By Bill Winke

In a 2008 feature titled “Every Acre Counts,” I wrote about a project I began on my farm in October 2007. The concept is called direct nut seeding. Now, let me give you the background for that decision and explain how I executed the plan. Then I’ll update you on how the trees are doing.

What to Do With Useless Acres

As you go through your hunting area, you should categorize every acre. Some acres are productive farmland, some are productive food plots, some are good habitat, some are marginal habitat and some don't fit into any of those categories. The productive farmland, productive food plots and good habitat are fine — don’t touch them. The marginal habitat might require some aggressive timber harvest, timber-stand improvement or maybe a controlled burn. That's part of deer management, too, but it's beyond the scope of this feature. However, the category I will focus on is useless acres. They serve no purpose — yet.

In trying to use these acres, you must choose between putting a lot of money into trying to grow food in ill-suited areas (not a good choice), planting those acres with shrubs or switch grass, (a viable option) or reforesting them. I'll narrow the options and focus on the last one: reforesting useless acres.

Reforesting With Seedlings

When trying to put trees on your property, you can plant seedlings or plant seeds. You can often buy seedlings in bulk from private nurseries or a state nursery operated by the game and fish department. Typically, they aren’t very expensive, depending on what you are planting. Cedars are cheap in Iowa, but oaks are more expensive. Fruit trees cost even more. Local supply and demand really sets the market price, but if you are looking to produce oak timber, it won't be cheap. In fact, it will be expensive.

After planting many thousands of seedling trees, I have generally been disappointed with the result. The true survival rate a year later has averaged about 25 percent. One year, we planted 5,000 chokecherry seedlings. It became dry for several weeks after the planting. The next year, no trees were alive.

Seedlings are especially vulnerable to drought and mishandling. If their roots dry out or air pockets form in the soil where they are planted because of planting technique, they will quickly die. I've also spoken to several people who plant trees as part of their profession. They tell me that unless you really baby-sit your seedlings the first year, tree survival is limited. You can baby-sit a few dozen or maybe even a few hundred, but not a few thousand. When reforesting several acres, seedlings are a mediocre option.

If you're serious about planting seedlings, plan on making it a part-time job. If you can have it done professionally with a guarantee of survival, it's worth paying extra. You have to handle the seedling very carefully, keeping the roots wet until the tree is planted. Make sure that you have complete root-to-soil contact (no air pockets) and that the root is pointed downward, not forming a J shape. Then you must water the seedlings regularly for the first three months.

Watering several thousand seedlings would require a wagon and water tank. It's far too much work for me at this stage in my life. There might be better ways, such as dormant fall plantings, but I've 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.

Direct Nut Seeding

After years of discouraging results with seedlings, I chose to do it differently when facing my useless acres. During Fall 2006, I finally bore the straw that broke my back. I had been losing money by farming a portion of one of my crop fields every year, because the soil quality was just too poor and the slope too great for success. I decided I would give up the agriculture on those acres and put them back into trees. That ridge was cleared about 40 or 50 years ago, and it was time to restore it to proper cover.

After I started looking at my farm, I came up with 12 more acres that were useless. They were neither cover nor food. That brought my total to 22 acres — a big chunk of ground. After deciding I was determined to put those acres to work, I started looking at my options. I wanted trees, not switchgrass. I guess I'm a tree guy. I like trees.

After consulting with local NRCS office, I learned of programs that will pay to improve habitat while taking farmland and otherwise useless acres out of production. In other words, they would pay a portion of my expenses to plant trees. 

After applying for the money, my next step was to learn as much as possible about the process of planting acorns instead of trees. My first stop was the internet, where I found "Extension Notes" from the Iowa State University Forestry Extension. Google “Direct Seeding,” and you’ll find it. It was the most thorough treatment I found on the subject, so I decided to follow it step by step.

When my project was approved, I set out to find a source for acorns. For 22 acres, I would need a minimum of five bushels of acorns per acre, and I decided to add a few walnuts, too. If you remember Spring 2007, we had a very late hard freeze that wiped out the first-cutting alfalfa and froze off all the early flowering oaks. We lost all the white oak production from mid-Missouri north to central Iowa. A huge band of the Midwest did not have any white oak acorn production. 

