May 2010 Wildlife In Mind

In May, think minerals and mowing for wildlife management and habitat improvement.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | May 1, 2010

In May, your thoughts possibly turn to bedding bream, bass that are starting to hit topwater lures, or your favorite trout stream. Turkey season is all but spent. Deer hunting is only a daydream, or maybe a re-run of a television hunting show caught while you’re inside in the air conditioning. But some interesting things are going on in the woods, and it’s a good time to get familiar with important plants that are beginning to appear in the areas you have burned, disked, or “daylighted” with a chainsaw. There’s also some food plot maintenance work to be done.

Exactly where those new, tender plants are appearing in abundance, or where those thriving perennial or annual food plots are located, will play an important role in where the bucks are hanging out right now. They’re starting to grow new sets of antlers. No longer loners, they are falling back into companionship with other bucks and tolerating each other’s presence again, even seeking it. We know from research using GPS tracking collars placed on mature bucks that a buck reduces his travels this time of year and contracts his movements into a smaller “core area” within his home range. With testosterone levels at a low ebb, he really isn’t interested in much else besides eating and hiding. If he can find a place where he can do both without moving around a lot, he’ll settle into a predictable pattern for the summer, moving back and forth between the feeding area and the bedding area. If you arrange your hunting land to provide quality areas of secure cover close to quality forage, you’ll attract more bucks to position the heart of their home range where you hunt.

Does are also looking for quality cover: a place to hide a fawn and eventually wean it onto green summer forage. If quality fawning cover is not in abundance, does will compete for what is available, and the most dominant does will be able to claim the best fawning cover. If you’ve been working to increase early successional cover on your land, then there should be plenty of fawning cover to go around, and no does will have to settle for fawning areas that are less than desirable.

Minerals for Deer

Because of the physical demands on the bodies of bucks and does at this time of year, they need all the nutrients they can get, and luckily they have an uncanny ability to detect or select the highest quality foods available in their habitat. With lots of green, juicy forage being eaten, deer are also indirectly consuming a lot more water than normal, and this tends to flush minerals from their system, the same way it works in us. That’s why a salt lick is highly attractive to deer right now, in spring and summer, and why they almost completely stop using salt licks in fall and winter. While the jury is still out on whether you can cause measurable increases in deer health or antler size by providing minerals, there’s no doubt deer will likely use minerals when you provide them. If you are working to increase the diversity of natural forages, and if you are keeping a your food plots limed and fertilized appropriately, then deer are probably getting all the minerals and nutrients they need from these sources. But providing supplemental minerals can’t hurt. Also, because deer will be attracted to mineral sites, you can use the site as a trail-camera monitoring station during the spring and summer. This allows you to track antler growth and, later in the summer, monitor fawn survival while attracting only deer to your camera; with corn and other feeds, of course, many other hungry mouths besides deer show up at the table. Here are a few tips for providing supplemental minerals.

  • Choose a mineral product that has at least some salt content (NaCl), because salt is the primary attracting ingredient. If you pour calcium or phosphorus on the ground, deer likely won’t touch it.
  • Choose a product that has at least some calcium and phosphorus in it (and other trace minerals can’t hurt either). While pure salt will be highly attractive, there’s no chance of having any impact on deer health. The two most common minerals making up hardened antlers are calcium and phosphorus, and no doubt bucks need to replenish these minerals in their bodies while growing antlers. Again, research hasn’t proven that supplementing minerals leads to measurably larger antlers, but it can’t hurt.
  • Provide multiple mineral “stations” across a hunting property. Providing only one station may concentrate deer traffic and attract the attention of predators, who will be very appreciative that you provided an ambush site for them.

Mowing as a Habitat Tool

Speaking at the QDMA National Convention a few years ago, Jeff Foxworthy said his wife couldn’t understand why he would drive an hour to get on a tractor and mow clover plots but pay a lawn service to mow his yard. His answer? He couldn’t hear the telephone ringing while on the tractor. Let’s admit it: those of us who are fortunate enough to own or have access to a tractor and a “bushhog” mover just love to use them. It’s fun to drive a powerful tractor, and it’s fun to watch ragged, scraggly brush and trash go beneath the bushhog and come out neat and trim on the other side, in a matter of seconds. It’s so much fun, that some people will hunt for places to mow this time of year.

As we discussed in the last installment, mowers are excellent tools for maintaining perennial clover food plots. But beyond that, there are several reasons to curb your enthusiasm when it comes to using your bushhog. First, there’s all kinds of things hiding in that raggedy brush right now that you don’t want to chew up, like fawns, turkey poults, quail nests, rabbit nests, and more. Second, diesel fuel costs money, and if you don’t have to run the tractor, why would you? Third, and most importantly, mowing early successional cover in summer is not an improvement to habitat. It may make your roads look neat and orderly, or your fallow fields neatly trimmed, but the quality of the wildlife cover,  the deer forage and the plant diversity would have been better off in that scraggly stage.

This was the subject of research at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Craig Harper, author of the book “A Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots” and a manual on managing native warm-season grasses for wildlife, found mowing to be one of the least effective tools (out of burning, herbicides, disking, and other practices) for improving early successional habitats. Mowing encourages grasses (which provides little benefit for deer) and suppresses broad-leaved forbs that provide good forage for deer.

So, after mowing your clover plots, park the bushhog, head home, and climb on the old lawn tractor.

Roundup Ready or Not

You’ve probably heard by now about Roundup Ready crops, like soybeans and corn, that tolerate the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), enabling you to spray and kill everything in a food plot except the crop you want to grow. This is a fantastic new tool for managing weeds in food plots, which can be one of the biggest headaches in warm-season food plots.

However, if you plant and use Roundup Ready crops, or even if you just use glyphosate herbicides to kill everything in a field in preparation for planting, you need to be aware of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

These weeds in your food plot are not all equally susceptible to herbicides that should kill them. Some rare individuals in a species, through genetic mutation, are naturally less susceptible. They survive after being sprayed, and since their competitors are gone, their offspring spread rapidly. Now you have a field full of weeds that can’t be killed with with herbicides that should kill them, unless you use a different control technique like disking (a “cultural” practice) or an alternative herbicide (a “chemical” practice).

If this sounds far-fetched, know that glyphosate-resistant weeds are real. In the Southeast, localized populations of glyphosate-resistant Palmer pigweed, horseweed, and giant ragweed have been found. The good news is, common-sense techniques help you avoid this problem. Here are a few tips:


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