Deer Habitat Improvement: Volume 1,2,3

Becoming a Student of Whitetail DeerBy Steve Bartylla

Deer Habitat Improvement

Habitat Improvement: Volume #1

With this piece, I am going to start an article dedicated to habitat improvement. This is a subject that I really enjoy.


Because it offers the hunter/manager an opportunity to mold their environment/deer population into something that is measurably better than what they have now. I find few things more rewarding than putting together a habitat improvement plan and watching the transformation that its implementation brings. The best part is that anyone that owns or can get permission to make some beneficial changes to their hunting areas can do this.

A deer habitat improvement plan has several goals:

  • Increase the health of the local deer herd.
  • Supply an ample amount of year-round nutrition.
  • Provide an acceptable level of cover.
  • Funnel deer activity through specific corridors and into specific areas.
  • Bring the buck: doe ratio closer to a balanced state.
  • Increase the number of mature bucks on the property.
  • Maintain a population that is well below the carrying capacity of the habitat.
  • Encourage deer to spend a disproportionate amount of time on this property by creating an environment that is superior to its surroundings.

Many people think of habitat improvement as a means of producing trophy bucks. Although increasing antler growth is a very desirable side effect, that is what it is, a side effect. The goal should be aimed more towards increasing the overall health of all the resident deer.

By viewing it that way,

the manager stands a much greater chance of actually seeing measurable, long term difference. The thing that is often overlooked is that the health of does and fawns will play a significant role in the development of the properties bucks.

After all, who gives birth to the buck?

If the doe is not healthy, chances are that she will give birth to stunted fawns or will not successfully fawn in the first place. If the fawn is not in peak physical condition, it will have a much harder time ever achieving its own maximum antler growth potential. When view as a long term project, you can see how important the health of all deer is in our plan. It is one large continuing circle.

Another pitfall many managers fall into is not viewing this as a year-round undertaking. It is tempting to think only of this as a fall project. After all, that is when we are out there. I often marvel at how many more bags of minerals are purchased during hunting season. The manufacturers promise magnificent results and a few of them even deliver.

Pouring the mineral contents onto the lick
Pouring the mineral contents onto the lick

However, a bag or two of minerals are going to do precious little good during hunting season alone (Useful Guide About Mineral Licks For Deer). Antler’s development is concluded in most areas by then and the little a buck ingests at that time will do him little good next spring. I view them more as vitamin pills that should be provided year-round. By taking that approach, the deer receive the full benefit of these supplements and are healthier because of it.

The same holds true for food plots. Although that small plot of corn may draw deer and help them fatten up for winter, by the time spring roles around, the results are often negligible. Despite the fact that antler development begins in spring, the first priority for a buck is to rebuild their body. Only after that has been done will they devote a substantial amount of energy towards building their rack.

Over the next few pieces, we will dive into the steps involved in setting up and implementing a habitat improvement plan. We will explore the benefits that both the hunter and the whitetails will derive from this. By the time we are finished, hopefully, I will have provided you, the reader with enough tools and ideas to start reshaping the habitat and reaping the benefits that this can bring.

Deer Habitat Improvement: Volume #2

Learn how to set up and implement a deer habitat improvement plan successfully without wasting years on trial and error.

Deer Habitat Improvement: Volume 2

Whenever we embark on improving our habitat, we need to know what we have to begin with, what needs improvement the worst, how we can best tie it into our existing habitat and into our future improvement plans. The only way we are capable of doing this is to take a thorough inventory of what the habitat initially has to offer. At that point, we can analyze our findings and identify our strengths and needs.

The factors that determine how many whitetails can be sustained on a given property are:

  • The level of nutrition available. If adequate, year-round nutrition is not available, deer that exists solely on this property will not be healthy and will eventually die. Also, if superior nutrition is available on a neighboring property, the deer will be drawn to it and away from the targeted property.
  • In some areas, the availability of fresh water. In many areas, deer can get the water they need to survive directly from the food they eat. In drier regions, this is not always the case. In that setting, a source of fresh water is critical.
  • The amount and quality of cover. The cover allows deer to seek shelter from the elements. It also provides them with a feeling of security and often serves as a food source.
  • The level of perdition. Some form of harvest, be it by man or animal, is necessary to maintain a healthy deer population. However, when done at an extremely high or low level, it becomes a limiting factor.
  • The whitetail’s feeling of safety. When given a choice, deer will usually choose to live in an area that provides them a feeling of safety. Other factors: food, social desires, water, population densities and many others ? can tempt them into sacrificing that feeling. However, when all else is equal, they will normally choose that area they feel safest.
  • Finally, the population level of whitetails, themselves. For deer populations, less often equals more. The higher the deer population is, the more competition for nutritious food sources exists, the more habitat destruction occurs, the greater the odds are of widespread disease and the more the health of the deer declines.

