Let’s now lay out the Tecomate Management Strategy and discuss its various aspects. Here’s the program in a nutshell: Provide attractive, highly nutritious, concentrated food sources, preferably through year-round agricultural plantings, for the purpose of increasing deer numbers and size and holding the deer in a relatively confined area. Then, implement a harvest strategy that maintains the deer density within carrying capacity to allow for maximum body and antler size and peak reproduction and that promotes a low buck/doe ratio and a good buck age structure.
This management strategy revolves around three distinct aspects – nutrition, herd balance and people. Let’s look at each.
Better Nutrition Is the Key
The heart and soul of this program is obviously enhanced nutrition through a concentrated, favored food source. The goal is twofold – increased nutrition and high attraction. Hunters have long used food plots and direct feeding to attract deer for viewing and harvesting, and while that remains an important benefit of this program, what we’re talking about here goes far beyond that.
The first goal is to substantially elevate the quality of nutrition available to the herd so that deer numbers, size and reproduction increase as a byproduct of a healthier herd. Yes, this takes a serious commitment, but it is well within the reach of most landowners and managers who are already trying to manage their deer.
To receive maximum benefits, nutritional needs must be met year-round. In the spring and summer, the greatest need is for protein to rebuild rut and winter-depleted muscle, to grow new antlers and to nourish developing fetuses or fawns. During the fall and winter, deer need carbohydrates to supply energy and maintain body fat so minimal muscle is burned. So, we can divide the four seasons into two distinct times – warm (spring and summer) and cold (fall and winter) periods.
Almost anywhere arable land is found, the warm-period need for protein can be met to a large degree through agricultural plantings, primarily high-protein legumes of various types. Agriculture in the form of corn or small grains can also provide carbohydrates during the cold period in areas where snow doesn’t accumulate too deeply. In non-arable or heavy snow regions, direct feeding of, for instance, high-protein pellets or corn (carbohydrates) may be necessary to provide the necessary nutrition, though the nutritional impact possible on a herd is generally less with supplemental feed than with agriculture.
The whitetail is hardy, adaptable and equipped to withstand all but the harshest conditions nature throws at him. For instance, deer have adapted to counter the physical drain of the fall rut and winter by entering the fall with heavy fat reserves and then shifting to a low-energy, maintenance existence during the winter. As a result, they can get through the winter on relatively slim rations, though at a cost. Yet, despite their hardiness, the whitetail responds favorably to any help that comes his way during either the warm or cold season. Obviously, improving his lot year-round is best, but if a year-round program is not practical, some gains can be realized by meeting the nutritional needs of either season. Which is more important? Let me say this clearly: The real magic in nutritional management lies in meeting the warm-season high-protein needs of deer; not in meeting the cool-season carbohydrate needs! You can grow significantly more and bigger deer without an effective cool-season nutritional program, but you CANNOT grow significantly more and bigger deer without meeting warm-season nutritional needs. However, you can grow the most and the biggest deer when you meet both warm and cool-season needs!
How much can nutritious, major food sources increase the number and size of the deer on your property? That depends on many factors, not the least of which is the property and the nature and extent of the food sources. Suffice to say the gains possible will astound you when serious year-round food plot management is taken to its fullest extent. The increase in number and size we’ve seen on dozens of tracts across the country has not only shocked us but has defied anything we’ve ever thought possible! Take El Tecomate Ranch, though only about 3,000 acres, Gary Schwarz and his family have consistently dominated Texas’ big bucks contests! Plus, Gary is carrying roughly a deer per five acres … in country with a natural carrying capacity of about a deer per 25 acres! On my own El Cazador Ranch in South Texas, I’m carrying an astounding deer per four acres and my family and I have taken four B&C bucks in six years and an amazing 18 bucks over 170 in 9 years … and the average body weight of pre-rut mature bucks has increased from 178 pounds to an amazing 229 pounds! And, Tecomate partner Jeff Foxworthy is supporting similar populations under the Tecomate Food Plot System on his Georgia plantation. On Fort Perry Plantation, also in Georgia, during our research years, we had about 12 percent of the acreage in intensive year-round food plots and were growing giant bucks while supporting nearly more than five times the number of deer native habitat could carry in good condition. (On Fort Perry, under the scientific scrutiny of Dr. James Kroll of Stephen F. Austin University, we pushed the envelope to see what was possible for both size and numbers, while carefully protecting the quality of native habitat. We have never published the detailed results of that study because, simply put, what we found defied anything ever thought possible and nobody would have believed it! Plus, we took the level of intensity to a level most managers would not do.)
