Q: My dad and I have a 60-acre crop farm. We are looking for information on how to create a whitetail hunting habitat. There is no cover to speak of on our property, with plenty of cover and crops on neighboring farms. Where would you start? — Jason Hebert, Plainwell, Mich.
A: There are things you can do to create a whitetail hunting habitat within five years. Variety and edge are the keys to producing good deer habitat. That means you need to try three different types of habitat: switchgrass, shrubs and oak seedlings. You can get very specialized in how you lay out a property, but to keep things simple, here are the basic choices you have to make and methods for creating the habitat.
When deciding what to do with open ground, first determine how many food plot acres you need. As a general rule of thumb, try to have roughly one acre of well-maintained food plots for every five deer you expect to be on your property this fall and winter. You may end up feeding some of your neighbor’s deer, so factor those numbers in, as well. If the number of food plot acres you come up with is unreasonably high, maybe it is time to start shooting more does.
Though I realize you are converting farmland that is likely at least decent for growing food plots, there may be other readers who are dealing with marginal ground. 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 (focused on fertility and Ph) will help to juice up poor soil when planted to certain crops such as clover and chicory. It is hard to make poor soils produce 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. That is what this article is really about.
Don’t wait for nature to convert open ground into habitat. That may take 40 years, literally. The competition with sod is too intense to permit wide-scale regeneration of cover. Instead, help the process along. Finding something to plant that produces the best possible cover in the least possible time is the goal. There are a number of options, but I’m going to cover three of them.
You can plant switchgrass, or a mix of native warm season grasses, to produce bedding cover within two years. I have planted switchgrass and found that it can be fickle to establish. In the best of conditions, it will take at least two years to establish a stand. Some of my stands never did come in, and I had to replant them several years later.
There are many different thoughts on how to establish switchgrass. Seed depth is critical. It is best to consult with the soil conservation officer in your county, or contact a local agronomist, to learn the methods that have worked best right where you are planting. Follow all the guidelines to the letter, including the application of lime and fertilizer as prescribed. Switchgrass is a crop like any other, and you need to manage it as such.
The upside of switchgrass is the fact that it can be established quickly. The downside is that it is fickle to establish and requires regular maintenance to grow well and thrive. I have seen entire stands go away after just five or six years. For my time and money, I would rather focus on permanent habitat.
Most foresters still prefer seedlings when establishing timberlands. My feeling is that this will slowly change, but it is still the pervasive thinking so we may as well at least look at this option.
You can often buy seedlings in bulk from the state nursery operated by your game and fish department or a good private nursery. After planting more than fifteen thousand trees in my life, I have been very disappointed with the result. The true survival rate after all that work is well under 25 percent. Some years, not a single 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 hit a drought year and don’t water them, they will also 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 that 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 immediately and regularly thereafter for the first summer. Sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? It is.
Typically, seedlings are expensive depending on what you are planting. For example, cedars are cheap here in Iowa and oaks more expensive. Fruit trees cost even more. Local supply and demand really sets the market price, but if you are looking to produce an oak timber, it is not going to be cheap. In fact, it is going to be expensive. And then, what if many of them die that first year?
Watering several thousand seedlings once per week would require a wagon and water tank. It is far too much work for me at this stage in my life. There may 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. Also, during the first year plant them on a limited basis. There is a big difference between planting and maintaining 40 trees versus 4,000 trees, for example.
DIRECT NUT SEEDING
After years of discouraging results with seedlings, I chose to do it differently when faced with my own open acres. During the fall of 2006, I finally bore the straw that broke my back. I had been losing money on farming a portion of the property every year. The soil quality in that field 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. A previous owner had cleared that ridge about 40 or 50 years ago, and it was time to restore it to the proper cover.
Once I started looking at my farm, I came up with 12 more acres that were useless in every regard. They were neither cover nor food. That brought my total to 22 acres – a big chunk of ground. I started looking at my options. I wanted trees.
After consulting with the local Natural Resource Conservation Service office (NRCS is a division of the USDA), I learned of programs that will pay to improve habitat on marginal farmland. In other words, they would pay a portion of my expenses to plant trees on these acres. Tree roots hold the soil, minimizing erosion, a goal to which the NRCS is committed.
After applying for the funding, 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 Nut Seeding” and you’ll find it. It was the most thorough treatment I could find on the subject, so I decided to just follow it step by step. The private lands biologist assigned to my case was in agreement, so that became my planting bible.
