Management Plan Basics in the Midwest

 By Bill Winke

 My primary hunting property is actually a working agricultural farm. Not that it is a profitable one, mind you, but we plant most of the open land in either corn or soybeans on something of a rotation. Compared to other parts of the Midwest, the soil and lay of the land on this farm are not conducive to high crop yields.
If you then throw in some crop depredation from deer on top of that, and maybe a drought or two, you have the recipe for lousy farming income. Given the low return on this farming land, it would have been a simple matter to offload the responsibility for feeding my deer onto my poor neighbors by simply putting the entire farm into CRP a few years back. I even thought about it but decided that I would shoulder the responsibility for the deer myself and continue to keep the farm in crop. This would serve two purposes. First, it would provide much better nutrition than brome grass CRP, and second, it would keep me honest in my efforts to control the herd numbers. As I’ve quickly learned, protecting deer is not managing deer. You have to harvest them aggressively (the right ones) or you will never consistently produce good bucks – even in the Midwest. And, if you are trying to farm the land, an aggressive harvest is critical to preserving any hope of income. To help in that regard, I expect anyone that hunts the farm to shoot as many does as they can. As a result, the population is at least stable, possibly dropping slightly. Not all of my neighbors are on the same program, so it is definitely an uphill battle. That is the backdrop for my management plan, one that includes food plots, habitat improvement and aggressive doe harvest as its core ingredients. Here is how those pieces work together and why I plant what I plant and where I plant it.


As mentioned, protecting is not managing, so we shoot a lot of does. I use kind of a finger-to-the-wind yardstick in determining how many to shoot. Basically, the quota is opportunity-driven. We shoot as many as we can and worry about the consequences of over-harvesting should it ever occur (unlikely). When the opportunity presents itself, we fill antlerless tags regardless of the time of the season. As the population goes down, in theory, the opportunities will go down, and the total kill will decrease. I also look at the crop damage in the fields during the summer and let my related anger level help in determining the aggressiveness of my fall harvest goals. Having a huntable number of bucks around is great, but having so many deer that you can’t grow crops is not great. Something has to give. The deer have to give. The easiest time to shoot does is when food sources are limited. During much of the fall, the farm is brimming with food; but when the farmer picks the crops and the deer and turkeys eat all the acorns, everything starts to close in around the food plots. This is an important part of the overall plan. Though I hunt the plots some during the rut, I hunt them exclusively during the post-rut and late season when the deer are glued to them. Early in the hunting season, my food plots keep does in the area so the bucks will hang around during the rut; and late in the season, the plots focus the feeding patterns of the same does more tightly so they are easier to kill. I also end up taking out a number of the does that come in off the neighbors, too, during this time, so it is anything but an exact science.


Habitat improvement is a wide category, but when I use this term, I am mostly concerned with improving the native browse and thickness of the habitat within the timbered acres of the farm. This is an ongoing project that I gnaw away at each year. In simple terms, my kind of habitat improvement boils down to removing all the trees from the timber that serve no purpose commercially or from a wildlife standpoint. Since I am not a big squirrel hunter, hickories are on the top of the list for removal, as are any kind of elm, most small ash, all the ironwood and most of the basswood, etc. Of course, you should ignore my advice on which trees to cut, because I am not a forester and cutting trees is a highly personal thing. I’m probably more aggressive than most people because I like thick cover for a number of reasons. Plus, every area has certain species that flourish either to your benefit or detriment. Consult with a professional forester before you start on any timber management programs. Part of this management plan includes the regular commercial harvest of mature timber. Right now, I’m on roughly a 10-year rotation. Every 10 years I should be able to take some kind of commercial timber harvest off the ground. That serves not only to provide income but also to recycle the habitat by increasing the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. Bucks seek out thick cover when they feel pressured, and it is the primary source of native browse. I also like thick cover because it is easier to hunt – the deer don’t see you coming and going as easily. Timber stand improvement should be a very important part of any whitetail deer (and timber) management plan. It benefits the commercial trees and it improves habitat and native browse. Since I’m on a 10-year program, every year I remove the junk trees from roughly 10 percent of the farm so that after 10 years I am ready to start over again from the beginning.


