When we talk about white-tailed deer management, we often look to the states that have monster deer like Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio. Those states grow 200 plus inch bucks. It’s amazing to see for sure. But this is Florida and we can’t effectively manage deer the same way. Actually, in Florida, we can’t even manage deer the same across the state. This is why we have 12 deer management units. So, what are the reasons we can’t manage deer the same?
Plant hardiness and climate
Deer are highly adaptable to habitats. They can be found in almost every state in the US. The native vegetation is very different in Northwest Florida versus Iowa or Illinois. Deer are eating different diets depending on the habitat they are residing in. Bedding areas will vary also. This affects the body size, antler growth, and fawning rates for deer.
We can grow food plots to supplement deer diets but those will look a little different too. For example, clovers and cereal grains are normally frost seeded in late winter or planted in the spring in parts of the country that actually experience winter. In Northwest Florida, we plant clovers and cereal grains in the fall.
Finally, rut timing is a key part of deer nutrition management. In Northwest Florida, the rut (deer breeding season) is happening now. In other parts of the country such as Iowa, they are shed hunting already because their rut happens in November.
So, given these reasons, we do things a little differently here. We plant cool season food plots in the fall. These act as attractants to draw deer in during hunting season. Then our summers are when the deer need more nutrition for antler growth and fawn rearing. Warm season food plots should focus on supplying adequate crude protein and energy for this increased demand period.
I get calls every year about planting pines, stand establishment, and related requests. I also get many calls from landowners who have planted pines recently (10 years or less) and are wondering what to do going forward. Ideally, they are from landowners that have well thought out plans and just need some assistance with the finer details or are experiencing some unexpected issues. Unfortunately, I do often get calls from landowners that are just at a loss and are planting or managing with no real plan for now or the future. These landowners have great goals and intentions, but they are new to forest ownership and the long-term nature of forest management comes as a bit of a surprise. I love helping these landowners out though because often I can catch them early and get them on the right track. Establishing a forest stand right from the beginning and managing it well in the early establishment phase is critical to success. Mistakes can often stick around and be felt a decade or more in forestry; it is just part of forest ownership and management.
In over a decade of forest management practice I cannot stress to landowners and forestry professionals the critical importance of getting initial planting and establishment right. This is not the time to have a vague plan or to cut costs or corners. What you do now may well haunt you and impact your goals and investment return for over 30 years. In row crop agriculture you can often make corrections year to year, but in forestry missing competition control or a thinning can impact growth for the entire rotation. Considering that on average a landowner will get to see two rotations of timber in their lifetime, the margin for mistakes and missed opportunities is very slim. This is why it is so important when establishing a forest or reforesting after a final harvest that the planting plan and early management plan be well thought out and executed.
Winter is forestry planting season, and it is in full swing right now. Peak planting is usually in the months of December and January, but forest planting usually runs from November to the end of February or first of March. This is the opposite of most other agricultural and plant establishment operations because trees are best planted while they are dormant. Winter is the best time because when trees are dormant, they focus energy on root growth, and thus a newly planted seedling will focus on establishing it’s root system and be ready to start growing in spring. You may be wondering about pines and evergreens since they keep their foliage, but this is true for them as well. Pines have a dormant period in winter that is induced by weather and the amount of low temperature chill hours. They do not lose their needles but continue to photosynthesize. They do not actively grow new foliage or start renewed growth until spring. This is why winter is the best time to plant both forest and urban trees of all types and why Florida celebrates Arbor Day on January 20th (check your local county information for your local celebrations).
If you are conducting reforestation operations this winter, as many are, now is a great time to update your forest management/stewardship plan. If you are planning to plant trees or reforest in the near future, or if you are planning to harvest timber soon, now is a great time to work on a reforestation and stand establishment plan. If you are not working with a consulting forester it is highly encouraged you work with one to help with your reforestation, planting, and forest management needs. These highly trained professionals are equipped to help you make the best forest management decisions and can assist with locating contractors and forestry service providers. Using a consulting forester makes reforestation and management much easier for a landowner and results in better outcomes. Use of a consultant is not required though, so if you are a do-it-yourself landowner you will want to make sure all your ducks are in a row well before planting time comes around. The key to that is a good planting and stand establishment plan. UF IFAS has a great new EDIS publication out and available for landowners on planting southern pines in Florida. You can access the article here FOR385/FR456: Planting Southern Pines in Florida (ufl.edu) . For those who aren’t aware; recovering forests in the Hurricane Michael impact zone has become one of the largest reforestation and recover projects in the state’s history. If we get those reforestation efforts right now; it will pay big dividends for our landowners and communities in the future. The same goes for normal year to year reforestation efforts across the state as well.
