5 Ways to Produce Great Cover for Fawns

January 24, 2024 By: Kyle Hedges

Hunters and habitat managers stumble across fawns in a variety of locations each year, but sometimes folks are fooled by those observations. You may have found a fawn lying in closed-canopy forest or a mowed hay field, but those are not ideal fawning sites. I’d like to share five ways you can ensure there is enough prime fawning cover where you hunt.

Ideal fawning cover consists of a diversity of herbaceous plants. Annual and perennial broad-leafed plants, also known as forbs or weeds, are the most critically important component of fawning cover, as these provide the nutrients to help a doe produce milk for her newborn fawns. Forbs can constitute up to 70% of a doe’s diet during the extremely exhausting birthing and lactating period. 

A variety of plant heights is also important for fawn concealment. Some brush or brambles can also be beneficial to help does feel secure about leaving a fawn hidden for several hours, as well as provide additional browse for the new mother. 

The location of fawning cover is important as well. Where possible, having multiple fawning cover sites across an area is preferred. By having multiple locations for fawning cover, deer have more options and there will be less social stress between new mothers seeking quality cover. This is important given does are territorial during fawning season.

Convert Non-Native Grass to Cover

Many deer-hunting properties have areas dominated by non-native cool- or warm-season grasses like fescue, brome, bahia or Bermuda grass. Although these grass fields are comprised of herbaceous plants, they typically are not preferred due to their lack of height, structure, and food value. Most of these fields can be easily converted to ideal fawning cover with just a couple well-timed treatments. Typically, the native seed bank is still somewhat intact, at least intact enough to produce a diverse stand of plants. This is one of my favorite techniques to prescribe in management plans when doing consulting work. There is usually a quick response with minimal cost and effort. 

The conversion of cool-season non-native grass fields, like fescue, brome or orchard grass, can be completed either in the fall or the spring. The process involves a prescribed burn and a chemical application. One critical step is ensuring the herbicide will make good contact with actively growing undesirable grass. 

For less than $10 an acre you can convert fields dominated by non-native grasses into excellent fawning cover. Use fire and herbicides to kill the non-native cool-season grasses. In this field, native plants in the seed bank are responding after removal of non-native competitors.

Burn the field in late winter or early spring. When the regrowth reaches 6-8 inches, apply an herbicide containing glyphosate at a rate of 64 ozs./acre. Just make sure the timing allows the field to be sprayed before the ground temperature reaches 55° F, as this is when many native plants begin growing. Herbicide application should occur when the air temperature is above 50° F to ensure the cool-season grass will actively take up the herbicide.

I used the spring burn-and-spray timing on a small field on my Southeast Kansas farm a few years ago. The field had scattered native grasses, but fescue encroachment had blanketed the ground, restricting any opportunity for forbs to grow. I burned the field in late February then applied glyphosate in March when the fescue had a few inches of new growth. The result was an explosion of common and giant ragweed, tick trefoil, big bluestem, and Indiangrass, among other species. For less than $10 per acre, that field went from nearly useless to prime forage and cover for deer, including fawns.

If targeting warm-season non-natives like bahia or Bermuda grass, the window for herbicide application is shorter. These grasses will shut down after the first frost, so burning in the spring and spraying the regrowth in July with an herbicide containing imazapyr at 48 ozs./acre is preferred. 

Removal of these non-native grasses will allow the native plants in the seed bank to express themselves the following summer. These areas should develop into a diverse stand of forbs with scattered clumps of native grass. Big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass are all common native grasses that emerge from the seed bank in many areas, though the species of native warm-season grasses you get will vary by region. Highly nutritionous forbs like common and giant ragweed, partridge pea and many others typically show themselves quickly. It’s not uncommon to see 30-plus species of plants the first summer. Conducting a prescribed burn every two to four years will help maintain the site in desirable fawning cover.