Under an intensive food plot program, I’m being conservative to say the number of deer that can be carried in maximum health can be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. In the case of direct supplemental feeding only, the impact, though quite significant, is less … unless the native habitat is severely stressed so the deer are forced to the supplement. Why? Because deer are browsers, and rather fill up on supplement, they will browse if they can, even on lower quality plants. Deer on good habitat will seldom take more than 25 percent of their daily diet in supplemental feed. Food plots, however, are just another form of browse to deer, and it’s not unusual for food plots to supply over 50 percent of the deer’s diet even on good habitat.
A good way to get a handle of the size potential on your property is to look back on what was killed during the heyday years of big bucks when the herd was first expanding. This is when the herd was still below the natural carrying capacity of the land and prime native foods were most abundant, allowing the deer to reach their greatest size … on natural habitat. Yet, even this doesn’t reveal the true size potential of a place. Why? Because the food-centered strategy we’re talking about here is capable on elevating the nutritional plane higher than that possible under the most ideal natural conditions. As a result, it is possible to raise the bar on buck size above that of the heyday expansion years.
Like it or not, a requirement for a successful management program is some level of control over the herd so that outside loses are reduced to an acceptable level. Otherwise, you’ll be pouring nutrition into bucks your neighbors will be shooting, probably before they’re old enough to be big. Traditionally, this control has been achieved either through a vast land base, usually several thousand acres, or by a game-proof fence. Some lucky landowners have natural barriers, such as rivers or lakes, perhaps busy freeways or, in the case of the riverbottom habitat in the Plains and Prairies, even wide-open spaces, to help contain the deer. And, a few have such good neighbors or adjoin unhunted or inaccessible tracts that the deer can leave the managed property without suffering unnatural lose. Whatever the means, a manager must have some level of control over his deer. That means keeping them on his property as much as possible. Without thousands of acres or physical barriers of some kind, how can that be done? Lots of good food!
That leads us to the second objective of a nutritional strategy – to make the food source so attractive that, assuming water and cover needs are met, the deer will stay in relatively close proximity to it, thereby spending the great majority of their time on the managed land and under the control of the manager. This places certain requirements on the nature of the food source, especially as it relates to managing tracts of limited size.
The food source must be confined to a specific area, such as a food plot or feeding station, be highly favored by deer and provide the bulk of their nutritional needs. Meeting these three requirements allows the land manager to specifically locate his food sources so that deer activity is contained to his property to the greatest extent possible. Not only does natural habitat management have less potential to increase carrying capacity, it does not concentrate the deer around a focal point, thus it fails to deliver the critical advantage of herd containment so essential on smaller tracts.
How tight can major food sources hold deer? Again, many factors go into this equation, such as the part of the country, cover conditions, hunting pressure and time of year. Certainly, the quality, volume and nature of the food sources are important. For instance, deer simply like some foods better than others. Additionally, the longer food sources are in place, the closer deer tend to stay to them. Why? Deer become increasingly accustomed to and dependent upon the food sources, and perhaps more importantly, the fawns raised on the food sources will “imprint” on the area and claim it as their own. This is particularly true in the case of warm-season food plots.
So, what can we expect? Based on research conducted on Tecomate Ranch by Dr. Tim Fulbright of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, indications are that deer dependent on established major food sources, in this case food plots rather than direct feed, spend about 95 percent of their time within a half-mile of the food sources. Better yet, that same research shows that most of that time is spent within a quarter-mile of the food source! Our experience on various other places bears these numbers out. In fact, we’ve seen even tighter adherence to plots on properties the South and East. Without question, serious nutritional food plots, especially warm-season plots, will reduce the home ranges of deer within the affected herd.
