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Edge, the area where two habitat types meet, such as the boundary between a timber stand and a food plot, is considered a critical component of the deer management puzzle by most biologists.
As a result, many landowners take steps to increase the amount of edge. Increasing diversity is another important component to deer management. Fortunately, with proper planning it is often possible to increase both edge and diversity at the same time and with the same habitat improvement technique.
My brother and I have used a wide variety of methods to increase edge on our farm.
Adding "Edge" by planting trees
Shortly after purchasing the farm we increased edge by planting field borders with a two-row planting of conifers and shrubs.
A wide variety of wildlife-friendly conifers (including red cedar, Norway spruce, Scotch pine and jack pine) and fruit-producing shrubs were selected (with shrubs including chokecherry, elderberry, gray dogwood, hazelnut, highbush cranberry, nanking cherry, ninebark, red-osier dogwood, silky dogwood, sand cherry, serviceberry and wild plum). We targeted the edges of all row-crop fields that bordered adjacent food plots, hay fields, and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields for these two-row plantings.
Careful analysis of our annual trail-camera surveys helped us determine that bucks selected areas where timbered "fingers" intersected. As a result of this discovery, we used additional two-row plantings to create corridors to connect our larger blocks of timber. We also used two-row plantings to divide the largest row crop fields down the middle, resulting in two small fields instead of one large field.
More recently we have planted conifers on the outer edges of the smaller timber stands to add edge and increase the amount of security cover. Both our trail-camera survey and a helicopter survey we conducted last January indicated bucks preferred the largest blocks of timber but would also use smaller timbered blocks if the outer edge was lined with conifers. This was especially evident when we flew the helicopter survey and flushed very few deer of either sex from small timber stands where conifers are absent.
If you're following along so far with your calculator to see if these ideas are truly within your budget, you need to know this: Our local Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forester helped us to apply for and receive cost-share grants from Iowa's Resource Enhancement And Protection (REAP) program to complete all of the above-mentioned two-row conifer and shrub plantings.
The REAP program, which is funded by Iowa gaming receipts and the sale of special "natural resource" license plates, provides reimbursement for up to 75 percent of the site preparation, seed, planting, and follow-up maintenance costs at a maximum cost-share of $75 per acre.
Many state agencies and other entities, such as power companies, offer a wide array of incentive programs like this. If you're improving habitat on a budget, your first step should be to visit a private lands biologist with your state's natural resources agency, as well as the local office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
This past spring we planted around 50 apple trees and 25 persimmon trees across the farm to further add to the diversity and to provide additional sources of nutrition to the deer herd. We selected four varieties of apple trees with a tendency toward varieties that held their apples the longest.
All of these trees were planted in clusters of four to six to aid in pollination. And all were planted within bow range of each of our permanent stands in the hopes that these fruit-bearing trees might serve as deer attractants during the archery season.
Adding "Edge" by removing trees
My brother and I recently signed a cost-share agreement with Iowa DNR to complete an "edge-feathering" project along more than one mile of timber-stand edge. This technique involved first prepping the area by spraying a non-selective herbicide to kill the existing vegetation. Then the site was disked to disturb the soil to set back plant succession and promote the growth of warm-season forbs and grasses.
We then used a chainsaw to hinge-cut 75 percent of the trees within the first 10 feet of the timber stand, 50 percent of the trees 10 to 20 feet inside the timber stand, and 25 percent of the trees 20 to 30 feet inside the timber stand.
Hinge-cutting means cutting through the trunk enough to drop the tree but leaving enough of a "hinge" that the tree remains alive; it then grows vertical shoots that offer both cover and browse. Low-value trees were selected for hinge-cutting, and all trees were cut to fall toward the outside edge of the timber. Now, instead of an abrupt boundary where the timber meets the food plot or field, we have a much wider, gradually changing boundary resulting in three habitat types instead of only two.
Each winter we also implement timber stand improvement (TSI) techniques to increase the amount of edge within our timber stands. We use chainsaws to "release" higher-value crop trees by girdling nearby "weed" trees of lower value. Some areas within each timber stand are heavily thinned to maximize sunlight reaching the forest floor and increase understory growth, such as areas near food plot boundaries for example.
