Once upon a time, your granddaddy’s rye grass field and an old, wooden tree stand was the only game in town. He planted the greenfield, hoping seed would sprout, the drought wouldn’t be severe, and that the deer had nothing else to eat. Today, that kind of thinking runs like a Model-T at Daytona. Just because your daddy or granddaddy did it, doesn’t mean it can’t improve. Take Fred Abbas, for example, a fellow from northern Michigan who retired with a challenging ambition to hunt trophy bucks in his home state of Michigan. Guess what? There weren’t any.
Didn’t get plots planted in spring? No worries. These plantings will attract deer like magnets and can be put in the ground with little time left before opening day.
When I grew up in Indiana, both the wild turkey and coyote were nonexistent in the state. Deer were also as scarce as hen’s teeth at the time, and therefore we country folk grew up hunting squirrels, rabbits and quail. Back then, our hunting time in November was consumed with chasing cottontails instead of deer. Each day we would walk several miles trying to get our limit of five rabbits each, and it was tremendously enjoyable listening to the beagles chasing the bunnies.
When managing your deer hunting property, you have a limited number of acres with which to work. It makes no sense to waste even one of them. Do your best to make every square foot produce something that benefits your long-range goals. If you find an acre that doesn't produce optimal food or cover, you should do something about it.
SETTING THE STAGE
Regardless of how much land you have, there is no such thing as too much. You can’t afford to waste any of it. You paid for it all, so you might as well use it all. That means that every acre should produce maximum benefit. To a deer hunter, that means that every acre of the property should do one of two things well: It should produce as much food as possible for deer or produce the best possible cover. In some cases, it will do both. I have gone through my farm and looked at every acre with an eye toward maximizing each. These are the things I have learned and the steps I have taken to set things right. In no way should this be the final word on land management. Everything takes time, and we learn as we go forward. However, I hope this will at least get you thinking critically about your property.
IN THE TIMBER
When I bought this property, I noticed the open timber. I even had people tell me how “pretty” it looked. Of course, I didn’t really want “pretty,” and what I did to the place after buying it was anything but pretty — except to deer. Most deer managers understand that by opening up the timber canopy, they permit more light to reach the forest floor, encouraging plant growth. The result is better browse and cover for deer. Sunlight can make a dramatic difference, as I learned. My first step in dealing with the open timber was to engage in a timber-stand improvement project that spanned five years and encompassed every timbered acre on the farm. I hired the work done, because cutting thousands of trees over the course of several years didn’t fit into my work schedule. I made a few mistakes. The first step should have been a commercial harvest of mature timber. That makes the most sense: get the valuable stuff out before you turn the rest of the timber into matchsticks.
A few species are still in reasonably high demand (and there are always some good local markets), but in general, today’s timber markets are depressed because of the lull in new home building. However, like everything, they will eventually cycle back. When that happens, if you have mature timber, it would be wise to hire a consulting forester and work out a timber harvest plan. I started my timber-stand work two years before I sold any commercial timber, so it was a bit more difficult for the cutters to get through all the downed junk in a few areas. They complained a little, but in the end, I still got fair market price for the logs, so it worked out. The forester can help you fine-tune a plan to meet your goals. I wanted the thickest possible cover without cutting any of the young medium-sized oak trees on the farm. I was green and didn’t understand the logging process. As a result, I let the timber buyer (I didn’t hire a forester) talk me into taking just the best mature oak and walnut. There was nothing wrong with that part, but I should have pressed to have him take the marketable pallet trees, too. There were plenty of remaining oak trees, so removing the larger junk trees — ash, elm, cottonwood, hickory and hackberry in my area — would have increased my income while reducing my timber-stand improvement time. When full sunlight reaches the forest floor, it causes a flush of new growth.
