Improve Native Food Sources for Complete Nutrition

By Neil Dougherty

As a professional wildlife consultant I am faced with the task of improving the quality of deer on land across the country. Looking back at hundreds of thousands of acres of properties, one universal problem can be found on most of them — too many deer for the amount of food produced within the property.
One solution that most land-owners recognize is to plant food plots to increase the amount and quality of food. However, although food plots are one of the best management tools, they alone are not the answer when it comes to managing a property correctly. Most landowners fall short when it comes to producing or enhancing native food sources.

Native foods represent half of a whitetail’s diet. One often overlooked key to successful property management is to dramatically increase the quality of native foods. Not only will it make your deer healthier it will also enhance your hunting. First off, let’s get one thing straight. Deer are eating machines. Each whitetail will consume between one and 1.5 tons of food annually. Let that sink in for a moment. The 10 deer you just saw on your food plot are consuming in the ballpark of 24,000 pounds of food annually. It’s no wonder that most deer landscapes suffer from overbrowsing. It’s important to understand that most of a deer’s food exists within six feet of the ground. Deer feed on forbs, leaves, grasses and browse stems. Hard masts like acorns are also a favorite, as are soft masts like apples, lichens and mushrooms. The first one to three inches of new growth on a branch or twig provides the best browse; the first inch provides the most digestible protein, and the farther down the stem the deer eats the poorer the food quality. Stemmy browse contains a high percentage of hard-to-digest lignin; that is of little benefit to deer. Although deer require browse, the average protein level is quite low for most forms of native food. For example, red maple is a highly preferred browse species. Based on plant analysis from our New York research facility, the average protein content of red maple browse is around five to six percent. That’s a far cry from the 16 to 18 percent protein deer require in their overall diet. Think back to the 10 deer on your food plot. Some 12,000 pounds of their diet will average below 10 percent protein. This protein deficiency more often than not results in reduced capability of maintaining above-average body weights and antler sizes. When limbs within reach of deer are repeatedly browsed off, trees shift their growth energy elsewhere, and new growth sprouts above the deer’s reach. The food source disappears or worse, dies. To see this condition in the extreme, examine woodlots where livestock have fed.

Virtually nothing is left at ground level. When you see condition like this in the woods, you have real herd management problems: too many deer, too little food. Natural regenerating brambles and young tree stems are all very good food sources, but they grow at ground level and require lots of sunlight to prosper. Sunlight is the key, but an over-abundance of deer can eliminate browse in even the sunniest areas.

You can keep track of browse impact on your own property by erecting a browse enclosure in the woods. Fence off, with a six-foot fence, a 25-foot by 25-foot area of woods that has recently been opened up. Be sure the area around it is in the same condition. Deer will browse around it, but the inside will be untouched. If your deer density is high, in a matter of months you will begin to see the difference and in a matter of years the cage will be thick with brush while the areas outside of the cage will remain “brush bare.” If your deer numbers are “under control” the outside of the cage will not be dramatically different from the inside.

Constant monitoring of the deer’s impact on the forest is one way to develop a doe harvest strategy for a property. If your deer are negatively impacting your forest then it’s time to harvest a few does. Keep in mind that every time a doe is harvested nearly 4,000 pounds of food will not be consumed the following year. If you find that a few of your camp buddies are reluctant to shoot does, try locating the woods exclusion-cage where all the hunters can see it. This will make them aware of the impact deer make on native habitat and can motivate even a reluctant shooter to get with the doe harvest program.

Evaluating browse use helps estimate the amount of food available in your area. The next time you are in your woods, measure the amount of browse consumed by your deer. Look at a plant and see if the one-inch tip is browsed off or if three or four inches of stem or twig are torn away. The entire stem might be consumed by deer during a severe winter or during a severe drought. If you find gross browse consumption, you need fewer deer and/or better food sources. Increasing the amount of deer browse helps correct the problem. When you produce enough browse tonnage and other sources of nourishment such as food plots, your deer will begin to use only the tips of the stems of woody plants growing in the woods. Growing-season browsing is often an indication of too many deer or not enough low-lignin food sources like Imperial Whitetail Clover. Planting more food plots and/or logging roads will often help correct this problem. Remember, land managers want their deer eating high-protein food sources during the developmental months, March through August.

