Deer Season and the Drought

Deer Season is here, the question is, will this past summer’s drought affect the deer the hunting? We did our research and have compiled some information that may be effective when going out to the deer woods and for the deer season in 2013. How bad was the 2012 summer drought? It was very bad. For the High Plains, Midwest and Upper South it was an agricultural disaster labeled from extreme to exceptional, the two highest drought levels. For parts of the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest, it was spotty and varied from moderate to severe to extreme. The authors of the Drought Monitor wrote the following for the week ending July 31: “In addition to the large geographic footprint of this year’s drought, the quick onset and rapid ramping up of intensity, coupled with extreme temperatures and subsequent impacts, has really left an imprint on those affected and has set this drought apart from anything we have seen at this scale over the past several decades.” There were record high temperatures and low rainfall over most of the country in July.

No matter what you label it, in the worst areas it had to hurt deer antler development, fawn growth and even fawn survival. It took a big bite out of the quantity and quality of summer deer foods and will likely adversely affect some fall deer foods. These are not just food plots but also soft and hard mast and natural vegetation browse plants in addition to important fawning and escape cover. In a normal summer, protein levels and palatability of all plants decline from high levels in spring to lowest levels of the growing season in late summer and fall.

In some extreme drought areas, surface water has dried up and some deer will be forced to shift their movements to find it. In some cases, this means leaving your hunting property and moving to the neighbor’s property to find water. Normally, deer get most of the water they need from the vegetation they consume. This is not the case in a severe drought because the percentage of moisture in all vegetation has decreased through the course of the hot dry summer.

If you have white or red oak trees on your hunting land that did not get frost bitten, they will likely have a good acorn crop that will drop a little earlier than normal because of the early spring start. This is especially true of the white oak group which includes swamp white, chestnut, swamp chestnut, post, live, bur, chinkapin oak and others. Spring and summer droughts depending on their severity often cause oaks and other hard mast producers to channel more energy to increased reproduction in a “last ditch” effort in case their own survival is jeopardized. I ran oak mast surveys on the same 15-mile route in the Southern Appalachians for almost 30 years. Best acorn production often coincided with drought years including 1988 and others.

Whitetails and lots of other wildlife species will feed heavily on grapes, persimmons, apples and pears until they are gone and they may get gone early due to the early spring bloom and the severe drought. My pears are already gone. So a logical progression of preferred whitetail food might be grapes, apples, acorns, persimmons, crabapples but it will not be this simple or clear cut as several of the highly sought after foods may be available at the same time and all will disappear gradually at different times.

Hunting in the Heartland around big commercial agriculture might be challenging! First, there will not likely be much standing corn which provides deer with a custom combination of high quality food and cover. As I am writing this article, many corn farmers are either cutting their corn for silage to salvage it or plowing it under to plant small grains or brassicas when the moisture allows. This puts deer movement in a different ball game of shifting to whatever alfalfa, soybeans, persimmons or acorns that may be available. How much of a shift depends on how far they have to go to find food. It might be several miles away and obviously might be on properties that you don’t have permission to hunt. Also, soybeans might be gone as they will be defoliated early and have a much reduced crop of pods and beans that may also get harvested earlier than normal. Finally, this year might be the most important one we have had in many years to scout for available deer food supplies and pinpoint where they are before the hunting season opens. Also, if we get some rain in late August or September plant and fertilize some high quality cool season food plots. The deer need them this fall to gain weight before winter and you need them to attract deer. Does that sound like a win-win plan? It does to me, it is deer management at its best!

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