Tree farms get a bad rap by hunters and are too often viewed as “wildlife wastelands.” But proper planning and management with timber stand improvement (TSI) can make pines a wildlife paradise. They offer safety, food, and hunting opportunities. From the sweltering velvet season to the shortened days of the post-rut, the needs of deer don’t change much. Whitetails need three main habitat features within their home range: variety of food, water, and cover. Abundant forage and safety from cover can be created and maintained through TSI work.
Controlled Burns It’s not headline news that the dormant growing season is an excellent time to implement prescribed fire for native plant growth. It’s an ideal and cost-efficient management practice to establish natural food plots, bedding, and fawning cover. Controlled burns can be achieved easier than you think. Most state forestry commissions offer classes and burn license certification courses. However, hands-on experience is imperative. Connect with local land managers, foresters, and game biologists for advice and help.
The frequency and timing of fire generates various results. So much depends on soil makeup and the amount of available sunlight through the tree canopy. We typically burn blocks in three-year intervals but may be scaling back in some of the big timber sections to maintain a little more cover. If you’re new to fire management, burn a small area and monitor the results and deer usage during the growing season. Pay close attention to all plant species and what is being eaten. You may decide to burn more or less frequently.
Light Discing I know what you’re thinking: Lighting your farm on fire is a daunting task to digest. The process will take time to research and plan. However, early successional light discing is an easy and simple management practice to disturb the native seed bank and create natural food plots ideal for turkey, deer, and quail.
All you need is a tractor and disc harrow. From November through March, lightly disc along roads, firebreaks, logging trails, old loading decks, and fallow fields. You’ll be amazed by the native plant species that sprout from simple ground disturbance and sunlight. Deer will devour these plants. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just lightly break through the ground surface with a harrow. Make sure to observe the spring and summer growth and what deer end up consuming. You may establish a firebreak loaded with blackberries or pokeweed which would be a killer trail camera setup. Natural food plots are much more cost-efficient and provide many forage options. Furthermore, early successional plants offer optimal cover for fawns and ground-nesting birds.
Thinning Thinning planted pine stands is necessary to attain maximum production value. Opening the canopy and increasing sunlight exposure is critical for native plant growth. More sunlight equals more disturbance allowed on the ground floor. This is why you’ll see very little vegetation under tight canopies. Deer may frequent these bare areas but they’ll likely just pass through.
Generally, on tree farms, the best pines are left to grow and mature at the highest rate. However, there are numerous invasive tree species offering little to no value for wildlife. These should be removed from the landscape. A chainsaw or the hack-in-squirt method are simple ways to eliminate invasives.
Diversity is king and that applies to planted pine farms. By staggering out age classes of timber stands, you can develop a “checkerboard” design on your property. This will yield more frequent income from timber sales and will also maintain diversity on your landscape. The more your farm is diversified, the more wildlife will frequent and utilize your habitat. The “checkerboard” design promotes deer movement with easy, safe transitions from thickets to forage within cover.
Clear Cutting Typically, clear-cuts are not favored by hunters. But why? If you talk with any whitetail nut, they’ll tell you clear-cut thickets are notorious for intense rut hunting. I look forward to mapping out future bedding sites by planning clear-cut sections. By cutting smaller five to 30-acre blocks, you will produce high-quality bedding thickets within one to three years whether you replant pines or let it grow up wild. This will result in dense, seemingly impenetrable cover chock full of forage.
The thickening timeline will vary if the soil is low or high ground. These pine thickets can last for eight to 10 years on low ground and a little less time for higher, well-drained soil. After that, the ground floor will be too exposed as the tight canopy will shade out virtually all sunlight. Following the first thinning around 15 years, TSI work will produce tender, highly digestible food sources for deer and various wildlife species until the area is ready to be clear-cut again.
Safety Over a Full Stomach Climbing in big timber over burned blocks next to pine thickets, aka, whitetail bedding, are some of my favorite places to hunt at the farm. In Whitetail Tracks, Dr. Valerius Geist details how security is more important than food. Think about that; deer will choose poor food options with better cover over premium food and insufficient cover. Safety is above all for the species and it’s how they have survived for nearly 4 million years. I always consider this when choosing new timber blocks to cut. A deer will be at ease if they can vanish in a couple of bounds. It’s crucial to keep this in mind when establishing supplemental feeders, food plots, and any type of forage created by fire or ground disturbance. Deer feel safe moving through vegetation height created by fire or early successional discing and can vanish quickly with pine thickets close by.
As the fall season progresses, deer are educated by hunter pressure on food plots and agricultural fields. So isolated timber blocks will draw in deer movement during daylight—especially as whitetails plan to arrive at destination food sources after dark while watching defeated hunters head back to camp. Additionally, rut hunting these blocks with bucks checking various pine thickets for hot does can produce results.
Pine farms can be a monoculture or a whitetail mecca. Why not blend wildlife conservation improvements with leading forestry practices? Manage your timber crop for income to pay for the farm and to maximize wildlife usage.