Don’t Fear the Reaper: Timber Harvest is Good for Deer

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The reaper is coming to my family’s farm in Southeast Georgia, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a tree reaper, also known as a feller-buncher. It will be joined by skidders, loaders, log trucks and men with chainsaws. In a Disney movie, this event would be depicted like an invasion of evil, destructive aliens bent on annihilating the talking animals of Earth. But in the real world, this invasion is going to do fantastically good things for whitetails and other wildlife at Grace Acres.

The truth is, we’re overdue for a visit from the reaper. A total of 70 acres of our 500-acre farm feature loblolly pines planted in rows (known as “planted pines” in the South), most of it planted more than 15 years ago. And what is this acreage producing for wildlife right now?

Nada.

When a clearcut or opening is first planted in pines for timber production, quality deer habitat is the result – for a few years. Unless herbicides are used to prevent them, early successional plants will produce dense cover and forage among the young pine seedlings. Then the pine trees meet, darkening the ground, and soon nothing is being produced in this stand except pine straw and shade. In this stage between planting and timber harvest, many landowners turn the pine straw into cash, but if your goal is producing high-quality wildlife habitat, dense mature pine plantations are mostly wildlife voids. They are empty zones that deer and turkeys sometimes pass through but do not use (see the photo above, taken at our farm, to see what I’m talking about).

For a long time, these stands on our farm have been unproductive for wildlife. The solution was to thin them, but timber prices have been flat or declining for several years (See the five-year trend in sawtimber, chip-n-saw and pulpwood prices, provided by Timber Mart South). Many of our planted loblolly pines are now big enough to bring chip-n-saw prices (about 10 to 13 inches in diameter) instead of pulpwood prices (6 to 9 inches). But still we waited, hoping prices would rise.

Luckily, while we waited, early successional cover and forage were not in short supply on the farm. In 2001 and 2002, my dad converted 140 acres of former agricultural fields to longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) under the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Longleaf Pine Initiative cost-share program. Longleaf, the once-dominant native pine of the southeastern Coastal Plain, is a completely different beast from loblolly when it comes to habitat management. Longleaf thrives under early and regular prescribed fire; loblolly – not so much. You can burn longleaf as early as two years after planting. Plus longleaf needles and canopies are less dense than loblolly and admit far more sunlight. In short, planting longleaf pine was like establishing 140 acres of “old field” habitat – and that is still true 10 years after the trees were planted. Nevertheless, whenever I looked at those dark, empty expanses of pine straw in the loblolly plantations, I couldn’t help but itch to crank a chainsaw. When you’re trying to produce quality wildlife habitat and great deer hunting, it galls to watch 70 acres of land sit unproductive for wildlife.

This year, Dad saw an opportunity – a slight bump in pulpwood and chip-n-saw prices. Still not as good as before 2008, but you have to consider that we are also losing timber value by waiting. The sooner these trees are thinned, the sooner the remaining trees will pick up their growth rates again, reaching sawtimber size (and value) sooner.

So, here’s the plan, worked out between my brother Rans (who is a wildlife biologist), my dad, me, and a licensed forester.

First, we’ll put a “fifth-row thinning” on 50 acres of planted loblolly pines, meaning every fifth row is taken by the loggers – 20 percent of the stand. This will dramatically restore sunlight to the floor of the stand, resulting in renewed early successional plant growth in the cut rows, as well as in the uncut rows. It will also leave plenty of choices for quality trees we can harvest in a second thinning-cut some years from now. Another 20 acres of older loblolly pines will be marked by hand for a shelterwood cut.

Second, there are three areas on the farm where loblolly pines grew up or were planted along old fencerows or ditches that are now within the stands of longleaf. We’ll cut those loblollys out completely. This will leave linear openings about 20 yards wide, and one of these is more than 300 yards yards long. We plan to establish these new openings in “old field” habitat of native grasses and forbs for bedding cover, though this will likely require killing bahia grass first – a non-native invasive pasture grass that lurks in most of the roads and small openings.

Third, we are removing mature loblollys and pond pine (Pinus serotina) that are mixed with mature longleaf and American turkey oaks (Quercus laevis) in a 30-acre stand. This renovation cut will restore the stand to pure, native longleaf pines and create an open longleaf and oak “savanna,” the type of upland habitat that once dominated the Coastal Plain and that is excellent for quail and a number of threatened non-game species, like indigo snakes and gopher tortoises. After this cut, we’ll be able to maintain the early successional savanna with fire.

Fourth, we are making six strategic, 1-acre clearcuts along the border between the high ground and the hardwood bottomland that dominates half the farm. We are getting cost-share assistance to perform these cuts under the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The practice is designated “PLT17 – Creating forest openings to improve hardwood stands.” Pines and low-quality mature hardwoods will be removed in these 1-acre clearcuts, allowing hardwood regeneration. We’ll direct this regeneration by planting preferred species like swamp chestnut oak in the openings and controlling undesirable species, including any invasives like Chinese privet or Chinaberry that appear. Of course, while hardwoods are regenerating in these clearcuts, these areas will offer additional bedding cover and forage.

I can’t wait to watch the results of these timber harvests unfold. I expect we’ll see an immediate response from turkeys, especially next spring. Turkeys love to feed and bug in the earliest stages of vegetation recovery after a timber thinning. By next summer, this cover will be producing quality deer forage and fawn bedding cover. And by next hunting season, these changes will have created new deer travel patterns and hunting opportunities. Stay tuned to QDMA.com, because I’ll report more on this project as it develops.

So, don’t fear the reaper! From small-scale jobs involving you and your chainsaw to big jobs involving skidders and log trucks, cutting trees can be a very good thing for deer habitat. Take a tip from us and always use the services of a licensed forester to represent and guide you through a timber sale, and also visit your nearest NRCS office to learn about potential cost-share programs that might actually pay you to improve deer habitat.

The author's son, Jake, assists with prescribed fire in a stand of longleaf pine. Longleaf tolerates fire at an early age and admits more sunlight than other pines, allowing for management of early successional cover. Note the amount of cover throughout this stand of longleafs.

  • Scwolfpack

    Hello from over in Edgefield SC! I had the first thinning of pines completed on my land last year. Now the drag rows are seeing new growth and I am wondering do I let the new growth come on up for browsing and possible bedding areas or do I keep those rows somewhat bush hogged but not too low considering the stumps are still present in most of the rows?

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      SCwolfpack, definitely do not bush-hog those rows. Let the natural vegetation respond. You should see grasses, broadleaf plants, vines and eventually tree seedlings coming up in that new open ground. Let it go. Consider setting it back again in 3 to 4 years with prescribed fire, and then I would suggest burning it in a patchwork rotation (don’t burn it all in the same year) so that you end up with several stages of understory regeneration at any given time. The only reason you might need to take any sooner action is if you see significant amounts of non-native invasive plants responding, like Chinese privet, Japanese climbing fern, autumn olive, etc. In that case, spot-spray with herbicide to stop those from becoming established.
      Thanks for reading, and good luck!

      • Scwolfpack

        Thanks for the advice. I do have some sweetgum coming up so guess I can hit that with glyphosate and let the rest come naturally. My forester did recommend splitting my tract in 4 part sections and burning a section each year then starting over. Good advice.

        • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

          Yes, you can hit sweetgums while they’re still young and stop them, or they’ll eventually shade the good stuff out. If you can get the right conditions to do a growing-season fire (late summer or early fall), that will also kill sweetgums. Dormant-season fire (winter) won’t kill them permanently.


About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of QDMA, and he is QDMA's Director of Communications. He has been a member of the QDMA staff since 2003. Prior to joining the staff of QDMA, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.