The only way to effectively identify, classify and analyze these factors is to take an inventory of what we have. The first step is gaining an intimate knowledge of the property and, to a lesser extent, its surroundings. This is accomplished through walking, mapping and studying our habitat. Aerial photos and quad maps can be very helpful, but nothing can replace leg work.

Our goal is to map and, where applicable, indicate the level of use by deer for the following:

  • Any significant deer sign, such as bedding areas, trails, scrapes, rubs, fence crossings and anything else we feel will be beneficial.
  • Natural and man-made funnels, regardless of their current level of use.
  • Potential sources of fresh water.
  • Locations, types, quality and available time frames of the food sources. This can range anywhere from a general outline of a browse area to the specific boundaries of a meadow to agricultural crops to a berry thicket. Any significant source of food should be documented. Contact your local wildlife biologist and inquire as to what food sources deer in your area most commonly use during each season, which ones are most beneficial and if he can recommend a good plant identification book.
  • Locations and types of mast-producing trees. We can outline ridges and label them as “Red/White Oak mix,” plot individual trees or a combination of the two. Let common sense be your guide. For example, if we have 3 apples, 10 beechnut and hundreds of oak trees, we would map individual apple and beechnut trees. As far as the oaks are concerned, we would plot individual oaks only when they could not be included in reasonably close proximity to others. As in each category, document as much as is practical. Keep in mind that the stronger our map is, the better foundation we have to work from. However, spending three years doing nothing more then plotting oaks is not prudent.
  • Outlines of the various stages of growth and general types of trees our wooded areas consist of. For example, we may delineate the location of a two-year-old popular slashing and label it accordingly. We may have nothing more than a single outline containing our entire woods labeled as “Mature Hardwood & Softwood Mix” or “10 yr. Old Red Pines”. As with each category, common sense must dictate the level of information we collect.
  • Locations, quality, and types of thick cover available for safety and protection from the environment.
  • General outlines of the soil type and quality. Labeling large areas as sandy, rich loam, clay, wet, dry, normal, etc., will allow us to decide which areas are best to plant and what natural food sources will respond best to treatment.
  • Cultural features, such as roads, trails, buildings, etc.

In short, if it has any effect on the local deer population we want as much detail for our property, as a particle. I referred to this earlier, but it bears repeating, the more information that can be reasonably captured, the better our improvements can be planned. This will have a significant impact on the quality of the results that are obtainable.

I have found that photocopies of USGS quad maps work well as a base map to plot our data on. they can be purchased by calling USGS at (573) 308-3500. To take it a step further, I will make 9 photocopied quads of this area, and copy them at an increased size. That way, I can avoid confusion by having one for each group of information I am collecting and more space to fit my notes into. In an effort to avoid confusion, be certain to label each map with an appropriate title.

Now that we are aware of the type of information we want to capture, we can grab our pencil, clipboard, maps, compass and head out to the property. The method that works best for me is to make a series of calculated passes through this habitat. To make this simple, lets envision a perfectly square, 160-acre section of land.

  • I would begin in the southwest corner and follow the property line directly to the northwest corner, documenting as I go.
  • Then I would move to the west a reasonable distance and travel to the south boundary. The distance between passes will vary, depending on the habitat.
  • In thick areas, it is necessary to narrow the gap much more than in more open habitat.
  • Once we have completed the pass along the east property boundary, we are done with this phase.

Often, due to seasonal habitat changes, it is beneficial to do this once in the spring, summer, fall, and winter. Each time this activity is performed, the level of information needed to be documented should decrease. If you feel you have a good handle on anticipating seasonal changes, once may be all that is necessary.

Deer Seasonal needs and habitat Relationships.
Deer Seasonal needs and habitat Relationships.

Finally, gathering data on the habitat surrounding our property is also beneficial. The more we understand about the surrounding areas, the better we can draw deer, hold deer and meet their seasonal needs. The good thing is that this does not require the same level of detail for the one-mile buffer zone surrounding us. Major classifications of cover, food sources and travel patterns are what we need to determine. When possible, quick scouting trips can accomplish this. If access to the surrounding habitat is limited, quads and photos will do.

Now, we can transfer this data to a series of clear overlays on our master map. It is important to label the features and years of each overlay. That way, if we make a mistake the map is still usable. All that is needed is to make a new overlay. Also, this allows us to compare items, such as deer sign, from year to year. By doing this, patterns will begin to emerge that will greatly aid our hunting efforts.

