The Block System of Deer Management at Virginia’s Fraley Family Farm

May 1, 2024 By: Bruce Ingram

On August 9-12, the next NDA Deer Steward 2 course will be held, this time at the Fraley family farm and at the Preserve at Crooked Run in Botetourt County, Virginia. The approximately 10,000-acre contiguous tract was put together by Jerry Fraley who purchased steep, mountainous land once owned by a timber company. Jerry’s nephew Jon Cooper currently manages the property. And the management plan there certainly could be considered a model one.

“When my uncle bought the land in the late 1980s, it was typical Eastern mountain land with a closed canopy and mature forest,” Jon told me. “Starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, Jerry created wildlife clear-cuts, food plots, and fields, and designed access roads, which was a very good start to managing the property. He was on the forefront of management and information at that time.

“But as time passed, Jerry grew older and also didn’t have time to do as much habitat work as he used to, and the carrying capacity for deer and turkey declined again. There was a lack of quality food and cover for wildlife. Hemorrhagic disease also hit the deer herd hard around 2010.”

Around 2016, Jerry approached Jon, who also serves on the board of Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, to be in charge of the property’s operations with his brother Matt and a hired hand assisting. Jon began implementing management ideas and plans that truly transformed the land. 

Building With 100-Acre Blocks

A major challenge of managing such a large property is just where to begin. Adding to the challenge is that Eastern mountain land typically features poor soil, rocky landscapes, less habitat diversity, older forests, and smaller deer populations. Jon began tackling all these issues.

“I followed the philosophy that it’s possible to eat an elephant if you do so one bite at a time,” said Jon, who is a Certified Burn Manager in Virginia. “We started reducing our closed canopy by timbering our land and looking at the property in 100-acre blocks. So, if I wanted to manage a particular 100-acre block primarily for deer and turkeys, I followed a basic plan. 

“For example, a clear-cut bedding thicket next to an old field or food plot would be created to hold deer and burned every five to seven years so as to maintain the stand in a relatively dense woody structure to provide bedding areas for deer and nesting opportunities for turkeys. 

“And the old field adjacent to the cut would be a good place for a mother hen to take her poults after they hatched for brooding cover. So you create this 100-acre block where three sides are burned on rotation and at different intervals to provide a whole bunch of diversity and vegetation types for deer and turkeys.”

This photo at the Fraley Farm shows a heavily thinned block in its fifth growing season. This area provides great fawning and bedding cover. Prescribed fire will be used to reset the vegetation and keep it in a dense woody state.

Designing Turkey Blocks

Jon, a director for the Appalachian Habitat Association, notes that one of the hazards of being a turkey poult is that nesting areas are often a long distance from brooding destinations. This situation can lead to high poult mortality and poor recruitment. But by creating nesting cover adjacent to quality feeding locales, the poult survival rate is enhanced. 

Additionally, the old field could be burned or disked on a one-to three-year rotation so that native forbs and other vegetation would abound. Think common ragweed, pokeweed, and partridge pea, for example, thriving there – plus the insect life which would be attracted to those flora. Ideally, next to the old field terrain is a mature forest that has been thinned so as to create more hard- and soft-mast production and understory structure development. The family’s labor certainly has produced results in recent times.

This old field was burned during the winter, and this photo was taken in June showing the response of native forbs.

“I would estimate that the turkey population has doubled over the past two to three years,” Jon told me. “In the spring, we hear and see a lot more gobblers. This past summer, I’ve never seen as many poults on our landscape. It’s so gratifying to see the results of our work. It’s definitely been a game changer.”

Indeed, Jon told me that during the 2023 spring turkey season, both his 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter tagged their first gobblers.

Designing Deer Blocks

A 100-acre block designed primarily for deer would feature different requirements, and an ideal one might look something like this.

“Bedding blocks can certainly differ from property to property,” Jon told me. “However, for us the bedding area might consist of 15 to 20 acres and would be burned every five to seven years to keep it in that thick woody stage. Around year eight, the trees start to move into young forest and become less beneficial for deer.”

