Creating A World-Class Hunting Property The Whitetail Institute Builds the Bee & C Branch Ranch in Iowa

By Bill Winke

The Bee Branch is a small stream that runs through a beautiful swath of southern Iowa landscape. It is along this small stream that the Whitetail Institute chose to build a world-class hunting property in the Midwest. They are excited about the possibilities on two fronts. First, they look forward to the opportunity of taking a piece of raw ground with tremendous potential to the highest level possible. One that turns the potential into reality.
Second, they are very excited about the type of bucks that live in the neighborhood. Just last year a local hunter shot a buck that grossed over 210 inches on a nearby farm. The group is so excited, in fact, that they have named the property the Bee & C Branch Ranch as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the record book whose entry score they hope to surpass.

This is the story of the Bee & C Branch Ranch: how it came to be and the plans that are in place for developing this piece of raw whitetail habitat into a sparkling example of maximum property enhancement and deer management in the Midwest. Over the course of the next several issues, we will update you on the progress made toward this goal.


Like seemingly everyone else in the whitetail world, the management at Whitetail Institute wants to grow and shoot bigger bucks. They understand the importance of having full control over the property in question so that they can put a plan into place that will reach this goal. It doesn’t happen by accident, well not with any consistency anyway. In some cases, it is possible to make the changes that you want to make when leasing land, but by and large, if you are serious about upgrading a piece of land, you need to own it. So the decision to buy was an obvious one. The timing was also obvious. With the recent interest in owning recreational land, the prices have been rising quickly. Granted, no trend can run forever, but the Whitetail Institute guys didn’t want to be caught on the sidelines watching as land prices doubled again. The best time to buy was five years ago, the second best time is today. Assuming the demand for high-quality hunting ground in good neighborhoods remains strong, the land is not likely to get cheaper in the future. There was no compelling reason to wait. So, the decision to buy was an easy one and the decision of when to buy was also easy. It all sounds good in theory; putting it into affect is another matter. Finding the right property was not so simple.


When you consider the best places to grow big whitetails, the Midwest definitely comes to mind. Other places can occasionally produce big deer, but few with the consistency of Iowa, Kansas and Illinois. These are the big three when it comes to recent record-book entries. Any one of these three states is a good place to buy whitetail-hunting land. Illinois is the most expensive of the three, in general, with Kansas being the least expensive. Iowa is right in the middle.

The Whitetail Institute settled on Iowa for this Midwest project farm in part because a good friend named Mark Rutledge owns land in the southern part of the state. Mark was in a position to help the Whitetail Institute with the fine points of selecting a farm and then getting the work done on the land. An inside connection is always good. I can’t overemphasize the importance of having someone in the area to help oversee the day-to-day work required in setting up a great deer hunting farm.


As in all other types of real estate, location is the most important aspect of a great deer-hunting farm. An average-looking farm in a great neighborhood is better than a great-looking farm in an average or poor neighborhood. By neighborhood, I’m referring to the farms that border the subject farm and those that are one tier removed. What happens on these farms directly affects your success as a deer manager.

Because few of us can afford to buy the thousands of acres necessary to control the home range of dozens of bucks, our bucks are going to jump the boundary fence and we are always going to be at the mercy of our neighbors. Good neighbors make all the difference in the world. If at least 25 percent of your border lies against farms managed similarly to yours, you can hope to produce acceptable results. Ideally, you want good neighbors on 100 percent of your border, but such farms are very hard to find. When they do go up for sale, they typically never reach the open market. A neighbor buys them, or a neighbor’s friend.

Obviously, the Whitetail Institute was looking for a good-looking farm in a good neighborhood. For nearly a year, Mark Rutledge kept a close eye on realtor’s listings and talked to several farmers in the area he deemed to be the best within a reasonable drive of his property. Finally, a 130-acre farm that he liked came on the market through a local realtor. Mark brought the property to the attention of Steve and Wilson Scott at the Whitetail Institute and the group acted quickly and bought the farm. This became the first step a three step purchase.

Soon afterwards, by talking with a neighbor, Mark was able to purchase a portion of that neighbor’s farm, also 120 acres. Finally, during the late summer of 2007 the Whitetail Institute added the final piece, a 25-acre parcel that also bordered the original two. These three purchases were strategic because with these properties, the Whitetail Institute was able to assure access from three directions: north, west and south. An added unexpected bonus to this property is having an Iowa conservation officer living next door.

Everything fell into place over the course of a short few months and the vision of the Whitetail Institute and Mark Rutledge went from dream to reality. They had their farm, all 275 acres of it. Next, they had to decide what to do with it.


Idle ground is wasted ground. You should optimize deer-hunting farms just like any other kind of property. Every single acre should either produce food or cover to the greatest extent possible. When evaluating a property, first determine how much food you need to support the number of deer you intend to carry. Then decide where to plant it (or create openings if they don’t exist). Second, determine what to do with the remainder of the open ground, if there is any, to turn it into the very best possible habitat.