If you will recall, from the first habitat improvement piece

our main goals can be broken down into increasing the whitetail?s health, improving our hunting opportunities and holding deer on our property. We have already discussed the factors that limit the number of deer a property can hold, but how do we draw and keep them there? There is a fairly simple answer to this. If we make our habitat better then the surrounding environment, we can draw deer and they will spend a disproportionate amount of time on this property. By providing superior year-round nutrition, cover and a feeling of safety, this is an attainable goal. The more time they spend here, the more control the manager can have over the following:

  • The quality of nutrition they intake.
  • Their overall health, body size, antler development, and reproductive success.
  • The structure and composition of the deer population.
  • The number of mature bucks residing on the property.
  • The quality of hunting experiences.

Keeping this in mind, we can begin to assess what our property has. By breaking each element into strengths and weaknesses, it is possible to target our initial efforts at the most limiting factors. By formulating a multiyear plan to address our habitat’s needs and enhance its desirability to deer, we can then begin to implement our changes.

In the next article, we will begin to explore what changes can be made to our environment. Don’t be concerned about actually putting this plan together, yet. We still have many aspects to explore before we can begin putting all the pieces together.



Now that we have an in-depth knowledge of our habitat, we can begin to explore the different techniques for increasing its desirability to whitetails. For simplicity’s sake, lets break these actions down into the following categories:

  • Increasing natural forage production and desirability
  • Introducing new food sources
  • Introducing mineral deposits
  • Supplemental feeding
  • Providing cover
  • Funneling whitetail activity
  • Managing the population

We must view natural forages much like farm crops. After all, in many ways they are. The quality of the crop they produce goes a long way in determining how many whitetails our habitat can support and the level of the population’s health.

Also, like farm crops, there are things we can do to increase productivity. Just about every food source will benefit from a few simple tasks: reduced competition, optimum levels of sunlight, adequate moisture, proper soil fertility, and maintenance. In almost every case, the manager can affect all or a combination of these factors. For illustration purposes, lets examine a few settings and see how we can apply these techniques.

1. Oaktree maintenance

The first concept we need to grasp is the major differences between members of the red and white oak families.

  • Members of the white oak are more desired by deer for several reasons; They generally produce larger, sweeter acorns that are capable of reaching maturity within a single year. On the other hand, besides the bitter taste, red oaks require two years for their fruit to achieve maturity.

Because of these reasons, white oaks are generally preferred by whitetails and should receive the bulk of our improvement efforts.

However, this is not to say that red oaks should be dismissed. In areas consisting of few white oaks, red oaks are vitally important in allowing whitetails to “fatten up.” Also, although acorns from the white oaks are normally cleaned up first, in most settings, most quality acorns from any strategically placed tree are devoured eventually.

Although many numerous species make up each family, they all share some basic traits. Oak trees are in reality fruit trees. By treating them as such, we can increase the size and quality of their fruit crops (acorns).

Each spring, a selected group of trees should be fertilized. Begin by raking the debris from the base to the drip line (the imaginary line that goes from the tips of the outer most branches to the ground). Then we can apply a medium dosage of 10-10-10 to 15-15-15, slow-release fertilizer. Beginning a couple of feet from the base, it should be spread evenly around the entire tree and out to the drip line. I have found loose fertilizer to perform better than the spike form. However, in settings where drawing attention in not desired, they do serve a purpose, as well.

It is important to do this in the spring of the year. That will provide the extra nutrients through the developmental stages of the crop. Also, in northern settings, fertilizing in summer or fall can actually do more harm than good. This burst of fertility can prompt trees to spur new growth too late into the fall. The result can be frost damage to this tender growth and provide unnecessary stress.

If we want to take this a step further, we can collect soil samples and submit them for a soil test. Not only will this indicate the precise level of fertilization required, it will also provide information on the soil’s pH level. For almost all plant life, pH can have a very negative effect, if it falls outside of tolerable limits. The result is typically slow, stunted growth. Luckily, simply applying the appropriate amount of barn lime will correct this problem.

Another technique that can be very beneficial is thinning the canopy of less desirable trees. Trees require sunlight to perform photosynthesis (the act of producing food). Think about where most of the largest, healthiest trees are located. They are generally found in open areas. Open areas allow them to receive adequate levels of sunlight making it much easier for them to maintain their lower branches. By removing some of the competing trees, we can accomplish the same effect.

Finally, we can even aid them in maintaining soil moisture. After we have fertilized, we can rake extra leaves back on to the area. If sufficient leaves are not present, the straw will also work. This aids in moisture retention by providing a barrier between the ground and the baking sun to lessen evaporation.

Despite this section’s focusing specifically on oak trees, these procedures can be applied to any mast-producing tree (apple, cherry, beechnut, etc.). The net result will be the same. Healthier trees that are capable of increased crop production. As the effects of our efforts begin to pay off, deer will begin gravitating to the “healthier” trees. Because of this, the deer benefit from increased forage and the hunter is able to more accurately predict where feeding will occur.

