Brainerd – Minnesota deer hunters know last fall’s acorn crop was nearly a complete failure, forcing whitetails to shift to other fall food sources.
Lacking acorns as a nutritional option, deer moved from oak ridges and flats to other locations to fill their stomachs. From waste corn and soybeans in farm country, to lowlands containing red-oiserdogwood in the northern forested areas of the state, deer found resources to put on a layer of fat in hopes of getting through the winter.
Food plots planted for deer are common nowadays. Many landowners, too, maintain their forested lands by cutting selected trees to open up the canopy because that allows more sunlight to reach the ground. The practice encourages new-growth vegetation that deer and other wildlife feed on and use for cover.
Food sources and bedding cover available to deer in natural meadows and forest openings are often overlooked by whitetail fanatics. Sunlight there can help the development of nutritious forbs such as goldenrod, and new-growth shrubs and trees such as hazel, dogwood, sumac, raspberry, blackberry, oak, maple and other species.
For landowners who don’t have the equipment, time or resources to plant food plots, maintaining forest openings is a cheaper and less time-consuming endeavor.
With a little work you can make openings you already might have even more attractive to deer. How much work goes into creating or maintaining natural openings depends a lot on soil type and elevation.
Deer are browsers, not grazers. Yes, whitetails do feed on grass, especially that in the early growing stages. However, many forest openings are overrun by various species of grass that overwhelm and discourage the growth of forbs and young trees.
My property near Brainerd is primarily lowland. An invasive plant called reed canary grass quickly takes over any areas on my land exposed to the sun. Reed canary is a perennial grass that can grow as high as 6 feet. It out-competes the native species on my land if left unchecked, and forms a pure stand allowing nothing else to grow. Whitetails do not eat reed canary grass. Yes, deer do use reed canary as bedding cover, but a wet snowfall will easily flatten the grass. Thus, it is mostly useless to deer as winter cover.
You might have different species of grasses that have cover your forest opening or natural meadows. The fix is the same: Kill the grass first to allow sunlight to reach the ground.
I’ve had success using a grass-specific herbicide called Arrest Max. It is available from the Whitetail Institute of North America (whitetailinstitute.com).
If you are averse to using herbicides, the next best option is mowing. I suggest mowing openings in early summer when the grasses have grown to about a foot tall. Then mow again in late summer, or as soon as seed heads appear but before they ripen and fall. It may take two summers to achieve the goal of reducing most of the grasses because the soil likely contains seeds that did not germinate but will the second year after they are exposed to the sun.
If the soil in your forest opening is poor, you may want to take a sample and add fertilizer and lime.
You’ll be surprised at the variety of forbs and early successional forest plants that sprout once grasses have been mostly eliminated. Only after the young trees and shrubs have grown out of reach of deer (generally at least five years) will it be necessary to mow again to allow nutritious new growth to again flourish.
Also, keep in mind deer are creatures that prefer diverse habitat and edge cover. In many cases, the vegetation in your forest openings will reach chest height or higher. Deer feel safe in such an environment and more likely to move during daylight.
Remember, too, that forest openings containing a diversity of plant species provide food and cover for other wildlife, such as songbirds.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at email@example.com.