Chapter 2-4. Managing Whitetail Deer

 Over the course of 35 years in the wildlife consulting business, I have seen management emphasis change from cow-calf operations with deer leasing as an adjunct to pure deer programs with no cows and the agricultural exemption from ad valorem taxes granted for wildlife management alone.  Whitetail deer are big business in Texas, all over Texas, not just in the “Golden Triangle” (Cotulla-Laredo-Eagle Pass).  Management philosophies vary with objectives, and are evolving quickly, so rather than try to provide you with a deer management course this chapter will review basic deer management integrated it into sound ranch management planning.

As most ranch buyers today are primarily interested in managing for Whitetail deer, I thought it appropriate to begin our planning process with management considerations for deer.  For those hoping to raise exotics, remember that good management practices for Whitetail deer are applicable to most exotics, keeping in mind that Whitetails and exotics often compete for the same foods.  Do not make the common mistake of thinking that since many exotics consume a great deal of grass they are to be counted as cows.  All exotics compete to some degree with native wildlife and should be included in estimates of populations and carrying capacity.

Whitetail deer are currently managed at several levels of intensity in Texas.  The first level is basically no management, where deer are harvested primarily for meat, with a preference for bucks.    Supplementation consists of corn distributed using a spin-cast type feeder during the hunting season.

The next level of management consists of informed harvesting of both does and bucks, with an effort to improve herd dynamics.  Supplementation consists of the corn feeders mentioned above with perhaps several small food plots for cool season forages; usually oats.

The next level may or may not require a high fence and intensifies the herd management by harvesting specific numbers of animals broken down by age and sex.  Efforts are made to estimate herd numbers and herd composition and records are kept of the harvest, weather, and management actions taken.  Usually, supplementation is a combination of corn feeders with oats patches, and the goal is to maintain herd density at or below carrying capacity.

The next level includes high fencing, a planned harvest based on an informed estimate of the population, and cool season supplementation with oats or rye.  This level of intensity adds additional supplementation of warm season forages (lablab, cowpeas, etc.) and/or bagged protein supplements.  Efforts continue to maintain the herd at or below the carrying capacity of native food supplies, using the supplements to “boost” herd body condition to a higher level hopefully resulting in larger antlers.

The final level of Whitetail deer management is the “feedlot” approach.  In this management scheme, deer densities can exceed carrying capacity with supplementation becoming subsistence.  Usually seen in commercial hunting operations, it is a trade-off between income from more bucks with larger antlers and the feed bill.  It often involves buying “better” genetics in the form of bred does or young bucks and may include deer breeder pens to bolster deer numbers and quality.

Your development plan will depend on where you see your ranch on this scale, although you can certainly move up the scale over time as finances and herd quality dictate.  For the purposes of developing your new ranch, specifically for deer, I will address the initial considerations.

How many acres do you need to accomplish your goals?  That’s entirely up to your level of comfort and finances.  Admittedly, you cannot hunt ethically and have a trophy deer ranch on 5 acres, although it seems to be coming to that with all the pen-raised deer.  But you can have a good deer program on a smaller place, even without high fencing.  A doe in South Texas normally resides on a range of 300 acres; a buck, 600 acres.  These numbers vary with the seasons and habitat quality but it gives you some idea.  Knowing this, unless you buy more than 600 acres, your adult males will at some time leave your property, assuming free range, and others will come onto your property.  This is not to say you cannot have quality deer on anything less than 600 acres without a high fence.  It means that you should work to meet all a deer’s needs as best you can to reduce the need to wander.  A concept called “sanctuary” is gaining favor.  Using a sanctuary, you can hold deer on a smaller acreage as all their needs are met and the sanctuary is undisturbed most of the time.  Minimum size of a sanctuary depends on density of cover, food/water availability, relative comfort levels of the deer, and overall noise/disturbance.  Of course, deer move in and out of a sanctuary, but the concept is to make a safe home range much smaller than normal.

I have a good friend that lives in Illinois.  He took a buck several years ago that made the Pope and Young Record book.  He remains convinced that the deer lived in a small woodlot behind his house not only avoiding hunters for years but meeting its’ nutritional needs in a very small area.

