The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been and continues to be a management tool used by many biologists to manage for grassland birds. It allows landowners to contribute directly to an important conservation issue for grassland birds, but is it only beneficial to birds? The answer to that question is a definite “no”. Don’t let the connection to grassland birds keep you from using CRP as a management tool for the whitetails on your property.
For the longest time I thought that CRP was a grassland bird thing and that whitetail hunters should use something else as a habitat improvement strategy, but that changed this last fall. We had two tracks of public land in mind that we wanted to hunt, but decided to opt for the piece that had more acres. It lacked the woody cover that the other one had, but had more land to work with and would possibly make the hunting pressure a little less. When we got there to scout it a month or so before the season we realized that all the surrounding pasture land was planted in CRP because of a partnership between the state game and parks and Pheasants Forever. My initial reaction was mixed. I hadn’t hunted CRP before and I didn’t really know what to expect. That changed the minute we started walking through the CRP. There were numerous trails cutting through the CRP leading to every different part of that piece of public land, along with many different bedding sites. By the time we left that day I knew that having CRP on this property actually improved its ability to manage deer.
Before I get any farther I think it is beneficial to define what I mean by CRP. In a broad sense, CRP is the name of the government program that farmers and land owners enroll in, often times with the assistance of organizations like Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. The land owners then receive incentives and other beneficial opportunities because of their participation in a conservation program that benefits wildlife. Most often the next step is planting seed blends of grasses and forbs that benefit grassland birds. When I talk about CRP in the context of this article I don’t necessarily mean that you have to enroll part of your land in the CRP program, although that is a good option. What I mean by CRP is the seed blends and grasses that are planted as a part of the CRP program. So when I mention CRP I am not taking about the CRP program as much as the plants used in the CRP program.
The Seed Blends
CRP is going to be beneficial to whitetail management on your property because of the different types of plants that you use. The main objective for a hunter using CRP is to get the most out of it. It may not be the easiest thing to do, to change from a nice clover plot to a field of grasses. So getting the most out of the seed blend you use will help make it more justifiable to you as a hunter. There are two parts to consider when trying to get the most out of using CRP. They are cover and forage.
The Cover Benefit
In regards to cover we want to use native warm season grasses like Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switch Grass. As mangers we want these tall grasses because they provide excellent cover for deer. We can use CRP to create both escape cover and thermal cover. The taller grass species will help you create more bedding areas for deer and can also be helpful in creating sanctuaries.
The Forage Benefit
With forage, it is all about the forbs. The grasses that are in the seed blend are not going to provide much forage, which is fine because they are mainly there for the purpose of providing cover. So that is why adding forbs to your seed blend is important. The forbs are what the deer are going to eat. Having the forage component in your CRP is even more important for hunters on small properties. If you add CRP on a small property, it might require you to take a food plot out of production to be able to plant the CRP somewhere. This would mean that you lose some forage production by removing that food source, but if you incorporate forbs into the CRP you can make back some of that lost forage. Some beneficial whitetail forbs to include might be Illinois Bundle Flower, Purple Prairie Clover, Purple Coneflower, Asters, Goldenrods, Ragweed, Sunflower, and Vetches. There are many other options as well and depending on where you are located, certain species might be better than others.
The Limiting Factor
As always, the type of management tools you use on your property are specific to your property. The use of CRP may not be beneficial on every property, it just depends how deer use your property. At Whitetail Instinct we like to look at the limiting factor. What element of your land and the surrounding properties is the most limiting. If it is cover, CRP is a great option to improve your property. If you’re in a heavily timbered area, creating food plots is a better use of your time. The main thing to remember with using CRP is to figure out if cover is what you need. Most hunters are working on small budgets and within a small window of time. You may not have the time to do timber stand improvement projects or wait for fruit and acorn trees to grow. CRP allows you to create cover with a smaller budget and in a quicker time frame. CRP can be a quick solution to solving a limiting factor problem on your property.
