How Crop Rotations Impact Deer Movement

How Crop Rotations Impact Deer Movement

Agriculture dominates the landscape of America’s heartland. The same can be said of its influence on the deer and deer hunters that live there.

The presence of crops that deer eat dramatically impacts where deer live and travel, as do any changes to those crops. Due to an agricultural practice known as “crop rotation,” in which farmers plant fields with different crop types every other year, deer habits change annually in many places.

The question then is how do deer react to these rotations, and how can a deer hunter take advantage?

The Deer Impact
Crop rotations create a sea change across a whitetail’s world, most notably where corn and soybeans are the primary cash crops. Whether the property you hunt has corn or soybeans in a given year can make a significant difference for where deer live, feed, and travel.

On years when standing corn is present, these fields become dense jungles of cover and bedding habitat while also providing a preferred food source. Not only does this result in deer spending more time in and around standing corn, it can also result in deer spending less time in other places.

“Standing corn offers the deer more places to bed and feed during daylight, therefore making natural bedding areas less of a destination location,” said John Eberhart, author of “Bowhunting Whitetails the Eberhart Way.”

On the flip side, during bean years deer have a terrific food source in the summer and then again in the later parts of the fall, but no security cover at all. This forces deer to spend the majority of their daylight hours in the natural bedding areas that they neglected during the year of standing corn.

Which is better? Well, that depends.

“If the property has a natural marsh, cattails, autumn olive, or some other brush- and briar-type bedding areas, then I prefer short crops, such as soybeans, as the property will hold deer on its own within the natural bedding areas,” Eberhart said.

If, on the other hand, the property is lacking in security cover, Eberhart prefers corn to provide the bedding that the property lacks.

The Hunting Impact
The key to adjusting to these rotations comes down to understanding exactly how deer react to crops in your area and then shifting your strategy accordingly, every other year.

When it comes to feeding, deer typically prefer soybeans while they are green in the summer but shift away from them when they begin to defoliate in September. Once they completely dry down and temperatures drop later in fall, soybeans can once again become highly attractive. On the other hand, corn is not much of a food source in the summer, but once it dries in mid-fall, it becomes a top option.

Zero in on exactly what time periods your deer prefer each of these food sources, or whatever other crop is rotated in your area, and adjust as needed. If you have both crop types around, you can simply shift where you hunt at any given time to be near the more attractive food. If you only have one or the other, the rotation might have as much of an impact on your property or make certain parts of the season not worth hunting. Or, it won’t be worth hunting extensively until those crops are more desirable.

As already mentioned, the security cover impact of standing corn influences not only deer movement in those fields, but also any adjacent areas. Certain regions of a property might be well used when standing corn is nearby, but neglected entirely during daylight when only the short soybean or cut crop fields are present.

“If there are active scrape areas or mast and fruit trees that are producing food and they are right along the edge of the field, and the crops in the field are short, I will not hunt at any of those locations,” Eberhart said. “Mature bucks in a pressured area will rarely visit them during daylight hours due to the area being too exposed and vulnerable. But, if on the other hand the field is in standing corn, the odds of a daytime mature buck visit is pretty good.”

Annual Patterns
It’s widely accepted in the whitetail world that mature bucks develop annual patterns in which they use a certain area year after year around the same time. I’ve seen evidence of this myself. Take for example a buck that I hunted for multiple seasons that appeared on my property every year around the second week of September, and then for three years in a row began to move during daylight around the October 24 or 25.

If you hunt in an area with a firmly set rotation, it’s possible to see an every-other-year pattern develop that coincides with crops. When trying to discern and study a buck’s patterns, it’s important to keep this in mind. Consider whether the presence of standing corn is impacting where that buck is bedding or changing how he travels along that opening next to the field, or where he feeds in mid-October. Consider whether the presence of a bean field, or similar short crop, forces him deeper into the neighboring cover or forces him to use different terrain features to travel across more exposed landscapes.

Patterning deer is about connecting deer behavior to habitat, time, and atmospheric conditions. Always remember that any changes to those variables—in this case habitat—will require a dramatic rebalancing of the equation. Know that deer are changing right along with your local crops, study how they react, and then adjust accordingly.

Feature image via Captured Creative.

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