White-tailed deer need suitable habitat to have a local and sustainable population. Habitat conists of food, cover, water, and space. Without whitetail habitat there will be no whitetail deer on a property, unless they just happen to be passing through. Because deer select areas that provide good food and cover, habitat management and enhancement can drastically improve whitetail hunting. The capability of a property to support deer is influenced largely by vegetation types and condition, soil productivity, and weather patterns, but anyone can create better habitat. However, to provide what deer need, you first need to know what they want.

Most whitetail doe set up home ranges that are 400 acres or less. Bucks have larger ranges, particularly during the breeding season, but for most of the year they range only about 1 square mile, or 640 acres. If habitat is not present or very nearby, then whitetail will not use the area. In general, deer prefer habitat that is consits of approximately 50% open, grassy-weedy area and 50% woody cover. Ideally, a mixture of habitat types, over relatively small areas, should be provided for whitetail deer. In essence, it is better to have smaller patches of wooded and open areas versus larger blocks of forested and grasslands. More interspersion means more habitat edges (where two plant communities meet). Whitetail deer are edge species, and their diet consists of both forbs and browse plants.

When it comes to improving whitetail habitat, several management techniques are valuable for managing whitetail deer habitat. These habitat enhancment practices include prescribed burning, forest thinning, food plots, and even fertilization. When combined with proper whitetail hunting harvest, these habitat management practices can help landowners produce high quality whitetail bucks.

Prescribed (controlled) burning is an effective method of increasing the abundance and improving the quality of whitetail food in old fields and broken woodlands. In addition, prescribed fire is an great management tool for forest management. In most cases, native deer forage is increased by burning blocks of woodlands on a 3 to 6 year cycle. It is suggested that landowners burn anywhere from 15 to 30% of all suitable areas each year. This allows managers to create burned areas on an annual basis that are highly productive and highly attractive to whitetail deer, especially the first couple of years.  

Large, mature forest stands will allow very little sunlight to reach the forest floor. This well established forest canopy means that forbs and browse plants will not grow on the ground below. Deer can only reach about 5 foot in height, so mature forest provide little in way of deer food, especially when found in large blocks. Habitat management in the form of thinning (even clear cutting) small blocks of timber ranging from 1 to 10 acres opens the forest canopy and allows additional sunlight to reach the forest floor. As a result, whitetail deer numbers usually respond positively to the increase in food.

Food plots are commonly planted to supplement native foods and to attract animals for whitetail hunting. Small grains (oats, wheat, rye) and clovers are typically planted during the fall and winter. Corn, grain sorghum, soybeans, peas, and alfalfa are energy rich foods that are commonly planted during the spring and summer. In general, food plots should be from 1 to 5 acres in size to help ensure adequate food production and availability. Larger plots may be needed for summer plantings of beans or peas, especially in areas where deer populations are high. These plant species are highly susceptible to over use by deer.

Fertilizing wooded areas and patches of native vegetation is an effective, but underused method of attracting deer. Nutritional content and production of brushy and vines may be increased by light, periodic applications of complete fertilizer during the spring and summer. Whitetail deer are attracted to these natural food plots by the improved nutrition and taste of fertilized plants. Deer can taste the additional nutrition which nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium provide. Fertilizer not only increases leaf palatability, but mast production. Acorn yields of oaks may be increased by applying regular fertilizer from the spring through summer. Managers should apply a complete fertilizer under the drip line of trees, beginning at flowering (April to May) and then every 6 weeks thereafter through the month of September. It takes some work, but can pay off big!

In closing, whitetail habitat is important to local deer populations. Hunters can not expect to harvest high quality bucks in areas where poor habitat exists. Poor habitat, however, can be made into good whitetail habitat over just a few years. If you want to improve whitetail hunting, consider enhancing the habitat found on your property. If you want to find out more about whitetail habitat management, check out the following related articles:

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