(Note: The ideal fire return intervals to achieve forage and cover goals may be shorter south of Virginia and longer to the north, given variation in the length of growing seasons.)

“The fire resets succession and maintains it in that state,” said Jon. “Adjacent to that stand might be three to four acres of a food plot, ideally in a spot where there is some flat ground. Around one section of the food plot would be an old field of eight to 10 acres, which could be maintained in that stage by periodically disking or burning,

This image, taken in June, shows a clearcut that regenerated for three years and was then burned in March. This is a clearcut geared toward producing forage tonnage for deer. It will be burned on a one- to-three-year interval and on a rotation between dormant and growing season.

“Adjacent to the old field, could be a south facing hardwood stand of 25 to 30 acres. We would thin that timber stand to increase understory development and get a bonus of increased mast production. And then burn it every one to three years to increase the presence of forbs. Add in a water source and improved access such as a few logging roads, and not much more could make those 100 acres better maximized for deer and better for hunters.”

Jon adds that a 100-acre parcel like this one would very likely have everything a doe would need throughout the year including different timber stands and six or seven different vegetation types for fawning cover, forage and bedding cover.

“This is a place where a doe could spend much of her year and life,” Cooper concluded. “And this would be a place where bucks are going to want to travel to during the rut.”

The connectivity of the Fraley family’s deer management plan is impressive and is a large part of the reason why family members have observed higher fawn recruitment and been able to harvest some impressive bucks in recent years.

Jon Cooper harvested this 5½-year-old Virginia buck on November 15, 2021. 

Food Plots vs Natural Forage

Soil amendments are an important aspect of land management and the same is true on the Fraley property.

“It costs us about $350 per acre to plant a quality food plot adding in soil amendments,” Jon told me. “So, we have upscaled our native habitat management and prescribed fire that costs us a few hours of labor and about $25 to $30 in diesel and gasoline. Compare the economics of a 10-acre food plot ($3,500) to a 10-acre burn (fewer man hours and $30 in diesel and gas). It’s rare in anything that the cheapest thing is the best thing. In this case, I believe the best land management technique to be prescribed fire – which happens to be the cheapest.”

The composition of the property’s food plots is also worth noting.

“Food plots get all the hype, but it’s a lesser part of our success currently,” Jon told me. “We plant ladino clover for early spring production, and we plant attractant food plots in the fall: winter wheat, crimson clover, dwarf Essex rape, grain sorghum, and others. It’s impossible to manage our deer herd on food plots alone due to cost and time, so, I want as much native forage as possible to be on our landscape when spring green-up occurs.” 

Interestingly, Cooper says that the family has not experienced much trouble with invasive species due to the land historically being mostly closed canopy hardwoods. They do attack sericea lespedeza and Japanese stilt grass with a vengeance when these and other invasive plants appear.

In short, come August, participants in this NDA Deer Steward 2 course – including me – will be able to observe successful habitat management in the challenging environs of an Eastern Appalachian mountain forest. Seeing this successful wildlife habitat management model in person will be an unforgettable experience. I hope to see you there.

About the Deer Steward Course in Virginia

You can tour the Fraley family farm by attending NDA’s Deer Steward Level 2 course, August 9-12, in the Blue Ridge Mountains just north of Roanoke, Virginia. Join instructors Kip Adams, Dr. Craig Harper, Ben Westfall and Matt Ross for an unforgettable learning experience at the Preserve at Crooked Run. Learn more and register here. You must complete Level 1 before you can attend the Level 2 course, but there’s plenty of time to complete the online Level 1 course now.

About Bruce Ingram:

Bruce Ingram is an NDA member and freelance outdoor writer from Fincastle, Virginia, and he is a regular contributing writer for NDA. Bruce and his wife Elaine write a weekly blog at Bruce and Elaine Ingram Indoors and Out.