Give Your Deer-Hunting Property a Mid-Semester Grade

deer forage, summer deer forage, whitetail forage, whitetail property management, deer hunting, hunting
Red-oak acorns on the author's property as of July 4Craig Dougherty

Everybody loves a good report card. Midsummer is a great time to get out and have a look at your property’s deer food status. A midsummer grade, so to speak. What’s growing and what’s not? Will there be apples or persimmons? How about acorns? Are the food plots looking good? If I’m squeaking through with a C-,what can I do to make the Dean’s list by fall? Will I have plenty of food to draw a crowd (of deer) and keep it?

Last weekend we grabbed the kids and headed out in the side-by-side to do just that. We checked out our food sources and gave them a midsummer grade. Here’s how things are looking so far on our hunting property, and how the fall hunting season might play out.

Corn Fields: B

We plant corn to attract and feed deer during the fall and winter. When the snow is on, the deer are in the corn. One of our primary fields was in great shape and will be a sure bet this fall. As the local farmers say, it was “knee high by the fourth of July.” This may not be one of our strongest corn years. One of our primary fields was taken out of corn production and waiting for a fall cover crop. We will work it shortly and plant some buckwheat in preparation for a fall planting of tender, young greens. This will help counteract the heavy acorn crop we are expecting. A third corn field had been hit very heavily by deer, and was feeling the effects of our extended dry spell. We decided to add some turnips to the struggling corn in this field. We may see some corn, but we now have turnips to back our initial corn planting up.

Clover Plots: B-

Our clover plots are our property workhorses. They come up early and stay late. They feed our fawns and are there all winter. This season some of them were invaded by early-season grasses, and some invasive weed species were showing up. They have looked better. That said, the more we looked, the more we found good clover. It was being used heavily by deer. The clovers would benefit from a mowing once the rains started coming; the mowing would knock back the weeds, and an application of a grass-specific herbicide next spring will knock back the grass. All in all, most of the clover plots were doing their job. A few would need to be replanted with fall attractant mix.

Hard Mast: A

Sixty percent of our wooded areas are comprised of oaks. That means you have to keep an eye on the acorn crop. This year our red and white oaks are definitely putting on the acorns. Short of a natural disaster, there will be acorns all over the place this fall. The deer will be spread out and hard to pinpoint (we are in the middle of many thousands of acres of oaks), but at least will have plenty of fat-producing fall foods. We will put most of our fall plots in sweet, super-attractive baby greens to counteract the impact of the acorns, and try to keep the deer on our property instead of walking all over the county. Acorns are hard to compete with, but no tillable acre will go unplanted this fall.

Soft Mast: D-

Our wild apples and pears had flowered well but they also had been hit by an early freeze during pollination time. The crops were spotty at best. Soft mast is a major food source on our property but they will not be bearing much fruit this fall. Our fruit trees are running from 0-10 percent fruit. To compensate, we will take extra care to plant fall foods like young brassicas, clover, and sweet young grain species for increased palatability. Our deer love the sugar in fall fruits, but this year our stands will not be hung over the apples and pears.

Natural Vegetation: A

Over the past 20 years or so we have done much to improve the natural vegetation on our hunting property. We’ve done plenty of chainsaw work and brush-crushing, and all kinds of practices to put sun on the ground and enhance our natural vegetation base. Food plots and crops are nice, but natural vegetation is the key to keeping deer happily few and cared for on any hunting property. Natural vegetation attracts deer and keeps them there. Once established it takes little in the way of maintenance, and we have little to do here other than sit back, watch and enjoy. The major work is done, and we can coast for a few years.

A decent, but not great, report card. Overall, I’d give our hunting property a mid term-grade of a respectable B. Our job is to turn that into an A by hunting season. We’ll do that by carefully mitigating our food challenges and taking advantage of our food strengths.