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The prospect of taking a perfectly good tillable field out of row crop production and converting it into a wildlife habitat would sound insane to many people, farmers in particular of course. Heck, the farmers in many parts of the country wish there was less wildlife using their prized production tillable fields, that attitude forged from witnessing depredation on their valuable corn and soybean commodity. But that is exactly what I was pondering soon after buying this adjoining parcel of land that complemented my original piece purchased well over 20 years ago.
The original parcel, just under 60 acres, has offered some wonderfully memorable hunts and experiences for me and my daughters over the years and was the object of much love and attention, where I got to implement many habitat improvement projects and first-hand witness the fruits of my labor. The primary focus of these upgrades was to provide whitetail deer-friendly conditions that would cause them to want to spend more time on my property and move about freely during the daylight. I also didn’t want to attract and hold “deer” in general but wanted as many mature bucks as possible to desire to consider this place as an integral part of their home range. Early on I knew that the basic fundamental necessities of food, water and cover were to be considered first. Luckily there was a 1-acre hidden pond in the timber that would allow me cross the drinking water criteria off the list. The timber was average by nature and although deer were bedding inconsistently on a few of the interior ridges, I could see the need for “thickening up” the ground level vegetation, which in turn would provide very beneficial food and cover throughout the property. This is hard for some to come to terms with, but I understood that the best and quickest way to get that done was through implementing a responsible selective timber harvest along with some additional timber stand improvement practices. Not only would the removal of some trees create openings in the canopy allowing valuable sunlight to reach the ground and thus a flush of desirable forbs and weeds, but I would also get access trails created all the while getting a paycheck at the end. An absolute win-win situation.
The third element of the essentials is the food component. At the time there were no large open areas on my property. It was virtually all timber except for a couple tiny slivers that were likely old logging decks that ended up being locations for my early attempts at food plots. I quickly realized that these plantings would attract and feed deer, but they needed to be much larger to sustain more animals and survive and thrive in a deep woods setting. For the most part deer were leaving my property and heading off into a couple directions where they would eventually arrive at larger agricultural fields in the evenings for better sources of food. So one of the objectives for me when arranging for a timber harvest back in 2005 was to essentially clear-cut a couple of my flat ridge-tops so that after the timber crew was done I could burn the remaining tops and grind stumps to greatly expand my available areas for food sources. That year the food plot areas jumped from less than half an acre to 4 acres in 3 separate plot areas all hidden deep within the timber.
From that point on I was finally able to make an impact in providing a variety of nutritional forage covering the 3 key seasonal plant groups; warm and cool season annuals and perennials. The quality of our hunting experiences skyrocketed between the response from the deer utilizing much more of the property for bedding in the responding new growth on the thickened ridgetops, along with the predictable movement in and out of those hidden food plots loaded with desirable forage.
So as time went by the natural inclination of a habitat tinkering nut like myself, was to continually tweak and make any improvement to the land possible no matter how seemingly insignificant. Hinge cutting has been a strong addition to the cause, and by reducing the competition of non-desirable tree species while at the same time opening up the canopy yet again and providing some immediate eye-level structural cover likened to a “living privacy fence”, I have been able to re-set some of the areas that were beginning to get open again from the ever increasing canopy. I like the ability influencing deer to bed in particular areas by really focusing and targeting those isolated locations with heavy hinge cutting. They absolutely respond if the job is done correctly. But eventually I ran out of significant improvements to do any have had to just be happy re-working plots every year and maintaining the remaining parts of the puzzle. That was until I had the opportunity to purchase adjoining acreage recently that contained a beautiful hidden tillable field in a lower elevation from the majority of the original property.
The new piece joined my original tract on the east and north sides and added an additional 62 plus acres. The biggest addition was the above-mentioned tillable field which comprises 17 acres of the total. I knew I would want to do something big and important with this field eventually but for the first couple of years I continued to cash rent it to my farmer friend who grew corn and soybeans on it in rotation. I have a hang-up of making serious decisions quickly that will affect things for years to come and I struggled finalizing a plan for what this conversion would entail. I have a background education from Purdue University in Landscape Architecture and have done hundreds of plans for clients over the years including some intensive wildlife habitat master plans, so I understand the importance of laying out a design and executing it properly, and that prospect made me nervous. I didn’t want to lose years allowing things to mature only to regret any decisions that I made.