All of a sudden, it comes together! More and bigger bucks that can be contained in a relatively small area – presto, trophy buck management is possible on smaller tracts than ever thought possible … without a high fence.
Another big plus of preferred major food sources is that they allow deer to be seen and enjoyed consistently at predictable places. This offers obvious hunting advantages, but the management benefits may be even greater, particularly when trying to census the herd or harvest just the right animals. Certainly, one of the greatest pluses the Tecomate Management Strategy offers is the year-round enjoyment and satisfaction of just watching deer do their thing and seeing the herd and individual bucks get better and better year after year.
The second and more traditional aspect of the Tecomate Management Strategy calls for managing the herd, just as any serious management plan would. The goal is to control the number of deer and to maintain a tight buck/doe ratio and good buck age structure through a balanced harvest strategy. We could spend a lot of time on herd balance and harvest strategies and the factors affecting them, but here, we’re just going to hit the high points.
What is the right number of deer for your property? Of course, that depends on your property and the level of management intensity. The simple answer is the most the place can sustain at your level of management while still achieving maximum body and antler size and peak reproduction. You’ll have to determine what that is on your property under your program.
What is the ideal buck/doe ratio? That’s the manager’s call, but frankly, the right buck/doe ratio is largely a function of the reproductive rate. The higher the reproductive rate; the tighter the buck:doe should and can be. Harvest objectives also figure into it. The general goal is to move toward a one-to-one ratio of adult bucks to adult does, but this is seldom achieved. In the real world, something around 1:1.2 to 1:1.5 is more realistic. Philosophically, you want the herd to consist of as many bucks as possible and only enough does to replace the previous year’s loses. In practice, the problem is seldom too few does.
Buck age structure is simply the distribution of bucks throughout the various age classes. What’s a good buck age structure? That depends on the harvest strategy, which depends on the desires of the manager. A trophy buck program requires that as many bucks as possible be allowed to reach the mature age classes, which means protecting at least the 1½ and 2½-year-old bucks, and possibly even the 3½s and 4½s on more intensive programs with larger land bases. Once they reach maturity, the manager has to decide how many and what size/age are to be taken. His decision will determine the buck age structure and the nature of his program. For instance, if the goal is top-end bucks, the herd must have a good representation of older, peak-antler-aged bucks, i.e., 4½ or perhaps 5½ and older. If a heavier harvest targeting any mature buck is the goal, then the mature age structure will likely consist primarily of 3½s and 4½s.
What about genetics? That’s always one of the first questions to arise in a trophy program. Frankly, I think the infatuation with genetics stems from the fact that many people believe it offers a quick fix for bigger bucks. It doesn’t. The truth is that the deer on your property have far greater genetic potential than you think. If bucks of a size you would be happy with have ever been killed in your area, then your deer undoubtedly have the genetic potential to realize your trophy dreams … if you provide them with quality nutrition and time to grow up. Actually, it may be possible to grow even bigger bucks than ever before. Why? Because the improved nutritional plane possible under an intense program can provide higher quality nutrition than the natural habitat was ever capable of yielding. This allows bucks to realize even more of their genetic potential (meaning, get bigger) than ever before.
And, an ongoing high nutritional plane may well bring another factor into play that leads to greater size than thought possible. Gary Schwarz first brought this theory to my attention. He had come across a study reported in the 1986 Wildlife Society Bulletin that dealt with why the antlers of red stag and roe deer in Europe were so much smaller than those in museums from medieval times. Though the study was conducted before World War II by a European scientist named Franz Vogt, it wasn’t brought to the attention of the American community until scientist Valerius Geist published the 1986 paper reporting on the results of Vogt’s study.
