January 14th officially closed out the 2023-2024 hunting season for deer, and as I write this on January 10th, I’ve not so much as seen one from my stand since Thanksgiving. While the hunting season might be over, its never too early to start thinking about what you might want to change or improve for the next deer season.

            Most of the time, deer season can be divided into three sections: pre-rut, peak rut, and post-rut.  The timing of the rut varies extensively across Georgia, but in this area, tends to be in late October to early November. Prior to that time frame, deer are moving mostly at night and focused on eating to gain weight for winter, while bucks are starting to look for females and spar for dominance. During peak rut in that late October early November time frame, bucks become more active as they spar with other bucks and seek, chase, and tend their group of does. Bucks spend less time feeding during this time as a result. There may be some straggling of rut behavior into late November and early December, but at that point the focus turns back to finding food. Bucks can lose up to 20% of their body weight during the rut, so replenishing that energy is critical before the winter weather of January and February. Since deer are looking for food late in the season, a well-prepared food plot can greatly increase your chances of late-season harvests.

            Deer are ruminant animals, just like cattle or sheep, but while cattle and sheep are “roughage eaters” consuming primarily grass and plants, deer are “concentrate selectors” that prefer a variety of browse (leaves and twigs), forbs (herbaceous flowering plants), grasses, nuts, fruits, and mushrooms. Unfortunately, deer have to eat what is available to them – and most of their foodstuff is available only in certain seasons. In the spring, deer will often consume browse, mushrooms, and forbs if they’re available. During the summer, deer focus on browse and fruit like berries. As the season shifts to fall, deer focus on nuts like acorns, chestnuts, and apples. In the winter, browse is the primary source of energy for deer. Deer rarely prefer to graze grasses, but will often feed on cereal grains such as oats, wheat, and rye if they’re available.

            Late in the hunting season deer are often staying in a tighter geographic area and looking for excellent food sources. Many hunters and wildlife enthusiasts invest in a feeder of some sort that they fill with corn or other grains. Any cereal grain can help draw deer to an area, but the feeder needs to stay consistent. Deer movement may also change with weather events, so I recommend installing a trail camera to check when the deer are visiting. At my property, they’ve been coming between 10PM and 2AM since early December.

            Another option for food sources is the use of wildlife food plots. Wildlife food plots typically use winter crops like ryegrass, wheat, clover, oats, and triticale to provide forage for not just deer but all wildlife species. It’s important to consider soil pH and fertility, variety selection, seeding rate, seeding depth, and desired peak production to help plan a wildlife food plot. When done right, food plots can be a great addition to draw late season deer to your property.

            Next week we’ll talk a bit about some issues you can have with food plots and what can go wrong. For now, if you have any questions or concerns, let us know at uge3181@uga.edu or 706-359-3233.

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