Rounding the corner of fall and winter of 2018 I finally felt I had a habitat layout that I was completely confident in and excited to begin implementing in the spring of 2019. I notified my farmer that I was taking the field out of production and he kindly responded that he knew the day was coming. While on this subject, I almost feel a tinge of guilt in a strange way because I know that it had to have taken an incredible amount of sweat and toil to originally clear this land to allow it to be farmed. The guilt comes from not wanting that original effort to have been done in vain. My solace is knowing that this field has been intensively farmed for multiple decades and has produced a cash crop for the tenant farmer and landowner all these years.
Phase one of “Project 17” was to lay out the patterns for the various components and begin breaking ground by installing the hardwood tree planting area. The trees chosen were vastly a majority of oak species, and specifically oaks that are favorable acorn producers along with the potential for having marketable timber value, admittedly which would be well past a point in time where I would benefit from a harvest. But most importantly I wanted to use oaks that really held their leaves on into early spring when the newly forming buds would push off the old leaves. You see, I envision this 5 or so acres of oaks planted in the center of the field to mimic an early successional field, providing dense, scrubby cover that provides a secluded sanctuary in the center of the plan. Imagine mature bucks spending the daylight hours lazily bedded under a leafy oak scrub tree feeling comfortable enough to stand up, stretch and mill around picking up acorns that litter the ground around him patiently waiting for the shadows to lengthen so he can amble out to one of the several food sources waiting for him on the periphery. Of course, eventually as the timber matures it will lose that quality transitioning into a maturing woods, but wow will it be awesome for several decades. At some point I hope that my grandkids or great grandkids can do a timber harvest and enjoy a financial return with hopes of “re-setting” that block of timber back once again into early succession.
Phase two of the plan was to install the fire break trail system and food plots. The idea here is to create a vegetative “path” completely around the outer circumference of the entire field, as well as separating the tree planting from the native warm season grasses that would soon be installed. The choice her was to utilize a reliable perennial clover combination along with a percentage of chicory to create not only a green trail and separator for fire control, but a beneficial food source that at any time was less than 100 yards away from anywhere in the field a deer might be bedded. The trail aspect of this design will allow me to sneak to any point of the project unseen and unheard as long as I pay close attention to wind direction allowing for deadly covert access. Spring planting of perennial clovers is not the ideal choice for timing, with late summer, early fall being the best. The reason is the slow-growing perennials spend much of their early time and energy developing a strong root system before the begin to put on much noticeable growth above ground. Couple this with the fact that the warming temperatures cause a flush of growth from aggressive annual weeds and grasses and the young clover plants can easily be overtaken by the barrage of competitive plants. To help combat this, I did a very thorough burndown herbicide application of Glyphosate 2 weeks prior to planting and included wheat seed at a rate of 40 pounds per acre to help act as a clover-friendly “nurse” crop. The quickly emerging wheat will help suppress weeds but be sparse enough to not over-shadow the emerging clover and chicory. The wheat will be allowed to grow to seed and brown off providing turkeys, deer and other birds a bountiful source of food in the form of ripe wheat seed later in the summer. A simple mowing at the appropriate time will clip the wheat straw and allow the clover to take over. I also planted this same mix in the rows between the trees to provide what I hope to be a weed suppressing cover crop that will allow the saplings to get more sunlight than they otherwise would if I allowed the area to be left unkept. Here’s the great unknown with this concept. Will the tremendous supply of highly nutritious food overwhelm the whitetails and relieve browsing pressure on the trees, or will it attract more deer to the tree rows and cause more browsing? I will soon find out. I will eventually let the tree row lanes revert to weeds, and grasses for that early successional composition mentioned earlier. I am in theory just giving the trees a head start of sorts by eliminating competition. The second half of Phase two was to plant 2 of the 3 food plot areas with warm season annuals. The bigger “cove” on the west end of the project is a favorite area for deer to gather in the evenings and I knew that it would be the focal point for food sources and for potential hunting opportunities. My plan is to continue to plant corn and soybeans rotating every year and this year soybeans were planted and at the time of this writing are several inches tall and looking great. I use a two-brand approach when planting beans and it has worked out very well in the past several years in another upper field in the timber. I plant Round Up Ready production type beans in the “body” of the field and then plant RR forage type beans on the outside band usually 3 passes wide allowing for 24’ of forage that will remain green well into the first couple weeks of October, until it gets a hard frost. This tactic has caused the demise of a few mature bucks that like to come out on an early October north wind cold front and work the outer ring of the field hitting those beans and working licking branches. The standing beans loaded with pods will be a magnet as the season progresses and the weather turns colder. The second warm season food plot was planted in the north east cove and was planted with a mixture of soybeans, cowpeas, sorghum and buckwheat. It is an inexpensive blend and intended to be a place holder offering some good nutrition during antler growth and fawn rearing season but will be replaced with a cool season annual for peak attraction and diversity from the beans during deer season.
