By Chris Nix, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater fisheries

One of the busiest times for deer hunters in Alabama is the month of October. Many rush out at this time to get food plots planted for the upcoming deer season. Food plots play a major roll for most hunters in the state, but are they the most productive way to provide quality nutrition for a deer herd? Many landowners and hunting clubs are not aware of, or have never considered, the opportunities for improving food sources for deer through management of native vegetation. Nothing has to be planted and managing native, wild vegetation can be the easiest, most cost-effective way to give the deer population a high quality, year round food source.

The white-tailed deer relies heavily on native forage to survive throughout the year. Deer are very selective feeders and feed on various types of grasses, forbs, shrubs, vines, and fruits. The preference that deer have for certain foods usually is directly related to the palatability and nutritional content of the food. In much of Alabama, only small amounts of preferred native plants are available due to poor habitat management practices. Habitat that produces poor quality foods may lead to malnutrition, therefore affecting deer herd health. Over time, nutritional deficiencies caused by poor habitat will affect the health of individual deer, making them more susceptible to disease, parasites and other hazards. Landowners and managers can reduce or eliminate the problems associated with malnutrition by improving the quality and quantity of desirable native wildlife foods through sound habitat management practices.

Prescribed burning is another very important, but often overlooked habitat management tool. Many plants and animals in the Southeast are fire dependant. Many fire-dependant plants are high-quality, high-protein, highly preferred deer foods. Without fire, the abundance of these plants declines. Prescribed fires in pine plantations are most effective following a timber thinning. These fires act as a fertilizing agent by releasing nutrients bound within the ground litter. This initiates an immediate response from herbaceous vegetation and woody browse species, resulting in an increase of total production per acre, as well improved palatability and nutritional content. Normally these burns should be conducted on a three- to four-year rotation. This length of rotation usually allows woody browse plants to reach several feet in height before the next burn is conducted. Close attention should be placed on the growth rate and species composition due to variations in fertility and soil quality within different stands. These observations will provide a better idea of the preferred rotation cycle best suited for a property. Prescribed burns should only be conducted by certified professionals who are aware of the safe use of fire for habitat improvement

Many opportunities exist for improving deer habitat on most properties beyond the planting of traditional cool-season food plots. Maximizing the production of native vegetation utilizing various management practices, and then supplementing these forages with planted food plots during critical periods of the year, allows deer managers to get the most out of their property.