The best time to evaluate browse impact is at the end of the growing season. Woody plants browsed during the growing season typically start to rot at the site of browsing. As the tip of the plants dies, it starts to dry and rot back to the main stem. The more time that expires after the browsing event, the more stem rot is in evidence. Nipped stems dry at different rates across the country depending on temperature and moisture. The following can be used as a rough guide in most parts of the country. Nipped stems dry rot at one-quarter inch in 30 days; one-half inch in 45 days; one-inch in 60 days. Use this scale to determine when a stem was nipped. If you find heavy mid-summer browsing, you should be concerned as deer normally are light browsers during spring and mid-summer. The tons of browse consumed during the summer months will more than likely be much lower in protein than the daily average needed to generate large healthy deer. In this scenario of over-browsing, planting more high-quality food plots and reducing deer numbers will pay huge dividends in a relatively short period of time.

Wildlife habitat should be thick enough to make it difficult for people to walk through, and almost impossible tosneak through. Brambles and underbrush hide deer and make noise when people move through, allowing deer to slip out the backside unseen. Concealing cover can be anything from timbered treetops or underbrush near a small rise or ridge, to a dense stand of pines or spruce. A quick escape route helps deer feel comfortable in these areas. From past experience deer prefer to stay within sixty yards of thick cover so they can disappear in two or three seconds. Native food also plays into a hunting strategy. Deer, like fish, are drawn to structure. The fish structure analogy is helpful when thinking about deer. If you have a wide-open, one-dimensional forest or woodlot, you must drop trees and create structure. Plants will grow where daylight reaches the ground, producing different levels of growth and cover. When creating structure, first consider creating areas around natural or existing food sources. Mapping out a structure plan will allow land owners to enhance deer movement patterns on their property. If laid out correctly, the plan will help you pattern bucks as they move from cutting area to cutting area and then to your food plot. Many hunters experience success hunting directly over areas where trees have been cut down. Newly regenerating growth in freshly-timbered areas represents important food sources for whitetails. Aggressive cutting creates what I like to call “browsecuts.” These are akin to clearcuts, but because clearcuts have developed a bad name, I prefer to call them browsecuts. Browse-cuts are also smaller than clearcuts, which got their bad name because they often cover 100 acres or more.

It is difficult to remove too many trees in a browse-cut. More often than not, landowners are too conservative with the saw, and leave too many trees, which shade the ground after a year or two of growth. I prefer to drop almost all the trees in the cut, from 18 to 20 inches in diameter down to small saplings. Many trees can be converted into saw logs or firewood but we always leave some cut trees behind, especially treetops. It might be more important to get structure into the area than to harvest every stick of firewood. Leaving treetops in the cutting area is the quickest way to create ground structure. Tree tops also keep deer from browsing young and tender regenerating shoots. By the time the tops rot, young trees have established root systems and are better equipped to handle heavy deer browsing.

Another technique used to thicken up an area is to create living brush piles. Living brush piles are created by dropping small trees or shrubs without cutting them clear through. This is done by felling small trees with a cut that doesn’t sever it from the stump. The tree will lie on the ground and remain alive for perhaps a few years, providing thick cover and nutritious browse. Shrubs and small trees in the 2-4 inch range respond better to this treatment than do larger trees. This technique is often referred to as hinge cutting. Hinge cutting is a great way to maximize the amount of food tonnage and provide cover for wildlife. Native food plays a critical role in developing the ultimate deer property. As a consultant I look at a forestscape and develop a number that represents the amount of food available to deer per acre. Poor properties with dense, sun-robbing tree canopies can have as low as 150 pounds of food per acre available for deer at ground level. Deer are forced to spread out to neighboring properties in order to find enough food to survive.

Even with food plots, this type of terrain will struggle to maintain higher-than-average body weights and antler sizes and will maintain lower than average deer numbers. On the other hand, by using some of the above listed techniques the amount of food per acre in managed sections can increase to well over 1,000 pounds of food per acre. Food-per-acre numbers that high, coupled with food plots will hold more deer on a property and help ensure that animals have the best types of food sources available. Bigger healthier deer with smaller home ranges will result, and that’s a recipe for better hunting.