Phase three is the installation of the 7 acres of native warm season grasses which will actually be taking place tomorrow. This part of the project will add another important layer to the diversity and attractiveness of the field. The seed chosen is a 3–specie mix of the “big 3” tall grasses known for achieving heights of 6-8 feet in height with great standability even later in the winter. These are Switchgrass, Indian Grass and Big Bluestem. These particular genotypes have been selected in this brand because of their proven height, growth rate and standability. Native warm season grasses differ hugely from common cool season sod-forming grasses in that they are “bunch grasses”. This means that the individual seeds form isolated and separated clumps of grass rather than a sod carpet. If you get down at ground level in one of these stands you can readily see how this growth habit allows for a tunnel like system that animals and gamebirds can move about in while being sheltered from above by the tall arching top growth achieved by these species. The areas being planted to these tall grasses will surround the center tree planting thicket and add yet another layer of privacy and solitude. They offer a great visual screen to the entire field and will also be attractive for bedding and loafing areas too for the whitetails. I fully expect that the turkeys will nest and fawns will be born in the tall grasses. I also believe that these vegetative types missing from the surrounding habitats will hold a special attraction to deer and hope that it will allow more social space for additional mature bucks to take up residency. The design of the surrounding green trails will allow for me to periodically burn these stands of tall grasses beginning after year three of growth to ensure the young plants are old enough and deep rooted enough to survive the intense heat of a burn. Periodic controlled burning is a great tool to maintain a healthy stand. It eliminates ground choking dead tops, and when timed correctly can injure or kill competitive plants allowing the desirable grasses time to flourish.
Phase four for the year will be to convert the north east warm season cove plot into a cool season annual planting and to plant the small southeast plot into another but comprised of a different blend of plants. Again, with the idea of diversity and choice, I expect that the deer will move frequently from the standing beans to the other smaller fields and vice versa. In fact a main strategy for an anticipated bottle-neck of movement that could produce some great shot opportunities, is the south east cove complementing the standing soybeans. The anticipation is that deer will gravitate through the beans where most deer commonly enter the field, and transition into the small green and grains plot just around the corner and over the hill. This subtle pinch between the woods-edge, tall grasses and tree planting will get a tower blind strategically located to be down-wind and in bow range of this hot spot.
As a person who is unfamiliar with this property looks at the graphics on this plan, I can imagine there are some questions like why did he do that? or why there? come to mind. I can tell you that becoming intimately familiar with the way deer move about the property from understanding how topography and landform influence that movement, that the overall layout and food source locations were designed with an intent. That means I wanted to complement the naturally preferred movement patterns and tendencies while setting up an ideal highly attractive overall habitat, AND a way to carefully and effectively hunt it for mature bucks. Time will tell if my decisions were good ones. The awesome thing about working with the land and habitats, is they can always be modified or changed completely. I am looking forward to being a student and observing how these changes either reinforce my earlier instincts or reveal to me a better way!