2. Meadow care

Greenery, specifically grasses, weeds, and leaves, play a pivotally important role in the quality of every habitat. Greenery can be broken down into various categories, based on its nutritional value and digestibility for whitetails.

Remember, whitetails are ruminates (4 chambered stomachs), but not super ruminates, such as cows and goats (proportionally larger rumen and the ability to break down tougher cell walls). This means that they can digest more difficult plant matter than humans, but not to the extent that a super ruminate can. It is very possible for a deer to essentially starve to death with a full rumen. The material simply can not be digested and does nothing more than stealing valuable space and drain energy.

Also, the more digestible plant matter is the more nutrition deer are able to derive from it. Because of this, digestibility can play a key role in the value of a plant as nutritional content.

Stages of development

  1. Young sprouts – normally the highest in nutritional value and most easily digested
  2. Rapidly growing – next best, high in nutrition and still very digestible
  3. Slowly growing – the drop is becoming noticeable in both categories
  4. Stagnate yet green – the best that can be said is that it is still eatable
  5. Dead and brown – plain and simple, this equals starvation food

Now that we understand this, what can we do to increase the production of our meadows?

 applying lawn fertilizer
applying lawn fertilizer

1. To begin with, we can apply a lawn fertilizer in the same manner as we would fertilize our front lawn. Like the oaks, this will result in healthier plants that are capable of increased production. The fertilizer alone will increase the nutritional value they possess. To really boost this value, along with increasing production, we can mow them as they begin to reach maturity. By doing this, we are able to keep the plants in the rapidly growing stage throughout the entire growing season and well into the fall. The result is a dramatic increase in quality and production. Mowing 2 or 3 times a year is usually sufficient. Once the plant life nears maturity, its time to mow again.

2. In controlled situations, a safely conducted burn can be a good first step, in the spring. Just make sure to error on the safe side. It’s pretty hard to enjoy the fruits of our labor while we’re trying to beat an arson rap. Not to mention the friction this can cause with the neighbors.

Remember that we are striving to focus on deer activity and retain a diverse habitat, as well as increase forage production. It is not prudent to treat a 40-acre field, in this manner. Not only will that have a negative impact on game bird nesting and fawn rearing, but it also provides the deer with too large of an area to feed. 1-5 acre patches are normally more than sufficient and result in focused whitetail activity.

3. Woody browse production

When discussing browse production, lets begin by dealing with patches of browse that already exist. Like everything else we have covered, applying fertilizer (traditional and liquid nitrogen) will aid in increasing its health. We can also apply the same clearing principle we discussed for the oaks. Finally, we can also trim them, much like a hedge. This is a method of extending the time in which the browse they produce is at a level where deer can reach it. Also, it creates more shoots then it normally would. Thus, providing extra browse for the whitetails.

When it comes to spurring new growth, we really have 2 choices. We can either plant trees or perform some type of logging. Whenever given the choice, I prefer logging. For one, it has the potential to fund our habitat improvement efforts. Secondly, it almost always spurs lush, new growth. Finally, there is nothing more frustrating than spending a bunch of money on seedlings and countless, back-breaking hours planting them only to have mother nature decide not to rain on our parade. Each year I do introduce new seedlings into my habitat, but logging is really my workhorse.

Red Osier Dogwood

If you are uncertain what type of tree, shrub or bush to plant, I would recommend contacting your local forester. In my area of WI, Redosier Dogwood and White Cedar are what I plant most often for browse production. If the habitat can support them, I always recommend a variety of apple trees for mast production and use red pines for cover.

When logging, I most often employ more of a clear cut/selective cut hybrid. The goal is to supplement our existing food sources, not to replace one with another. Therefore, unless the area is choked with them, I leave all productive mast-producing trees and remove everything else, but trees for seeding and for treestands, in the areas being logged. This helps increase the production of the mast trees and opens the forest floor to sunlight. This new sunlight spurs all sorts of new growth, ranging from grasses to berries to new saplings. The result is a dramatic increase in forage production.

As described before, our goal is to provide a diverse habitat. Because of this, it is recommended to have the property logged in stages, rather than all at once. By staggering our efforts, and allowing sections to remain in its mature state, we are able to maintain a more diverse environment, more ideally suited as deer habitat. Keep in mind that too much of any one thing is seldom good.


Although we have only covered a fraction of the natural food sources that can be increased, the techniques that we have discussed can be adapted to fit most situations. The most important thing to keep in mind is that we can make a positive difference. By viewing food sources as farm crops, we can take the steps to dramatically increase their production and desirability. There are other factors that help determine how large and healthy a deer herd can be, however, more often than not it is the amount and quality of the food sources that are our limiting factors.

In our next installment, we will explore introducing food plots, mineral deposits, and supplemental feeding. Once we have accomplished this, we can move on to other realms of manipulating our habitat. Till then …

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