A good reforestation or tree planting plan has several components. The core components are: type of regeneration natural vs. artificial, site and stand preparation, seedling establishment/planting, survival and early stand assessment, and early management of vegetation and fertility. For this article we will focus on artificial regeneration, which is when nursery grown seedlings are planted on the site. This is by far the most prevalent method, and it provides the most control over density and seedling quality. This also allows the use of genetically improved seed stock, which can greatly enhance forest productivity and value at end of rotation. Most pine planted in the southern United States now uses genetically improved seed stock. This is the result of decades of careful selection, testing, and deployment; much like agricultural crops like corn, cotton, etc. A landowner planting trees today has access to some of the best site preparation and reforestation seedling stock ever available, and taking advantage of it pays huge dividends. Here are the steps you can take as a landowner to get your plan outlined.
Determine the timeline for reforestation and plan accordingly.
Determine the species, density, seed source, genetic improvement level, and nursery availability of your desired seedlings.
Determine the site preparation required to ensure planting success
Determine the planting method; reserve planting labor and seedlings required to accomplish planting
Have planting contractor and nursery logistics coordinated for day of planting
Establish a follow up survival assessment period and have a plan to correct a full or partial planting failure.
Follow up on monitoring your stand and have plans for control of competing vegetation and other early stand treatments.
The work does not stop once you have the trees planted and the young stand is established. One of the biggest mistakes made in forest management is a “Plant Them and Forget Them” approach to timber management. This is a near guarantee to have issues especially in Florida with its fast vegetative growth, heavy competing vegetation, and propensity to hurricanes and wildfires.
Once you have your stand established by executing your reforestation plan; you want to move into forest management and stewardship for the long haul. This means you will need a Forest Management or Forest Stewardship plan to get a handle on what your young forest needs going forward. The plan is usually written to cover a 5-to-10-year period and then it is reassessed and revised.
A landowner with 20 acres or more can enroll in the Forest Stewardship Program through the Florida Forest Service and receive a Forest Stewardship Plan written by the county forester or a consultant. Forest Landowners with 160 acres or more are encouraged to use a private consultant to develop a plan. Landowners that use a consultant can receive funding through the program to help cover the cost of the plan. For more details and to enroll in the Forest Stewardship Program contact your county forester and follow this link Forest Stewardship Program / Programs for Landowners / For Landowners / Forest & Wildfire / Home – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (fdacs.gov) . Once you have your plan and complete the program you get a great Stewardship Forest sign to advertise your commitment to being a good land steward.
The old adage “Fail to plan, Plan to fail” unfortunately often holds true for reforestation and forest management. Failed planting operations and missed opportunities can cost a landowner significantly. To ensure the success of your reforestation efforts and early timber management; get a plan and have one for the long haul. When planned out well, tree planting operations usually go smoothly and are successful. Followed up with a good forest management plan this covers the critical early establishment period and will ensure a successful forest management operation. Getting a plan together is a minimal cost compared to a failed planting or reduced growth and yield. Using a private consulting forester of your choice and working together with a forestry professional can get you off to the long-range project that is timber management. If you are planning on planting trees now or in the future; plan well and follow up. Years from now you will enjoy seeing your goals and objectives come together.
Since entering the U.S. from Eastern Asia in the 1920s and especially since its promotion as the ultimate wildlife tree in the last few decades, I doubt there has been a more widely planted tree by outdoor enthusiasts than Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima). It is easy to see the tree’s appeal. Sawtooth Oak grows quickly relative to other oaks, rates of 3-4’ per year in youth are not uncommon. It bears fruit at a very young age, as soon as five-seven years from seed, and produces a heavy crop almost every year, unlike many native oak species. Mature specimens are also mostly pest/disease free and very attractive, reaching 40-60’ in height with sweeping, wide-spreading branches, and deep, furrowed bark.
While it seems that I just described the ideal wildlife tree, and Sawtooth Oak can indeed be a worthy inclusion to your property, it is not perfect. All too often I see landowners and hunting lease holders plant solely Sawtooths as a part of their mast-producing tree strategy. As in other areas of life, avoiding monocultures and adding a little diversity to your wildlife tree portfolio is beneficial. Keep that, and the following lessons I’ve learned the hard way, in mind when you consider adding these wildlife attracting trees to your property.
