Deer Management on the Open Range
Does Are Your Best Friend And Your Worst Enemy
I really don't know of any difference in managing deer on a high-fence range and on an open range. The challenges for managing deer on an open range are in many ways the same as managing deer behind a high fence. You want to make sure you:
- have plenty of high-quality forage to provide a high level of nutrition for the deer on the property you are managing
- keep the deer herd at 60 percent of the carrying capacity of the habitat
- give your bucks time to produce trophy racks, and pass along their genetics if they have trophy potential
Here are the main differences in managing deer on open range compared to managing deer in a fenced environment:
- On an open range, you have more deer migrating onto your property than you do when your property is fenced. This one management challenge dictates that you will have to harvest far more deer from an open range to keep the herd in balance than you do if you have your habitat protected by an enclosure. For instance, instead of having to take 30 does off 1800 acres that is fenced, I would probably have to take 50 or 60 does, if this property is open range.
- If I get my deer herd below carrying capacity and my neighbors have more does on their properties than I do on my lands, then the bucks on my property will leave my land to breed the does on my neighbors' properties.
- During the spring and summer when I have warm-weather food plots planted and my neighbors don't, all their does will move onto my lands, feed in my food plots and bring their fawns on my habitat.
- Because a 2-year-old doe has a higher rank in the pecking order than a 1-year-old buck, she will run that 1-year-old buck off my property as soon as she gives birth to her new fawn.
If you can't erect a fence around your hunting lands, you'll have to shoot as many deer as you legally can every season to protect your young buck fawns. To see the effect of doe migration on open range, I fenced three sides of 5,000 acres. I left one side of the fence open because the neighbor on that side of my property had 80,000 acres where he had very limited hunting. The section of the fence that was left open was 3-miles long. For three consecutive years, we had to harvest over 90 does off that 5,000 acres to keep does that were migrating onto my property from eating up the food plots that I'd planted. If all four sides of my ranch had been left open, we determined that we would have had to kill 140 does per year on that 5,000 acres to keep the does that were migrating onto my property from completely destroying the food plots.
If your property has a higher nutritional plane than surrounding habitats, you'll have to harvest a large number of does every season in most areas of the country. So, I believe that the number-one problem that hunters face when attempting to manage deer on open range is being able to harvest enough does each year to protect the property's habitat. One of the best solutions that I've seen for this problem is to try to work with your neighbors. Try to get them to harvest significant numbers of does each season. This will alleviate some of the burden of doe harvest on your habitat.
The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) produces a very good book on how to set up a deer-management cooperative with adjacent landowners. All the landowners and hunting clubs in a specific area can manage deer collectively to reduce the number of deer on everyone's land. This practice will increase the number of bucks and the quality of bucks that all the landowners have to hunt. In any deer habitat, does are both your worst enemy and you best friend. The goal should be to maintain just enough does to annually replenish the bucks that will be hunted, as well as those which will die of natural causes. Given that, on good habitat with stocking levels well below carrying capacity each doe will have two fawns, the number of does needed to do this is much lower than you might think.
Successful Food Plots
Most hunters fail to realize that the best information you can get on how to plant a successful food plot in the area that you want to hunt will come from the county agent in the county where you will be hunting. The information is free, and there will be a nominal fee for each soil test. Now you will know how much nutrient, fertilizer and lime you will need.
One of the biggest problems with deer management is cost. If your pocketbook will permit, I recommend putting between 5% and 10% of your land in supplemental food plots. Now that you know the costs you will incur for planting food plots, let's talk about where and how to locate those plots.
Where to Locate Food Plots
If you only have 250 acres that you're managing for deer, locate a big food plot in the center of the property. Around that food plot, designate 30 to 40 acres that no one can enter except during planting time. For a food plot to be effective in feeding and holding deer, there needs to be a sanctuary around the major food plot on the property. This sanctuary will not only encourage deer to come onto your land, but the sanctuary will encourage deer to stay on your property. I'll also plant small food plots at the outer edges of my sanctuary and at other locations on my property. But when you're managing deer on small lands, provide the most food in the center of the property. Also, provide protection for your deer in the center of your land, and only hunt the outer edges of your property.
If you're attempting to manage deer on 1,000 acres, I suggest that you have your sanctuary in the middle of your property. Then have five or six food plots of equal size around the property, so the deer will be more dispersed on the entire 1,000 acres. If you're going to plant 5 to 10 percent of your property in food plots on this 1,000 acres, I suggest that you also have five, 10-acre food plots scattered throughout the 1,000 acres. You also can have 10, 5-acre fields, depending on how your property is laid out.
