To start, I own a very small piece of farm ground in the Midwest connected to a slightly larger tract that my family runs cattle on. We are surrounded on three sides by agriculture ground that rotates between corn and soybeans in the summer and then lays bare in the winter or is planted with winter wheat. The other side is pasture ground with sparse tree lines around dry creek beds and brushy ground around sink holes and rocky outcrops. This is not what anyone would consider prime whitetail hunting. There are not a ton of trees big enough or with enough cover to get tree stands in. This small track of ground that I own is less than 50 acres and all told including the connecting family farm is less than 150. Needless to say, this isn’t enough real estate to hold deer 24/7/365. I am not deterred in my habitat improvement plan and I will cover how you can improve your small parcel.
Grunt, Snort-Wheeze, and Rattle this to your buddies!
Before you start any projects, make a whitetail habitat improvement plan for what you want your property to be. In my situation, my ground is not going to hold deer. They are going to migrate out to feed in the agriculture land. This is common for landowners in the Midwest so the question becomes how can I make my ground attractive to whitetails?
First let’s answer the age-old question of what whitetails need to thrive?
That isn’t in any order and if it was, I would argue that cover might be the most important. At least in a small tract of land surrounded by food sources, cover is the most important. A small tract landowner can’t compete with large tracts of commercial food sources. Don’t be discourage by the size limitations of your property, count yourself among the few hunters who are living the dream of owning a whitetail hunting property!
Focusing on creating cover and bedding areas is the single biggest improvement a small tract landowner can make in my experience. Your situation may be different, but if you focus on the three components that a whitetail needs to survive and focus on the one that is least present in your surrounding area you will be successful in your improvement projects.
Take some time over the winter months to invest in your knowledge of habitat improvement and make a plan to invest in your property this season. Spring is coming soon so be ready.
As you assess your property and the surrounding properties, how can you position this bedding area strategically to maximize your hunting opportunities. You also have to consider what trees and cover already exist on your property. On the surface, you are probably thinking I want the cover in the middle of my property but there are other things to consider.
Seems pretty straightforward, as you look over your piece of heaven what is the prevailing wind direction during hunting season. For me it is primarily a west wind and during cold snaps it is a north wind.
My access points are on the south end of both properties, the main access is on the east side and I have an easement on the west side. Access points are labeled “A” in the diagram, the green area is the combined ground I have access to.
There is existing cover on the north end of both pieces of property. Dark Green In the diagram.Deer move out of the bedding area in the diagram into the green fields prior to moving into grain fields (Tan colored areas) for feeding at dark. They them move back through in the morning to the bedding areas.
My goal as a small tract landowner is to give the deer what they don’t have on the surrounding large tracts of agriculture ground. I want to give them a safe bedding area with corridors that they feel save moving through.
With the focus on making a safety zone for deer to feel comfortable bedding all year long especially during times of hunting pressure. We need to make a thick dense cover for bedding and a thick covered or hidden corridor for them to use. There are multiple tools that we can use to make this happen.
I am a fan of all of these in the right situation. Hinge cutting is a great tool to create those thick bedding areas that mature deer crave. It is really a simple job, but there are a couple of things to consider before you crank up your chainsaw. You only want to hinge cut non mast producing trees, despite what you read don’t hinge cut a white oak tree. Hinge cut a tree that deer will browse but that will not drop mast at some point in the future.
You also want to consider how you want deer to move through your property and the bedding and corridors specifically. If you hinge cut to many trees, deer will avoid the area. Remember to keep your plan and the travel routes in mind. It is helpful to have an aerial view from google maps with you during the project. Hinge cut trees to create cover for the deer to feel safe laying down to bed.
I much prefer to plant trees and shrubs to create the habitat I want as opposed to cutting trees, but in some instances, hinge cutting and thinning the wooded areas is needed. For instance, if all of your property is older trees and as you walk you can see from one end to the other, you are going to need to thin the canopy to create that dense cover.
Once you have your bedding area picked out find shrubs that are hearty and grow dense cover. In my area of the Midwest I love to use the American Plum shrub. It grows dense cover; the browse is good for deer and multiple wildlife species love the fruit. This shrub does double duty for us, it covers the bedding area and creates forage that is not available elsewhere. As deer emerge or enter the bedding area they will stop to browse on the leaves or fruit. Keeping them on your property during hunting hours is your goal. I use this plant along the bedding area and corridors that are funneling to my tree stands.
I use native grasses on the sides that I don’t want them to travel. It provides the cover they need but not the additional value of browse. More often than not, deer will move through the American Plum corridors on their way out to the grain fields.
After I have the bedding and corridors setup with cover using shrubs or native grasses, I take it one step further. In the edges where I planted the shrubs, the American plum in this case, I go back and plant mast bearing trees to create a buffer zone of preferred browse on the edges. The purpose of this buffer is provide good quality food sources for the deer and to get them to linger just a bit longer on my property. In the diagram, the red line represents an instance where I planted the American Plum shrub and the two yellow lines represent mast trees that I planted in staggered rows.
Following this process has been a success on my small piece of heaven. There are multiple ways to skin this cat, but focusing your efforts on what is not readily available to the deer herd will give you the results you are after.
More information to follow on tree species and uses. Until then, stay safe, get outdoors and control your attitude and effort.