the course of the years have ended up with a few videos to help viewers setup trail cameras for the late season.

Trail Camera Tips | patterning Deer with Late Season Cameras  this video was a couple years back, but the principles of the advice are solid. It discusses some of the information I have reviewed above.

Last year I ran a series called “Trail Cameras Weekly” on Muddy TV. During each week of the rut, I published a different video on what to do with your trail cameras for that week. Of course, I covered this time period in that series, and last year I gave some extremely helpful tips for late season trail camera setups.

The “Trail Cameras Weekly video reveals two very useful trail camera setups. One is a trail camera over a food source on time-lapse mode, and the other is on a late season funnel.  

Late Season Trail Camera Time-lapse

By setting up a trail camera over a late season food source over time-lapse mode, you can inventory what deer are utilizing the food source. You can also see where they frequent and even where they are filtering out of. You will want a camera with very high resolution photos (>10-12 MP). Set the camera to take pictures during the last 1-2 hours of daylight, with a photo every minute. Also make sure you have a big memory card (>16gb). 

Late Season Funnels

If you can identify the main areas of a late season bedding area, essentially anywhere with thick cover and sunshine, you can gather intel by hanging a trail camera over a late season funnel. For this setup, identify a heavily used run and set the trail camera up at a 45 degree angle from that run. You will want a camera with a quick trigger speed that can capture 3+ photos in a photo burst mode.

When to Make a Move

Stay out of these food sources except to check trail cameras. Keep the pressure off your food sources until one of the following happens: 

  1. Cold temperatures – when a cold front moves through or snow hits, deer will be forced to get up and feed earlier in the afternoon just to ensure they can keep up with the energy demands of staying warm.  
  2. Daylight movement – if you capture a buck utilizing the food source on a regular basis during legal shooting light don’t hesitate! Go in after him immediately. 

These trail camera tips should help you target late season movement patterns of bucks to target. It can be your saving grace that arrives just when it seems like all other opportunities have faded away.   

Have a nice buck on camera? Score him in minutes using the BuckScore® Software!