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GROW YOUR OWN

(as published in the Sept. 2002 issue of D&DH)
Text and Photos by Charles J. Alsheimer

Quality deer management is hardly a new concept. In fact, I've been immersed in a program of my own for more than 10 years. Although QDM promotes healthy herds, I admit there were times I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing. This feeling stemmed from skeptical reactions I received from fellow hunters in my home state of New York, the lack of solid information to get the job done, and the slow pace my QDM program was taking.

Traditions die hard in the Northeast, and the thought of managing one's land for quality deer wasn't embraced by many folks back in the early 1990s. Despite the drawbacks, I kept the vision. In fact, the results from a lot of hard work in those early years was almost indistinguishable. However, as the years passed, my QDM program blossomed. While assessing my QDM successes, I can't help but think of the 2001 season, because it was one of my best ever.

A Season to Remember
Ironically, my banner season was made possible by one of my worst seasons - 2000. Fall 2000 marked the first year in four in which I did not kill a mature buck on my family's farm. While hunting the farm, I limit myself to bucks that are at least 3-1/2 years old, and in 2000 I never got one in my sights. I passed up many yearlings and several 2-1/2-year-old bucks. In fact, I passed up a beautiful 2-1/2-year-old 8-pointer twice during archery season and three times during the firearms season.

In February 2001, my son found one of the 8-pointer's sheds in one of our food plots, and a neighbor found the other on his property. Needless to say, the buck was on all of our minds that summer as we planted our food plots and scouted for new stand sites. The excitement escalated when we realized our properties were also being used by several other mature bucks. When bow season arrived in October, the only opportunities I had during the first two weeks were at yearlings and a few 2-1/2-year-olds. Then, on the morning of Nov. 1, I was treated to a "November moment." Shortly after 8 a.m., the woods exploded as six bucks chased and fought over an estrous doe that eventually sought refuge in some brush just 35 yards from my stand.

For several minutes, the woods resonated with snorts, grunts and snort-wheezes as the bucks jockeyed for the top spot of the pecking order. Then, as fast as the action started, it ended when a yearling buck spooked the doe. She sprinted for distant cover with all of the bucks in hot pursuit. Only one of the bucks fit my definition of a "shooter," but the experience was thrilling nonetheless.

Nearly two weeks passed before I would again get a glimpse of the mature buck. It was shortly after daybreak on Nov. 10, and I was hunting from the same stand, when the buck appeared. This time he was alone, and I was ready for him. With his nose to the ground, he walked down one of the trails that passes my stand. The buck stopped to work a mock licking branch I hung above the trail. As he feverishly worked the branch, I slowly came to full-draw, placed my bow's 10-yard pin behind his front shoulder, and released the arrow.

At the arrow's impact, the buck whirled and sprinted through the thick hardwoods. After waiting 45 minutes, I picked up the blood trail. After nocking another arrow, I quietly followed the trail 200 yards. Peering over a rise in the woods, I saw the buck lying dead in the middle of a small creek.

While reaching down to un-nock my arrow, I noticed movement to my right. I froze. Amazingly, just 20 yards away stood a mature doe that was unaware of my presence. With several doe tags to fill, I hunkered low, drew my bow and placed the sight pin on her lung area. The arrow hit its mark, and the doe ran just a short distance before collapsing. I couldn't have felt more blessed - two great deer in one morning!

After tagging the buck, I ran my fingers over his antlers, immediately amazed by the similarities to the sheds we found in February. The following day, we compared the sheds to the buck's rack. It was the same buck - the one I had passed up five times in 2000! In just one year, the buck had gone from a 110-class whitetail to a 140-inch Pope and Young trophy. To top it off, the doe was the biggest I had ever killed. It weighed 170 pounds on the hoof, and after examining its jawbone, I learned it was 71/2 years old!

Two for Two?
After arrowing that buck, I figured I would be hard-pressed to kill another mature buck from my farm that season. I was wrong. For the first 2-1/2 weeks of firearms season, I passed on several yearlings and 2-1/2-year-old bucks, and killed several does. However, while hunting from a ground blind on Dec. 9, I received an early Christmas present. Late in the afternoon, with nearly 40 turkeys, 13 antlerless deer and five young bucks within 75 yards of my stand, I watched as a mature 8-pointer appeared and walked within gun range. I killed him with a well-placed shot.