It is also good to create diversity when you manage for wildlife. You don’t want everything to be the same. Diversity is the key to successful whitetail management. We use large scale diversity when we look at the surrounding properties to determine how good ours could be for hunting whitetails. That same diversity is also important on a smaller scale within your property. CRP creates a diversity in cover, food, and edge. The main way the diversity of those three things helps hunters is by making your property hunt bigger. Most hunters don’t have the opportunity to own large tracks of land where the diversity can kind of be built in because of the size of the property. Just like ourselves at Whitetail Instinct, you will probably be working with smaller tracks of land. In this case it is extremely important that you use every inch of your property. If there is a portion of your property that isn’t in some way benefiting your hunting, you need to change that. For example, if you have land on your property that is pastureland that is mainly brome grass and you are not grazing cattle on it then you are not receiving an economic benefit and you are not receiving a whitetail benefit. A situation like this would be a great opportunity to use CRP as a management tool. Doing so would then allow you to take a portion of your land that was not giving you anything in return and create a larger “holding capacity”. The CRP would allow the property to hold more deer because of increased food and cover and allow them to feel safer. All things that will help your property hunt bigger.
Not Just For Land Owners
The benefits of CRP aren’t just restricted to people that own land. CRP can also be beneficial to hunters who hunt public land. Most states in the Midwest have a pretty equal divide in the amount of public land that it focused on grassland birds and the amount that is focused on big game animals like whitetails. There are many tracks of public land in our home state of Nebraska that are basically just CRP with only a small amount of trees. However, these locations can actually be very good for whitetail hunting. If you can find a stretch of trees along a fence line or even in the middle of one of these pieces of public ground, you have a great opportunity to see deer. Just like you do for other public land, take a look at the aerial maps. When you look at the maps don’t focus just on the land you are hunting. In a situation like this is even more important to look at the surrounding land. If the surrounding land has a lot of woody cover and there are food sources nearby, the CRP public land could be a very good option for you. If you plan on hunting this type of public land it is also important that you run trail cameras. Put a few trail cameras out just to make sure a good amount of deer are using the property. If you don’t see any bucks you want to take, it might still be a good way to fill a doe tag without putting too much hunting pressure on another property.
One big problem many have with public land is hunting pressure. The public lands that are dominated by a CRP type habitat are usually over looked. If you can find a good property and know bucks are using it, you will most likely have that property all to yourself. The only drawback to this public land strategy is pheasant season. When the pheasant season opens in your area these types of public lands will obviously be flooded with pheasant hunters. But if you can put off hunting for a few weeks when the season opens, things should go back to normal fairly quickly. The hunt this last fall I mentioned earlier in this article happened on public land that had CRP as a major component of its habitat. Because of the experiences we had hunting there, we now actually look for public land hunting areas that have CRP on them.
Hunting Strategies for CRP
You may not even want to hunt near the CRP on your property. A good idea might be to just leave it as a sanctuary and not put too much hunting pressure on that area. If you do want to use it to help focus your hunting you should treat it like a bedding area. The CRP may have good deer forage in it, but it is not going to be an attractant like a food plot is. The CRP provides cover, so it should be hunted like bedding areas. Because they are treated as bedding areas you will want to hunt the trails and pinch points that are between other bedding areas and the CRP. The CRP will become very effective during the rut because bucks will be searching the bedding areas and traveling the trails between them to search for does.
If you are hunting larger tracks of CRP instead of small food plot type setups then your strategy will be different. The most important thing to do in this situation is to glass for deer. The CRP can make it hard to see deer moving through the grass and the large open distance means deer could be anywhere. Glassing will also help you pinpoint where the deer are coming in and out of the CRP, which may allow you to move in closer as the season progresses. Just like you do hunting other areas, you need to predict where the deer will want to be and how they will get there. Once you have an idea about where they will be going, then you can look for bottlenecks in the grass or where fingers of trees stick out into the CRP.
Planting CRP may not be a hunters go to management strategy, but it can be used as a reliable tactic for hunting whitetails whether you replace a food plot with it or hunt it on public land. The important things to remember are first, that its main benefit is providing cover. So if you are looking for a quick and cost effective way to improve the cover on your property then CRP may be a good option. A second thing to remember is that we need the proper components within the CRP seed blends. We need native warm season grasses that will grow to a height of 3 to 7 feet to provide cover and forbs to provide forage quality. The use of CRP on your property should be very site specific. Look at the limiting factors in your area and base your decision off of that. You can either go all in and plant most of the pastureland into CRP or if you have the luxury, you can remove a few of your food plots from production and plant them to CRP. If nothing else, putting a few acres of your property into CRP and leaving it as a sanctuary is an option.
As I mentioned earlier, don’t let CRP’s connection to grassland birds prevent you from using it to manage for whitetails. It can provide needed habitat and forage for a reasonable price and with very little maintenance. It can also provide a unique public land hunting opportunity. So the next time you are thinking about a new management project for your property, don’t overlook CRP.