This article is written by Tes & Ron Jolly

Planted pine plantations occupy nearly 20 percent of our east-central Alabama farm’s acreage. In 1995, Tes and her dad planted 20 acres of pastureland to loblolly pines. Their plan was to provide habitat attractive to deer and wild turkeys, plus grow a cash crop.

By 2001 the original 20 acres had matured to the point of forming a canopy that was having a strangling effect on the native vegetation within, eliminating vital forage and bedding, fawning and security cover for deer. We did a prescribed burn that year on this original planting but should have done so earlier. We also planted 10 acres of pine seedlings and added 10 more acres in 2003, staggering smaller plantings to provide continuous pockets of prime habitat.

Two decades of managing pine plantations have taught us many things. Perhaps the most important lesson is patience. It takes time for Mother Nature to do her work. Evidence of the day-to-day habitat progression of trees and plant communities is miniscule. The year-to-year progression becomes noticeable. Decade-to-decade evidence can be dramatic yet sometimes detrimental to wildlife. Nowhere can this evolving habitat be better observed than in planted pines.

Pines Through Time

The first 15 years of a pine plantation are a time of great transition. For the first five to eight years, sunlight reaching ground level produces abundant wildlife browse and cover. Later, the pendulum swings. Pine seedlings grow in height and width, and crown closure begins to form a canopy impenetrable by sunlight

By the tenth year, most plantations feature planted pines and a mix of soft and hardwood saplings. Virtually all the beneficial forage has grown out of reach or disappeared for lack of sunlight and competition for nutrients and moisture. It’s at this stage of growth that the first cool-season prescribed fire should occur to remove years of accumulated duff, straw and fuel that could devastate the pines if an unplanned fire breaks out. It also eliminates some unwanted shrubs and trees, but does little to encourage new growth beneficial to wildlife.

It does, however, release nutrients stored in the duff back into the pine stand. Typically, it’s another five to eight years before a plantation is ready to be thinned. Until then, the pine plantation provides shade and a travel corridor, but it is generally considered a biological desert for wildlife forage and cover.

Prescribed fire is an important tool in modern pine management, but a fire’s most dramatic effect occurs after thinning the stand. At this stage of a plantation there are options that affect the dollar return on your investment and others that affect wildlife. If your 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 row. Others choose every third row.

This is the first cash return on your timber investment. Both of these methods open the canopy and allow sunlight to reach the ground. A second return on investment occurs at the next thinning, eight to 10 years later, when the canopy has again closed and shades the ground. Our goal was to create quality cover and browse for deer and nesting/brooding habitat for turkeys as quickly as possible. To be certain we were on the right track, we contacted an expert.

Expert Advice

Bobby Watkins is a land manager and consultant whose expertise lies in managing pine plantations for natural forage regeneration that’s beneficial to wildlife. We attended one of Watkins’ field events on quality vegetation management (QVM) in pine management and were impressed.

The first step was to thin our pines. We used the selective method. This method takes out certain rows but allows the operator to remove inferior trees. Our goal was to reduce our stand to approximately 80 trees per acre, or basal area. “Quality vegetation management is a combination of thinning, chemical application and prescribed fire that stimulates the growth of natural biomass and natural forages,” said Watkins.

“Thinning allows sunlight to reach the ground. The more pines you remove, the more sunlight reaches the ground. Chemicals like Arsenal AC [imazapyr] remove unwanted trees and shrubs too large for fire to kill. Cool-season prescribed fire removes the dense layer of mulch and pine straw, and exposes the mineral soil. Fire influences ground cover vegetation through scarification of seed and increases germination.”

QVM Benefits

“Deer nutritional carrying capacity [the number of animals of a given species that can be supported per unit of area, here an acre] increased dramatically in QVM-treated areas. We assumed a deer needed 3 pounds of forage per day, 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,” said Watkins.

“Nothing was planted in these areas—it’s all natural vegetation that has been 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.”

“We conducted a study at Coontail Farm in the upper Mississippi Coastal Plain. We detected 99 species of plants in the ground cover of treated stands and a mean coverage that exceeded 100 percent due to multiple layers of plants. Forbs [herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses, sedges or rushes] were the most frequently occurring plants with 29 species recorded, 22 species of legumes, 18 species of grasses and sedges, nine species of woody vines and nine species of shrubs or small trees were also recorded.”

Watkins’ research focuses on results for whitetail deer, 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,” he said.

Like the Native Americans who came before and lived in harmony with nature, respect and commitment to the land and wildlife are important to attain renewable, sustainable resources. Patience is key, knowing that Mother Nature can’t be hurried, but she can be assisted by timber management with prescribed burns, to help achieve timber and wildlife management goals.

Learn Before You Burn

• Consult a local or state forester first when planning a burn. Hire a professional to perform the burn or acquire necessary contact info in case of an emergency.

• Wear prescribed safety gear.

• Install fire breaks around the intended burn area.

• Check local regulations and laws concerning prescribed burns.

• Burn only when wind velocity and relative humidity are favorable according to guidlelines.

• Check local weather conditions. Burn when wind direction blows smoke away from roads, homes and towns.

• Be courteous. Notify neighbors before you burn.

• Monitor the burn area until all fire is extinguished.

• Have a contingency plan. Always have assistants and containment gear, such as water, a tractor with a harrow and hand rakes, on site to ensure the fire is contained.

Editor’s Note: Currently, there is no organic spray that will kill good-sized trees and shrubs. According to Brian Wolf of Oregon Vineyard Solutions, “Imazapyr is a newer class of chemical that is much safer than 2-4-D. The problem with organic herbicides is that all they do is kill the foliage, not the tree or shrub. If you don’t want to use chemical herbicides, you really have two choices: Keep using your chainsaw to cut down unwanted growth or bring in goats.” He added that the latter present their own problems, like eating trees and shrubs you want to keep.

This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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