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By Dr. James C. Kroll

For almost four decades I have conducted research and testing on both warm and cool season plantings for whitetails. A considerable amount of this work has focused on cereal grains, most notably Buck Forage Oats. Education about oats and other plants takes up a significant amount of my time; and, there is nothing that “gets me more riled up” than someone telling me “Oh, an oat is an oat!” I usually launch into a tirade about the difference between a spring oat and a winter oak; particularly that winter oats have been developed primarily for grazing during the cool season and spring oats are basically a grain producer grown during the spring and summer. Winter oats are cold hardy, while spring oats “roll up their tent” on the first hard frost. So, I have no patience with someone who plants a spring oat in fall, much less a company that is willing to sell you spring oats for this purpose. That said, I would like to present an application of winter oats you may not have considered; one that has worked for us since the 1990s.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in Texas. It was and still is a practice to pull bulls off of the cows at a time that will guarantee calves are born in the Fall. That means that weaned calves will be ready for sale in the Spring, when most cattlemen are stocking pastures. It is not uncommon for a rancher to stock bulls at a rate of 25-30 cows per bull. That pretty well keeps the bull busy for most of his time in residence with the cows. Once removed from his cows, a bull should have a recovery time to build up reserves for the next breeding cycle. Now, you probably are asking yourself why in the world are we talking about cattle in a deer article? Well, let’s find out.

There is a huge difference between bulls and bucks when it comes to reproductive equipment! You probably have never been tempted to do this, but I compared the scrotum size to body size ratio for bulls versus deer. There is a substantial difference, primarily because a bull is biologically designed for handling a large number of females while a fortunate buck will breed no more than 5 does. In both cases, breeding males come out of the breeding cycle with lost reserves and highly susceptible to stress-related diseases and mortality. Cattlemen often return their bulls to a pasture with other bulls (and NO cows) to recondition them for breeding. Bucks pretty much do the same thing on their own by significantly reducing the amount of testosterone in their blood, and this allows them to “pal around” with other bucks during the antler growing period. However, although a buck tends to breed considerably less females than a bull, they come out of the winter often in very poor condition; and, have to make up for lost reserves as quickly as possible.

When we conduct our annual late winter necropsies (animal autopsies) in the northern U.S., there is a striking difference between bucks and does. The average doe will have a large amount of body fat, especially around her kidneys; while a mature buck will have virtually no fat anywhere! In the far North, a buck without body fat in February still has to survive another two months or so with very little. Since the most important determiner of subsequent antler quality is the nutritional plane in very early Spring, that means that a good manager employs management strategies that support this need. The trick is to have an adequate supply of nutritious green forage as soon as possible after snow melt. There are two ways to do this.

The first way is to have enough forage banked at first snowfall, so there remains something green beneath the snow. If we can get snow cover on our Fall plots, we often can reach Spring with some of this forage still alive beneath the snow. Yet, in winters with subzero temperatures this rarely is the case. That is why we conducted experiments back in the late 1980s on effective early Spring plantings that could quickly provide food for recovering bucks. That is where cold hardy oats come into the picture.

John Butler, owner of Buck Forage Products, literally went “bonkers” the first time he found out we were testing late Winter and early Spring plantings of his oats! “I have spent years trying to convince people that winter oats should be planted in late Summer-early Fall,” he exclaimed, “and now you want to tell folks to plant them in Spring?” Yet, that was exactly what we were doing and it was paying off more than we ever imagined.

We use two planting strategies for spring oat plantings. First, we may frost seed them, the process of letting the melting snow plant the oats. Second, we may wait until the snow begins to melt and begin planting. The second can be difficult if melting snow produces muddy conditions in our plots, so we often use frost seeding in plots subject to saturated Spring soils. We use a very heavy seeding rate of at least two bushels per acre. We purchase our seed at one time in the previous Summer, and take care to store the added seed in a safe, dry place. Oat seed usually comes treated for insect pests, so you can be pretty sure of protection for a year.

A spring oat comes out of the seed with one thing on its mind, making a seed head. A winter oat germinates, then begins to send out shoots along the ground surface to protect itself from grazing. It is not until Spring that cold hardy oats think about making a seed head. So, what does a winter oat do when you plant them in Spring? When planted early, they begin growth exactly the same way one planted in Fall would do. Yes, they tend to have a shorter period between establishment and seed head formation, but it is not until mid- to late-Summer. Yet, this reduces your economic return on the planting, but in my mind that is an acceptable cost to reduce buck mortality and improve antler growth. You can mow the plot if it begins to send up seed heads, extending your effective grazing period.

Last year, we began doing the same thing at Turtle Lake Club in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Manager Wayne Sitton was so impressed, he is repeating the strategy this spring, as well. “It has allowed us to recover our bucks quickly,” Wayne says, “and we saw a substantial increase in antler mass last year after spring planting of oats.” You might ask why clover cannot do the same thing? Clover is an excellent Spring and Summer forage, but it does not have the same digestible energy found in oats. We also no-till drill oats through over-Winter plantings of clover, and have been very impressed with the results.

So, you might consider trying this little trick we have used in the North for many years. It will pay off in more bucks surviving Winter stress and better antlers to boot! For more information, go to Have a great Spring and Summer!

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