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Texas Hill Country Food Plots and Whitetail Deer Management

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A large percentage of the food plot questions I hear pertain to hunting properties in the Texas hill country.  Common queries include:  What should I plant?  When should I plant?  How should I plant?  However, I seldom hear the question, "Should I plant."  I suppose if hunters solicit the advice of someone who provides food plot installation services and consulting for a living, they'd expect the answer to such a question to come from a somewhat biased disposition.  However, this assumption is only partly warranted.  Advocating food plots as a quality wildlife management tool is good for business, but providing faulty advice is not.  Surprisingly enough, when dealing with properties in the Texas Hill Country my answer to the "should I plant," question is often not an automatic yes, and sometimes a flat out no.

Don't get me wrong.  Quality food plot programs certainly have their place in a hill country deer manager’s tool box.  In fact, I cannot think of an area in Texas where white-tailed deer populations would benefit more from such a practice.  About 40% of all the deer in Texas inhabit the hill country.  Dense population levels and an insufficient supply of natural forage make hill country deer the hungriest and most malnourished in the state.  These deer desperately need supplemental forage sources such as food plots to support such high population levels.

Unfortunately, the reason hill country deer need supplemental nutrition from food plots is among the reasons food plots in this area are so hard to establish… extremely high deer densities.  If you are one of the many central Texas suburbanites still nursing wounds from the last time you took the trash out during the rut, you are well aware of how ridiculous this situation has become.  Likewise, if you tried your hand at food plot installation on your Junction deer lease last year, you may foster similar sentiments.  The problem with hill country food plots is over browsing, particularly when plants first begin to sprout.  Starving deer simply do not understand that food plots need time to develop before they can withstand being munched on.  In rare cases where deer abide by the "no early grazing" signs I routinely post at planting sites, the hogs usually demonstrate an unwillingness to comply.  I have experimented with products that claim to repel deer until forage crops reach maturity (i.e. Plot Saver), but have found them to be ineffective on starving hill country deer.

The fact of the matter is that highbrowsing pressure on any hill country food plot is almost a certainty.  To allow for this one must plant aggressively.  Double the recommended seeding rates, as well as fertilization rates.  Many of the seeds you plant will get mowed down by foraging deer before they have a chance to set roots, so give your plot a fighting chance by putting lots of seed in the ground.  Plant aggressively, but also plant big.  A 3 acre oat patch may work in the fall, but 3 acres of warm season nutrition plots will be nothing but a well fertilized coastal bermuda field come summer.  Generally speaking, warm season nutrition plots should be at least 6 acres. Not to say that smaller plots are impossible, but the bigger the plot is, the better chance it has of withstanding heavy grazing pressure.  When planting warm season plots in the hill country it's best to go big or go home.

Aside from high deer densities, rocky shallow soils and typically dry conditions also create problems for food plotters in the hill country.  It is imperative to seek out low lying, deep soiled areas that have a tendency to hold water, and utilize these sites for wildlife plantings.  These sites exist on most hunting properties, but in the hill country can be few and far between.  Unfortunately, when one does finally locate a site matching this description, its location may or may not be conducive for food plot installation.  All too often we find that low lying fertile soil areas are not the easiest to get equipment to, or are spread so far apart that more time is spent taking equipment from one planting site to another than is spent planting.  However, we have no choice when it comes to warm season hill county plantings.  In the case of fall plantings an experienced food plotter can get away with planting in soils that are less than ideal, but not in the spring.  In this situation food plotters must seek every advantage possible.  If that perfect low lying area is not available then the answer to the "should I plant" question is no.  Large warm season food plots require a substantial investment of time and money.  An investment that, if made wisely, will provide hill country deer with desperately needed body mass and antler building protein, but if made despite sub-par conditions, will provide hill country hunters with frustration and disappointment.

If you're lucky enough to find that low lying "deep" (deep, relative to other hill country soils) soil area, be sure to go through all the usual steps of creating quality food plots: soil testing, removal of existing vegetation, soil preparation, fertilization, etc. However, keep in mind that the deepest hill country soils are still shallow compared to other parts of the state, like east Texas, and modify your methods of food plot preparation to reflect this.  In much of the state mechanically removing existing vegetation from a planting site with a plow or drag is perfectly acceptable, but in shallow soil situations it is not.  Such a practice removes top soil from a planting site making an already difficult situation almost impossible.  Instead, apply a general herbicide to potential food plot sites killing all existing standing vegetation.  After these plants die, remove the left over decaying matter by executing a carefully planned controlled burn.  Not only will this remove the dead vegetation making it possible to till or disc the soil, burning will also return the nutrients tied up in the decaying vegetation to the soil. Burning can stimulate dormant seeds or reduce competition from one weed species allowing others to flourish.  To prevent this allow time to repeat the herbicide application before planting in case weeds invade the food plot site shortly after burning.  Oh yeah, fire is dangerous.  If you catch your neighbor's ranch on fire there's going to be trouble, so please be safe.  Go by the fire department and/or a forestry service and get them to help you draft a prescribed burn plan, and follow it.  All this may sound like a lot of work, and it is.  Even after hill country food plots are well established, treating standing forage crops with a selective herbicide or maintenance fertilizer may be necessary to overcome the effects of over browsing and to keep plants healthy throughout the growing season.  So say you're a responsible, conservation minded hunter without the time or resources to take on this type of project.  Good news, you still have options.

