Managing northern forests for deer


New Member
My family has a large parcel of property in the far North of New York State. I've been planting plots now for about 8 years or so.
The plots are great. Deer feed there heavily most of the year. However, despite what I read from others planting around the rest of the country, our fields do not get much deep winter traffic. We plant a mix in our fields (origins from Paul/LC), including a fair portion of winter rye and clover. It just seems that once the hard snow crusts over, the deer give up. I presume they are spending much more time eating woody browse, but I'm not quite sure.

Do others see this as well? What are your experiences?

Plots make up only ~5% of our property. I do not have the time or money to enlarge them further. But a major reason for the plots was to aid winter survival. And now we are feeling that perhaps we should be looking to the trees more and the plots less.

Our forests are mainly a mix of beech, maple, red and white pine, black cherry. Obviously there are plenty of others in lesser amounts. And now we wonder how to manage the woods better for the deer....
Your thoughts are welcome. Thanks!
Welcome to the forum. How far north is your place? How much snow did you have this last winter? Are your deer eating the brassica bulbs? Have you tried corn? I know the deer leave our grains/clover alone when snows pile up. However, they will dig for brassicas if they've become accustomed to eating them. The corn is also a real winter draw and is available even in heavy snow. Browse is of course the natural winter food we are trying to supplement. We've put in substantial hinge cuts to make more of it available in the winter.
Colton, about 90 minutes NE of Watertown. Snow is variable, but I'm not up there enough in mid winter to give accurate details. But it's not unusual to get 2'+ on the ground at times. We stopped planting brassicas and haven't tried corn. We mainly plant the LC grain/clover mix (or variation of it).

I sat in on a few webinars from Cornell, and I listened to biologists discuss the deer primarily eating woody browse during deep winter (at least ones not being fed and not having easy access to farmland, which ours do not). It got me thinking about the 95% of our property which we manage much less than our plots. We already knew our grains weren't getting much Dec-Feb activity, so it all sort of clicked that I think I am focusing on the wrong area.

While we are considering hinge cutting trees for winter browse, I am not sure that's a viable solution every year. I am wondering if maybe we should be thinning out the forests of less desirable trees (pines, beech) in favor of preferred (maple, cherry)
jerseyguy - Can't give you any advice. Snow is foreign down here for the most part. But I do love following upstate NY threads. Glad you're here.
I know Chainsaw who is from that corner of the world would tell you his deer will dig for brassica bulbs down to about 3' of snow. I think the most important thing we can do is provide diversity. The other thing about relying solely on browse is if deer numbers are too high, they can decimate available browse so balance is important. I'm not surprised at all that your grains/clovers are ignored in heavy snows--that has been our experience and I'm not subject to lake effect snow like you probably are. I wouldn't give up on brassicas--deer take some time to get used to them.
I wouldn't give up on brassicas--deer take some time to get used to them.
It's not that we gave up on brassicas or corn, it's more that we have poor soil (although getting better) and limited space. We plant about 4 acres of the grain/clover mix, as a soil builder and easy growers. They produce well, and the deer keep them mowed for many months of the year.
When we did plant brassicas, the deer had them mowed to the ground before they ever reached a decent size. For example, we grew groundhog radishes for a few years, and the radishes never grew bigger around than a pencil, except inside exclusion cages where they got huge. And I am hesitant to plant corn, and potentially mess up their stomachs in the winter (although I doubt the plants would make it that long)

I am less concerned with my plots at the moment though, and more concerned with how I can make the remainder (and vast majority) of my property produce good feed all year round. A lot of my forest has large stands of spruce, pines, and beech, which I believe is a poor quality winter woody food source. I was wondering if others have went through a forestry process in their own woods to combat that.
Maybe the problem with your forests, is not of what they are, but the stage of maturity they are. If your canopy prevents growth at deer level to provide food, or at deer level to provide protection form winter weather, then you might manage thinning that density to allow more growth at deer level. A pic might help as could be guessing in wrong direction. Plenty of guy on here from northern country that should be able to give you better advice than myself. All the trees you have mentioned so far provide no mast type food, so browse is there only offering or opening up canopy to allow more diversity down below.
I'd split the plot acreage up and give brassicas another chance in a couple acres. I've got a 2 acre plot I sometimes plant brassicas in here in the St. Lawrence Valley. We've got good deer numbers and the brassicas easily stay ahead of them. The deer tear them up over the winter.
I agree with splitting your acreage. 2 acres of well fertilized brassicas on soil with decent PH will produce significant food. On our decent soils, our brassicas were knee to thigh high. I think your place is crying out for LC's rotation.
Maybe you could start edge feathering your field edges by hinge cutting some trees to provide more of that woody browse they are already accustomed to eating. I would just do a little at a time and keep going as long as they keep eating them....
In my neck of the woods (northern mn) we have alot of aspen and deer eat the young saplings all winter. I have also planted some red osier dogwood which is a good winter browse. Like others mentioned depending on you forest age, having some sections that have been harvested would probably be a huge asset to your property.
I am from north central VT. The issue is that when winter gets going, the deer move to their wintering yards where there is more thermal cover (conifers) and less snow (albeit only slightly) to deal with. I have the same issue as you. Once I get a covering of snow, the deer disappear. Not a track to be seen in the plots.
Sounds like you have a pretty high deer population. If it was me I'd do the LC mix and put 1 acre in perennial clover (ladino), 1.5 acre in brassicas, and the other 1.5 in the LC fall mix. Over seed the the spend brassica in the early spring with red clover and oats and provide food all spring and summer long. Then rotate the 1.5 acres the following fall. Maybe if you have a perennial clover around the brassicas won't get as much early pressure. just a thought
Do you really need to have deer in the deep winter? I know you were concerned with survival, but if the deer return to you every year why spend the time and money. Like others have said, what has helped me the most is logging/hinge cutting.
dogdoc - Actually, the population is pretty low. With mostly natural woods and pratically no farm fields, the population isn't high. The plots we maintain have been our effort to bring the numbers up. But as dtabor says, our plots are getting little winter action. So I don't feel like I'm doing a good job helping the herd get through the frozen months.

NWWI - My specific property is not huge, but combined with connected family land, it covers a large area. So we feel for the deer to be most secure and healthy, we want to try and provide a year-round quality home range.

For everyone that mentioned hinge cuts and logging...I want to use both sparingly. The problem with logging, which I haven't seen often discussed, is that loggers typically either selectively cut or clear-cut. I prefer a clear cut, but most loggers our way are not keen on doing that because of the time and machinery required. Selective cutting is usually bad for deer management, IMO, because you are removing mostly money trees (hard woods), like maple, oak, yellow birch, and cherry (at least in my area). And these are the preferred browse for deer. I would love to get a logger to come in and selectively remove the garbage (red pipes and beech, mostly), but there is little or no money in that and loggers don't have time to waste on low money jobs. So while selective cutting is good for your wallet and the logger's, it is a bad plan if your goal is to maintain your deer herd. In my case, I ONLY want the deer, not the money.

I think my long term plan will be for us to selectively cut the garbage out on our own. Then we open up the ground to more sunlight, where hopefully more preferred saplings will grow. If I find stands of maple which are large/dominant enough, I can try hinge cutting some.

Food plotting is quite different from foresting. If you make a mistake in your plots, you can just till under the next season and start over. But if you screw up your forests, it can literally take decades to undo.
For dtabor and those of you in the Northeast, check this out
It shows the common trees, from most preferred to least.
If you live in other areas of the country, look for local state lists with similar information. I have looked at others, and they vary widely from region to region.

Ultimately, QDMA has always seemed to focus mostly on plotting and much less on the surrounding forests.