MWblog
Direct Nut Seeding
Reforesting Acres
Posted by Bill Winke on 03.01.12

I like productive acres. Every single one on your farm should have value to it. 

EVERY ACRE COUNTS

As you go through your hunting area, you should categorize every acre. Some acres are productive farmland, some are food plots, some are good habitat, some are marginal habitat and some are none of the above. The productive farmland, food plots and good habitat are fine as is. The marginal habitat may require some timber harvest or timber stand improvement, possibly even a controlled burn. That is part of deer management; however, the category that I will focus on now is the one involving the useless acres. They serve no purpose – yet.

In trying to utilize these acres you have to choose between feeding money into growing food in these ill-suited acres (poor choice), planting those acres to switchgrass or shrubs, (a viable option) or reforesting these acres. I am going to focus on the last one – reforesting useless acres.

REFORESTING WITH SEEDLINGS

When trying to grow trees, you can either plant seedlings or you can plant seeds. For seedlings, you can often buy these in bulk from the state nursery or private nurseries. Typically, they aren’t real expensive depending on what you are planting. Cedars are cheap, oaks are more expensive. Fruit trees cost even more. If you are looking to produce oak timber, it is not going to be cheap. In fact, it will be expensive.

After planting thousands of seedling trees in my life, I have been generally disappointed with the result. The true survival rate a year later averages about 25%. One year we planted 5,000 choke cherry seedlings. It turned dry for several weeks after the planting. The next year, not a single tree remained!

If you are serious about planting seedlings, plan on making it a part-time job. Having it professionally done with a guarantee of survival is worth paying extra. You have to handle the seedling carefully, keeping the roots wet until planted; make sure that you have complete root-to-soil contact (no air pockets) and that the root is pointed downward, not forming a J shape. You must water the seedlings regularly for the first three months.

DIRECT NUT SEEDING 

After years of discouraging results with seedlings, I chose to do it differently when faced with my own useless acres. During the fall of 2006, I was losing money on a crop field every year because of poor soil quality and extreme slope. I decided to give up on agriculture and put them back into trees. That ridge was cleared about 50 years ago and it was time to restore it to the proper cover.

Once I started looking at my farm, I came up with 12 more acres that were useless in every regard. That brought my total to 22 acres. After deciding to put these acres to work for me, I started looking at my options. I wanted trees not switchgrass. I guess I am a tree guy. I like trees. After consulting with the local NRCS office, I learned of programs that will pay to improve habitat while taking farmland out of production. In other words, they would pay a portion of my expenses to plant trees on these acres.

When my project was approved, I set out to find a source for acorns. For 22 acres, I was going to need a minimum of 5 bushels of acorns per acre. That amounted to roughly 20,000+ seeds per acre! I estimated about 25% of them to germinate and grow.
I found an independent consulting forester from Cedar Rapids with access to some fruitful white oaks. He and his crew collected 55 bushels of white oak and 65 bushels of red oak. I hand spread the acorns using the bed of Polaris Ranger as the mobile nut carrier. It took about three days to spread it all! I disked the seeds in after spreading each section as soon as possible to keep the acorns from drying out.

Red oaks are spring germinators so planting them in the fall was easy and successful. However, white oaks are fall germinators and you must handle them carefully to assure you’re planting viable seeds. That means keeping them moist and cold until planted. Get them immediately covered after they hit the ground.

By June, the trees were about 8 to 12 inches tall. The red oak did better than the white oak as expected. Although I planted the oaks in the prescribed manner, the red oak were likely twice as prolific. That means the stand was 2/3 red oak and 1/3 white oak. My survival rate means I should have over 5,000 trees per acre.

18 months later and my next step was spraying the planted area with weed killer, such as Oust, reducing competition. This is done during the winter months while the trees are dormant. Chemicals are expensive, but the process is necessary. This step must be done the following winter , but by year three, the trees will compete well enough to hold their own.
From my experience, this is a much better method for establishing a forest than planting seedling. You may be thinking that the seedling trees buy you an extra couple of years because they are already 18 inches tall when purchased. It seems that the first year, if they survive the shock of transplanting, is a wash. The small trees don’t grow that year. In my experience, they just die. Seriously, it is tough time for them.

Personally, I like for my farm to look a certain way. The less manipulation the better. I want them growing in natural patterns, rather than rows, so the direct seeding approach appeals to me. Essentially, land management is not much more than a large scale landscaping project. I like the look of naturally dispersed trees.

My sources told me I could expect as much as one foot of growth per year on my young trees. Five years later and they have created incredible deer cover and a great buffer as the deer leave the bigger timber and head toward my food plots. While five years may seem like a long time to wait, just think what your place would look like now if you had done this five or six years ago. Every year you wait is another missed opportunity! The best time to plant a tree is ten years ago, the second best time is today.