Planting food plots or setting up deer feeders is an obvious management action that hunters take to provide deer with something we all know they need… food, but the hill country wildlife management puzzle is much more complex than that.  Two hundred years ago the landscape of the Texas hill country looked drastically different than it does today.  Instead of dense cedar thickets dominating the plant community the landscape was primarily composed of a diverse array of native prairie grasses and forbes, with cedars restricted to riparian areas along creek bottoms and river beds.  Occasional upland pockets of cedar and hardwood stands existed providing habitat diversity much different than the monoculture of cedars present throughout much of the region today.  There also were less white-tails because the white-tailed deer is not an open prairie species.  The more influential of the two primary causes for the hill countries drastic change in appearance is wildfire suppression.

Smokey the Bear does a lot to save lives and prevent the destruction of human property, which is of course necessary.  However, when it comes to preserving native landscapes or wildlife management, old Smokey couldn't be more wrong.  Native plant communities evolved with, and developed adaptations to frequent wide spread wildfires that made up a natural part of the hill country's ecosystem.  Non fire tolerant plants, such as cedars, were restricted to low lying riparian areas that do not burn, or were situated within natural fire breaks.  These fires kept everything in check by keeping cedars, which consume up to 100 gallons of water a day, right where they should have stayed… where it was wet.  Human efforts to suppress fire have allowed cedars to spread across the country side draining ground moisture and causing severe soil erosion throughout the region.  Next time you visit the area take notice of the ground directly under cedar thickets.  In most cases more exposed rocks can be observed under thick cedar stands than in open terrain, because the soil that once concealed those rocks has been sucked dry and washed away.  The truly unfortunate part of the cedar invasion is that cedar thickets create exceptional deer cover while serving no nutritional value to the species.  This brings us back to the primary problem with today's hill country deer population… too many deer, too little food.  Cedar thickets create ideal cover that deer can easily move in and out of, making natural population checks such as predation ineffective, while out competing native deer forage plants for nutrients and soil moisture resulting in skinny, starving, small antlered deer.  Fire suppression has caused a similar situation in east Texas, resulting in an explosion of under story species such as yaupon.  The difference is the abundance of vines and brush that wrap around under story plants in east Texas, inhibiting deer movement.  This forces deer to utilize other openings such as roads, pipelines, and trails for travel, making them more vulnerable to predation.  Seeing as it is unreasonable to expect society to allow wild fires to burn freely at the expense of human property and lives, managers must take matters into their own hands by clearing cedars and implementing prescribed burns.

In order to take advantage of the cover cedars provide deer, one should carefully plan which pockets of cedar to remove.  Start the planning process by downloading an aerial photo of your hunting property.  If upon analysis of this photo all you see is the tops of cedar trees do not get discouraged.  While the rectification of this situation may involve a lot of work, an opportunity to create exceptional white-tailed deer habitat is right there in front of you.  Start drawing shapes onto the photograph that symbolize areas from which to remove cedar with the goal of creating a very natural, mosaic pattern.  Make elongated shapes that maximize the amount of edge between covered and open areas.  The idea is to take a property dominated by a monoculture of cedars and turn it into a property full of habitat diversity.  If you have read some of my previous work, you are probably familiar with this concept, but it is extremely important in this situation to rehash it.  Habitat diversity is a crucial ingredient of any wildlife management plan, because diverse habitats provide for all the various habitat needs of wildlife populations.  A monoculture of cedars does one thing for deer, provide cover.  However, an area where a cedar thicket meets a field of native prairie vegetation that is bordered on the other side by a live oak grove with a creek bed running through it provides deer with escape cover, bedding grounds, fawning cover, open mating grounds, as well as natural warm and cool season food sources.  So choose the areas from which to clear cedar carefully, with the goal of creating as much edge and habitat diversity as possible.  Deer will inhabit these types of areas with little reason to roam, because everything they need is one place.

Figure 1.  Areas marked for cedar removal with elongated shapes, arranged in a mosaic design to increase habitat diversity.

Clearing fifty percent of a property and leaving the other fifty percent in cover is not a bad rule of thumb.  However, even when following this rule it is possible to remove brush inefficiently.  For example: a group of hunters hired me a few seasons ago to do some deer management consulting on their lease in Junction, TX.  The property was originally one big stand of cedar.  Years before seeking my services, they decided to take matters into their own hands and began removing cedar from the property.  They cleared half the cedars and left the other half standing for deer cover, which is fine… except for one thing.  Their strategy of brush removal involved drawing a line through the middle of the property and clearing everything north of the line while leaving everything south of the line untouched, essentially creating two monocultures instead of one.  Coincidentally, all their deer stands were located on this line (the location of the only habitat edge) because, as one of the hunters explained it, "For some reason this is just where the deer like to be." You don't say.