The Importance of Sanctuary
If you're going to try and hold bucks on your property until they are 3- to 5-years old, having sanctuaries on your land is critical to deer management. If your neighbors are shooting all the bucks they see, and you have the only sanctuary area for bucks, the older, smarter bucks will learn where that sanctuary is and use it. Therefore, creating sanctuary is critical to raising and holding bucks to the older-age classes. For the sanctuary to be the most effective that it can be for you and for the deer on the land you hunt, the sanctuary needs to be as far away from neighbors' properties as it can be. In most cases, this means that your sanctuary should be in the middle of your property.
Two elements are required for providing sanctuary for your deer and more importantly for your bucks. The bucks need good food and good cover to stay in a sanctuary. If the center of your property, for whatever reason doesn't have good cover, you can create it. By planting some type of crop that is tall, for instance like Egyptian wheat or the taller varieties of corn, you can produce cover where deer will hold, if there is no natural cover available. Deer will also see a field of tall grass as a sanctuary. Remember when you are planting sanctuary cover that the crop needs to be at least 5-feet tall, which means the cover will be taller than when they're standing up. The third key to sanctuary and probably the most important key to setting up a sanctuary is restraint. Regardless of how many big bucks you see going into that sanctuary, don't enter it at any time or for any reason. Restraint is probably the most-violated component for any deer-management program. Restraint means not only staying out of your sanctuaries and not hunting them, but also, letting a really nice 2 or 3-year-old buck walk past your stand without shooting him. Then he will grow to that 6-year-old class.
The Importance of Water in a Deer-Management Program
Many hunters overlook the importance of water in deer management. Even though you may find ideal deer habitat, unless you have water distributed evenly over your property, the deer on your land will migrate off it throughout the year to find water. If your neighbor has water, and you don't, the deer that you have provided food for, sanctuary for, and other habitat for, will leave your property and go to your neighbor's property to drink. If your neighbor is not under the same type of deer-management program that your property is, then more than likely your neighbor will harvest the bucks you are trying to protect to reach the older-age classes.
When I found water to be a problem on the lands I hunted, I built a pond, or what we call in the West a stock tank. I also dug shallow wells and bought pumps to produce water and keep water on my hunting property year-round. Remember that keeping ample amounts of water on your property is just as critical to good deer management as keeping ample food and ample cover.
Things To Consider About Deer Management
You will have to invest time over many years to determine the best management scheme for the deer on the property that you hunt. Record keeping is one of the most important aspects of whitetail management. Keep detailed information on the weight, ages, sex, and reproductive weights of each deer harvested on your property.
One of the reasons that I like managing white-tailed deer is that I have never found all of the answers of how to do it best on all of the properties that I manage. If deer management wasn't an evolving problem, and after 20 years of trying to do it better, I would get bored with it. But even as advanced and refined as my deer-management program is, every year I am finding new problems to solve. For instance, my latest challenge is how to keep my biggest and best bucks on my property from fighting and killing each other before I can hunt them. This year, I had three bucks that would have scored over 200-points each, killed by fighting with other bucks. For me that is a real heartbreaker, and a deer-management problem that I would like to learn how to solve.
Here's what I have learned about deer management. More than likely:
- any piece of property that you buy or lease for deer management you'll find the deer on that property have been abused before you've bought or leased that land.
- three years of management will be required before you see a significant change in your deer herd. For instance, I bought 1500 acres in Illinois. I closed on the property in the late spring. That winter during January when the area had a heavy snow, we did a helicopter survey. We learned that we had 77 does and 11 bucks on the property. Two of the bucks were 2-1/2-years old, and the rest of the bucks were 1-1/2-years old. I spent four years managing that property before I ever took a buck. I put a fence around the property after I bought it to keep other deer out. Still, I didn't have a really nice buck that I could harvest for four years.
- you still will be looking at three to four years of diligent management, if you implement a deer-management program on open range and do everything right. It will require three to four years before the bucks on the property that you have leased get significantly better as far as antler development goes. You can't speed up the aging process on bucks. Remember, if you buy or lease a piece of property that has primarily yearling bucks, which most property does, then those bucks are going to have to grow for at least two to three years before they have mature antlers.
You can't make the bucks get older quicker. You can't cheat Father Time.
To learn more about deer management, you can purchase Jack Brittingham's Briarwood Whitetails which includes information about Jack's deer-management philosophy and shows what you can do to improve a hunting property. Jack Brittingham's Wildlife Food Plot and Feeder Basics explains where to set up food plots, how to plant that food plot, and why to use game feeders so that all these practices will attract deer.