Imagine my surprise when I realized the buck had nearly 12-inch G-2s. That's a trophy nearly anywhere in North America!

Although I believe I have one of the buck's sheds from 2000, I had never seen the buck before that afternoon. My guess is the 5-1/2-year-old buck was mostly nocturnal and for some strange reason chose to move around late in the afternoon on the day I killed him. Reliving the events of 2001 leaves me amazed. It was an incredible year, but those successful hunts are testament to 10 years of hard work. My days of dreaming about hunting mature bucks on our farm are over. Over the past decade, the farm has gone from "the land of the yearlings" to "the land of possibilities," and it's all thanks to the QDM philosophy.

Recipe for Success
QDM is not rocket science. In fact, it can work wherever whitetails are found - if it's given a fair chance.

Before I could devise any deer program for our farm, I knew it was important to understand what QDM entailed.

After consulting with several experts, I learned the program bases its premise on the simple goal of producing healthy deer. To create a balanced herd, the program calls for killing more adult does and fewer young bucks. As a result, bucks grow older and, in turn, grow larger racks.

To implement your own plan, you need several ingredients.

*Vision. Some people view QDM as merely a disguised attempt at trophy management. Nothing could be further from the truth. True QDM followers care first and foremost about controlling their deer herds and bringing populations in line with their land's carrying capacity.

Furthermore, QDM strives to keep all deer habitat at a high level. As a bonus, this type of management typically improves landowner relations and the quality of hunters in the field.

*Logistics. A widely held belief is a landowner must control at least 1,000 contiguous acres for QDM to be possible. While this is mostly true for implementing an ideal QDM program, the reality is many successful programs are run with far less acreage. The key is having neighbors who share your interests. If they do, a successful QDM program can be implemented on properties of nearly any size.

Our 215-acre farm borders 11 other landowners. Of those, only four have any semblance of a QDM program. If you were to view our farm and the surrounding properties from above - with the QDM properties darkened - a checkerboard pattern would be evident. Despite this less-than-universal participation, our QDM program is successful. Generally, 300 contiguous acres of quality deer habitat is needed to get a program off the ground. This amount of acreage allows for the proper layout of food plots and sanctuary locations, and makes it easier to protect young bucks from landowners who do not practice QDM.

It should be noted there are places where QDM is not practical. Small properties that border public hunting land or land that is subjected to heavy hunting pressure will not be good candidates for a program. Also, QDM will not work on properties that do not have adequate bedding cover, such as mature woodlots and goldenrod fields.

For a QDM program to shine, thought must go into how the property will be set up in terms of sanctuaries, food sources, and how the property will be hunted.

*Cover. Think in terms of providing the best possible habitat for the deer roaming your property, and that means creating a sanctuary first and foremost. A sanctuary should be the prime bedding area on the property and should comprise at least one-third of the entire acreage. The most successful QDM programs usually have multiple sanctuaries.

Great pains must be made to ensure no one enters the sanctuary during hunting season. The goal is to create the best accommodations possible for deer. You want your sanctuary to be so good that every deer for miles around wants to call it home. If a wounded deer enters the sanctuary during firearms season, limit tracking to nighttime hours. Tracking wounded deer in the sanctuary during daylight nearly guarantees deer will be jumped from their beds and flee the property, making them fair targets for non-QDM neighbors. To enhance my sanctuary, I create structure by felling cull trees every September. Doing this before leaf-off creates a thick, tangled mess deer love to bed in. With thick cover and lack of human intrusion, deer gravitate to the sanctuary.

*Food. A QDM program should also have the most preferred whitetail food possible. This requires 2 percent to 5 percent of the property be planted with nutritious food plots. With proper seed choices, it is possible to plant a food plot that offers various foods that mature at different times of the year.

Although many outstanding forages are available, clover is tough to beat. It gives you the most "bang for your buck."

Don't just locate food plots any place on the property. Place them at least 300 yards from bordering landowners who do not practice QDM and as close to the sanctuary bedding areas as possible. The last thing you want to do is "feed 'em so the neighbors can shoot 'em."

