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Hunting & FishingOwning Land

Managing Deer Habitats in the Winter

January 19, 2024

As the deer hunting season comes to a close, many landowners have already begun to think about deer habitat management and ways that they can improve their property for next year’s season. While some may overlook this time of the year for practicing deer management, the first quarter of the year is very important for nurturing big bucks to hunt later in the year.

During his appearance on the National Land Podcast, OK Land Broker Jay Cassels, ALC, spoke to the importance of winter habitat management for his overall deer management plan. Cassels stated, “The most valuable [time] to me is from the time deer season starts until about April, really that first quarter of the year. I’ll conduct a burn, do some heavy disking on some of the old fields. 

With the leaves off the trees, it gives you a different perspective than looking at a property after everything blooms. I love seeing things in this winter state because I’m able to get a better idea of what I’m dealing with, and I’m also able to make notes for the coming fall.”

Planning and putting the work in the winter months can significantly increase the chances of success come hunting season.

Winter Habitat Management Practices for Deer

Here are a few winter management activities to improve deer habitat on your property before things start to warm up again in the spring!

Prescribed Burns for Deer Habitat

For many landowners, prescribed fire is one of the most important tools in their belt when it comes to managing habitats in an effective and fairly non-intrusive way. It is especially useful for creating an environment that’s high in food for deer and easily traversable for game as well.

Prescribed fire clears the forest floor of debris and returns vital nutrients to the soil to stimulate the growth of plants that deer need for sustenance. It can also be used to create or clear travel corridors for game to use to access different parts of a property easily.

Winter is a great time for prescribed burns since higher soil moisture and cooler temperatures coupled with moderate weather conditions create a safer and more controlled environment, making fire behavior more predictable. Performing prescribed burns during the winter also makes it less likely that trees will be damaged by the fire.

Winter Disking

Winter disking is another management practice that landowners can perform to improve deer habitats during the offseason. Disking refers to the process of breaking up the topsoil to prevent less desirable plant species from dominating the understory while simultaneously giving annual plants that serve as food sources for game a chance to thrive.

Disking can encourage seed germination and spur the development of forbes and other annual plants that can attract deer. Proper disking can also reduce the need for additional food or fertilizer, thereby cutting down on landowner input costs.

Performing this disking during the winter/early springtime creates bare ground for new plants to establish themselves in when spring comes in full.

Hack & Squirt and Hinge Cutting Timber

Wintertime is a great time to perform routine timber trimming and maintenance since the absence of leaves and foliage allows landowners to get a better picture of what their timber stands really look like. 

When it comes to timber management to improve deer habitats, two main techniques can be used to create natural browse: hack & squirt and hinge cutting.

Hack & Squirt Method

The hack & squirt method refers to hacking into a tree and spraying herbicide into it to slowly kill the tree. As the tree dies, it allows more sunlight into the forest floor which will promote growth of cover and natural browse. This process is not as quick as other methods, since landowners will need to wait for the tree to die which can take some time.

Check out this instructional video from MS Land Professional Howard Netterville on the Hack & Squirt method!

Hinge Cutting

Hinge cutting refers to cutting roughly 75% of the way through a tree and then letting it fall. This leaves some of the tree alive and creates instant cover and browse for deer and other wildlife. This method typically provides faster results than hinge cutting but can require more maintenance later on as the tree continues to grow.

With both of these methods, it’s important to be mindful of how fallen trees may impact travel corridors for game. Too many downed trees may make it difficult for deer to traverse this area and dissuade them from passing through.

The first quarter of the year presents a fantastic opportunity for landowners to improve deer habitats on their property. Good management practices during this time can create a resilient and sustainable environment to bolster overall deer well-being, laying the groundwork for a healthy population come hunting season. If you’d like to learn more about deer management practices, check out this episode of the National Land Podcast featuring MS Land Professional Jimmy Riley where he discusses his experience managing Giles Island, an incredible luxury hunting retreat!

If you’ve got questions about how best to implement whitetail deer habitat management practices on your property, reach out to your local Land Professional today! 

About the Author
Bryce Berglund is National Land Realty’s Content Marketing Specialist. He is currently residing in Minnesota, where he attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Bryce is an appreciator of all things artistic, and likes to spend time at his cabin with his dog and family.