Acorns Drop Early – Sawtooth Oaks produce all their acorns very early in the season, beginning in September. Conversely, most of our native oaks drop their mast (a fancy word for tree fruit) during the winter months that comprise our main hunting season, November-January. So, while Sawtooth Oak is an excellent wildlife attractor and most any creature will readily gobble up their acorns, if you plant them to hunt around or provide a critical winter food source, you’ll likely be disappointed.
Invasive Potential – As Sawtooth Oak is non-native, very adapted to the Southeastern U.S. climate, and produces literal tons of acorns each year, the species has the potential to become a nuisance invasive. I’ve visited several sites over the last few years that had a couple of large Sawtooth Oaks planted in areas mostly excluded from wildlife pressure. I was surprised to see small Sawtooth saplings popping up everywhere. It was eerily reminiscent of other nuisance trees like Chinaberry and Camphor. Though I don’t think Sawtooth Oak will ever be a problem on the level of Chinese Tallow or Cogon Grass, it’s wise to use caution with plants that have invasive potential.
Less Nutritious Acorns – Sawtooth Oak acorns are heavily browsed, but it’s not necessarily because they’re extremely nutritious. A study from the 1960s compared the nutritional quality of Sawtooth Oak acorns to 8 common native oak species and found Sawtooth lagged the natives by a significant margin in all macronutrients measured: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. This finding suggests that, while Sawtooth Oak is an excellent wildlife attractor, if your goal is growing higher quality game animals and providing valuable nutrients to get them through the winter when wildlife forages are scarce, Sawtooth Oak should be a minor component of your strategy, not the endgame.
Longevity – The jury is still out on longevity. However, anecdotal evidence from around the Southeast suggests that Sawtooth may not be as long-lived as some of our native oaks. This could be due to several factors. First, as a rule, extremely fast-growing trees tend to be shorter lived due to weaker branching structure, less dense wood, and other factors. Think of the tortoise and the hare analogy. The quickest do not always win the race. Second, Sawtooth Oak did not hold up particularly well during Hurricane Michael and other strong storms. Their growth habit (heavy, wide spreading branches low to the ground) is not conducive to major wind resistance. This is to be expected as Sawtooth Oak is native to areas that do not experience tropical wind events and likely evolved accordingly.
I am by no means suggesting that you shouldn’t add Sawtooth Oak to your property in the hopes of encouraging wildlife. There are few trees available that do a better job of that. I am suggesting that Sawtooth Oak should be a small part of your larger overall planting strategy and you should keep in mind the potential drawbacks to the species. Plant mostly native oaks, allow Sawtooth Oak to be merely a supplement to them, and I think you’ll be pleased with the results! Putting all your acorns in one basket is rarely a good strategy.
For more information on Sawtooth Oak, other wildlife forage and attractant strategies, or any other natural resource, agronomic or horticultural topic, please reach out to your local UF/IFAS Extension Office!
When I sat down to start writing this article, I was thinking it would be a rewrite of an article I posted back in 2016, Don’t Rush Wildlife Plantings – Wait for the Rain. The prolonged period of dry weather which the Panhandle has been experiencing and the time of year made the topic appropriate. However, I am happy to report that it has rained almost two inches at my house in Chipley in the past 24 hours. This changes things a bit – at least for those of us who were fortunate enough to have received rain. For those who did not get rain, see the aforementioned article. If you did get rain, it’s time to start getting some seed in the ground.
All that said, instead of just focusing on dry conditions I am going to share some highlights from recent conversations I’ve had regarding the establishment of cool-season food plots. For the sake of brevity, I may not elaborate fully on each point, feel free to call of email me if you have any questions or would like to discuss further.
Check your pH. Collect a good representative sample from each of your food plots and have it analyzed by a reputable lab. Contact you County Extension Office for help with this. Food plots are notorious for being planted on marginal sites (not good farmland) where the pH needs to be modified. Poor pH will inhibit plant performance and reduce plant response to really expensive fertilizer applications. In general, food plots perform the best with a pH of 6 – 6.5.
You’re gonna have to make those really expensive fertilizer applications if you want to see real plant performance. See the comment above about marginal sites. Even good soils require fertilizer to make a good crop. A lab analysis is the only way to know exactly what you need. Just for the sake of reference, applications of 300lbs of 13-13-13 per acre as soon as the plants are up good is a pretty standard starting point and generally multiple applications are needed during the season.
