7 Ways to Check a Deer Herd’s Health

lets_check_your_weight_-_stubler_2_574_793_sQuality Deer Management can help you produce healthier deer, more fawns, heavier deer body weights, more mature bucks, more rut activity, larger antlers, and other benefits. To achieve these goals, you need to see where the herd has come from and whether it’s on course to get where you want it to go. Here are seven simple but important types of information you can collect during the hunting season to help you achieve better deer and better deer hunting.

1. Observation Data: All hunters record sightings of deer each time they hunt, separated by doe, fawn and buck. Deer that can’t be confidently placed in one of these groups should be listed as “unidentified.” Other sightings you want to track, such as predators or feral hogs, should also be recorded. Additional information should include date of the hunt, location hunted, and total hours hunted. At the end of the season, total the sightings and the number of hours hunted, then calculate all sightings in a “per hour” rate, such as “does seen per hour,” or “bucks seen per hour.” These sighting rates can be tracked within or across seasons to follow trends. Also, calculate the fawns-per-doe sighting rate by dividing the total number of fawns by the total number of does sighted. This is important to track so you can determine the number of fawns surviving and being recruited into the fall herd.

By the way, if hunters are sensitive about sharing their sightings for particular stand locations, keep the location or hunter anonymous in your data, or set up a locked dropbox where data cards can be dropped at the end of each hunt. Keep the box locked until the end of the season when you calculate your sighting rates.

QDMA has created two types of data collection booklets to help you record observation data, including a personal booklet as well as a logbook for all hunters on a given property.

2. Weight. After you’ve killed a deer, there are several items of information to gather, starting with weight. Record the weight of every deer you harvest. Get both dressed and live weights for every deer if it’s possible, or choose one or the other and gather it for all deer harvested. Record each deer’s weight along with its sex and other information in a single location for later analysis. You can then track improvements in average body weight for specific groups of deer, such as adult does.

QDMA has also created a data collection logbook for help with deer harvest information.

3. Jawbone Age. Pull a lower jawbone from every deer you harvest, both bucks and does. This will help you assign an estimated age to each deer. Label or tag each jawbone with a number or unique ID that will help you match the jawbone to the weight and sex of the deer recorded in your logbook. You can save the jawbones for after the season and have them aged by your nearest state wildlife agency biologist, or you can learn how to estimate jawbone age yourself by watching our how-to video series.

QDMA has produced harvest data tags that can be attached to each jawbone for ID purposes, and the tags include space for other data like weight and sex.

In addition, if you need a jawbone extractor tool or specialized jawbone removal shears, we have those as well in our online store.

4. Doe Lactation Status. Check every doe harvested before the peak of the rut to see if it has milk in its udder. If it does, it likely had a fawn that survived that year. Record “yes” or “no” for lactation for each doe harvested. This helps you track fawn recruitment. More about this technique and what the results mean will be found in a separate article on our site.

5. Breeding Date. When field-dressing a doe, did you find one ore more fetuses in the reproductive tract? If so, you can back-date the age of the fetus to determine the date the doe was bred. Gather enough of these dates and you can pinpoint the timing of your local rut peak. QDMA sells a tool for this measurement. You’ll find more details on this technique in a separate article on our site.

6. Kidney Fat. What percentage of the kidneys were covered with fat? This is an index of deer health; the more fat covering the kidneys, the healthier the deer. Here’s a more detailed look at how to analyze kidney fat as an index of herd health.

7. Antler Dimensions. Record antler measurements (beam length, spread, mass and tine length) from every buck. Combined with age data from the jawbone, you can track improvements in antler size by age class over time. As habitat quality, buck:doe ratio and other factors improve, you will see an improvement in average antler size by age class.

As you can see, collecting these seven types of data will only take you a few extra moments while you’re hunting or while you’re field-dressing and skinning your harvest. It helps to have a location setup for data collection before you kill a deer. Stock the location with scales, gambrel, and other tools and record-keeping materials you’ll need. The more convenient you make it to record the information, the more likely all hunters involved in your effort will participate in the data-collection task.

The information you gather with a little extra effort allows you to adjust your harvest goals and habitat efforts to meet the changing needs of whitetails across seasons and years. The result will be better deer and more exciting hunting in seasons to come!

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of the National Deer Association, and he is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.