We have all heard and probably used the word management when referring to a ranch or a hunting scenario. I know I see and hear it in almost every article, magazine ad and ranch description. But I also make my living physically managing ranches and I am here to say that this term is often used, abused and misused!
Now, please understand this article is not to bash or discount anyone’s efforts or financial standings at all, but merely here to get you to think of the many different types of management these days and how this particular term is abused.
What does management mean to you? Of course, this is a moving target and the term clearly means different things to different folks. Is putting up one feeder on your ranch considered management? What if it is one corn feeder and your ranch is 80 acres? What if it is ten protein feeders on 5,000 acres? Is management acre-dependent in your opinion? Does management infer only to herd management or can it be inclusive of habitat manipulation and permanent infrastructure improvements like water wells and cleared fields for food plots?
Or does management mean that since you managed to kill a buck, you are managing the property now? What if you lease the land to a group of hunters and you supervise them, is this management? What if you managed to find three paying hunters to harvest those inferior bucks so that you managed to make some income to help pay the feed bill or the land taxes? If you managed to finance a used tractor and are now fallow disking to promote weeds or planting food plots, is this management? If you hire a ranch manager, is your ranch now being managed? See what I mean, this term is used, abused and misused!
When I think of the term management, I conjure up a scenario of where both herd and habitats are being purposefully manipulated to achieve a desired outcome. I think of pressure being applied to change or alter a current situation in order to “fix” it or change it to meet your goals and objectives. Right or wrong, this is what I think of when I hear the term management.
Managing a ranch, regardless of acreage involved, includes making it better and a work in progress to make it something you desire to be proud of. Management can be a single act, a one-day project or a year-long project or it can be a perpetual project that never really ends. Mother Nature is always changing and so must we in order to keep up with those changes. Weather patterns, finances, personnel, priorities, emergencies, equipment and time are usually our limiting factors and so we must adapt, evolve and adjust accordingly. Management progress may be measured in baby steps in some projects and in giant project-completed steps in others. Management is, after all, an evolving long-term process generally speaking and we must keep our eyes on the ball and stay consistent in order to be most successful.
Let’s explore a few scenarios and see how management can be used:
* “My ranch is only eighty acres but it is in a hardwood forest with very limited sight distance and extremely thick underbrush. I love to hunt deer but I rarely see them. I know they are here because of their tracks and scat but I would love to be able to harvest two or three deer each year.”
Management advice: Hardwood forests are very productive environments but sunlight limits forage quality. Consider selling some timber this year but make sure to have a high quality timber lease agreement in place first. Log the acreage in 15-20 acre blocks and work on only one block per year. The lease agreement will generate needed income, remove certain tree species and most of the underbrush in the immediate area. Once sunlight reaches the forest floor, new and different quality browse plants will emerge. Deer will flock to this newly opened area and grass will grow—providing bedding and fawning cover, not to mention open up a new hunting area with increased visibility. Another technique includes thinning of the underbrush to increase visibility and add valuable edge effect. If ample grass is produced, a small prescribed burn could be used to maintain such openings and plant diversity long term. Rotating the logging and/or selective underbrush thinning over time will keep your habitat in a constant state of regrowth and this, in turn, will attract not only more deer, but the new visibility created will allow you to more easily hunt the property and harvest surplus deer each fall.
* “My ranch is low fenced, 500 acres but I am surrounded by small tracts of land with tons of hunters on it. Opening morning sounds like a war zone around here and I can’t seem to grow a buck past two years of age.”