In just two years, the forest looks completely different. Some benefits occur as a result. One is improved security cover and a dramatic increase in browse. The second benefit is also important — thick cover makes it easier to sneak around in your hunting area without blowing deer out of there. If they can see you coming and going from 300 yards away, your property is going to burn out quickly. A friend who specializes in creating thickets on otherwise open pasture farms claims that he can hold a mature buck per 40 acres of thicket cover. That seems incredible to me, but I have not done the experiment, so I have no basis to doubt him. However, I have noticed that I am holding more mature bucks on my farm now, presumably because of the thicker cover. The final benefit is less obvious and relates more to your grandchildren than to you. If you are serious about regenerating oaks on your property, there is only one way you can do it — through an aggressive timber stand improvement program. Oak will not regenerate well in the shade because seedlings need maximum sunlight to grow and flourish. I now have five years worth of timber-stand improvement on the farm, some of it very aggressive. We did some areas five years ago, during January 2003. We did more each winter thereafter through January 2007. I can now see what a timber-stand improvement project looks like after one, two, three and four growing seasons. It is interesting to see how things have changed in just five years. Three things jump out at me. First, I learned that I was not aggressive enough when I started in 2003. I didn’t trust the outcome well enough to go for broke, so I cut fewer trees than I should have. I will have to go back and hit those areas again soon. During each successive year, I became more aggressive as I gained confidence from watching the regrowth spring up in prior project areas. Again, it is best to hire a forester to help you make these decisions. I would hate to have you hammer the timber in an area of your property based solely on my experiences, because growing conditions and soil types may be different where you are managing.
The second thing I learned is the importance of studying the forest before cutting to determine what will take over after you start removing the canopy. This is as simple as looking at the young growth in the affected area and directly nearby. What are you going to release? I was generally releasing desirable brush and crop trees. However, I had a few areas where I released honeysuckle bushes. A little bit of honeysuckle is fine, but I don’t want my timber taken over by this very aggressive invader. I will watch it carefully and if it starts to spread, I will have to take measures to beat it back. In some areas, there was very little young vegetation, so it was difficult to predict what would respond to the sunlight when the junk trees came down. In these areas, I often ended up with grass. Believe it or not, I have some small, dispersed grassy openings now growing in the middle of my timber in areas that had a bare forest floor at the time of the timber-stand improvement cut. When dealing with such areas, where you can’t predict what will grow, you have two choices. You can skip those areas and live with the open timber (not a solution I am willing to tolerate; remember the title of this article), or you can open it up knowing you might have to come back later with a back-pack sprayer filled with Roundup and seedlings or nuts to plant or you can plant a small food plot with Secret Spot. Fortunately, most of my property produced desirable regrowth, but I have some planting work ahead of me the next few years.
When deciding what to do with open ground, food takes a priority over cover. Determine how many food plot acres you need before deciding what to do with the rest of your open ground. As a general rule, try to have roughly one acre of well-maintained food plots for every five deer you expect to be on your property during fall and winter. You might end up feeding some of your neighbor’s deer, so factor those numbers in too. If the number of food plot acres you come up with is unreasonably high, maybe it is time to start shooting more does. Even if you have to plant some of your plots in marginal soils to meet your food plot goals, the production you get from these acres is better than nothing. Proper soil treatment (affecting fertility and Ph) will help to rev up poor soil when planted to certain crops, such as clover and chicory. It is difficult to make poor soils pro- duce corn and beans, however. Assuming you still have some marginal open ground left after meeting your food plot goals, you must decide what to do with them. Obviously, these acres aren’t needed for food, so they might as well be cover. Don’t wait for nature to convert old pastureland into timber cover.
