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Cutting Browse for Deer

Deer Diet

Although it may appear to be a simple act, feeding deer in the winter can be an especially difficult endeavor to do correctly. Deer are ruminants, similar to cows, and have complex digestive processes. They have multi-chambered stomachs and rely upon micro-organisms, instead of digestive juices to break down food so that nutrients can be absorbed. The types and concentrations of the micro-organisms are specific for various food types. What might work well to digest woody browse will not digest supplemental foods such as corn or other grains. If there are any changes in a deer's diet, it can take up to several weeks for the culture of the micro-organisms to adjust to the newly introduced food. Deer may readily consume new foods, but in fact receive little nutrition for an extended period of time.

During the winter period, deer digestive systems are normally set up to digest their regular diet of woody browse, twig tips, and buds. Food provided to them by browse cutting provides nourishment with no delay in receiving energy from the food. As a result, the cutting of hardwood, and in some cases softwood browse has been a long standing recommendation for those concerned about deer survival in the winter. In light of the new concerns for the introduction and spread of CWD, browse cutting is even more acceptable because the risks normally associated with artificial foods and high deer concentrations are greatly reduced. In addition to providing immediate nutrition, the long term benefits of browse cutting can also result in improvement of the overall deer winter habitat.

Advantages and Limitations to Browse Cutting Practices

Keep in mind that even under ideal conditions, there are advantages and limitations to browse cutting practices.

Some points in favor of browse cutting include:

  • Picture of cutting a sapling about two-thirds through
    Hinging-tree stem cut two-thirds of the way down.
    Overall costs associated with not having to buy and transport feed are eliminated.
  • Tree species which have little economic value as a forest resource and have escaped the reach of deer can be utilized.
  • Sprouting of trees or shrubs can supply additional food in subsequent years.
  • Browse cutting can be done as a part of firewood cutting or normal timber stand improvement practices.
  • Browse cutting spread out over a wide area minimizes the direct competition for food between larger and smaller deer.

Points which limit the scope and effectiveness of browse cutting include:

  • Browse cutting cannot be done on most State and other public lands.
  • Landowner permission must be obtained before cutting browse on private lands.
  • There is little, if any, possibility of sprout growth and regeneration in areas where deer populations are high and survival and regeneration of vegetation is limited by overbrowsing.

How to Cut Browse

Consideration should be given to cutting the more palatable vegetation species that are contained on the Preferred List of Winter Deer Foods. All hardwood firewood cutting operations, with the exception of beech, will provide valuable browse. This is especially true if the limbs are cut to lie no more than three feet off the ground. Generally, the tops and higher branches have higher value as deer food than the lateral branches.

A successfully browse cut tree
Hinging-tree cut two-thirds of the way down
and pushed over.

For non-firewood cuttings that are done strictly to benefit deer, cutting should be confined to trees and shrubs with stems 1" to 3" in diameter. The stem should be cut about two-thirds of the way through and then pushed over. This will allow the cut tree to continue to be nourished by the roots and enhance sprout growth of the top and stump (see photos). "Hinging" as this is commonly called, can be done quietly, with a small handsaw, without disturbing deer in the adjoining areas. Hinging operations are best when spread out over wider areas because it provides the greatest amount of uneven sprout growth renewal over several years of cutting.

Browse cutting is most valuable to deer in times of limited mobility. A good key to determining deer mobility is by observing trailing and track patterns. When individual deer tracks outnumber deer trails and group tracks, deer are generally able to forage satisfactorily. Conversely, when deer trails and group tracks equal or outnumber individual tracks, a deer's foraging range is restricted and they are probably unable to secure adequate nourishment. Deer will reap the maximum benefits when browse is provided to them at this time.

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