MANAGING FOR IMPROVED BUCK AGE-STRUCTURE
"Cover, cooperatives, and consistent aging skills is a great recipe to follow for achieving above-average hunting opportunities on the property that you manage."
land & legacy
By: Matt Dye & Adam Kieth / Land & Legacy
So areas designated areas that are maintained as dense secure cover is critical on a property. Several of these locations centralized will help carry more deer over from year to year, allowing them to get older. For instance, most of the hunting pressure occurs during the rut. This is also when deer happen to be travelling the most so if you have the most and best cover on your property during this timeframe when hunting pressure is the highest, you will greatly impact the adult deer population. In addition, this is the time when does are seeking the cover, so you will have a great farm to hunt during the rut. When you control the most buck activity on your property comparatively to the neighbors, during the time when most hunters are out in the woods you therefore then decrease their chances of harvesting younger bucks, which produces more individuals of older age classes. But you have to first offer quality, secure, cover that is applicable to deer during the rut. Now this cover can come in many forms but when the cover equals food such as young forest regeneration, you have now developed a key ingredient to holding big deer during an important window but also supplying year round food sources on your property with woody browse, and forb production in these areas designated as forest regeneration. There is no substitute for quality cover to help carry over additional bucks to where you can have a more balanced age structure.
Secondly, we’ll talk about the neighborhood. Obviously, this is where the co-op comes into play. A landowner can only control what happens within the boundaries of their property. However, by working and openly discussing goals with neighbors, they will likely find themselves sharing similar goals and uses for the property. Even some of the best farms that we have toured that have incredible amounts of cover available during hunting season still loose bucks. It’s going to happen. However, if your neighbors are on board, the chances of them targeting a younger age class buck decreases. So even if you have the cover on your property and now a buck decides to leave and chase a doe off to the neighbors property that buck gets a pass and then also is likely recruited into the next year's age class. So, your first line of defense is cover and the second is working with your neighbors to create not just a property but a landscape effect of properly balanced age structure within the whitetail herd.
Ideally, a developed age structure would look something like this, 35% of the total bucks would be a 1.5-year-olds. 25% of the bucks seen on the property would be 2.5-year-olds. 20% of the bucks would be 3.5-years-old and 10% would be 4.5 and another 10% would be 5.5-years-old or older. Do you observe these ratios within your trail camera data or in the field observations being more weighted within 1.5 and 2.5-year-olds will obviously allow more of them to survive car collisions, predators, hunters, natural causes, therefore get to older age classes. In this ideal breakdown of age classes, 40% of your bucks will be 3.5 or older.
This balancing and ratio should be your goal moving forward to achieve within the local free-ranging deer herd. When this ratio is achieved you likely will be more than satisfied with the buck harvest opportunities. Remember the genetics have not changed in this situation, only the age structure and number of individuals able to reach maturity. Cover, cooperatives, and consistent aging skills is a great recipe to follow for achieving above-average hunting opportunities on the property that you manage.
About the Authors:
Matt Dye & Adam Kieth / Land & Legacy, LLC
Matt and Adam are hosts of the Land & Legacy Podcast and
private wildlife management consultants from the Missouri Ozarks
(Click on the author's image for more info on the author)
One of the great debates revolving around what makes big deer “big” is the constant discussion of age, genetics, and nutrition. Oftentimes, people begin to focus and discuss antidodically the importance of genetics when discussing antler production. But as we know, science has proven that of these three factors, genetics is the least important. Age is the number one determining factor for producing bigger bucks! Most places across the country simply have very few older deer, therefore very few “big bucks”. However if you're in a state such as Kentucky, Kansas, or Ohio where hunters are limited to only one buck each hunting season, there are many more mature bucks on the landscape. Even in localized areas within these states where habitat is poor, hunters are harvesting great deer! Your likelihood of encountering these animals is much higher simply because the number of individuals at the appropriate age is far greater. This is a quick example of how a well balanced age structure in a wild herd is critical for producing desired results.
producing older age-class bucks
Naturally the next question becomes how do I get more deer to older age classes if this is true? This question leads into many other highly debated discussions but for simplicity's sake we are going to address security cover, the neighborhood, and the skill set of aging deer on the hoof. Understanding the interaction of these three variables and applying them to your region will yield the results you're looking for.
So first: security cover. As traveling consultants we are blessed to see properties of all shapes and sizes all over the United States. We see farms with fantastic cover but more times than not the very first recommendation that has to be made is adding adequate cover for the whitetail species. Why is cover so important? Having adequate cover is a defensive move. Sometimes adding food plots would be considered an offensive move but the cover aspect is to hold and protect what herd is already using the property. Naturally you will gain deer as pressure increases but first and foremost you have to protect what you have.
location / missouri
Hunter: Seth Harker, 2020 mo
Thirdly, is developing the skill set to determine how to age bucks on the hoof. This can be in the form of trail cameras or in the field observations while hunting or scouting, but most importantly this comes at the moment of truth when it is time to make that decision to shoot or pass a specific animal. Aging bucks on the hoof is not a concrete science. Angles, timing of the observation, perhaps later in the season may reveal different body conditions than during the rut or pre-rut may change your observation. Between trail camera observations, scouting, and in the field skills of aging a buck on the hoof, consciously working to age deer will help you distinguish the differences between three and 4.5-year-old bucks. Most 3.5-year-old deer happen to be intense travelers during the rut. Many rut hunts are quick, fast, and therefore many 3.5-year-olds succumb to misjudged ages while chasing does. However, if you can adequately determine ages and know individuals within the herd you won't make this mistake and allow another year of maturing and development for that individual. This skill-set must be practiced. For instance, if you're in an area with very few mature bucks, when one finally appears, it’s a no brainer when you compare it to what you would typically see. It should jump off the screen at you! When a 5.5-year-old deer finally steps out there is no comparison. However, you must have a trained eye when observing trail camera pictures to make quick calls in the field.