Wildlife in Mind – March 2010

Management practices for March include shed hunting, winter discing and fertilizing natural forage.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | March 1, 2010

If you’re enjoying the hands-on habitat work we’ve been discussing so far this year, then you’ll enjoy March: It brings some of the first opportunities for you to start seeing the rewards of your work. Burned areas will first begin a miraculous explosion of green (which, by the way, makes for a very likely spot to listen for a gobbler), and new growth will start to emerge in hinge-cut areas. But the winter work is not over yet. Before you get too busy with box calls and shotguns, consider a few more habitat techniques.

Winter Disking
As we discussed with fire, when you disturb soil you activate the seed bank, stimulating growth of new plants. I think of the native seed bank as a built-in food plot just waiting for conditions to favor germination. One way to trigger the right conditions is with a disk harrow. Every winter we plow firebreaks on our farm in southeast Georgia in preparation for controlled burns, and every spring and summer you can watch natural forage species emerge and thrive in these plowed strips. You can intentionally plow other areas, like open roadsides, woods roads, fallow fields, the “cut” rows in thinned timber or any other spot of open ground you can get into with a set of disk harrows (whether pulled by an ATV or a tractor). As with fire, disking ground that receives no sunlight is pointless — you need sunlight to fuel the growth of the plants that germinate following soil disturbance.

You often hear this technique called “winter disking” because the dormant season is a good time to disturb the soil. In Georgia you can still disk in early March before green-up begins. Once we enter the growing season, soil disturbance has a greater likelihood of stimulating less valuable or even invasive plants. So, get out there and apply this technique now.

The main problem with this technique is that your “built-in food plot” may contain some foreign invaders, especially non-native pasture grasses like tall fescue, Bermuda grass, Johnson grass and bahiagrass, plus invasive broadleaf weeds like coffeeweed (sicklepod), thistle and cocklebur. These plants will also respond to disking if present in the seed bank. Also, these species may already dominate a site, suppressing native plants in the seed bank. Disking strips in a field of tall fescue is just wasting time and diesel fuel.

Before you can develop these areas into productive native forages or cover species, you need to get rid of the non-natives. There are many techniques, including herbicides and well-timed cultural practices like burning. The specific control methods will depend on the species, so get professional help identifying non-native weeds and grasses if you need it. A great resource for specific control techniques is <>. From the home page, click on “How To” to find articles on controlling specific invasive plants.

Fertilizing Natural Forages
You’ve heard before, and probably learned from experience, that increasing soil fertility can increase the quality of your food plots. The same can be true for the natural forages and cover species you are encouraging with practices like burning, hinge-cutting, timber thinning and winter disking. Plant performance is dependent upon sunlight, soil fertility and moisture. While desirable forbs, shrubs and grasses will usually thrive without added nutrients, they may perform better if you can throw in a little fertilizer. Also, as you should already know, plants can’t take up nutrients efficiently if the soil is acidic, so lime may also be necessary to move soil pH closer to the optimal 6.5. A soil test is the best way to determine if fertilizer and lime are called for. They may not be needed.

By cutting the structure that supports “islands” of honeysuckle like this,
you instantly put quality browse within reach of browsing deer. Just be sure
not to cut the honeysuckle vine.

But if you don’t want to wait on test results and just want to cover your bets, I have found that the proportion of NPK in 5-10-15 (5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, 15 percent potash) often fits the needs of southeastern soils when tested and is a good bet for “guesstimate” fertilization. Calculate the area you’ll be fertilizing by pacing off the dimensions (divide the square footage of the target area by 43,560 to determine the acreage) and apply 300 lbs./acre. A common prescription for lime is one ton per acre (bulk aglime is cheaper than bagged lime if it is practical for you to acquire it). Again, guessing is not the best use of your money. Your county extension office can help you with testing the soil.

Places to fertilize include the areas you hinge-cut recently (see the February “Wildlife In Mind” article), open roadsides, firebreaks or anywhere quality ground-level cover and preferred forages are growing.

If you have patches of non-native Japanese honeysuckle (and you probably do), or patches of native honeysuckle varieties, you can fertilize these right now with a high-nitrogen analysis (like 34-0-0 at a rate of 150 lbs./acre). Again, if soils in your area have proven acidic in the past, lime will also help.

Honeysuckle Islands
While we’re talking about honeysuckle, here’s something you can do to instantly increase available nutrition for deer where you hunt. If you start paying attention, you will notice what I call honeysuckle “islands” throughout the woods. These are formed when honeysuckle vines grow up a small tree or other structure and grow out of reach of browsing deer. The upper part of the plant will be large, leafy, spreading and healthy, but the lower portion is being browsed by deer. This creates what looks like an “island” of honeysuckle floating in air. Start noting each time you see one, and you will quickly realize you have several food plots worth of high-quality food growing just out of reach of deer. The fix is simple: with shears, a saw or a machete, make a “hinge-cut” in the sapling or other structure supporting the island (being careful not to cut the honeysuckle vine!) and drop the island into browsing range. Instantly, you make food available to deer.

Keep this in mind: If honeysuckle and other preferred browse species are heavily browsed, and there is a visible “browse line” in woods and along field edges, you may have more deer than the habitat can support. Deer density may need to be reduced, habitat quality may need to be increased, or both.

Shed Hunting
Just a few years ago on my family’s farm in southeast Georgia, finding a shed antler was a random and rare event. Not any longer. By protecting yearling and 2 1/2-year-old bucks, we have steadily stacked up numbers of bucks at every level in our “age structure.” This has produced many benefits, including more shed antlers to find this time of year. However, our “habitat plan” has also come a long way in that time. We know the prime later-winter food sources because we provided or enhanced them. Thus, we know where bucks are more likely to spend their time in late-winter. We can predict where sheds will be found. It works so well that my kids and I look forward to “shed hunting season.”

The author’s daughter, Laurel, 8, shows a few of the shed antlers she has found during “shed hunting season” in years past. Shed hunting is a great family activity, and it also reveals key information about patterns of habitat use by bucks.

Shed antlers can teach you a lot about the local deer population, and they can reveal a lot about the success of your habitat techniques. Finding several sheds in a plot of brassicas (like rape or turnips) or perennial clover is direct proof that your efforts to provide year-round nutrition are working.

Individual sheds provide proof of bucks that survived hunting season, and you can group the sheds you find by age class to see how your age structure is progressing each year (the “mass” measurement at the base of the antler is a strong clue to the age class, and sorting your sheds by base circumference gives you a fairly accurate age grouping).

Hunting for sheds can help you in the development of your habitat plan by confirming your ideas about existing patterns of wildlife use and movement. Where are bucks bedding? Where is the late-winter food? What routes do they tend to use to get from cover to food? If you think you know the answers to these questions, finding sheds will confirm your theories. Look for sheds in winter food plots, along trails between these plots and thick cover, and in bedding areas. Some people protect patches of bedding cover as “sanctuaries” and won’t even hunt sheds there, but sanctuaries can come later. You first need to completely assess patterns of habitat use. Of course, it’s possible to hunt for sheds and minimize disturbance at the same time. Practice scent control just as if you are hunting. Park the 4-wheeler and walk. Also, make one thorough search instead of multiple or repeated sweeps. Your trail-camera can help you determine the best time for your thorough shed hunt. Bait a camera site with corn, and when you are no longer getting photos of bucks with even one antler hanging on, it’s time to hunt sheds.

Note: Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of QDMA’s Quality Whitetails magazine and co-editor of the book “Quality Food Plots.”

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