You don’t need a tractor to attract deer.
It’s just about impossible to pick up a hunting magazine without seeing something related to food plots. Whether it’s a feature on choosing the right seed or selecting the best site, it seems like everyone is jumping on the food plot bandwagon.
There’s no question food plots can improve your success by drawing more deer to your property and keeping them around. But food plots require some equipment. You’ll need a disc to turn the dirt. You’ll also need a sprayer, a spreader and a rotary mower. And you’ll need a tractor or ATV to pull that equipment.
No tractor? Don’t fret. There’s plenty you can do to draw deer to your land without a new car’s worth of farm equipment. You don’t even need to buy a sack of seed. Numerous management options give any landowner or manager the opportunity to provide more and better forage without planting a food plot or turning dirt.
Get Fruity and Nutty
One of the simplest ways to attract deer is to plant an orchard. Virtually any fruit tree will attract whitetails, but some are better than others. Pears, apples, crabapples and persimmons are among the best and hold fruit well into the fall. Peaches typically drop all their fruit as early as August. Deer love them, but once the fruit is gone, so are the deer.
Don’t plant the first apple or pear tree you find, though. Some varieties are better than others. What you should choose depends on what you hope to accomplish. Kieffer pears, for example, hold their fruit until as late as mid-November, making them a good late bow or early gun season food source. Galloway pears hold their fruit even longer. Apples have different maturity dates, too, so choose the variety based on your preferred hunting activity.
Nut trees, particularly acorns, will draw deer better than a clover plot. However, oak trees can take years before they start producing a mast crop, and some varieties don’t pro-duce every year. The good news is that there are a variety of nursery-grown, native oaks available from businesses that specialize in wildlife trees.
Remember, fruit trees can take three to five years to start producing. Nut trees can take even longer. However, the longer you wait to plant fruit and nut trees, the longer it will be before you see the results. Start planting your orchard this fall. The best time to plant an or-chard was ten years ago. The next best time is now.
The good news is you probably already have some nut- and fruit-bearing trees and vines on your land. Persimmons are native to the South, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and as far west as East Texas. Deer love them. They’ll drop fruit well into November in some regions, drawing deer throughout bow and gun season. Wild grapes are also indigenous to much of the country. Encourage them to grow by clearing out competing vegetation around their bases.
Fertilizing native fruit-bearing plants doesn’t produce more or larger fruit, says University of Tennessee wildlife management professor Dr. Craig Harper. However, it can help them grow larger faster, and that can ultimately help them produce more fruit.
“The only reason you want to fertilize a native tree if it isn’t growing well in the first place,” he said. “Fertilizer might help it produce a larger crown, which can result in more fruit, but there’s no guarantee.”
Promoting the growth of beneficial native and non-native plants like honeysuckle can also keep deer on your land. Although it is an invasive, Japanese honeysuckle provides a food source well into winter, although it is not necessarily high in nutritional value. Some biologists credit the proliferation of the ubiquitous plant to the boom in deer numbers in the Northeast. It’s available when other foods aren’t.
It’s never a good idea to plant an invasive, non-native species, but you can take advantage of its presence if it is already growing on your property.
A wide variety of native plants are high in nutrients, too. Remember, deer survived just fine before the very notion of food plots became part of the management equation. Blackberries, for instance, are a favorite deer food and have crude protein levels of up to 23 percent. Whitetails not only eat the berries, they eat the tender leaves and buds, too.
Pokeweed is a great native food and is also high in protein. So are old-field aster, wild strawberry, beggar’s lice and ragweed, among others. It helps to know your native plants, so consider buying a field guide and taking it with you when you walk your land.
Kill the Grass
Many native plants that deer devour are already growing in your fields. However, there’s a good chance unwanted plants are choking out the beneficial ones. Cool-season grasses like tall fescue, orchard grass and ryegrass provide little or no benefit to whitetails and are a common plant in fields throughout much of the country. They do nothing but rob the good plants of space and nutrients. Kill them.