Deer like broadleaf plants considerably more than they like grasses. Cool-season grasses (oat, wheat, triticale, cereal rye) are relatively inexpensive and easy to grow. Deer will utilize them some and game birds will feed on seed heads in the spring.
Brassicas (Kale, Rape, Radish, Turnip, Swede) are broad-leafed and grow very quickly on a wide variety of soil types. Unfortunately, deer preference for them is somewhat hit-or-miss and they are not readily utilized by other game species.
Cool-Season legumes (clover, winter peas, vetch) are generally what deer show the greatest preference for and, when properly inoculated, do not require any nitrogen fertilizer. Cool-season legumes are somewhat finicky about what soil types they will perform well on. They all like moderately well drained heavier soils with some clay content (good upland farm ground) and they all struggle in deep, excessively drained sands. For sites on the wetter side (more poorly drained) look at white clovers. For sites on the drier side (well to excessively drained) look at the vetch, peas, and maybe crimson clover.
In general, seed size dictates optimum planting depth. Large seeds (grasses, vetch, peas) can be planted deeper (1-2 inches). Small seeds (clover) need to be planted very shallow (0-0.5 inches). This variation in planting depth likely will necessitate separate techniques for large and small seeds as small seeds planted too deeply will fail to emerge. Small seeds, like clover, need to be planted into a firm seed bed. To achieve a firm seed bed, prepare soil and wait for the tilled soil to settle and preferably become rain packed. If waiting is not an option soil should be firmed with a cultipacker or roller.
Much more information on cool-season planting options is available in the document:
Many Panhandle hunters and outdoor enthusiasts invest a good bit of time, money, and sweat into growing cool season food plots to feed and attract various wildlife. I count myself among you. However, if you want to maximize your property’s wildlife and environmental benefits, planting your otherwise abandoned-till-next-fall food plots with a diverse mix of warm-season, wildlife-friendly species is one of the best practices you can implement!
The benefits of planting summer food plots are several. First, while most of us are feeding wildlife in winter, supplemental nutrition for our “big three” game species (Whitetail Deer, Bobwhite Quail, and Eastern Wild Turkey) is critical during summer because all are engaged in energy intensive activities – lactating whitetail does are supporting fawns, quail breeding season is in full swing, and wild turkey hens are busy raising poults. Planting a mix of species consisting of seed-producing grasses, high-protein, bug-attracting legumes, and other beneficial broadleaf plants addresses these nutrition needs by providing a constant buffet of high-quality food for all the above species.
Also, adding summer plantings to your food plot program ensures that a green, soil enhancing cover blankets the ground year-round. Practiced for years in the agricultural community, cover crops play a key role in soil conservation and increased plant performance. Your summer food plots function as a cover crop by reducing soil erosion, moderating soil temperatures, building organic matter (key for holding nutrients in soil and an indicator of soil productivity), adding nutrients (particularly when nitrogen producing legumes are included), and encouraging beneficial soil organisms to flourish, further increasing the productivity of your food plots!
Now that I’ve sold you on planting summer food plots, it’s time to consider species selection. As mentioned before, when selecting your mix, try to include at least one each of a grass, a legume, and a non-legume broadleaf. Each of these plant categories serve different purposes. Tall grasses like Pearl Millet and Grain Sorghum provide excellent structure for vining plants like Cowpeas and Lablab to cling to, produce large quantities of seed for birds, and serve as quick-growing cover for species that are vulnerable to early deer browsing, like Cowpea and Forage Soybean. Smaller grasses like Browntop and Proso Millet are useful to produce a quick seed crop (45 days after planting) and protect slower establishing species from browsing. Including legumes like Cowpea, Forage Soybean, Sunn Hemp, Alyceclover or Aeschynomene, levels up the nutrition of your summer food plot (these species have crude protein levels that exceed 15%) and pumps nitrogen back into the soil for future crop use. A quick internet search for the article “Annual Warm-Season Legumes for Pastures, Cover Crops, or Wildlife” by UF/IFAS Extension Specialist Ann Blount outlines for you each of the above legumes in detail. As mentioned earlier, I also like to include a non-legume broadleaf like Buckwheat or Sunflower for variety, seed production, pollinator attraction, or even just aesthetics – a sunflower bloom here and there in a food plot always brings a smile! In 2022, I planted summer food plots in a 7-way mixture of ‘Tifleaf 3’ Pearl Millet, ‘Dove’ Proso Millet, ‘Iron and Clay’ Cowpeas, ‘Laredo’ Forage Soybean, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, and Aeschynomene. Large mixtures with diverse times to maturity like this ensure there is always something growing, flowering, making seed, attracting bugs, etc!