Create Forest Openings for Bedding Thickets

Creating a hole in the canopy of a stand of timber will allow sunlight to reach the ground and spur a robust stand of grasses, forbs, brush and brambles. Clearcutting or heavily thinning areas from a half acre to 5 acres in size can create ideal fawning locations. These areas are typically called bedding thickets because they provide secure, dense cover that makes deer feel safe. This same safety, in addition to preferred food plants, is what draws does into these areas during the fawning season. 

Site selection is critical. Consider the slope and aspect when choosing areas to create a forest opening. Typically, areas on flat ground or subtle slopes are preferred over steep terrain. Southeast, south and southwest aspects are superior since they receive more sunlight than north-facing slopes. The increased sunlight helps stimulate desirable plants, resulting in southern exposures having a much higher density of herbaceous growth as compared to northern ones. 

Most trees should be terminated by cutting with a chainsaw and letting them lie where they fall. The treetops add extra horizontal security cover to the site. Some of the hardwood stumps should be treated with herbicide (Pathway, Tordon RTU, various others), and some should be left to resprout. The number of stumps to treat will depend on the tree density at the start of the project. Ideally there needs to be enough open space, without competition from stump sprouting, to facilitate the herbaceous plants and briars for years to come.

All the stumps of non-native invasive species, as well as undesirable native species like sweetgum, should be treated. Some stumps of palatable species like red maple or elm should be left to resprout to increase available browse for lactating does. If the stem count is very high and cutting all the trees will result in excessive debris such that movement through the site by deer would become restrictive, then some trees can be terminated by girdling or hack-and-squirt. This will kill the trees standing and still allow sunlight to reach to ground. Periodic prescribed fire will help maintain a forest opening for many years.

Plant a Native Grass/Forb Blend

Fawning cover can be created by planting a diverse mix of native grasses and forbs. This practice is typically implemented in areas that have been historically row-cropped. Due to the previous agricultural activity, there are typically fewer quality native plants remaining in the seed bank, so trying to allow these areas to revert to natural vegetation on their own is not always successful. 

When purchasing seed, it is imperative to get seed that is native to the local area. It is also important to include several species in the mix, particularly forbs. A couple species of grasses are also valuable to add height structure but be careful not to overload the mix with grasses that will outcompete the desirable forbs. Additionally, avoid cultivar grasses due to their aggressive nature. A 10- or 20-species mix will provide considerable diversity to a planting. I typically recommend a mix of 5 to 10 lbs./acre of pure live seed, with no more than 25% of the mix being grasses.

Planting into crop stubble is ideal, as this provides a clean slate for the seedlings to sprout. Warm-season grasses require specialized equipment when planting due to the fluffiness of the seed. Typically, local US Department of Agriculture offices or state fish and wildlife agencies will have no-till native grass and forb drills available to borrow or rent. These drills allow the seed mix to be drilled directly into the crop stubble. Care should be taken to not drill the mix too deep as many of the forb seeds should only be planted a quarter-inch deep or shallower. 

You can create fawning cover by planting a diverse mix of native grasses and forbs, but it’s important not to overload the mix with grasses that will outcompete forbs. No more than 25% of your seed mix should be grasses.

Another option is disking the area and broadcasting the seed, then rolling, but again a special broadcast seeder is required to throw native grass seed. The typical food-plot seeder on the back of the ATV will not work for these seed mixes. Whether drilling or broadcasting, two or three maintenance mowings are usually required the first summer to reduce competition from annual weeds.

Although annual weeds are desirable, they can dominate a planting during the first summer and suppress the native seedlings from establishing a root system. Mowing the planting at a height of 12 to 15 inches is ideal, and mowing should occur before the weed growth gets excessive to minimize a thick thatch layer left on the ground that could smother young seedlings. Due to the need to mow the first growing season, this obviously eliminates the usability of the new planting for fawning cover during the first year. However, planting a field to diverse natives will provide quality fawning habitat for decades, especially when managed properly with periodic prescribed fire.

