Winter is melting away and you are dying to get out there and do something. You’ve picked up every shed within 3 miles, but have you done anything to understand what’s going on with your deer herd?
Deer are slaves to their stomachs, so you need to know what deer are eating during hunting seasons. It’s easy to figure this out during the growing season when you can see them out in the open, eating beans or clover or other planted foods, but what happens when the leaves fall and all the planted stuff goes away? It’s still hunting season and your deer still need to eat. This is where browse comes in to play.
Technically speaking, whitetail deer are referred to as concentrate selectors or (intermediate feeders). They are also generally referred to as browsers. They move through wooded areas, old abandoned fields and people’s back yards nipping here and nipping there at just about anything that catches their fancy. They do the same thing in food plots. They move along poking their nose here and there selecting the perfect stem or leaf. Truth be told, they are very fussy eaters.
Browse is critical for whitetails. Even in agricultural areas and on properties with numerous food plots, browse typically makes up at least 50 percent of their food (during the growing season). They eat it coming and going from food plots and fields and live on it all winter long in cold climates. Have you ever watched a whitetail nip leaves and stems before entering a brassica food plot or corn field?
Identify Browse Sources
The first thing you need to be able to do is identify sources of deer browse and since deer don’t eat every woody stem or plant they come in contact with, this can be a little tricky. Sure there are “preferred browse species” lists out there in the deer literature but unless you are good at identifying dormant plants, it can be difficult to tell one from the other.
Also, the deer preference lists don’t always hold true regionally. The deer on our property won’t touch striped maple, while they just love it on a friend’s property 50 miles to the west. A good friend of ours feeds native vegetation to some deer he keeps in an enclosed area. One of his deer simply loves beech browse while none of the others will touch it. Deer do not browse on beech on our property but simply love maple, oak and ash. Shrubs and brambles? They can take’em or leave’em.
The best way to identify what browse deer are using is to get out there and find some evidence. Deer typically nip off the first three inches of any plant or shrub they use as browse. This is generally the tenderest part of the plant and is also the most flavorful and digestible. The top 1 inch of a stem is also where 2/3 of the nutrition is found. Ever eat asparagus? Fancy restaurants don’t serve “tender tips” for nothing.
A better term for “nip” might be “rip” because whitetails typically crush and twist a stem rather than cleanly “cutting” it off. Rabbits, squirrels and woodchucks “cut” plants with their sharp front teeth. That’s how to tell “deer browsing” from “critter cutting.”
Deer leave a rough stem behind while critters typically leave a nice clean cut. Don’t confuse deer browsing with rabbit feeding. Also, don’t bother looking up for deer browse. Deer browse is located 6 feet and lower in the deer woods.
Pinpoint Time of Browsing
Once you find evidence of deer browsing, you need to understand when the browsing took place. Was it done around hunting season or just last week? The tips of most woody, stemmed plants scab over after being browsed by deer. The tear dries out and progresses down the stem at a rate of about 1 inch every 45 days. This only occurs during growing season. A fresh rip is just that. No scab, no drying out, just a light-colored, rough-feeling end to the stem. In this case, browsing probably occurred after growing season, which just may be hunting season in your area. Do the math and compare aging and weathering on browse to figure out when the browsing occurred.
Map Browsing Locations
A little investigating across your hunting property and a little math can tell you a whole bunch about what your deer are eating and when they’ve been eating it. Look for large areas of preferred browse and think of them as constant supplies of deer food, especially if you see sign of use over time.
Mark them on a map and consider them to be late-season food plots. A wooded or partially wooded area with lots of good browse available can produce 500-600 lbs. of deer food per acre. An area with no available browse will be lucky to produce 50 lbs. per acre. Logging clearcuts are excellent sources of deer browse (unless your deer density is too great for the available habitat).
Analyze Deer Density
And speaking of deer densities, this is another source of deer information you can glean from understanding how deer are using browse. Each year whitetail deer raise havoc on millions of acres of habitat. They destroy billions of dollars worth of forest products and agricultural products. This is typically caused by a mismatch between the carrying capacity of a given piece of land and the deer it is trying to sustain. When too many deer try to live off of too little land, they both suffer.
In your “browsing around” you should also be noting how much of a given plant or browse species has been consumed. This tells you how often deer browsed that particular plant and frankly, how hungry they were when they worked it. If the top inch or two were nipped off, that’s no big deal. It was probably browsed once and that was it. On the other hand, if the plant has been chewed down to a nub the diameter of a pencil, or even your pinkie finger, you have problems.
That much browsing will irreparably damage the plant. Consuming that much of the plant is a sure sign that the deer was very hungry. I’ve eaten some pretty woody asparagus stems in my day, but only when I was darn hungry and there were no tender tips left on my plate.
It’s important to check the entire property for over browsing as over browsing is often found in areas where deer. Staging areas close to food plots and ag fields are often over-browsed, as are certain out-of-the-wind south facing slopes where deer congregate during the coldest months.
The remedy for too many deer on a property is to either supply more food or reduce the number of deer using the land. It’s important to check the whole property out before taking any decisive action when fall finally comes back around.
Photo: Lara Mercer Photography