Good Food Sources for Deer on Pine Plantations

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Using Forest Management & QVM to Enhance Nature’s Bounty

The Backstory

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1 | The Backstory

Land management is important whether you own the land or not. Purchasing a piece of land, such as one of the many properties available on Realtree United Country, gives you free reign to do what you want with it. But even if you lease, hunt by permission, or chase dreams on public land, there's generally something you can do in the name of land management. If the landowner allows, plant food plots on private lands. On public land, it can be as simple as passing a deer and letting is reach older age classes.

As browsers, white-tailed deer have a large and varied diet. More than 700 different species of plants have been identified as consumed by deer depending on location, season of the year, availability, and the item’s nutritional quality. Many of these species are native to the southern states.

About one-third of the South is covered in natural and planted pine stands. If you’re a hunter reading this, you’ve probably hunted in pines. Pines managed for wildlife forage hold the potential to provide a smorgasbord of nutritious forage items for deer, wild turkeys, quail, rabbits and a multitude of other wildlife.

If there’s one thing we have learned while managing wildlife, it takes time for Mother Nature to do her work. Throughout history man has searched for ways to alter and manipulate the environment to his advantage. European settlers during the 1700’s and 1800’s noted in journals that many areas of the South were vast grassy, open pine forests. Early on, fires were set naturally by lightning or by Native Americans. This allowed plant species to thrive with adequate sunlight and moisture.

In pine management fire is a very useful tool that benefits wildlife. Until recently, many forest landowners felt the best way to maintain their land was to leave it alone. Sweet gum and other brushy trees became so established in plantations and pine forests that controlling them became difficult, even with fire and bush hogging. The result was a nutritional wasteland for wildlife. Mechanical cutting alone clears an area but usually triggers even thicker re-growth. Bush-hog one sweet gum and next year there may be as many as a dozen in its place.

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Prescribed Fire and Thinning Set the Table

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2 | Prescribed Fire and Thinning Set the Table

Planted pine stands are often called plantations. The first 15 years of a pine plantation’s growth are a time of great transition. During years one through eight browse, bedding and security cover are abundant. Gradually the pine seedlings grow in height and width forming a canopy impenetrable by sunlight. The process is called crown closure.

By the tenth year most plantations are choked with brush and hardwood saplings. Practically all beneficial plants have disappeared due to lack of sunlight and competition for nutrients and moisture. This is the time for the first prescribed fire. This burn does little if anything to encourage new growth beneficial to wildlife. It does, however, release nutrients stored in the duff that benefits the pine stand. It removes years of accumulated fuel, the duff and straw that could devastate the pines if an unplanned fire breaks out. It also will eliminate some of the unwanted shrubs and trees. Five to eight years later the stand is ready for thinning.

A prescribed fire’s most dramatic effect occurs after the initial pine thinning. When fire is used under an opened canopy, rapidly growing plants post-burn provide the best nutrition for wildlife. During late summer, fall and winter, managed southern pine plantations offer a smorgasbord of food including assorted grasses, blackberry, dewberry, huckleberry (wild blueberry), American beautyberry, naturalized Japanese honeysuckle, strawberry bush, cocklebur, greenbrier, wild grapes, wild sweet clover, vetch, annual lespedeza, beggar weed, partridge pea, mushrooms, lichens, and mosses just to name a few. Many of these plants are naturally high in crude protein content.

At thinning, management decisions on priorities are necessary. These affect the dollar return on the timber investment and affect the local wildlife. There are several options when thinning a pine plantation. If the primary goal is a long-term cash return, consider thinning by rows. Depending on the size of the trees some choose to remove every fourth or fifth row. Others choose every third row. This is the first cash return on investment in planting pines. Both these methods open the canopy and allow sunlight to reach the ground. They will require another thinning eight to ten years later when the canopy has again closed and shades the ground.

Opening more tree canopy allows additional ground to manage for wildlife habitat. Some land owners plant pines strictly for cash return. Others expect return on investment but desire maximum wildlife habitat enhancement.  To achieve your goals consult with your state forester and a wildlife biologist or a timber and wildlife specialist.