That might take 40 years. Instead, help the process. Finding something to plant that produces the best possible cover in the least possible time is the goal. There are three options. First, you can plant switchgrass or a mix of native warm-season grasses to produce bedding cover. I have planted switchgrass and found that it can be fickle to establish. In the best conditions, it will take at least two years to establish a stand. Some of my stands never came in and had to be replanted several years later. There are many thoughts on how to establish switchgrass. Seed depth is critical. It is best to consult with your county's soil conservation officer or contact a local agronomist to learn the methods that have worked best there. Follow all guidelines to the letter, including the application of lime and fertilizer. Switchgrass is a crop like any other, and you need to manage it as such. The second option for marginal acres is to plant seedling trees. You can often buy these in bulk from the state nursery operated by your state's game and fish department. After planting many thousands of trees, I have been generally disappointed with the result. The true survival rate after all that work is less than 25 percent. Some years, not one tree survived from that year’s planting. Seedlings are especially vulnerable to drought and mishandling. If their roots dry out, or they are exposed to air pockets in the soil when planted, they will quickly die. If you are serious about planting seedlings, it is a very labor-intensive job. You have to handle the seedling very carefully, keeping the roots wet until planted. Make sure they have complete root-to-soil contact (no air pockets) and that the root is pointed downward and not forming a J shape.
Then you must water the seedlings regularly for the first three months. Watering several thousand seedlings is far too much work for me. Again, there might be better ways, such as dormant fall plantings, but I have all but given up on seedlings. If you want to try them, contact the local state forester for advice on supply and the best methods to assure maximum survival, or plant them on a limited basis. For example, I planted 40 apple trees last year, and that proved to be much more successful because I was able to give each tree the care it required. There is a big difference between hand-planting 40 trees vs. 4,000, however. This past fall, I took a different approach to producing tree cover on my marginal ground. I engaged in a direct nut-seeding project on 22 acres. It is still too early to know how well that will turn out (I am writing this in January), but I can at least offer a few suggestions about methodology and then report back after the spring growing season reveals the results. Instead of planting young trees, I planted seeds — five bushels of acorns (red and white oak) and one bushel of walnuts per acre. That amounts to roughly 20,000-plus seeds per acre. If even 25 percent of them germinate and grow, I will be more than satisfied. First, we prepared the soil by spraying the grass with Roundup and then waited three weeks before tilling it to create a fine, mellow seedbed. We broadcast the seeds and immediately disked them in to a depth of roughly two to three inches. I was lucky that it rained the day after I finished and didn’t stop for more than a week, so I had the best possible conditions for keeping those white-oak acorns alive. They germinate in the fall and had already partially germinated when I planted them.
For the first two years, I need to spray the planting area with a weed killer, such as Oust, to reduce competition. By the third year, I can just let the planting area go, and the trees will compete well enough with the weeds to hold their own. We planted in mid-October, and by May 2008, the trees are supposed to be six inches to a foot tall. They are supposed to then add about 10 to 12 inches each year thereafter. By all accounts, this is a better method of establishing a tree planting. I look forward to reporting on the results later in the year. By the way, I got a list of consulting foresters from a sawmill and called several of them to find one who would collect the acorns and store them in a cold place until I needed them. Acorns are expensive, so if you can collect your own with a simple acorn-collection basket (a roller that you can buy online), you will save a lot of money and will likely get the freshest possible seed. It is not as critical with acorns from the red-oak family because they germinate in spring, but you need to get white oaks in the ground as soon after collecting them as possible.
FOOD PLOT ACRES
Regular Whitetail News authors pepper this magazine with all kinds of great advice about how to make the most of your food plot acres. I won’t rehash that here, but I encourage you to take their advice seriously. You can produce a lot of forage on a limited number of acres if you do it right. Buy good seed, test the soil, prepare it properly and then maintain the plot as recommended. This simple blueprint will help you make every precious food plot acre count.
Grab an aerial photo of your property, and walk the ground from end to end. Note any areas that are producing less then optimal food or cover. Coming up with a plan to address those areas is the fun part. You likely bought the property for deer hunting, and you have a lot invested in time and money. Good stewardship requires that you take all the steps needed to bring the land to its maximum potential as a deer factory.
Four years ago my father David Williams purchased 40 acres in Nottoway County, VA. It had everything a whitetail loves — thick pines, hardwoods and swamp land. The only problem was we really didn’t have a spot that could be cleared out for a nice food plot. Ten acres became available the next year that adjoined our land and we bought it. In no time dad had a bulldozer in there and cleared two acres for a food plot.