Managing Native Vegetation for Deer Forage
One of the most common questions biologist hear is, what do I need to plant for deer? Most hunters are familiar with all the commercial types of forage available for food plots as well as the old standbys such as oats and wheat for winter and cowpeas for the summer. While food plots can be a beneficial management tool for supplementing deer forage, they do have disadvantages. The largest disadvantage being that during drought years when the deer need the forage the most, the food plots are likely dead. On the flip side, during wet years, the food plots are growing great but there is so much native vegetation, the plots are not utilized much. The solution, manage what is all ready their, the native vegetation. How often have you seen it so dry the greenbriers died?
Before managing your native vegetation for deer forage, a basic understanding of deer diet is required. Deer are very much like goats and sheep. Deer prefer forbs (weeds) and tender browse (twigs and stems) during the growing season and turn more to mast (acorns) and browse during fall and winter. Common browse species that rank high in deer diets include honeysuckle, greenbrier, rattan vine, hackberry, blackberry, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and American beautyberry. Deer eat very little, if any, grass. If you have seen deer foraging in bermuda grass pastures, they were likely foraging on small weeds.
There are several methods to manage native vegetation for increased production, these include setting aside buffers, discing, and fertilization. Buffers should be established around pasture edges, woodlands, and roadsides by halting mowing and herbicide spraying. Simply designate areas adjacent to woodlands and pasture edges at least 30 feet wide. These areas should be mowed on a 3 year schedule by mowing 1/3 of the buffer annually. Do not mow the entire buffer every third year! By mowing 1/3 annually, there will be 3 different stages of vegetative growth for the deer. All three stages will supply ideal forage. These areas are also excellent for fawning cover for deer and nesting cover for many species of wildlife. A 30 foot buffer would be a good start, but the wider, the better. A buffer 600 feet long and 30 feet wide would cover 0.4 acres.
Discing is another very simple way to create forbs which are utilized as deer forage. Early winter
(December and January) discing creates forbs the following spring and summer. Ideal areas would be along fencerows that you do not want to grow up in brush. This method would allow access for upkeep of fence lines as well as deer forage. If discing fencelines, disc one side in the winter, the other in the spring. Other suitable areas would include random strips throughout pastures and woodlands. Ideally, you would not disc the same piece of ground every year.
Lastly, fertilization of native forage can be beneficial and cost effective. The areas that you left as buffers, could be fertilized during spring and summer to increase protein, palatability, and utilization. Target areas with greenbriers, honeysuckle, and small saplings. Different methods can be implemented, the first method would be to apply a time release fertilizer in early spring and then again towards mid summer. The second method would be to apply a balanced fertilizer every 45-60 days from early spring through summer. Finally, do not forget the trees. Target large oaks with large canopies throughout the property and apply fertilizers formulated for trees. This should increase the mast production on these target trees. By following these simple steps, you should have an adequate supply of forage year-round.