At other areas fewer "weed" trees are removed, or they are hinge-cut. For example, we would do this on the outside edge of a timber stand where the goal also includes reducing visibility into the stand. In the future we will follow-up some of the timber cutting with prescribed fire and/or herbicide application to further increase edge in specific areas of our timber stands where the goal is to maintain an open understory.
Fortunately, TSI work is also eligible for cost-share through the REAP program. Our local state forester has helped us to apply for and receive several REAP grants for TSI work in the past. In addition, TSI work is also eligible for cost-share through the federal Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), although grants for this cost-share program are typically more competitive due to smaller amounts of funding.
Adding "Edge" within CRP fields
We are fortunate to have several former row-crop fields enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Nearly all of these fields had been seeded to switchgrass at the time of enrollment 20 years ago. One field, however, was seeded to brome grass. Over time this field had become a monoculture of brome grass, and although brome grass is beneficial to pheasants as nesting habitat, this habitat type is rarely used by deer.
Fortunately, the Conservation Reserve Program provides for management options allowing us to improve this particular field for deer. One such program, called Mid-Contract Management (MCM), allows for prescribed fire, herbicide spraying, light disking, and/or interseeding to be used to maintain CRP fields in earlier plant successional stages. Under this program, one-third of the enrolled area is treated in year one, a different one-third is treated during year three, and the final one-third is treated during year five.
We chose to use a combination of light disking and interseeding on our CRP brome grass field. We selected alfalfa and white and red clover as the legumes for interseeding because all three legumes are highly preferred by deer. The soil disturbance caused by the disking also promoted the growth of several varieties of native annuals that further improved this CRP field from a deer's perspective.
Unfortunately, the switchgrass density on our other CRP fields has been slowly decreasing due to a lack of maintenance. We plan to apply the herbicide Atrazine in a wide swath around the perimeter of these fields to stimulate the switchgrass.
Atrazine, which kills broad-leafed plants, will reduce competition, resulting in increased switchgrass growth, survival, and density. We are targeting the perimeters of the CRP fields for the application so that the resulting 50- to 75-yard-wide strip of tall, dense switchgrass will not only add edge but also further reduce visibility onto our property. Meanwhile, the forb diversity within the untreated areas of these fields will be allowed to continue to increase as the density of switchgrass clumps continues to decrease.
Adding "Edge" to food plots
Food plots are another area where the amount of edge can be increased. In our case, we have seeded many of our smaller, more remotely located food plots to a perennial mix of alfalfa and clover to better provide year-round nutrition and to reduce the need for annual soil disturbance and farming expense.
However, in Iowa, the alfalfa and clover plots have stopped active growth by the time we are at the property in early December to hunt deer. As a result, they are much less attractive to deer at the time we need them to be most attractive.
In order to increase the late-season attractiveness of these perennial plots, we now disk "shooting lane" strips in August that radiate out from our hunting stands at each plot. We then seed these strips, which extend only to the limits of the range of our shotguns, to cool-season annuals that peak in palatability during early winter.
In our case, we seed these areas in a commercial blend of forage rape varieties. However, nearly any of the other varieties in the brassica family would work for this type planting, such as canola and turnips. In addition to the "shooting lane" strips, we also disk the edges of these same plots each August to help fight the encroachment of woody plants and weeds into the food plot. These edge strips are also seeded to brassicas where they are within range of the hunting stands.
Finally, we have subdivided our larger food plots into two or more separate fields so that more varieties can be planted at these sites each year.
For example, we had a 6-acre plot that we traditionally seeded on a rotational basis to either corn or soybeans. Now this plot includes a 3-acre area that is still seeded to corn or soybeans, as well as three additional 1-acre plots. Split-row farming practices have been incorporated on the smaller corn or soybean field to increase the likelihood that some corn or beans will still be available in December.
The remaining 3 acres have been converted to a 1-acre perennial plot of alfalfa, clover, and chicory, a 1-acre annual plot of a variety of brassicas, and a 1-acre plot of cool-season cereal grains including wheat, oats and triticale.
Our goal in subdividing the largest food plots is to give deer a buffet of choices instead of only a main course. This not only results in both increased edge and increased diversity, it also helps to ensure that at least one of the planted forages is peaking in palatability at the same time we are hunting the property. Meanwhile, the comparatively large row crop fields still provide deer with large quantities of summer nutrition.