Before moving on to the means and methods of cedar removal, allow me to contribute one last design recommendation.  If at all possible leave a large stand of thick brush untouched for designation as a deer sanctuary.  A sanctuary is an area of thick cover in which all human activity is prohibited.  Allow no one to enter or disturb this area under any circumstances.  Establishing a sanctuary may be impractical on smaller properties, but is a worth while practice when possible.  Reserving fifty or more acres in the middle of a property for deer to escape human presence results in deer less inclined to explore neighboring properties and thus greater returns on one's management efforts.

In hill country situations, managers must use every bit as much caution choosing the methods they use to remove cedar stands as they use when deciding what cedars to remove.  Cedar stands dominate soil moisture, soil nutrients, and sunlight leaving the seeds of other plants little chance to germinate and grow.  However, these seeds often do not die, but remain dormant in the soil for years.  This supply of dormant seeds is known as a seed bank.  When removing cedar one must utilize methods that are conducive to the eventual germination of native grass and forbe seeds in the seed bank.  This makes removing as little soil as possible and preventing erosion critical, a concept that the methods one chooses to remove cedar stands should reflect.

When dealing with shallow hill country soils do not bulldoze, up root, or implore any brush clearing method that might substantially disturb or loosen soil, and therefore promote soil erosion.  Using a tree shear implement or a chainsaw, cut trees as close to the ground as possible, and leave them where they lie.  Many weekend managers make the mistake of dragging or pushing cedars into piles prior to burning.  This is a mistake for two reasons.  One: using a tractor to collect fallen cedars into a pile causes unnecessary soil erosion, and two: fallen cedars help protect native plants from early grazing pressure as they germinate and attempt to reestablish themselves in newly created openings.  After cutting an opening, vegetation will sprout.  When these plants mature and then die off in the winter, use the resulting dead organic matter as fuel for a prescribed burn.  As explained earlier, native plant communities in the hill country evolved with frequent wildfires as an important part of the ecosystem and developed adaptations accordingly.  Among these adaptations is a response to being burned that stimulates seed germination and plant growth.  When clearings are burned native grass and forbe seeds in the seed bank will germinate, and any cedar saplings that have began to sprout will die.  Since native plant communities are susceptible to premature grazing, it is important to allow fallen cedars to remain in the clearing and serve as a protective barrier, making native seedlings inaccessible to foraging deer and of course cattle if present.  Once established, native plant communities and clearings are easily maintained by the execution of a controlled burn about every three to five years.

The hill country wildlife management situation involves complexities that go beyond food plots, supplemental feed, and cedar management.  For example, free ranging buffalo also influenced the region's native plant community many years ago.  Native grasses developed adaptations in response to occasional grazing.  Bison also helped to aerate the soil by simulating soil tillage as they ran across native grasslands.  Cattle can duplicate these effects for the benefit of deer populations if managed under a proper rotational grazing system.  Seeing as a snow ball has a better chance in hell, than a member of a deer lease has, of convincing a Texas cattle rancher to modify his rotational grazing system, I believe explaining in depth how one can utilize cattle to improve deer habitat can wait for future compositions.  My point is this.  Hill country food plots can be a challenging but a worthwhile endeavor.  However, it is important to remember that there is much more to managing deer in the Texas Hill Country than supplemental nutrition.

By Biologist of Texas Wildlife Unlimited


Author:Paleo Comment Left:03/13/2007 15:03
Excellent, well written article. Lots of good advise.
Author:dory602 Comment Left:12/09/2007 11:57

as a new owner of ranch land at the top of the hill country, i have learned so much from this artical.. am always looking for ways to bring deer to our land for watching enjoyment... thanks again  gloria

Author:The Feeder Helper Guy Comment Left:02/15/2008 15:58

since it is such a challenge to initiate a food plot in the Hill Country, what are your thoughts of simply disking and fertilizing native grade and grass to generate new growth?

Author:Texas Outdoors Comment Left:02/15/2008 16:34
It is a great practice that I often recommend to clients.  One of the best dove food plots can be created by simply discing in June to stimulate the growth of croton (AKA dove weed).  As you probably already know, fertilizing native brush is a good way to increase the nutritional value of native browse and forbe plants.
Author:cathdos Comment Left:05/01/2009 11:26

its great...! wow u u have nice and informative thing u put in here... but here is another thing that i want to share to u about food plots, its very interesting thing im sure i might like it for deer hunting, just visit this site and learned more on it..  thank u and will see u in here around..

Author:KCI Larry Comment Left:03/29/2011 20:41

Thanks for the info, Ive always looked at planting any food plot fall or spring as a gamble in the Hill Country. We generally find ourselves at the mercy of the "Man Up Stairs" for enough rain to get anything to sprout. I read a blog about mixing native sunflower and chicory in with fall oats, wheat, or rye plots as a way of reducing over grazing as well as providing for some early season dove shooting. What are your thoughts or advice on this?