The Benefits of Controlled Burning Later in the Year

The Benefits of Controlled Burning Later in the Year

**The information provided below is based on the research of Dr. Marcus Lashley, an assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University. Quotes from Dr. Lashley were obtained from his seminar at the Quality Deer Management Association 2018 convention in New Orleans, Louisiana. To learn more, check out the podcast, Deer University, where Dr. Lashley and his colleagues talk about the benefits of prescribed burning and other conservation and hunting related matters.

A recent study by Dr. Marcus Lashley, an assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University, shows that landowners and deer managers may be conducting controlled burns too early in the year. Since the time of the prescribed fire, the most popular times for a human to burn the woods in hopes of top-killing saplings and removing leaf litter is February through March. Nature, on the other hand, has been perennially torching the landscape with lightning around June or July, creating great forage for August and September, which, not coincidentally, are the months a whitetail deer feel the most stress.

“Really all we’re doing is rethinking the context of how and when vegetation is good for or attractive to deer,” Dr. Lashley said.

The spring is usually a low-stress time for whitetails. The pressure of deer season is over and food is abundant as plants, flowers, and trees begin to bloom. So, why do we stick to the dated modicum of burning late winter?

The graph above shows how burning earlier in the year provides abundant food in the spring, but when deer need it least.

When to Burn  

These high-stress months are when does are at peak lactation. Waiting to burn sections of land in June rather than February or March allows for the production of new vegetation (food) in order to accommodate deer when they need it most. If spring is already a lush time for natural forage, a late burn can give deer nearly six months worth of nutritious food.

Work with a local biologist to figure out the best day to burn during the summer. As it is the driest point of the year, you’ll need someone with experience to help you through the process. What you don’t want is for a fire to get out of control, so burn-in conditions that permit a low-intensity fire.

This graph shows how burning mid June aligns maximum healthy vegetation for deer when they're entering their highest stress period.

The Proof

You don’t need to spend a ton of money on food plots to consistently draw in deer. Late burns will increase your deer activity when hunting season arrives. Dr. Lashley and some of his colleagues burned two different sized areas and witnessed great results. One was a 10-acre tract that saw a three-time increase in deer use in just seven days. They also burned a 30-square-yard area around a stand and increased possible bow shots by 13 times.

Why This Happens

After a burn, phosphorus levels in plants increase, which is one of the two most common minerals found in a deer’s antlers (the other is calcium). Trees like winged elm, red maple and sweetgum are typically not heavily used by deer. But, if they are top-killed, deer will heavily browse because nutrition increases.

According to QDMA, researchers at Mississippi State University found a strong correlation between soil mineral content (primarily phosphorus) and body size, concluding that soil phosphorus levels were the best indicator of body size. Burning encourages natural vegetation and helps increase phosphorus levels. Big bodies mean healthy bodies, an important factor for both bucks and does.

No matter what, context is important. For example, oats are the best food for a deer during October while crimson clover provides the nutrition they need in March. Why? Because that is when these two species grow and mature.

“Nature has been growing big deer on its own for a long time,” said Dr. Lashley. “So why not wait a little longer to burn so we help shift the seeding of vital plants forward?”