Deer Herd Management for Georgia Hunters
There are several ways that landowners or deer hunting clubs can improve deer habitat or deer herd carrying capacity on their land:
Note: salt and supplemental feed do not improve habitat quality or the carrying capacity of the land. Neither practice is recommended or endorsed by WRD and neither is as valuable as food plots or other habitat management practices.
Timber management practices for deer include reduction in size of cutting units, thinning and prescribed burning, use of seed tree and shelterwood cuts, managing for older timber stands, wider spacing between planted pines, and saving a hardwood component of 20% or greater concentrated in streamside management zones. Management for browse, soft mast, and hard mast (oaks) are important for your deer herd. Detailed timber management practices are beyond the scope of this booklet. In addition, many deer hunters do not have the authority to manage the timber on their leased hunting lands. For specific timber management details and possible financial assistance with forestry related wildlife management, contact your local Wildlife Resources Division wildlife biologist.
Food plots ( See p. 26 of the Deer Herd Management booklet) are an excellent way of establishing a high quality food source for deer. If you can get permission to plant and have access to a tractor and harrows, and don't have large acreages of wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, corn, or grain sorghum on or near your property, chances are good that you can attract, produce, and harvest more deer with food plots. They may be a key ingredient for success in your deer management program especially in industrial pine forests.
What should you plant? First of all, the importance of lime and fertilizer must be emphasized. Get a soil test and submit to your County Extension Agent for lime and fertilizer recommendations. Lacking a soil test, you can guess that most soils in Georgia will need 2 tons of lime per acre for best results. Application of lime costs roughly $50 to $l00 per acre the first year but will last for 5 to 8 years without reapplying. Spreader trucks are much more cost-effective and efficient than trying to spread bagged lime.
Seed and fertilizer costs range from $50 to $100 per acre in the establishment year for perennials and every year for annuals. You will be way ahead of the game if you can plant a perennial food plot which comes back from its own root system year after year versus annuals which must be reseeded every year. Studies have shown that costs per ton of forage produced for deer dropped from $70 per ton in the first year to $12 per ton in the second year by using perennials. The next best choice is reseeding annuals which come back from seed every year. Anything you can do to avoid planting the same plot year after year would help reduce costs. If you can properly lime and fertilize the soil according to a soil test, then clover/grass mixtures are the best low maintenance foodplot for deer. An excellent perennial mixture which will grow statewide (except in deep sands) is the top one listed in Table 2. Be sure to innoculate the clover and lightly cover the seed with 1/4 inch of soil. Bushhog this food plot once per year in August and fertilize in September. The clover should persist for a 3-5 year period. Plant this mixture in September or early October for best growth. A good reseeding annual food plot for sandy soils is the crimson clover, arrowleaf clover, ryegrass mixture. This mixture will reseed the following year if mowed in August and fertilized in September. A light disking may be required on some soils in Georgia. On those sites that cannot be limed, plant a fertilized mix of wheat or rye mixed with crimson clover. The crimson clover will reseed when mowed the following August.
In late winter, a mix of arrowleaf clover, red clover and oats or ryegrass can be frost-seeded or drilled on fallow ground with very good results. In late spring, grain sorghum (especially bird-resistant varieties) is an excellent annual food source for deer. It is similar to corn but is drought tolerant and much easier to grow. It is adapted to all regions and should be broadcast in May or June by itself or mixed with aeschynomene, peas, or millet. Contact your local county agent or wildlife biologist for further details including fertilization and lime rates.
Greatest use of cool season plots (and their greatest value to deer) occur in late fall, winter and early spring. In some years of acorn scarcity, the plots are used constantly by deer from September through March. In areas with high deer densities, or poor food supplies, deer have been known to severely overgraze small food plots, therefore, plots at least one acre in size are preferable. However, one big asset of both clover and small grains (wheat, oats and rye) is their ability to withstand extreme grazing pressure.