To exist, deer require food, water, and cover.  Meeting these requirements while maintaining suitable sex/age ratios will allow your deer herd to thrive.  On native range, at or below carrying capacity, food is rarely limiting for deer.  They are very adaptable and consume a wide variety of foods, changing food types throughout the year as different plants become palatable or “tasty”.  Therefore diversity of plant species is so important when you are evaluating a ranch for purchase.  It is important that you have chosen a property with a good selection of brush species and a good ground cover of weeds and grasses.  So often, I hear buyers ask for “bull mesquite” or “blackbrush thickets” when describing their ideal ranch.  This is a mistake if taken to extremes, as no one type, or species of brush is ideal for Whitetail deer.  You should always seek out a diversified mix of brush, forbs, and grass.  Do not buy a ranch that is all guajillo or all whitebrush or all anything; you would have to supplement heavily to meet the total dietary needs of your deer.

O.K. let us assume you have purchased a tract of land with good diversity.  How many deer should you have, or manage for?  Remembering that deer will move on and off the property unless high-fenced; you should plan for no more than one adult deer for every 10 acres.  This is an average density for native range in South Texas, and at this density without supplementation, antlers will not be maximized in most years.  However, your estimate of the number of deer on your ranch; fenced or not, will always be low.

How do you estimate the number of deer “on” your ranch?  Estimating populations is easily the most difficult part of managing wildlife.  My very first wildlife professor, the late, great Dr. Sam Beasom, said the only time there was an accurate count of a deer herd was one time in Germany.  Seems a fenced enclosure in the Black Forest caught fire and the entire enclosure was consumed, killing all the deer inside.  Estimating the numbers of that herd then became a simple process of counting carcasses.  Stories abound of attempts to count enclosed populations, with biologists going so far as to link arms and walking an enclosure, driving deer ahead or through their ranks.  I once had to resort to driving deer in the Hill Country, where the herd, enclosed for many years had become nocturnal and would not move.  We had to push through the thickets, running the deer out and across checkpoints where they could be counted.  Regardless of the size of your ranch, regardless of whether it is high fenced or not, estimating your deer herd will be very difficult.

Techniques for estimating deer numbers vary.  The most popular technique on larger tracts involves the use of helicopters.  Helicopter counts are fun, fast, and allow you to see a segment of the herd you might normally never see.  However, they are not accurate; with estimates of error running as high as 60% on a good count.  Ideally, helicopter counts are done in early morning, with the pilot flying parallel transects across the ranch.  Distance between transects and the height and speed of the bird are adjusted for density of the cover and the reactions of the deer seen.  What you count are deer caught out away from their preferred loafing cover.  The noise of the helicopter scares them, and they move towards the safety of the brush.  If they are already in their preferred cover, or if they are not particularly frightened by the noise, or if, as sometimes happen, they are too frightened by the noise, they won’t move, and you won’t see them.  However, I don’t want to discount helicopter counts altogether.  They have value on certain ranches; those with open brush that are larger than 1,200 acres low-fenced or 400 acres high-fenced.  Repetition is the key, making every attempt to duplicate the time, weather, personnel, and the aircraft each year.  Over time you will learn how “wrong” or inaccurate this technique is on your ranch, allowing you to adjust and gain some usable data.

Another technique used on large tracts is spotlighting.  Spotlighting uses a spotter with a light, a vehicle and driver, and a counter.  To conduct a spotlight count, you first set a course across the property that samples all types of habitat, open fields, thickets, food plots, etc., while trying to avoid doubling back or getting too close to an area already counted.  As you should set a route of at least five miles, obviously this technique works better on large tracts.  Driving the route at a speed slow enough to spot and identify deer seen in the light, the spotter calls out what he or she sees and estimates the distance to the furthest deer.  The counter logs in the deer by sex and age, and the distances.  At the end of the count, the sum of the distances multiplied by the length of the track gives you the area counted.  Note, this is just for the area counted, not the whole ranch.  If you counted an area totaling 30 acres out of a 3,000-acre ranch, you multiply the deer numbers by 10 to get an estimate for the whole ranch.  This method also improves with repetition, as the spotter(s) get better at discerning deer and the driver learns the route.  The same people should run a spotlight count at least five times in a one-month period, preferably when the leaves have fallen.  A key aspect is setting the route as you do not want to just drive from one oats patch to another and consider that a fair sampling.  If need be, push some new roads to access all habitat types if you want this technique to provide useful data.

On smaller tracts, the Hahn Cruise technique is good, as it duplicates a spotlight count only on foot in daylight hours.  Set a route that will put the rising or setting sun to your back.  As you probably will not see many deer initially, walk it once in full daylight, stopping every 50 steps and estimating the distance to cover on both sides.  The sum of these distances multiplied by the total distance walked gives you the area counted.  Walk this route several times at sunrise and at sunset over a one-month period and record the deer seen.  You will be amazed how much your ability to move quietly and to see deer improves over time.

