What’s the most crucial month for winter deer survival?
Is it January and February, where mild winter temperatures could leave deer feeling comfortable and healthy and where frigid temps (like the ones we’ve experienced this year) would bring about questions of mortality? Or is it the pre-winter season, where bucks and does build up the fat reserves they need to get through the cold months, and where access to good food resources is absolutely pivotal?
Surprisingly, the most crucial surviving month is actually neither of those listed above. Rather, it’s the months of March and April that will usually make or break a deer herd’s survival potential.
This is because these months can run a wide range of conditions from one year to the next. There are years where temperatures can climb into the 70s in March, even in the normally frigid Midwest; there are also years where late snows, freezes, and frosts can irreparably harm spring crops, in turn affecting your deer herd.
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During this time, the deer on your property are at the end of the rope as far as fat reserves are concerned. If the weather is warm in your area, you have nothing to worry about: your deer will venture out of the woods, find food, and be fine. If winter is clinging on, however, you may need to step in to provide emergency food sources to your deer.
View the slideshow to see some ideas on getting food to the deer that need it.
1. Stick to winter foods
While it might seem like the best thing to do to regale the starving deer on your property with the foods they would normally be eating in the spring – as opposed to subjecting them to the same drab woody browse they’ve been living off of all winter – the opposite is actually true.
The biological nature of deer digestive systems means that whitetails need time to adjust to any new food being introduced to their diet.
In other words, when deer start eating spring crops like sorghum or soybeans, it takes about two weeks before their bodies have truly adjusted to this new diet and are properly capable of deriving vital nutrients from it. In more mild years, this is fine, since deer populations will still have some winter fat reserves to burn. But if the deer on your property are starving, they may not have two weeks to adapt to spring crops. With that in mind, you need to stick to the winter foods.
2. Help deer get access to new woody browse resources
Since you won’t be turning your whitetail herd on to spring food just yet, the solution to their starvation problems is to keep feeding them what they’ve been eating all winter, and that’s woody browse.
Unfortunately, the greatest strength of woody browse at this time of year – that deer have been eating it all winter and are perfectly adapted to pulling nutrients from it – is also its greatest weakness. Since the herd has been gobbling browse all season, they will have eaten almost every source of it within reach. Your job, then, is to put new resources at ground level. One way to do this is to prune any fruit trees on your property and pile the twigs on the ground near a deer bedding area. Whitetails will find the twigs, eat the buds, and get the nutrients they need.
3. Try hinge cutting
Another way to get woody browse at an accessible deer level is to start hinge cutting trees and bending them to the ground so that whitetails can reach the wealth of buds and twigs that have until now remained out of range. Pick younger and more flexible trees with small diameter trunks (generally, between three and nine inches in diameter is best), then use a chainsaw to slice the trunk about 70 percent of the way through.
This maneuver will allow you to bend the tree to the ground, providing a new source of food for deer. Since you are not slicing all the way through the trunk, you aren’t killing the tree, which means that it will be able to continue to produce buds, leaves, and nutrients for deer to enjoy. It will also provide cover that deer will appreciate and might even turn into a bedding area.
While choosing trees to hinge cut, don’t just think about the trunk diameter, but also look for the trees with the most buds on their branches. These trees will provide a better source of nutrition for your starving deer herds when they come by foraging for browse. With that said, if you can only find a small handful of bud-heavy trees, don’t worry. Simply make a point of hinge cutting a large number of trees so as to give your herd the highest concentration of woody browse possible.
4. Do not disturb
So, providing woody browse to your starving deer herd sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Simply head out with your chainsaw, hinge cut a bunch of trees, and call it a day. Unfortunately, things are not quite this simple. The most effective place for woody browse to be accessible would be in and around winter bedding areas. However, you cannot simply wander into a bedding area and start slicing and dicing with a chainsaw. You will spook your deer and send them bolting, forcing them to expend unnecessary energy, and potentially scaring them so badly that they refuse to return to the spot where you’ve provided a food source.
In other words, you could do more harm than good here if you don’t think ahead of time, so consider bedding area locations – or scout them if you don’t know where they are – and then follow tracks to find spots where your deer have been feeding, but not bedding. You want to be far enough away from bedding areas so as not to disturb or scare the deer, but not so far away that whitetails won’t find your browse or that it will be an exhausting chore for them to get there.