In small plots on lands with high deer populations,soybeans, cowpeas, or most any summer legume are not recommended due to problems with severe overgrazing soon after germination. Jointvetch (aeschynomene)and alyce clover are two exceptions which can withstand heavier grazing pressure and provide good late summer forage especially in the Coastal Plain during the late summer stress period. In larger plots (probably 3 acres or bigger), iron clay peas mixed with grain sorghum is a combination which may provide grazing all summer long without overgrazing. If peas are killed by deer overbrowsing, then the sorghum still persists and produces.
Fertilizer is an easy, often overlooked and under-utilized way of providing greater quality and quantity of food for deer. Japanese honeysuckle is among the best of all deer foods but is often taken for granted in Georgia. Fertilization of honeysuckle greatly increases quality and production. Find a sunlit patch of honeysuckle on the ground (not clumped in trees), or make one by cutting away competing brush. Fertilize this patch with 150 lbs. of ammonium nitrate and 50 lbs. of super phosphate per acre twice per year - once in March and once in September. The resulting growth and deer browsing pressure will be apparent almost immediately. Fertilizer can also help fruit and nut bearing species such as crabapple, persimmon, grape, plum and even oak trees. These will require a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10. As a general rule, apply 1 lb of 10-10-10 per inch of the diameter at breast height for fruit and 2 lbs. per inch for nut bearing trees in the month of March. Fertilizer should be evenly applied under the dripline canopy of these trees. Contact your local county extension agent for details.
Salt itself (sodium chloride) is used readily by deer but has not been proven to be beneficial to them. In Georgia, it is illegal to hunt over salt except when all salt has melted into the ground and none remains visible on the surface of the ground. This will occur if salt is put out in late winter or spring. Deer use of salt generally is heavy in spring, moderate in summer and much reduced in the fall.
Sodium is a minor component (1%) of antlers but the need for sodium or magnesium by deer has not been determined. The need for Calcium and Phosphorus in a 2:1 ratio has been established but more research is needed on the subject. Mineral mixes are available which contain high Calcium (16%) and Phosphorus (8%) in addition to 30-50% Sodium Chloride (salt) and some trace minerals including magnesium. These minerals are generally lacking in Georgia soils and consequently may be lacking in deer diets. Providing these minerals mixed with a salt, which deer definitely crave, may fulfill known deficiencies in deer diet. Although the link has not been clearly proven by research, the minerals provided through salt mixes may improve antler growth. One 50 lb. bag of high calcium/phosphorus mineral mix per every 300-600 acres applied in late winter every year may help buck antler development or other metabolic needs of deer. This mix should be poured in a shallow hole on flat ground in heavy clay soil and mixed lightly with the soil. However, salt applications definitely will not substitute for a lack of other habitat work. Other deer management efforts (like food plots or proper doe harvest) have much more impact than salt licks.
Supplemental feeding of deer with corn, pelleted ration or other feed not grown on the area always has been controversial among wildlife managers. Hunting over bait is illegal in Georgia, so feed must be completely removed 10 days before the season opens or be confined to areas greater than 300 years from hunting and not in sight of hunters at any distance. Properly done, feed must be put out for a long enough time and in enough quantity to increase deer carrying capacity during the most stressful period of the year (usually winter). A winter feeding program can theoretically result in more deer (or healthier ones) carried through the year. Studies show that long term supplemental feeding will increase carrying capacity for deer if it is done consistently year after year throughout the natural stress periods. However, costs can be very high, ranging from $13 to $83 per deer per year. Food plots are much more cost effective than supplemental feed. Supplemental feeding, however, can be expensive and can cause herd health problems and habitat damage when it is discontinued. Also, feeding with corn and other grains greatly increases the chances of aflatoxin mold infestation which can be detrimental or even lethal to wild turkeys or other birds.
There is debate over the relative value of corn versus pelleted ration for supplemental feeding deer. Usually, pellets prove superior in food shortages but wild deer prefer corn during usual winter conditions. Corn may be an adequate (and less expensive) supplement when deer have access to native browse. Although low in protein, corn is high in energy and is highly digestible. Since it is also low in fiber, vitamins and minerals, deer supplemented with corn need access to these dietary needs from other sources. Although supplemental feeding can raise carrying capacity artificially, there is still a limit to the number of deer the land can support without damaging its basic productivity. Basic habitat problems are never solved by supplemental feeding.
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