With the advent of the government Conservation Reserve Program in the 1985 farm bill, many marginal row crop farms in the hill region of Mississippi were converted to pine plantations.
Today, much of that acreage is nearing harvest age, and new cycles of planting will be under way in coming years.
How those trees are planted and managed can make a considerable difference in eventual productivity and in corollary benefits such as wildlife and recreation, says Bobby Watkins, who has been using his family’s Coontail Farm at Aberdeen, Miss., as a proving ground for management systems.
“Ours is a fifth generation typical farm, which for decades was cotton, corn, and cows,” he says. “But going into the late 1980s, row crops were no longer economically sustainable. Our cash rent had dropped to $12 per acre, which we sometimes couldn’t collect.
“The Conservation Reserve Program would pay $40 per acre for the first 10 years, plus 50 percent of the cost of planting the trees. In addition to that, the growing trees would add a minimum $100 per acre per year in the value of the timber. So, economically it was a no-brainer — and a lot less work and headaches than row crops.
“Over a two-year period starting in 1988, we converted the land to pines for revenue and began a wildlife management program to provide recreation for family and friends. There are three farm ponds that have all been renovated and restocked with fish. We particularly like to get young people out here and give them exposure to hunting and fishing, and to cultivate an appreciation for nature.
“Years ago, the forestry and wildlife sectors were butting heads, with not a great deal of cooperative interaction. Now, they are working together on management of woodlands for income, wildlife enhancement, and conservation.”
Watkins, whose working career was in research and development of herbicides for BASF, now is a forestry/wildlife management consultant at Starkville, Miss.
“After my years of working with herbicides and seeing how they could enhance crop production by controlling undesirable vegetation, I wanted to put that knowledge and experience to work on our farm to maximize growth of our trees and at the same time provide desirable habitat for deer, turkeys, quail, songbirds, and other wildlife.
“I’ve seen far too many pine plantations where the understory was overgrown with sweetgum, privet, and other invasive vegetation that has very little value as wildlife habitat. By eliminating these species with herbicides and controlled burns, allowing desirable grasses, forbs and legume species to emerge, then supplementing them with food plots of clover and other species, we not only promote better growth of our trees, we also have optimum habitat for wildlife and eliminate the risk of stand replacement wildfires.”
Just as cotton or soybean farmers eliminate unwanted vegetation that competes for water and nutrients, control of unwanted species is critical for farming pines, Watkins says. But unlike crops, it’s a one-time practice in a 25-year growth cycle, applied after the first thinning.
Arsenal, Chopper, or various generic herbicides are applied either aerially or by ground to kill the undesirable species. The herbicide cost runs about $20 per acre, with another $20 to $40 per acre in application cost, depending on method used.
A cool season burn, which doesn’t damage the pines, is conducted to remove the dead vegetation and scarify seeds of native plants that are dormant in the soil, allowing them to germinate, grow and provide food and cover for wildlife. These include dew and blackberry, goldenrod, ragweed, pokeweed, smartweed, panicums, sedges, partridge pea and many other legume species.
“Some of the undesirable trees will return, but periodic cool season burns will kill them,” Watkins notes. “The ash also adds small amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil.”
For the first thinning, most pine production regimes are based on removing every third, fourth, or fifth row of trees to provide open lanes that allow for equipment movement and tree harvest.
“For years, the recommended practice has been to also set aside 5 percent to 10 percent of the land area for wildlife food plots. But this also negatively affects your revenue stream, because that’s land that isn’t growing merchantable timber. Add that to the area for access lanes, and for every 100 acres you could have 25 percent to 35 percent open land areas.”
So, rather than setting aside dedicated food plots, he has made food plots of the access lanes.
“In the second year after thinning, most of the woody debris will be gone, which is a good time to establish longer-term food plots,” Watkins says. “Perennial clover is a good choice; it grows well in partial shade, is easily established with only light soil disturbance, and doesn’t have to be replanted each year.
“I use Durana clover, a really tough, persistent variety developed by researchers at the University of Georgia that has excellent nutritional value for wildlife. The clover can also add as much as 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre, which is beneficial to the adjacent trees.
“I’ve found, by measuring clover height as it’s browsed by deer, that utilization in the access lanes is better than that of traditional open food plots. The deer can move easily from cover vegetation in the adjacent forest into the food lanes, then back into the forest.”
Watkins’ data show these management practices can increase deer carrying capacity as much as 10-fold, compared to an unmanaged plantation. The native plants established after thinning and burning provide food, bedding, and escape cover, while the Durana clover in the access lanes adds large amounts of high quality forage for all game species.
The clover-covered access lanes offer numerous additional benefits, including fire breaks, easy equipment movement, wildlife viewing, walking/riding areas, and reduction of soil erosion.
These management practices are included in the cost share programs available through local country NRCS or FSA offices, which is an added benefit.
Trees on Coontail Farm are now 22 years old and have been thinned twice.
“I’ll probably cut some small saw logs over the next few years and defer any sizable harvest until the market gets better,” Watkins says. “One of the good things about trees, unlike row crops, is that you can delay harvest until the market improves.”
In addition to providing a revenue stream from the trees and wildlife and recreation, he says, proper management of the forest landscape can also increase the value of the farmland by as much as 50 percent.
Although more restrictions have been added, CRP and some cost sharing are still available, Watkins notes, particularly in areas involving streams and wetlands.
Watkins keeps detailed data on his tree/wildlife management systems, including a number of check areas where nature is allowed to take its course, showing the marked contrast between managed and unmanaged areas.
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