Managing for Quality
There was a time when it seemed that the only practical tool available for managing whitetail deer herds on most ranches was the rifle. It is still a practical management tool. However, there are other methods gaining favor on many ranches today. These days, almost everyone seems to be dedicated to growing heavier bucks, with larger antlers.
Since hunters are still the primary managers of the deer herd on most ranches, (at least they are the ones who actually select most of the deer that are removed from the herd), it stands to reason that they should work together with the ranch wildlife manager so that the long-term goals of the ranch are incorporated into their annual hunt plans. On some heavily managed ranches, of course, a guide goes with the hunter, to assist in making harvesting decisions.
In order for hunters to have a good chance at a mature buck, (4-1/2 years of age, or older), the younger bucks have to be considered off-limits, at least until an adequate population of mature bucks is established on the ranch. If the long-term carrying capacity of the ranch is being exceeded, then either does or spike bucks should be taken, depending on the results of regular game surveys.
Various research studies have demonstrated that, all else being equal, spike bucks will always remain inferior to their forked-antlered siblings. If deer surveys show that some young bucks should be taken, then take spikes, not young bucks with forked-antlers.
Similar studies have also demonstrated that if a good diet, with adequate protein, is available to those inferior spikes, their body weight and antler development will be vastly improved. In fact, some of them will surpass their superior, forked-antlered siblings, if the forked antlered bucks are limited to a lower protein diet.
Therefore, a program of indiscriminately shooting all spikes, regardless of circumstances, may mean eliminating a lot of bucks that might have had excellent potential in a year with better forage. If the ranch is not overpopulated with deer, and available forage does not offer adequate protein, then protein supplementation might be considered as a way to improve the condition of the deer, especially the ones that need the most help. This assumes that inadequate availability of sufficient protein in the forage is a short term problem. If it is a chronic, long-term problem, then the deer population obviously exceeds the carrying capacity of the land, and any attempts to supply sufficient supplemental protein, without adequately reducing the size of the herd, will prove to be a very expensive project.
Food plots are one way to provide supplemental protein, and, assuming that the weather co-operates, wheat, oats, peas, vetch, or a number of other possibilities that are suitable for the location, can be planted in the fall, to provide fall and winter supplementation, and lab lab, milo, corn, or other crops that are appropriate to the location and climate, can be planted in the spring, to provide summer feed.
If the weather, climate, or soil is not suitable for food plots, just clearing strips of undesirable brush at intervals across a pasture can provide a significant boost in production of desirable species of plants suitable for deer forage, so long as it is done properly. The local office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, (used to be known as the Soil Conservation Service, before the Washington-based bureaucrats renamed it a few years ago), can provide expert guidance on this type of work, and may even be able to assist in obtaining some government cost-share assistance, if the work is done in compliance with their guidelines. Programs come and go, over the years, but information on any programs that are available in the USA, can be found at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/. Click on the Programs tab in order to get to information on the various programs.
If a habitat modification program is not practical for a location, then protein supplementation can be done with commercial feed that is appropriate for the purpose. Feeding free choice will obviously be the most expensive option, and measures may need to be taken to limit the amount of feed that is lost to the weather, and to non-target animals, such as raccoons, feral hogs, etc.
If electric feeders, (slingers), are used, be aware than virtually all pelleted feed will absorb moisture and occasionally clog the feeder, particularly in damp or foggy weather. The newer "encapsulated" pellets work better, though they are a rather expensive option. Natural high-protein feeds, such as peas, can be used in electric feeders, and will not cause any flow problems, provided that they have been properly cleaned before being bagged.
Normally, here in the USA, the most beneficial time for supplemental feeding is the period from about mid January through about March, as this is the time of year when protein is usually in short supply. This is also the time when bucks need additional protein for up-coming antler development, and does need additional protein to nurture the fetuses that they are carrying. Here in Texas, at least, many intensively managed game ranches feed supplemental protein from sometime around January or February, until almost September, in order to provide a maximum boost for antler development and fawn growth. These are often high-fenced ranches that produce bucks with tremendous racks, and charge tremendous fees to hunt them.
In most areas, one of the most beneficial things that can be done is to provide minerals for the deer. This is also one of the most economical projects that can be undertaken. Optimum antler development requires adequate mineral availability. Obviously, this is more important in some areas that others, but providing minerals is so economical that it should pay dividends almost anywhere.
It doesn't do any good to put out minerals if the deer don't eat them. Since deer are used to utilizing natural mineral licks, making an artificial mineral lick is one of the best ways to go about it. Pick a spot near a deer trail and dig a hole a foot or so deep, and two or three feet across. Pour some mineral into it and mix it with some dirt, then cover it with more dirt. Sprinkle a little mineral on top, the first time, to make it easier for the deer to locate it. Rainfall, (or a bucket or two full of water), will make the site appear to the deer as a natural mineral lick. If the deer don't utilize it, a different location may need to be selected, since deer apparently have their own reasons for ignoring some spots. It is best to make two or more mineral licks in the area, for this reason, and to further encourage the deer to use them. During some parts of the year, the deer may not visit either of the sites, but they will use it when they need it, if it is always there.
You can buy high-priced mineral that is supposedly formulated specifically for deer, with a picture of a beautiful trophy buck on the bag, and it will most likely get the job done. It is usually just as effective, though, and much more economical, to go to a local feed store and buy whatever mineral works for the cattle in that particular area. Ask a local rancher if he prefers a certain brand of mineral. If the cattle do well on it, so will the deer.
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