When the USDA approved my project in late spring, I set out to find a source for acorns. For 22 acres, I was going to need a minimum of 5 bushels of acorns per acre and decided to add a few walnuts too. Do you know how hard it is to pick up that many nuts?
Acorns can be expensive, so if you are able to 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 get the freshest possible seed.
If you remember the spring of 2007, we had a very late hard freeze in the Midwest that wiped out the first cutting alfalfa and froze off all the early flowering oak. We lost all the white oak production from mid-Missouri all the way up to north-central Iowa. That is a huge band of the Midwest with no white oak acorn production.
I found an independent consulting forester up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who had access to some nut-bearing white oaks in the city parks and private lawns in his area. Steve committed to finding the nuts for me.
My next step was to prepare the soil. I sprayed all 22 acres with Round Up in late September and then used a tractor-mounted tiller to work up the ground two weeks later. I was ready for the seeds.
Steve’s crew collected 120 bushels of oak and 22 bushels of walnuts throughout late September and early October. He kept the acorns in cold storage until the weather looked promising (rain in the forecast). Then, I hauled them home in a big trailer – a half million acorns!
Red oaks are spring germinators, so planting them in the fall is easy and highly successful. However, white oaks are fall germinators. They are trying hard to germinate from the time they hit the ground. If they start to germinate and then dry out, they die. You have to handle them very carefully to assure that you are planting viable seeds. That means you have to keep them moist and cool until you plant them. Get them in the ground as soon after they drop as possible. You can only store them effectively for a few days.
I planted the acorns at roughly five to six bushels per acre. That amounts to roughly 20,000+ seeds per acre! My hope was that at least 25 percent would germinate and grow. After hand spreading the seeds from the back of a Polaris Ranger, I disked them into the ground to a depth of two to four inches.
It rained the day after I finished planting and didn’t stop for more than a week. So, I had the best possible conditions for keeping those white oak acorns alive.
It is now more than three years later, and I have been very impressed with the overall results. Survival rate has been roughly 25-40 percent. The highest survival occurred on south-facing slopes. We had a cool, wet spring in 2008, and the south-facing slopes warmed quicker. So, the young trees grew much better in this setting. Red oak acorns outperformed white oak by about three to one. In other words, the white oak acorns did OK, but not great – exactly what the experts I spoke with predicted.
By June of the first year, the trees were about 8-12 inches tall. By their second summer, many of the trees were at least two feet tall, and it was starting to look like something. Information I have read suggests that the oaks will grow roughly 10-12 inches per year. In a couple more years, I will have permanent deer cover in what was once wasted, useless ground.
My next step was to spray the young trees with a weed killer, such as Oust XP, to reduce competition. I did that in March of 2009 and will do it again during the late winter of 2010. Then I will just let the trees compete without any further need for spraying.
WHAT TO PLANT
For sure, you will want to plant pockets of oak trees and probably some walnut trees mixed in for a long-term investment. Also, you should consider shrubs in defined pockets to break up the habitat and create more edge. I would definitely talk to a local forester to find out which types of shrubs in your area are non-invasive. That means that they don’t spread and take over an area. You don’t want the ones that spread and take over. Not good. Additionally, irregular strips of switchgrass are a good addition.
Finally, place your food plots strategically to not only feed and attract deer, but to give you a convenient way to get to and from your stands without being seen, heard or smelled. Laying out a property is like landscaping for deer hunting – lots of fun.
I have no forestry training and minimal equipment. In fact, my only real information came in the form of that white paper put out by the Iowa Forestry Extension Office. But everything worked well. If it worked for me, it can work for you too.
From my experience, this is a much better method for establishing a forest than planting seedlings. The acorns are putting down their own roots in the soil, and as a result, are much better acclimated and drought tolerant. By the middle of their first spring they are established and set to grow fast.
In areas with high deer numbers, it is hard to establish rooted seedlings because the deer can simply walk down the planted rows and eat them. Planting nuts works better in this setting because you can literally swamp the deer with so many small trees that they are much less likely to destroy them all.
Personally, 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; I like the natural look that results from direct nut seeding.
In three or four more years, my first 22 acres will be five to six feet tall – incredible deer cover and a great buffer as the deer leave the bigger timber and head toward my food plots.
While five or six years may seem like a long time to wait for something to change, just think what your hunting area would look like now 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.