• Brae Buckner


    From October 15 to February 10, hunters across the state of Alabama are waking up before sunrise, heading out in to the woods, and doing what they’ve been waiting for all year: hunting whitetail deer. But what all goes in to preparing for opening day? Year-round habitat management is the best way to ensure a healthy deer population is available when it comes time to fill your freezer. 

    When it comes to managing for whitetails, nutrition is the most important factor. Many people focus on optimizing their nutritional availability to benefit the bucks, but many overlook the importance of providing adequate nutrition for the does and fawns in the herd as well. Throughout the year, nutritional needs change with the seasons. By observing the cycles the deer go through on your property throughout the year, you can manage your habitat to fit their specific needs. Deer are also incredibly picky when it comes to their food choices, depending on what their nutritional needs are during specific time periods. The food they choose to consume is chosen based off of their needs during that time of year, whether it be high amounts of crude protein, calcium supplements, or increased fat intake.

    Whitetail bucks in the south typically begin shedding their antlers at the end of February into March. Antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues in the animal kingdom, so it is no surprise that each individual needs a surplus of high-quality nutrition during the short period that they have to regrow their antlers during the summer. During this time, they need high amounts of protein and calcium in order to increase their antler growth from year to year. Luckily for land managers, the time in which deer are experiencing this regrowth is during a time in which native forage is abundant and high in necessary nutrients that aid in healthy antler development. Supplemental feeding is often provided during this time to increase calcium availability, but not always necessary. To ensure a healthy abundance of natural forage, land must be managed to promote the growth of herbaceous food sources that are not overtaken by woody vegetation. Prescribed fire is a cost effective and natural way to promote herbaceous plant growth that is easily accessible. Timber thinning is also necessary to remove larger trees that hinder sunlight exposure to the understory canopy, which prevents native forage and cover growth. 

    Let’s not forget that the secret to growing big bucks is to take care of breeding does. In Alabama, whitetail deer breed later than most states, which means fawns are dropping as late as September and October in some areas. At this point, native forage is often lacking in nutritional levels that lactating does need in order to promote healthy fawn recruitment. Nursing does are in a nutritionally demanding state, as their protein requirements more than double during the first month of nursing fawns. As a wildlife manager, doe health should be a top priority. Providing nursing does with an abundance of high-quality forage aids in producing larger, healthier fawns that have higher chances of survival into adulthood. By implementing fall food plots, you are able to provide the amount of crude protein needed by the deer. A healthy mix of annuals and perennials in your late season food plots helps to ensure that a nutritionally adequate food source is available once native forage begins to decline.

    Once winter draws near, both does and bucks need sources of fat and carbohydrates in order to sustain a healthy body condition that will help them survive throughout cold temperatures and dwindling sources of food. During the fall, whitetail deer will consume acorns of all varieties in order to increase their fat intake. White acorns are low in tannins but also lower in protein and fat than red acorns. While red acorns are not quite as tasty as whites, they are higher in protein and fat, and will last longer into the cooler months after the white acorns have already been consumed. In Alabama, this is an important time to make sure your deer herd is getting adequate energy sources from their foods, as the breeding season is incredibly energy-consuming for whitetail bucks. When in rut, bucks will abandon their food sources in order to chase does. This means that they must increase their food intake beforehand, in order to survive through an intense breeding season. 

    The management practices you choose to implement on your property ultimately depend on what you have to work with already, and what your end goal is. At Great Southern Outdoors, we work 12 months out of the year to ensure that our wildlife has the food and cover necessary to promote a healthy population. By assessing what sources of food grow best throughout different times of the year, we have been able to manipulate our habitat to benefit the health of our deer herd with minimal supplemental feeding and designated food plots placed strategically amongst the property.