A dose of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, used at the right time will kill cool-season grasses. Be careful, though. Glyphosate will kill virtually every plant that it touch-es. However, once a plant has entered its dormancy stage, herbicide typically won’t harm it. Cool-season grasses will continue to grow well into the fall and early winter in some regions, so spray them when the rest of the plants are dormant, typically in October or November. March is also a good time to spray, but keep in mind your region of the country might be different.
You can spray small fields with a backpack sprayer, but your local farmer’s cooperative can use a truck to spray a large field in a matter of minutes.
When To Skip the Fertilizer
You can also get help to spread fertilizer, but only in the most extreme cases is it necessary to fertilize existing native and naturalized plant growth, Harper said. Those plants are growing in that spot for a reason. The location they’ve chosen already has the necessary ingredients.
“Fertilizing can produce more forage and increase nutritional carrying capacity, but it doesn’t equate to more nutrition per pound of forage in individual plants. There are very few cases where fertilizer is warranted,” he said. “Nature takes care of all that for us.”
If your land has poor soil, conduct a soil test through a professional laboratory and follow the recommendations. Throwing a few bags of 10-10-10 on the ground might not give you any noticeable benefits, but adding lime and the recommended blend of fertilizer may give your plants a boost. Your local farmer’s cooperative can spread lime and custom-blended fertilizer for you, if your land needs it.
Don’t bother fertilizing your forest, either. Contrary to popular belief, new research has found that fertilizing the oak trees in your forest is a waste of time and money. Harper led a study that evaluated the effect of fertilizing oak trees. He and fellow researchers identified 120 white oaks in east Tennessee and classified them by long-term acorn production. The study took place from 2006 to 2014. Forty percent were deemed poor producers, 49 percent were good or fair, and just 11 percent were excellent.
They used three treatments, including fertilization, canopy release and a combination of the two to determine if they could increase acorn production and frequency. None resulted in an increase in acorn production frequency.
He found that releasing the trees’ canopies did help increase their potential to produce more acorns. By removing tall trees adjacent to oaks, those oaks were able to expand their crowns, which created more limbs to produce acorns. However, that treatment combined with fertilization did not increase productivity beyond the crown release treatment.
A better alternative? Cut some of the big trees in your forest. Harper recommends re-moving such species as sweetgum, hickory and sourwood, which provide little or no benefit to deer, and then spraying the stumps with triclopyr or imazapyr, as recommended by their labels. Other species like red maple, poplar, elm and ash do provide an abundance of food, but only after the trees are cut. “The stump sprouts are highly selected by whitetails,” Harper said. “Allow the beneficial stump sprouts to grow.”
A forest stand improvement has an additional benefit: It allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, which stimulates an entire new plant community. You already have an adequate seedbank in the ground. Those seeds are just waiting for the right conditions to thrive. Even if you have abundant undergrowth, cutting the right trees can give those plants a boost.
Promoting their growth provides new browse in the form fresh, tender buds. Additional sunlight also promotes the growth of beneficial vines like blackberry, greenbrier, wild grapes and a host of other plants that deer love, which also provides suitable bedding and fawning cover for whitetails and nesting cover for turkeys, quail and other birds. The more cover your deer have, the more time they’ll spend on your land.
In most situations, it’s a good idea to avoid felling oaks, particularly white and red oaks. They don’t always produce a mast crop, but when they do, it’s an important food source and one that draws deer from all over. White oaks in particular provide an excellent early-season hunting opportunity. Whitetails will often walk past a plot of clover to get to acorns.
It’s not a bad idea to hire a consulting forester who can identify trees that provide little benefit to wildlife. You can either cut the trees yourself and turn them into firewood or hire a logger to do the work for you. They’ll even give you money for the timber. Leaving cut trees on the ground isn’t necessarily bad, either. The thick branches of the tree tops will provide valuable cover, and the trunks will eventually decay and provide high-quality nutrients to your soil.
Most of the improvements you can do that don’t involve a tractor can be labor-intensive and time consuming, but they’ll last for years. That’s not to say you’ll never have to work on habitat improvements in the future. However, once you get the basic work out of the way, you’ll never have to feel left out of the food plot craze. You’ll be busy watching deer.
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