I completed a direct seeding on my farm in 2021. I had a retired crop field which, over the course of several years, morphed itself into a stand of fescue and Johnsongrass, with a handful of common milkweed plants. Since this site had fescue and Johnsongrass, I used a combination of techniques described above. I burned the field in early spring, then followed up with a glyphosate application on the regrowth. Due to the cropping history and Johnsongrass issues, I knew the seed bank alone would likely not produce the results I desired. I ordered a mix of nine forbs with a sprinkling of little bluestem, and I no-till drilled the mix within a week after spraying. The first summer I observed deer foraging on several of the planted species, as well as a few that emerged from the seed bank. Their use of those planted species continued into the fall and winter.

Use prescribed fire to set old fields back to productive stages when they are becoming too crowded with young trees.

Maintain Old Fields

This cover type is usually old crop fields or pastures and characterized by a mix of grasses, forbs and brush or young trees. However, old fields can quickly transition into young forests if they aren’t properly managed. Ideal old fields will have no more than 50% woody cover and ideally the woody cover is comprised primarily of shrub species like dogwood, sumac or wild plum.

If the old field is comprised of a substantial amount of tree species, control methods like cutting with a chainsaw or clipping with a skid steer may be in order if the trees begin taking over the field, limiting the growth of desirable herbaceous cover. Burning old fields every two to five years, depending on the latitude, can keep them in an ideal condition. Southern areas, which have longer growing seasons, should use a shorter fire return interval where northern areas can wait several years between burns. 

Another common issue that can result in old fields being less than ideal is the presence of non-native grasses. Much like the non-native grass conversion portion of this article, these aggressive grasses need to be controlled through herbicide applications to give native plants the opportunity to thrive. Typically spraying the regrowth a few weeks after a burn is effective. The use of a boomless sprayer is usually required due to the shrubs or trees scattered around the old field. 

Improve CRP Grasslands 

Fields that are part of CRP Grasslands have the structure to serve as fawning cover, and many fawns are found in CRP Grasslands across the country each year. However, most CRP Grasslands are grass-dominated and lack necessary forb diversity. Improving the forb component can significantly increase their value for fawning cover and doe foraging. Many CRP Grasslands were planted to native warm-season grasses, but most were planted to cultivar varieties in the 1980s and 90s. These cultivar grasses can be aggressive and get very thick over time. Spraying herbicides containing imazapyr or glyphosate on regrowth after a burn, or spraying, then burning weeks later can significantly reduce the grass dominance, allowing forbs an opportunity to explode the following growing season. 

CRP grasslands planted in native warm-season grasses may become too thick with aggressive cultivars over time. Burning, spraying and light disking can all be used to reduce grass dominance and allow forbs to thrive.

Light disking is another option for reducing grass dominance. The field does not need to be worked up like a crop field, but disking enough to expose 50% soil will result in a nice flush of weeds the following growing season. Disking typically yields the best results when conducted in late winter. However, herbicide treatments usually yield longer-term grass suppression than light disking. 

With the Johnsongrass issues I see on my Kansas farm, I avoid disking and stick with the herbicide applications when my CRP Grasslands get too dense with grass. 

Assess Your Hunting Land Now

Take some time to assess the land where you hunt and identify any deficiencies in fawning cover. Then make plans to correct those deficiencies as soon as possible. The first fawn born in your new fawning cover may be the mature buck you harvest 6½ years later!

About the Author

Kyle Hedges has spent over 25 years managing upland game habitat on public lands in Kansas and Missouri for state wildlife agencies. He also works as a habitat consultant for Land & Legacy, assisting landowners across the country with improving their properties. He is a passionate hunter, trapper and fisherman.

About Kyle Hedges:

Kyle Hedges has spent over 25 years managing upland game habitat on public lands in Kansas and Missouri for state wildlife agencies. He also works as a habitat consultant for Land & Legacy, assisting landowners across the country with improving their properties. He is a passionate hunter, trapper and fisherman.