I have two kinds of food plots on the farm, agricultural crops and Imperial Whitetail Clover plots. The agricultural fields feed some deer during the summer, but by far, the most important source of summer food is the high-protein clover. Deer need protein as early in the spring as they can get it. Granted, they find some good early nutrition in weeds and browse (the result of my aggressive timber stand improvement efforts), but when the weeds begin to mature, the deer increasingly turn to my Imperial Clover plots. This usually happens around late May in my area, right when the bucks are really putting on their antler growth. I make it a goal to have a good clover plot for every 80 acres of land (every 40 acres would be even better). That way, any deer on the farm is within a short walk of a highly nutritious summer food source. To accomplish this goal, I use the back ends and steep slopes of the open field points that extend into the timber. These portions of the fields produce very limited crops anyway because they are so vulnerable to drought and deer or turkey damage. So rather than fight it, I use these areas for my Imperial Clover plots. When the deer come out of the timber heading for my crop fields, the first thing they hit is an Imperial Clover field. Most of these are small (one to two acres), but it is amazing how much valuable forage you can grow in such a small plot with well-maintained Imperial Clover. Even the local farmer who plants my crops is amazed by the production of these small plots. My agricultural fields also factor into the plan. They provide great winter food sources after continual freezing and grazing have all but flattened my Imperial Clover plots. The small patches of soybeans and corn that I leave standing at the back corners of the fields become the number-one food source. Again, these are often just an acre or two in size, sometimes a bit larger. I treat my Imperial Clover as vital food for spring, summer and fall and a great place to hunt during the early parts of the season; and I treat remnant patches of my agricultural crops as great late fall and winter food sources and valuable winter nutrition. It is not necessarily a cheap plan, but if you keep your deer numbers under control, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to supply them with a full plate of annual food either.


I already offered a few thoughts on site selection, but let me go a little deeper into that subject, as I feel it is very important to the overall effectiveness of the clover plots. The sites I selected for my clover plots had three things in common. First, they were not locations where I could plant and harvest commercial crops effectively or efficiently. They were either small fields tucked back in the timber, corners of larger fields where it is hard to turn large farm equipment, or spots where deer damage would be very high if I planted conventional agricultural crops. Finally, all the plots were located in areas that I could get to during the summer with a mower to keep the plots clean and dominated by tender re-growth. The last criterion is just as important as the first two. Early on, I tried to plant an Imperial Clover plot at the end of a point field, thinking that I could simply mow it before the corn got too high, and the clover would take care of itself the rest of the way. That was a mistake. It became weed-infested and all but disappeared in just one year. If you are going to mow your clover plots early, you have to mow them twice – the second time in mid summer. It is possible, though not ideal, to get by with mowing the plots just once. However, that single mowing has to take place in early summer, well after commercial crop fields are too tall to drive through. For several years, I lived on a large property owned by a number of deer hunters (myself included) where we had all the equipment needed to plant and maintain every kind of food plot. It was my job to see the work done in exchange for living on the property free of charge. By the time I left, I had 65 different plots. I learned a lot about establishing and maintaining Imperial Clover. However, my wife and I have since sold out of that corporate farm and bought land of our own. I haven’t yet made the commitment to buy all the needed equipment, so I am at the mercy of a local farmer. I have worked out a deal to borrow a tractor and brush hog from a neighbor to mow my plots, however. In theory, it works pretty well. My winter plots are the result of the normal farming, which is a contract operation. I pay the farmer to put in and take out my crops so I can leave whatever I want to leave. This is a very efficient way to get winter plots. The smaller Imperial Clover plots last roughly three years and don’t take as much time or equipment. So, I can usually get the farmer to roll in for a day and re-establish clover plots when that is required. The plots are on a rotation where I am redoing roughly one-third of the plots every second year. I have about 15 acres (the biggest plot is four acres) of Imperial Clover so I need to replant roughly five acres every other year. With the right equipment, that doesn’t take very long. First, I get a soil sample tested at the local co-op. I always want my pH to run as close as possible to 7.0, so I usually end up having to apply some lime. It is all but impossible to get someone to come in with a lime truck for just a few acres, so I buy bagged lime from the co-op and apply it with an ATV mounted spreader. This method is very inefficient and takes a lot of passes to get the proper rate, but it is worth the effort. If you have the equipment, consider having a load of lime delivered to your property and then use a shovel and rear-mounted tractor spreader to apply it. The manager at the local co-op can recommend someone who will deliver the lime. A pile of lime will last for several years. Of course, many co-ops will deliver bulk amounts of lime and spread it for next to nothing. After liming, I wait until the first dry spell of spring and then apply the fertilizer the same way – with the ATV spreader. I use the levels of phosphorous and potassium recommended by the soil test. Next, the farmer goes in and tears the field up with a power-takeoff driven field tiller that mounts on the 3- point hitch of his tractor. Any heavy small disk would also work. I have had limited success when broadcasting the seed and dragging it in. We have had the best success by drilling the seed into the ground using the drill’s shallowest setting. The press wheels behind each drop tube assure good seed-to-soil contact. Now all I need is rain. I have never sprayed my Imperial Clover plots with a grass herbicide, but I understand it works well to clean them up after year two. I probably will consider it in the future. During the first two years, the aggressive growing tendency of the clover smothers out the grass competition. To gain weed control, I mow my plots regularly. During a normal summer, I will mow the plots twice – once in mid-June and once in mid to late July. During a dry summer, I usually skip the second mowing to reduce stress on the plants. I fertilize with a maintenance dose of potassium and phosphorous during the spring each year. That’s how I do it.