You can tell from the aerial photo of the Bee and C Branch Ranch that it has a lot of timberland. This is somewhat novel for an Iowa property. Anytime you can find a property in a good neighborhood with more than 50 percent timber in this part of the Midwest, you have found an enviable situation. The Bee & C Branch Ranch has slightly more than 50 percent cover, lots of early succession and enough open ground to give the deer manager plenty to work with.

Seclusion is another enviable quality of this property. Most of the farm is not visible from any road, making for ideal food plot locations. That is the big picture. The next step is to figure out the herd dynamics to understand the starting point before determining the steps to take. This farm is in a neighborhood that has a good amount of deer cover and better-than-average deer management. As a result, the deer numbers are slightly above average for southern Iowa, estimated at approximately 75 deer per square mile. The quality is also above average. There is much to be gained by doing things right.

But it is cattle country, so most of the neighboring properties have limited agricultural cropland. That creates a tremendous opportunity. The Bee & C Branch Ranch, if managed properly, can attract and hold more than its share of the local deer.

Even if it is not your goal to hold tons of deer, it is nice to be the one making the trigger-finger decisions of which ones go to the meat locker and which ones get a year older. For that reason, attractive food sources are very important, even in the Midwest. There is a lot of high quality browse in the area for the spring, summer and early fall. It is Iowa, after all, the breadbasket of the nation.

However, there is a notable absence of late fall and winter food — especially the easily accessible type that deer prefer. Deer are efficient, if you make it easy for them to find food, they will respond. The right mix of plots can create a hunting paradise, drawing deer during the late fall and winter. That is obviously goal number one: to improve the food sources to attract and hold more deer — protecting them from outside hunting pressure and improving the quality of the hunting on the property.

With this goal in mind, the Whitetail Institute next had to decide where to plant the plots. This is where a detailed evaluation of the soil types comes into play. The goal was to produce food in the very best soils while at the same time keeping them secluded from outside eyes. It just happens that on this farm, the best soils are along the creek-bottoms and the rolling terrain shields the creek bottom fields from any roads. It is an ideal setup for producing hunting plots. The decision was actually a very simple one; the food plots go in the bottoms.


Studying the soil types and working with the soil conservation service to come up with the plan, six acres were planted in Imperial Whitetail Clover and Chicory PLUS in the fall of 2007. Six more acres were planted in the spring of 2008 and ten additional acres will be brought online in the fall of 2008. That produces a total of 22 acres of high-quality food plots, 8 percent of the total property. Even more will be added in future years. The largest plot is 6-1/2 acres that has been planted to soybeans. The group chose soybeans for two reasons. First, Roundup-ready soybeans are a great way to convert cattle pasture into other uses. You can drill the beans straight into the pasture ground and then spray the plot to kill the competing grasses. Also, with grain prices at high levels, the group has the option of selling a portion of the production to offset the costs of the remaining food plots.

The smaller plots are scattered around the entire property as shown on the management map. They are outlined in blue and will be planted at the proper times to a combination of Imperial Whitetail Clover, Chicory PLUS, Double-Cross, Winter-Greens and other Whitetail Institute products. There will also be plots planted with experimental seed blends. Optimizing the cover came next. Switchgrass has become increasingly popular among deer managers because it is much quicker to establish than timber and deer use it for security cover just as readily. The Whitetail Institute designated switchgrass for the remaining open acres on the property that are too steep to produce food. The switchgrass seeding is a two-year plan. The first 14 acres were planted this spring in the area outlined in purple. Stage 2 will take place next spring in the areas outlined in black. All other open areas of the farm are well on their way to thickening up so no additional habitat enhancements are planned right away. A comprehensive, phased TSI (timber stand improvement) plan is the only additional habitat improvement project that would conceivably make sense on this farm. There is no rush to jump into TSI right now and the group plans to meet with a forester to discuss these possibilities in the future.


Fortunately, Mark Rutledge’s own property is close to this farm. Mark has all the equipment needed to do every kind of farming short of combining the soybeans. It is easy enough to find a local farmer willing to combine a few acres of soybeans. Owning the equipment is a huge advantage. If you must rely on subcontractors to get all your food plot and habitat work done, you will be competing with many other voices when the weather finally breaks and the planting window opens. It is possible that you might miss the prime planting periods as a result. However, because Mark owns the equipment, the food plots and switchgrass seeding took place at the optimum times. Now we just need to watch it all grow and maintain the seedlings.


The Bee & C Branch Ranch is an exciting project for the Whitetail Institute. As the property transforms much will be learned first hand and the final product promises to be some of the finest big whitetail hunting in the country. In future issues, I will bring you updates on the progress, hunting strategies and successes that occur on southern Iowa’s Bee & C Branch Ranch.