Adding "Edge" to row crop fields
We do not yet have the equipment needed to farm on a large scale. As a result, we contract out the farming of our row-crop fields. However, because these fields total a relatively small number of acres, our contract farmer had always planted all of the fields to either corn or all to soybeans depending on the particular year in his rotation.
Of course, the farmer preferred this situation because all of the fields could be planted at the same time and with the same equipment. The downside was that we either had a lot of corn or a lot of soybeans available on our farm, but never did we have both available during the same year.
As most readers know, soybeans are a protein-rich food source important for antler growth during spring and summer, and corn is an excellent source of energy that is critical during winter. Therefore, it was important to us and to our deer herd that we had both available every year, so we required that the contract farmer plant both each year.
We further stipulated that he distribute the corn and soybeans across the farm by requiring him to plant every other field to corn, with the field in between planted to soybeans.
We further add edge to the row-crop fields by disking up the heavily browsed end rows of soybeans each August so that they can be reseeded to a mix of cool-season annuals attractive to deer. Also in August we broadcast brassicas in the end rows of the corn fields that are within range of our hunting stands. All that is required for the brassicas to germinate is a hard rain to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.
Adding buck "funnels"
Fortunately, timber ponds and newly constructed fence lines are not a requirement for creating buck funnels. All deer, including mature bucks, are surprisingly lazy and unless they are pressured will nearly always select the path of least resistance. As a result, it can be a simple matter to alter a deer's chosen path.
One technique we use at all of our permanent hunting stand sites is to clear a few trails through the timber that radiate out from these stands. Obviously, a dozer could be used for this technique, but with a little sweat, the same result can be accomplished with a chainsaw. These trails should end 10 to 15 yards from your stand to avoid leading bucks all the way to the base of your hunting stand.
While using a chainsaw to clear these trails, you should also walk over to the naturally occurring deer trails that are outside the range of your chosen weapon to drop a "weed" tree or two over the top of these trails. Now, not only have you encouraged deer to use the cleared trails within range of your stand, but you have also discouraged the use of the trails outside this range.
These newly installed trails not only help to funnel buck movement, but they also serve as shooting lanes. Ideally, the trails should be maintained from year to year with either a brush-cutting mower or a heavy duty weed eater. Just before hunting season each fall, a leaf blower or rake should also be used to clear your own access trail of fallen leaves to allow for a silent entry and exit.
Adding buck bedding areas
One habitat type that was severely lacking on our farm at the time of purchase was stands of native warm-season grasses (NWSG). Dense stands of tall switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indiangrass not only add diversity, but they also make ideal buck bedding areas. Therefore, one of our first habitat improvement projects was to convert areas to NWSG.
We chose row-crop fields next to our property line as the first areas to be converted to NWSG. This conversion accomplished two additional goals. First, it reduced the attractiveness of these areas to feeding deer. Second, it decreased visibility onto our property from outside our boundary line.
Next, we selected the most highly erodible areas within the remaining row-crop fields for conversion. Fortunately, I happened to be present on the farm just after an intense storm had dumped 4 inches of rain one morning. As soon as the skies cleared, I traveled around each row crop field by ATV to search out any areas that had eroded as a result of the rain.
I then used my GPS to mark the boundaries of these areas and to calculate their acreages. Next, I downloaded the tracks to my computer and printed a scaled map with the row-crop boundaries also outlined. These areas were then flagged and seeded to NWSG the following spring.
NWSG establishment is eligible for several different cost-share programs. In our case, we have been most successful in receiving cost-share using Iowa's REAP program. However, WHIP and organizations such as Pheasants Forever are other potential sources that should be considered.
Diversity (and edge) can be further increased by planting some NWSG areas to the standard mix of switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indiangrass, while additional areas are seeded to a mix that also includes additional grasses as well as a variety of native forbs.
Fortunately, increasing edge on your land can be inexpensively accomplished through a variety of different methods. If each of these methods is carefully considered from a deer's point of view, you can quickly turn your property from a whitetail desert into a whitetail paradise.
Hopefully, the ideas shared in this series will not only help you with the deer management on your own property, but will also inspire you to "think like a deer" and approach each new project from a deer's perspective!
For more information on the Quality Deer Management Association, visit www.qdma.com.