With food plots placed far from the property lines, bucks will be at less risk of being killed before reaching their potential. It's also wise to make food plots long, narrow and less than 2 acres in size. Construct them to face north and south. This will keep the plants from becoming sun-scorched during the hot summer months.

There are two ways to plant food plots - hire someone to do it, or do it yourself. Either way, the costs can add up in a hurry. Assuming the land is already cleared and you want to hire someone, it will take about four to six hours to plow, disk, lime, fertilize and seed the site at a cost of about $50 per hour. If lime is required, it will cost up to $130 more per acre, depending on the soil's pH. Fertilizer will cost about $80 an acre. Seed costs vary, but if you use clover, you will spend roughly $30 to $45 to plant a 1-acre plot. In short, expect to pay about $650 annually to maintain a 1-acre food plot. However, the cost drops dramatically if perennial seed is used. If the seedbed is weed-free, you should get three years out of a clover plot, which makes it quite cost effective at an annual cost of less than $250 per acre.

Remember, food plots alone will not provide all of the food whitetails need. Natural foods vary by region, and a whitetail obtains 50 percent or more of its nutrition from natural foods.

With a deer's requirement of up to 10 pounds of browse a day, it's easy to see why natural foods are so critical to a deer population. To determine how best to treat the natural habitat, it's critical to contact a professional forester to make the necessary recommendations for habitat improvement.

Neglecting habitat is one of the biggest mistakes a landowner can make. In fact, some of the most successful QDM participants don't even plant food plots. Instead, they manage their woodlots to create maximum browse and cover for deer.

Getting Started
Think of QDM as a journey. It takes a plan and time. Consequently, it's wise to develop a plan with a realistic timeline. If you skip this aspect of your QDM dream, you will be disappointed. In fact, few people realize how much time is required to assemble a successful program. In most cases, it takes at least three years to see any substantive results. Without a timeline, a hunter will invariably get discouraged when things don't proceed as fast as he thinks they should.

The timeline should be determined by the number of hours it takes to accomplish the task, as well as the dollars required to do it. Time - not money - is the most critical aspect of setting up a successful QDM program. Without time to spend improving the land, even the best intentions can be wasted.

Time-strapped individuals can take some shortcuts by realizing they can't do everything themselves. It's wise to rely on someone who has "been there, done that." When I began my QDM journey, I literally flew by the seat of my pants. Of course, I made a lot of mistakes. Today, many areas have qualified individuals who offer QDM consultation services. If you're new to QDM, hiring a consultant might be the best investment you'll ever make.

QDM on a Shoestring
Before the costs get you discouraged, it should be noted that a scaled-down QDM version can be practiced without spending a lot of money. By enhancing natural habitat with proper forestry practices - killing does and restricting the buck kill, you can improve the quality of the deer on your land. This might not be the ideal approach to QDM, but it is certainly better than doing nothing.

It should also be noted that although it's important to protect buck fawns while hunting for antlerless deer, mistakes can and do happen. Your QDM goals will not be delayed if a few buck fawns are killed each season. Dispersal behavior among whitetails more than compensates for such losses.

Another important point is this: It isn't always necessary to plant food plots, especially if you live in farm country. In fact, it's usually best not to plant food plots if your land is adjacent to active farmland. In these cases, you could never compete with the high-quality crops being grown by area farmers. In this situation, it's best to focus on improving natural habitat, creating a sanctuary and enhancing bedding areas.

Track Your Progress
You can't possibly know where you're going unless you know where you've been. For this reason, data collection ranks as one of the most important aspects of a QDM program. By keeping accurate information on antler measurements, dressed weights, age of hunter-killed deer and sex data on deer sightings, I've monitored how our QDM program is progressing. Concerning antlers, I use the Boone and Crockett scoring system, which provides all the necessary antler information like points, spread and beam diameters.

Although the QDM concept received mixed reviews a decade ago, the atmosphere is now ripe for it to become the preeminent whitetail management philosophy. After 10 years of practicing it on our farm, I only wish I had started sooner.

The bottom line is this: QDM works wherever it's given a fair chance. Trust me, if it works in Steuben County, N.Y., with its history of intense hunting pressure, it will work anywhere in North America.

Quality Deer Management: The Basics and Beyond, Charlie Alsheimer's newest book, is loaded with valuable information on QDM. More details about this title and Charlie's other books are available in our online store.

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