Winter continues, hunters should turn thoughts to habitat work
Another round of cold weather is moving into the state and that means more winter stress on the deer habitat. When the weather gets real cold like this a deer will burn itsí fat reserves to produce energy to stay warm, which means this used energy needs to be replaced. The mast crop is either gone or almost depleted in most areas, leaving only browse for the deer.
At this time of the year browse quality is poor. Some of the plant species like privet, blackberry and honeysuckle will produce growth during the winter months; however, with the amount of cold weather we have been experiencing, new growth has been slow. I have observed heavy browsing on these species, along with water oak, smilax, yaupon and horse sugar.
Keeping feeders going during this tough time is probably a good idea. Deer can really use a high-energy food such as corn, especially when acorns are not available.
Some oak species have started to bud out, and I have noticed that mayhaw trees have started producing flowers. A winter freeze on this tender growth will kill it and reduce the potential for fruit production.
Now is a good time to look at your winter habitat and see what is available for deer and determine what action should be taken to improve it for future seasons. While the timber market is not great, if the available browse is low and limited, it might be desirable to go ahead and do some logging, not with the idea of generating revenue, but to increase browse availability on the property. Special cuts, sometimes referred to as timber-stand improvement cuts, can be done on a small scale to increase browse. Look around for areas that have some honeysuckle or other desirable species that have been heavily browsed.
Cutting trees in such as sweetgum, ironwood or other species that are not good browse species will open up the canopy in these areas, putting sunlight on the ground, allowing the honeysuckle and other browse species to grow. Small stems of elm, ash and maple can be cut and these will produce stump sprouts that will be eaten by the deer.
Fertilizing these sites will also improve plant quality. Timber-stand improvement cuts around your deer stand will help in attracting deer to the area next fall.
Now would be the time to plant desirable wildlife tree species such as oaks and fruit-producing trees (pears, persimmons, mayhaws, black cherry) and other soft-mast species. There are many nurseries in the Southeast that specialize in wildlife tree species that can be purchased and planted to provide additional food sources for the deer.
Now would also be the time to create hedgerows within a food plot. Hedgerows with browse species such as arrowwood, elderberry, French mulberry, privet and other species will provide deer with high-quality forage at a low cost. Fertilizing these hedgerows will improve the quality of the browse for the deer. Often vine species such as honeysuckle, smilax and yellow Jessamine will become established in these hedgerows along with blackberry and dewberry. Many of these plants can be established from rootstock or seed, and can also be purchased from nurseries.
Fertilizing oaks that have a crown receiving good sun will benefit the tree. Drill the fertilizer in the ground at several locations under the crown. A time-release fertilizer works well for this activity.
Oak trees that are annual producers of acorns include water oak, willow oak and obtusa oak. Be sure to plant the oaks that are suitable to your site. For example, striped oak or nuttalls oak is a good wildlife oak, producing a high-quality acorn that falls later in the year. However, this tree grows best on bottomland hardwood sites and would not do well on an upland site.
We have planted some striped oaks in a patch in Clinton, and the trees are growing fairly well. They were planted on the low end of the patch that stays wet for a longer period of time. We also have sawtooth oaks in the patches, and this is a good oak that produces acorns within eight or nine years. This would not be a tree to plant on a wet site, however. These trees have been producing acorns for the last few years and help in drawing deer into the area. These acorns fall early and are generally gone by mid October.
Trees and shrubs planted in patches may have to be caged to keep the deer from over-browsing them. Also keep in mind that rabbits can also damage seedlings so tree tubes may be necessary to keep these critters from cutting them. Since the squirrel and rabbit season is still open, reducing the rabbit population may be in order.
The key for your deer-management program at this time should be directed toward the habitat: what is good, what is lacking, and what can be done to improve it. If your harvest program fell short of the recommended number, then you are probably going to see some heavy browsing on the vegetation until spring green-out comes.
Once spring arrives, deer usually leave the patches and eat the new growth on the native species. If the native browse is lacking, your deer growth and development will also be lacking. If deer are maintained in good condition until green-out occurs, antler growth and development will be good, with the energy going for this process rather than being used to catch up on body growth and maintenance. If the habitat is in really bad shape, deer will not be able to catch up.
Keep an eye on the weather from here on out. Oaks are wind pollinated, and if there is a lot of wet weather during the flowering time, pollination will be poor. If we get another freeze when the oaks are flowering, the flowers will be killed and no acorns are produced. White oaks such as cow oaks, white oak and overcup oaks flower and produce acorns in one year. Red oak trees such as water oak, striped oak, willow oak and cherry bark oaks will produce flowers this year, but the acorns will not mature until the following year (red oaks that make flowers in 2010 will not produce acorns from these flowers until 2011).
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