Management advice: First, talk with each neighbor to see if you might have the same goals and objectives. Most hunters do want to see quality deer and once they learn their neighbors are like-minded, they might be more susceptible to working cooperatively as a team, instead of competing against you. Next, make your acreage the best it possibly can be to not only attract the deer, but HOLD them on your property. You can control the fate of the deer on your land so keeping them there longer increases their survival. Perhaps you create a large sanctuary in the center of the property, a safehaven area for the deer to hide in and far from the neighbors. This area would be thick with brush, have almost no disturbances in and around it and offer the deer everything they need such as food and water. This might mean you fence this area off and keep your own cattle out of it. Perhaps you have to extend the waterline and put in a water trough to provide water so the deer never have to leave. Maybe you put up a feeder or two and never hunt it, just offer some free food during the hunting season. You may want to hunt some deer too, so perhaps you switch to archery hunting only. As the neighbors bang away with their rifles, your ranch remains quiet and the deer will respond accordingly.
* “My wife inherited 5,000 acres but we live in another state. We can’t move to the ranch but we want to keep the ranch in the family and it would be great if we could make it self-sustaining. We don’t have a lot of extra income but want to take care of the property and don’t want it to run down or we go broke trying to support it ourselves.”
Management advice: First and foremost, do your homework and learn who in the area of the ranch you can and cannot trust. Visit with many folks and professionals and locals and learn the local lore and traditions. Don’t worry about the ranch initially, but learn the local economy, work ethics and social factors involved. Now, set goals and objectives for the ranch that are real and attainable. You may or may not need professional help on this one but it certainly will help. Write these goals and objectives down and refer to and edit them often as needed until you feel most comfortable with them. Now, using those trusted sources you met earlier doing your due diligence, reach out to them for advice and suggestions or how to proceed. Perhaps you hire someone to live on the ranch or perhaps you find a part time person to help. Next, draft up a high quality hunting lease and a cattle grazing lease. If you own minerals, explore those options and contact a qualified mineral person to assist. Once you and your sources are comfortable with the various leases, begin advertising for leasees and begin the interview process. Don’t take this step lightly or quickly. Finding the right person(s) is not always easy and it involves checking sources and perhaps even background digging around on your part. In time, you should be able to locate quality lease hunters, quality cattle lease operators and maybe learn your mineral options. The ranch is now producing income from at least the two leases and now the ranch is financially viable. Now, and only now, can you make good quality management decisions that will allow the ranch to move forward and remain sustainable and perhaps even profitable. So yes, properties can be managed from afar and quality leases can help you.
* “I have a high fenced game ranch but my bucks are getting smaller, not bigger. I was told if I had a high fence I could grow some monster bucks with no problem.”
Management advice: Installing a high fence completely around your ranch is just like having kids all over again. The animals within that high fence can’t leave. They can’t move off if water gets in short supply and so they simply multiply and increase to the point of problems arising. Just like babies or very small children, they rely on their parents for food, water, shelter and protection and so do the deer behind your high fence. The level of management must increase ten-fold once the fence is up because those animals inside have far fewer options and may not be able to support themselves in severe cases. Without a fence, they can leave/migrate/return and move as needed for survival. With the fence, they are kept in place and must deal with the conditions as they change for the better or worse. The primary purposes of high fences are to keep the deer on your property and those deer on your neighbors’ property off. High fences stabilize the population and it is more difficult to manage a moving population of anything. Like a hole in your pocket, you never know how much money is there unless you fix the hole and then you control all the money in your pocket. So a high fence is not an “easy fix” at all, but instead a long term commitment similar to having small children and it takes work, lots of work, to provide for those dependents and raise them to reach their full genetic potential.
If the bucks are getting smaller behind the high fence it is likely a numbers issue-too many deer, not enough quality forage and limited resources. First order of business is to conduct quality surveys to understand the herd dynamics involved. Once the data is compiled, goals and objectives will need to be reviewed and possibly revisited and then a strategy put into place to meet those goals and objectives. As the deer numbers decline, antler quality will no doubt improve. Just how much you want them to improve will dictate the next series of steps but when numbers are high, you can grow bigger bucks by simply shooting more does, it is just that simple.
Management is a moving target, something hard to grab ahold of and hang on to. Management is slippery and ever-evolving and so we need to be careful when we talk about or read about it because it is oftentimes easier said than done.
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