Spot counts can be very helpful in confirming the three survey techniques above.  Spot counts involve recording the number, estimated age, and sex of deer at oats patches, feeders, or waterholes.  This type of counting gives you some idea of relative abundance i.e. are there more deer or less deer than last time we counted?  Unless you have a lot of oats patches or feeders, and have an observer at them all simultaneously, spot counting will not give you a very accurate idea of the total population.  This is an area where trail cameras can be useful, recording what animals visit a feeder over the course of a day or week. Body condition, antler development, and reproductive success can be assessed on the hoof and used to set the initial harvest quotas.

Lastly, the best source of information about the deer herd is not derived from counting animals on the hoof, but by gathering data from harvested individuals.  Dressed weight, body condition, and antler growth, when coupled with a good estimate of the age of the individual, tell you a lot about the general health of the herd.  Yes, I know there is some error in estimating age with teeth, but it is still the best tool we have and everyone in camp should learn how to do it.  Good records over several years are all a trained biologist (or an educated landowner) needs to determine herd health.

Antlers are the product of genetics, nutrition, and time.  If any of these three factors are limiting, the deer will not produce “trophy” antlers.  In my opinion, genetics across south and central Texas are rarely the limiting factor.  More often, time and nutrition are the reason for small antlers.  I get a chuckle out of buyers that purchase a ranch in good deer country, high fence it, then immediately go looking for pen-raised deer to buy so they can “improve” their genetics.  They have not managed the herd inside the fence, so cannot know what genetics they have, what potential is already there.  Before spending some serious money and potentially introducing a problem to your ranch, manage what you have first, then consider “improving” your genetics.

While on the subject, and it is a hot topic, let me say that introducing new genetics to a whitetail deer herd is not as simple as buying a new bull.  A Whitetail buck is capable of “covering” or breeding up to 12 does, but rarely does so in the wild.  This is because of the social and logistical problems involved with courting and covering more than one doe.  Breeding in Whitetail deer is a strenuous process and is very hard on the buck.  Add to this the stress and confusion caused by being dropped into an established social structure, and a new buck probably will not do much breeding the first season or two.  Recent studies indicate that it is not the “dominant” bucks that do most of the breeding anyway.  A study at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area found that in an enclosure, the breeding was done by the middle bucks, not the B&C buck.  Adding five very expensive bucks to an established herd of a hundred deer, with forty to fifty native bucks, will not do much, if anything, towards changing the genetic pool.

Buying females are a better bet, as they fit in better and are usually bought already bred, so you get at least one offspring from an introduced doe.  But just what genetics are you introducing?   Admittedly, the doe contributes genetically to the antlers of her male offspring, but how do you know she is carrying the genes for wide horns or drop tines, etc., whatever characteristic you are hoping for, even if you know what she was bred to?  Simple answer is, you don’t, regardless of how well you know that deer’s pedigree.  No, unless you want to buy a potential trophy just to shoot him later, initially work on managing the deer you have, high fence or no.  Once you have maintained herd numbers at or below carrying capacity for several years, culled the inferior antler types, and have the sex ratio where you want it, if you are still are not satisfied with the antlers, then you might consider genetics.

How is all this used in managing your herd?  As mentioned, in South Texas I’d start with an objective density of one adult for every 10 acres if you feel comfortable with your population surveys.  Failing that, I’d manage for good body condition, at least one fawn per doe, and respectable antlers, suitable to estimated age.  Start by setting the sex ratio at 1.5 females per male.  On most ranches, there is a surplus of does and these need to be removed.  Which does should be removed is not important, although certainly if a mature doe can be visually discerned, that’s a good candidate.  It is more important to just harvest does, any doe, until you get down to no more than 1.5 females per male.  Why the emphasis on does?  Because deer are so prolific, they can overpopulate their habitat in a very short time.  Remember, one buck can breed 12 does, so if you only have one buck and 12 does, you’ll probably get at least 12 fawns.  When you adjust the ratio of does to bucks down to 1.5 to 1 you reduce the number does and thus the number of fawns, which helps keep numbers down.  Additionally, as you remove does, the average age of the female portion of the herd gets younger.  First time does usually have a single fawn; while older does in good body condition normally have twins.  Managing for younger-age females equals fewer fawns and less strain on the habitat.