I found an independent consulting forester in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that had access to some fruitful white oaks. He and his crew collected the 55 bushels of white oak acorns and 65 bushels of red oak acorns I needed. He kept the acorns in cold storage until the weather looked promising, and then I got them in the ground as quickly as possible. That's easier said than done. I hand-spread the acorns using the bed of a Polaris Ranger as the mobile nut carrier. It took about three days to spread it. I disked the seeds in as soon as possible after spreading each section to keep the acorns from drying out. If you're interested, it's in the "Extension Notes" bulletin.

Red oaks are spring germinators, so planting them in fall is easy and highly successful. However, white oaks are fall germinators, and you must handle them very carefully to assure you are planting viable seeds. That means you have to keep them moist and cold until you plant them. Get them in the ground as soon as possible after they hit the ground. You can only store them effectively in a cooler for a few days.     I planted the acorns at roughly five bushels per acre. That amounts to roughly 20,000-plus seeds per acre. My hope was that at least 25 percent of them germinate and grow.

I was lucky in that it rained the day after I finished planting and didn’t stop for more than a week, so I had the best conditions for keeping white oak acorns alive. However, the survival of the white oaks was less than super.

It’s 18 months later, and I've been very impressed with the results. I would say that the total survival rate has been roughly 25 percent to 40 percent. The highest survival occurred on south-facing slopes. We had a cool, wet spring in 2008, and the south-facing slopes warmed quicker.

Also, it's critical that you prepare the seedbed as well as you would if you were planting the ground with corn. That means spraying with Roundup a couple of weeks in advance of tilling. We used a large tractor-mounted tiller to work the ground, and it did a great job. You need good seed-to-soil contact for any seed to do well, so you need to create a good seedbed. 

Without the spraying, the grass pressure the first year would have hurt survival. Most of my competition was from broadleaf plants, such as ragweed. The biologist who helped me administer the plan through the USDA (NRCS) believed that broadleaf competition was not a huge problem, but grass (sod forming) competition was bad news.    By June, the trees were about 8 to 12 inches tall. As mentioned, the red oak did better than the white oak. This is what the experts predicted. White oak germination is fickle, and the acorns need to be planted quickly after they fall to do best. Even though I planted the oaks in the prescribed manner, I would say the red oaks were at least twice as prolific. That means that I have a stand of two-thirds red oak and one-third white oak.

That survival rate means that I should have at least 5,000 trees per acre, which is a good, solid number. 

My next step is to spray the planting area with a weed killer, such as Oust, to reduce competition. I will do that during late winter, while the trees are still dormant. Oust is a residual killer, which means it will prevent competition from starting this year. These chemicals are expensive, but they represent a necessary step. I must do the same thing next winter, but by the third year, I can just let the planting area take care of itself. By the third year, the trees will compete well enough with the weeds to hold their own.

From my experience, this is a much better method for establishing a forest than planting seedling trees. You might think that seedling trees buy you an extra couple of years because they are already 18 inches tall when you plant them. It seems the first year, if they survive the shock of transplanting, is a wash. The small trees don’t grow that year. In my experience, they just die. Seriously, it's a tough time for them.

The acorns are putting down their own roots in the soil and are much more drought tolerant. You don’t have to transplant them. After they are established, by the middle of their first spring, they are set to grow quickly. 

In areas with high deer numbers, it's difficult to establish rooted seedlings because deer can simply walk down the planted rows and eat them. A direct-seeding program works better in this setting because you can swamp deer with so many small trees that they can’t destroy them all, or are at least less likely to destroy them all.

I like my farm to look a certain way. I like it to show as little manipulation as possible. I don’t want my trees growing in rows. I want them growing in natural patterns, so the direct seeding approach also appeals to my sense of aesthetics. In some ways, land management is not much more than a large-scale landscaping project, and I like the look of natural dispersal of trees.  Acorns can be expensive, so if you can collect your own with a simple acorn-collection basket (a roller you can buy online), you will save a lot of money and will likely get the freshest seed. It's not as critical with acorns from the red oak family because they germinate in spring, but as I stated earlier, you must get white oaks in the ground as soon as possible after collecting them. That's the key to success.

My sources tell me I can expect as much as one foot of growth per year on my young trees. That means that in five or six years, they will be incredible deer cover; a great buffer as deer leave the bigger timber and head toward my food plots. Although five or six years might seem like a long time to wait for something to change, just think what your place would look like if you had done this five or six years ago. Every year you wait is another missed opportunity. The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago. The second best time is today.