Once you’ve figured out which species you want to plant, next comes determining seeding rate. There are several methods to help you determine the seeding rate of each species included in the blend. Penn State University has an excellent video to help determine rates of individual species in a cover crop mix. For a less scientific approach that will get you close, simply divide the full monoculture seeding rate for each species by the number of species in the mix. For example, if the monoculture seeding rate for Pearl Millet is 25 lbs/acre when planted in 7” grain drill rows and you are mixing 4 other species with it, you would plant the Pearl Millet at a 1/5th rate or 5 lbs/acre. For more information on species’ growing requirements and seeding rates, University of Georgia Extension has a comprehensive guide to the topic. Another option is to come in to your local UF/IFAS Extension office and get one-on-one help with customizing your species mix and determining seeding rates for your food plots, one of the many services we provide to county residents!
It’s important to not get discouraged if your mix isn’t perfect the first year! Planting summer wildlife forage mixes is as much art as science. After each year, evaluate how each species did, if each species’ rate was correct, if the settings on your drill or spreader were appropriate (mine were not in year one!), and if wildlife used or avoided what you planted. You can then adjust rates or swap species to dial your species mix and planting rates and achieve your property’s summer food plot goals!
For more information about summer wildlife plot plantings or any other agricultural subject, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.
Author: Ian Stone – Forestry Extension Agent Walton County
Selecting a consulting forester is often a major decision for small to large private landowners engaged in forest management and enterprises. Consulting foresters provide technical forestry assistance in all aspects of forest management. These professionals can assist landowners by identifying goals and needs and then apply forestry expertise to meet these needs and goals. Consulting foresters are professionals who provide their services for a fee; much like lawyers or engineers. Consulting foresters provide multiple services with various fee structures which can be provided on an hourly, per acre, one-time, or percentage. For example, a herbicide treatment would often be on a per acre basis, while a timber sale would often be done on a percentage. A landowner should always have a consultant provide a scope of work along with the fee structure and estimate. It is advisable that a landowner consult several foresters or firms to compare services and fees before making a selection.
Streamside Management Zone (SMZ) marked prior to harvest so it is clear to the landowner and logger. This service is often performed by a consulting forester as part of timber sale preparation. (Photo Credit: David Stevens, Bugwood.org Image# 5443305)
Consulting foresters are highly skilled professionals with extensive knowledge in many areas. Examples of required areas of knowledge are timber volume estimation and appraisal, forest management, tree planting and reforestation, prescribed fire, wildlife and habitat management, taxation, estate planning, forest treatment such as mechanical, herbicide, fertilization, and many more. Most consultants are well versed in all aspects of the forestry profession, but often have one or two areas of specialization. A landowner should discuss the services and credentials a forestry consultant or firm provides and select on that best fits their unique needs.
Many states require consulting foresters to become registered or certified through a professional certification board. Florida, however, is an exception to this which means landowners in Florida should thoroughly examine the forester’s professional credentials. Landowners should select a forester with the skills and credentials they require. The two largest professional organizations that set professional expectations for foresters are the Society of American Foresters (SAF) and the Association of Consulting Foresters (ACF) Examples of what to look for in credentialing are as follows:
A 4-year bachelor’s degree in forestry or a related field; especially form an SAF accredited university forestry program
Registration or certification in another state or nationally through the SAF Certified Forester
Membership in professional forestry organizations such as ACF or SAF, along with similar
organizations such as Tree Farm, Florida Forestry Association, or Forest Landowners Association
The ability to clearly communicate with the client and others. Ask for samples of contracts, a
written quote, an in-person meeting, and references from other landowners
Professional integrity, honesty, and a commitment to ethical practice
Landowners can find listings of Consulting Foresters and firms in their area through multiple sources.
Landowners can find lists of registered foresters through the Alabama and Georgia boards of forestry. Most consultants close to state boundaries practice in multiple states. In addition, SAF and ACF maintain online listings of consulting foresters and members at large.
Additional Helpful Websites for Locating a Consulting Forester in the Panhandle-