Article and Photos by Nate Skinner
Deer hunting has long been a tradition generating memories of time shared in the field by family and friends. These experiences combined with sound habitat management are the foundation of our hunting heritage. Quality racks are a bonus.
Peak antler growth among white-tailed deer occurs during the summer months. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologists, the three main factors contributing to antler development are genetics, nutrition and age. Managing genetics and age involves removing young deer with less desirable antler characteristics while allowing those with preferable traits to reach maturity. Controlling these two factors within a free-ranging herd of whitetails on a low-fenced tract of land can be challenging. And the smaller the property, the more difficult it gets.
One factor landowners can maintain, regardless of acreage, is nutrition. Employing some basic, warm weather habitat management practices during the summer months will promote antler growth to its fullest potential through enhanced nutrition. It will also draw in more deer from surrounding properties and benefit other species of wildlife.
“A successful regime will prepare for abundant summertime forage and meet the nutritional needs of white-tailed deer,” explained wildlife biologist Greg Simons, owner of Wildlife Systems, Inc. and past president of TWA. Simons said that ensuring optimal antler development during the summer requires certain management practices to occur many months prior to the warmer temperatures.
He outlines fundamental components to a healthy habitat management program: “Landowners should get a head start by applying a sound harvest strategy that assures deer densities are within the natural habitat’s comfortable carrying capacity. This is fundamental deer management that involves manipulating the herd numbers and herd composition to provide a productive balance.”
Simons said that water is the key nutrient for deer in any geographic region of the state when it comes to the species’ nutrition. “Water is the most important nutrient in terms of ensuring proper physiological function,” he explained. “Water is intricately involved with the transport of other nutrients, oxygen and waste into and out of the cells. It contains several necessary electrolytes, is critical in the digestive process, and even acts as a cushioning component for joints, the spinal cord and the brain. Though water has no calories, it does serve as a medium for chemical reactions that are part of a whitetail’s bodily processes, including the metabolic reactions involved in energy production.” Anything landowners can do to ensure that premium water sources are available and that quality water is distributed during the summer’s heat is paramount for optimal deer performance.
Dr. David Hewitt, Executive Director for the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, also affirmed that the availability of water is essential to the development of white-tailed bucks during the summer. “Water enables deer to cool themselves after feeding and periods of activity,” Hewitt said. “An ideal property for deer will contain widely distributed, high quality water sources near bedding and forage areas.”
In order to preserve water and take advantage of rainfall, land management practices that allow the landscape’s surface to serve as a sponge should be applied. “This can often be accomplished through activities such as rotational grazing, maintaining adequate soil surface cover, creating terraces, forming spreader dams and ripping hard-pan or capped soils during appropriate times to increase the percolation of water into the depths of the soil,” Simons said.
According to him, there are two practices to avoid when working to create a productive whitetail habitat that absorbs water. “Do not excessively graze the landscape with livestock,” Simons advised. “Instead, learn how to use livestock as a wildlife tool rather than turning the livestock into a liability for the property’s deer program. Maintaining reasonable turf or ground cover is a fundamental tenet of protecting soil health, ensuring productive root systems for grasses and forbs and creating the desired sponge affect.”
Simons also suggested that landowners avoid practices that involve removing a large percentage of brushy cover without creating a sound brush-sculpting plan. “White-tailed deer habitat in most of Texas generally requires significant stands of brush,” he said. “Folks must recognize that some brushy plants, such as mesquite, often serve an integral role in enhancing habitability for whitetails in many areas of the state. When it comes to brush control, use the old carpenter’s adage of ‘measure twice and cut once.’”
In addition to keeping a healthy brush to open field ratio, Hewitt suggested that the orientation in which brush is cleared can also enhance a tract of land’s attractiveness for deer. “When clearing strips of thick vegetation, senderos can be created to follow the direction of the prevailing summertime winds,” he said. “This provides a cooling scenario for white-tailed deer, as breezes funnel through these lanes between the brush. If sections of cleared brush are oriented perpendicular to the prevailing winds, then the chances for hot, stagnant air to originate are much greater.”
Providing significant bedding areas for deer is also necessary, and the need for this type of habitat exponentially increases during the summer months. “Substantial bedding areas help bucks maintain a high metabolism for antler production,” Hewitt said. “Characteristics of good bedding habitats include shade, moist soil, low-lying land that collects moisture and tall brush. Disturbances should be extremely limited within these regions of a property, especially during mid-day to late afternoon hours when temperatures are at their peak.”
Maintaining the diversity of vegetation on any given terrain allows for the land to adapt to the adverse conditions that the summer season may bring. Different vegetation will respond to summer weather patterns in different ways. Crops that require ample amounts of precipitation will not survive during a dry season, while a wet season could destroy crops with too much rain.
Because of this, Hewitt suggested that it is a good idea to incorporate a variety of crops and plants on a stretch of land. “Landowners should avoid focusing on one particular crop. A diverse vegetation scheme will allow for more production and more nutrients, resulting in a better habitat for deer,” he concluded. Another important habitat component that is commonly overlooked is space. Over-crowding of animals not only compromises the vigor of the limited plant communities available to support deer, it can also create chaos within the social structure of the deer herd, potentially leading to stress.
Simons said that the formation of wildlife co-ops is the answer to these space issues. “Let’s face it. On a low-fenced property, there is only so much one can do to influence the deer herd’s performance. As the tract size decreases, the results of the efforts are often diminished,” he explained. “Wildlife co-ops that motivate a collection of properties and their landowners to participate in a healthy habitat management regime, as well as an efficient deer herd management program, can overcome small-scale problems related to space.”
Limiting disturbances in feeding areas at specific times is also key for antler production during the summer. Deer are going to feed early in the morning, late in the evening and through the overnight hours during the year’s hottest months. In order for them to obtain optimum nutrition, forage areas should remain untouched as much as possible, especially during high-activity times.
Perhaps the most special aspect of quality habitat and nutrition management practices for white-tails is that the results benefit a massive variety of other wildlife. Both game and non-game species fall into this mix. “For the person who has an appreciation for wildlife diversity, there can be immense pleasure in seeing the benefits of deer management bear fruit in the way of butterflies, songbirds, small mammals and even reptiles and amphibians,” explained Simons. “And that is doing right by Texas, all the while supporting our country’s most popular game species—the white-tailed deer. We should always remember that anything we do to compromise the long-term values of whitetail deer has the potential to cripple our country’s most important conservation funding mechanism, which is hunting-related funds.”
When it comes to the timeline of seeing results and success from habitat management practices, it is vital to understand that deer management is more of a marathon than a sprint. “Patience, commitment, adaptability and teachability are all good virtues of a capable deer manager,” Simons said. “Five to six years should be the minimum time-frame that a deer manager should set his or her first hard benchmarks to begin measuring results, because this is how long it takes for the fawns that are born under the existing program to begin maturing.”
Trophy whitetail bucks are not only a symbol of our state’s hunting heritage, they are a result of hard work, ethical decisions and well planned management strategies that benefit an abundance of wildlife. Simply put, sustaining, supporting and developing mature, quality deer is preserving the future of wild Texas. And it all starts with managing velvet.
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