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Timber Management and QVM

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3 | Timber Management and QVM

Bobby Watkins is a land manager and consultant at Coontail Farm in Mississippi. His expertise lies in managing pine plantations for natural forage regeneration beneficial to wildlife. Watkins calls his approach to managing pine plantations Quality Vegetation Management (QVM).

Watkins says, “Quality Vegetation Management is a combination of thinning, chemical application and prescribed fire that stimulates the growth of natural biomass and natural forages. Thinning allows sunlight to reach the ground. The more pines you remove, the more sunlight reaches the ground. Certain chemicals remove unwanted hardwood trees and shrubs too large for fire to kill. Prescribed fire removes the dense layer of mulch and pine straw and exposes the mineral-rich soil. Fire influences ground cover vegetation through seed scarification and increases germination.”

“Through our research we learned deer nutritional carrying capacity increased dramatically in QVM treated areas. We assumed a deer needed three pounds of forage per day (dry weight), and an average diet quality of 12 percent protein. The average nutritional carrying capacity for the QVM treated areas was 109 deer days per acre. Untreated areas averaged only three deer days per acre,” said Watkins.

“These estimates of nutritional carrying capacity are not meant to be used as absolute values. Specific results may vary with the age of the pine stand and the soil type, but treated areas essentially become natural, high-quality food plots. Nothing was planted in these areas—it’s all natural vegetation that has been dormant in the seedbed waiting for favorable germination and growing conditions. All we do is create the right growing conditions. Fire, sunlight and the seedbed do the rest.”

Watkins’ research on forest management focuses on results for whitetails but there are many benefits to other wildlife as well.

“QVM treated areas provide high-quality forage and cover for deer but also benefit many other species. Turkeys find bugs, seeds and tender vegetation in these areas. They also use these areas for nesting and rearing young. Quail, rabbits, songbirds and many other animals find these areas attractive,” said Watkins.

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Create Natural Feeding Lanes In Mature Pines

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4 | Create Natural Feeding Lanes In Mature Pines

In mature thinned pine stands Imazapyr should be applied in the fall. By spring, the hardwood under story growth is dead. Prescribed fire in the spring, if possible, removes debris. Native plants quickly emerge. Fertilizer (0-22-26) is applied at 200 lb. per acre in late summer. In the course of one year the treated area transforms from a nutritional wasteland to a natural wildlife feeding lane. The herbicide’s effect lasts for years. The cost in terms of money and time is low. Where fire is not an option, bush hogging can be used to chop and disperse heavy, brushy debris.

Another way to create feeding lanes in mature crop pines without burning can be accomplished with a late summer application of Arsenal AC in 50-foot swaths to the undergrowth. Later strip disk to establish an annual grass community. Strips can also be fertilized and planted with food crops.

The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), is an excellent source for research and management of whitetails and QVM information.

Mother Nature is a fickle, ever-changing beast. The day-to-day progression of trees and plant communities is slow. The year-to-year progression is more noticeable. Decade-to-decade this progression is dramatic and without sound management can be detrimental to wildlife. Nowhere can this evolvement of habitat be better observed than in planted pines.

As hunters if we combine sound timber practices with native vegetation management, pine plantations will offer deer and other wildlife a smorgasbord of nutritious forage and quality habitat.

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Be a Good Steward

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5 | Be a Good Steward

Deer hunting isn’t just about filling tags. It’s about caring for America’s most loved wild game animal and being a good steward over it. Part of being a good steward is ensuring the habitat for it is benefitting them, not hurting their ranks. I know, not everyone who hunts can do all of the things previously listed. Some hunt public land. Some hunt private land with permission. Even so, we can all do something. Figure out what that something is for you and do it. It’s all in the name of Quality Deer Management.

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New Property Listings on RealtreeUC.com

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6 | New Property Listings on RealtreeUC.com

Realtree United Country Hunting Properties is pleased to announce a new partnership that will provide a resource to hunters seeking hunting land of their own. Go to RealtreeUC.com to find the hunting property you're looking for.

Editor's note: This was originally published August 9, 2016.

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Food is king in the world of deer hunting. And good habitat is a must. Healthy deer populations rely on it. Follow the words and advice listed here to increase the deer density where you hunt, or to maintain an already well-balanced herd.