Essentially, Vogt believed that the effects of poor nutrition over many generations acted to suppress the potential for full genetic expression in antler and body size. (We’ll just focus on antler size.) He wasn’t just saying the antlers were smaller a particular animal because of poor nutrition; he believed the genetic potential for size had actually been eroded as an adaptation to long-term malnutrition. He also theorized that with the availability of optimum nutrition the suppression of antler size could be reversed over many generations. His studies eventually proved his theory correct! In five to seven generations under high nutrition, Vogt overcame the genetic suppression and released the full genetic potential of the animals, producing red stags equal in size to those of medieval times! And, whitetails will respond the same way!
In short, before worrying too much about genetics, get good nutrition to your balanced herd … then you can tweak genetics through controlled harvests.
How Much Land Is Needed?
While food source management is simple, thought, time, money and work are required to put it into practice. Many decisions must be made along the way. Ultimately, the nature of the program will be determined by the resources available and the goals of the people involved. Let’s spend a moment on one of the most important resources – the land.
The most often-asked question about this program is how much land does it take? The answer is NOT AS MUCH AS YOU THINK! The Tecomate Management System can improve your hunting to some degree even if you only have a few acres. The least you can do is attract deer to your food source even if you can’t keep them on your place or significantly improve their nutritional plane. But, that’s not really taking advantage of the nutritional benefits so key to the program. To accomplish this, land size does come into play but perhaps not in the most obvious way.
You can’t think of this program only in terms of how much land you own; you have to look at the overall area, whether you own it or not, used by the deer feeding on your food sources. We’ll call this the “managed or protected” area. Obviously, this area cannot have heavy, indiscriminate hunting pressure if the program is going to be successful, thus the name. It’s this acreage that’s important.
What size managed area is necessary? Earlier we said that deer tend to spend 95 percent of their time within a half-mile of a major food source. Using this half-mile as the distance from a food source that would allow reasonable control over the herd, we can come up with an acreage parameter for the protected area. Assuming centrally located food sources, a protected half-mile radius around the food sources would result in roughly a square-mile area, or 640 acres. That will serve the rule-of-thumb for the minimum protected area required for an effective program. (Mere acreage is only not the only concern: locating food plots most effectively relative to good and bad neighbors is also important. The shape of the land factors in here.) Though a square mile of land will not give full control of the herd, it will allow for an effective program … if the neighbor situation is not intolerable. Obviously, the larger the protected zone, the greater control you have over the herd.
As we said, you don’t have to own the entire protected zone to receive its benefits. True, it’s best to own as much of the impacted area as possible to fully control it, but with the right neighbors, the program can be successful when you own only a part of the managed area. Since you have the food sources, the deer will end up under your dominion sooner or later. So, if your neighbors won’t shoot your deer before they get big, your program will fly when you own only part of the impacted land. From this, you can see how the right 50 or 100 acres could keep a family in taxidermy bills. My 80-acre “ranch” in Montana sits in the middle of inaccessible, lightly hunted national forest land, and my two 15-acre Tecomate Monster Mix plots are the hub of local deer activity. I know others who manage even less land to amazing effect. One is a 10-acre tract next to a large, unhunted utility holding. You wouldn’t believe the huge bucks that have come off that tiny tract over the years!
Ok, we’ve talked about minimum land requirements, but what would be a more ideal size to manage? Again, it depends. You’d be amazed what a square mile in a low-pressure area could produce. But all things considered, the ideal size to fully exploit the concept is from 1,000 to 2,000 acres, sizes well below that once thought to be necessary for an effective program. Anything less than a 1,000 acres stands to suffer significant loses to hunting neighbors. Anything more than 2,000 acres presents daunting logistical challenges, both from the standpoint of nutrition and herd control. Certainly, commercial or large-scale programs can be successfully implemented on tracts as large as the involved parties are willing to take on.
The great thing about the Tecomate Food Plot Program is that it has now put serious and successful deer management within the range of countless sportsmen who once thought owning and/or managing their properties for bigger bucks was an unattainable dream. But it is NOT – more and bigger deer on smaller tracts, yes, it’s for real!