It is important to be proactive in deer management since you can only harvest during the season.  Try to keep your herd below the maximum, even in wet years.  This is a mistake many wildlife managers make; they forget to allow for habitat conditions.  It is a remarkable fact that, in a drought, while conditions may get harsh for deer, they continue to reproduce.  Reduce your herd numbers in dry times, as the country cannot support as many animals as in periods of normal rainfall.  However, I do not recommend the reverse, allowing more deer to live, in wet years.  This always leads to a surplus when the rain stops, and the surplus is hard to remove.  Whether you’re managing deer, cows, or peacocks, always manage your ranch expecting drought and you will not get caught short.

I often see landowners actively controlling predators and I wonder why.  Predators are part of a healthy system and while they may kill that potential B&C fawn, they normally do the herd (and you) a great service, clearing out the dead wood.  Unless they become an obvious competitor with you for healthy mature deer, I think they have a place in any deer program.  Dr. Beasom once spent a great deal of time and effort clearing predators out of a pasture in South Texas and found that deer numbers were no different than in the adjoining control pasture.  All that predator control did not seem to affect long-term numbers.

Supplemental feed for deer is growing in acceptance and complexity.  Whereas oats patches and spin-cast feeders of corn were once considered intensive, now custom mixes of protein, fiber, and minerals are considered the norm.  I believe it is always a good idea to have small cool season food plots distributed across the ranch.  These plots, planted in oats or rye, allow the landowner to assess at least some portion of his deer herd and to harvest surplus animals in a setting conducive to clean kills even by amateurs.  Start by researching your soils and look for soils rated fair or good for grains, legumes, and/or forbs.  Failing that, plan your plots in drainages as the better soils naturally occur there.  Food plots for deer need to be at least five acres in size, but not more than 30 for best use.  I’d much rather have four 10-acre plots than one 40 acre field.  Managing these plots for oats or rye is simple, requiring minimal equipment.  If you do not have a disk and tractor, rent or borrow one from a neighbor, or employ a custom farmer.  It is important that the soil be turned properly for you to get a good stand.  Once turned, apply fertilizer if the field has tested low in Nitrogen, or has been neglected for more than five plantings.  Using a grain drill will give you a better stand and would be worth the cost even if you have no other implements.  A drill can be pulled by a truck following proper seedbed preparation. If you don’t have a planter, simply broadcast the seed at the recommended rate per acre after a good discing and drag a pile of brush, a pipe or gate over the seed to cover it lightly.

There is an increasing use of warm season forages for deer such as lablab or cowpeas.  These crops should be high fenced to allow them to become established and to recover after grazing.  I once planted five acres of lablab out in an open field near Crystal City.  It came up nicely and was about 12 inches tall when the deer finally realized it was food.  Within two days it was gone, leaves, stems, roots, and all.  If you have your plots high fenced, you can control feeding and give the plants time to recover from heavy use.  Simply erect a high fence around the plot, using two panel netting on at least two sides.  When you want deer to access the field, raise the bottom panel(s).  Do not lower the top panels as that might split does from their fawns.  Once the deer have grazed the crop down, clear the plot and lower the bottom panel back in place, ensuring you do not trap any deer inside.  I like to include some brush inside the high fence, so the deer do not feel exposed when entering the field.  I also like to make these fields larger than simple food plots.  The cost of fencing goes down with size as a significant part of the cost is corners and gates.  Also, warm season crops over the drier parts of the state must be properly planted and tilled.  Farming is easier and more economical in larger plots.

Feeders vary greatly and can be quite expensive.  Supplying corn as bait is simple and I need not go into it.  Supplementing your deer herd is a bit more complex and should be addressed.  Adding nutrition to the diet of your herd can bring measurable benefits if done properly.  Protein pellets have become very popular and are provided to deer in a multitude of ways.  I prefer the Lamco feeder which uses a timed-release mechanism hidden inside the feeder body.  It can be set for any number of feedings and places the feed in troughs for consumption.  Both the number of feedings and the amount fed can be adjusted.  Using a trail camera, I have noticed that multiple feedings overnight results in a scheduled use by a number of deer vice groups of deer vying for feed at one or two feedings.  Drawbacks include wasted, soured feed if demand drops off and it rains on surplus feed.  These types of feeders need to be checked regularly as demand does vary over the year.

Conversely, there are any number of feeders that display feed continuously with some protection from the elements.  I do not recommend this type of feeder unless for some reason you cannot check your feeders at least once a week.  Free-choice feeders do provide feed to the herd in a dependable manner, but also feed a lot of non-target species, most notably raccoons and rats.  I have pictures of a raccoon hanging upside down from one of these feeders, scooping feed out for his buddies on the ground.  Feeder choice is one of personal preference and one you can experiment with.

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