The Benefits Of Timber Cutting

Some worry losing timber will mean losing deer, but the author provides anecdotal evidence that suggests the opposite.

Brandon Adams | January 10, 2019

Often times over the years I have heard people talk negatively about having the timber cut on their hunting land. You hear things like, “I have to go pull all of my stands.” “There goes all the work in the food plots.” “Every deer on the place will be run off.” 

Yes, you need to pull your stands, or you might find them damaged. Yes, skidders will likely pull trees through the food plots, and some might even be used as loading docks. As far as the third statement, people might be surprised at how deer react to timbering.

In recent years, we thinned the timber on our land. Before I get into the results, I feel I would be amiss if I did not share the process leading up to it. About 60 percent of our land was clearcut in 1989. My dad spent a lot of time on a tractor with a bush hog thinning areas and cutting paths through the growing clearcut. We planted food plots that deer would constantly hammer. 

As the hardwoods matured, the underbrush that the deer foraged on started to disappear as the canopy thickened. Areas where we observed deer began to shift. We shifted hunting areas as the deer movement patterns changed. We hunted in areas that previously were too thick to hunt. 

However, the need to have our land thinned was becoming clear. Due to my dad spending countless hours keeping the trees thinned with the tractor, the timber on our property had much larger diameters than neighboring land that was cut almost at the same time and mechanically planted. 

We began looking at land being cut in the area. We observed which companies did the best job taking care of the timber left standing and left the land in good shape. Time after time, we found that one company stood out in our minds. We began to talk to others who had interactions with the company, as well. We then made contact with the company, and the owner came out to assess our property. He felt that with our timber quality and current prices, we should wait another year or two.  

Two years later he came back, and he said we should wait one more year. Later that following winter, my dad was presented a contract that gave the company rights to cut our timber. Pines and red oaks would be thinned.  Sweetgums, maples and tulips would be cut. I knew it was needed, but questions began to run through my mind as we pulled stands at the end of hunting season. How will this change hunting on our land? Will it ever be the same? 

Anticipation grew as time passed.  The timber cutting began in September 2016, and dad was able to be there the day they arrived. He met with the owner’s son, and they discussed our goals. They flagged an area showing how we wanted to expand and shape the food plots. My dad texted daily updates while staying at camp for the first few days they cut. 

Cutting ran into bow season.  Honestly, I began to worry that too many trees were being cut, especially the oaks. I reminded myself it was a step in habitat management that was needed and to trust the process. When dad talked to the timber crew, they almost always saw fresh deer tracks around the area they cut the afternoon before.  

The crew finished just before the 2016 gun season. We decided not to put our stands back up and elected to hunt on the ground and keep hunting different areas until we figured out what patterns the deer were on since the cutting.

About 9:30 a.m. on opening weekend, I saw two mature does along with two yearlings. I had no interest in taking a doe, but I could tell that they were acting like something else might be in the area. Then, a nice 8-pointer came into view. I then saw a smaller buck. The deer fed on acorns to my south, never providing a shot due to oak tops left behind. 

We ended the first deer season after the timber thinning seeing several 1 1/2-year-old bucks, some nice 2 1/2-year-old bucks and two 3 1/2-year-old bucks. We also could tell that the buck-to-doe ratio on our land was around one to four. 

As hunting season ended, we almost immediately started work for the next season. We began to clean out the food plots first. We piled up limbs and small trees along the edges of food plots, placing openings in areas that would funnel deer into them in certain areas. The piles would also provide cover for the deer to feel safer while feeding in the food plots. Once we felt that we had accomplished that goal, the remaining tops and trees were piled onto stumps and burned.  

Through our local 4-H office, we ordered Granny Smith and Arkansas Black apple trees, Santa Rosa plum trees and Bartlett pears. We also purchased grafted persimmons, chestnut trees and acquired some old style wild pears that drop into November. Locations to plant the new food sources were made with care based on each type of tree’s need and when they would drop their fruits. 

We continued to clean up areas while leaving others untouched. Every tree that was planted did amazingly well with the exception of two Granny Smith apple trees that bucks hooked and killed, despite having tubes on them.

The author and his dad used a timber cutting experience on his property as a platform to plant some new trees in the ground. Fewer mature trees yield much more sunlight on the ground, which spurs good growth in new trees.

Spring food plots were planted once the food plots were cleared. The food plots did better than they ever had, and soil samples showed them to be in remarkably good shape.  

As the 2017 deer season approached after timber thinning, deer stands were put back up with a better idea of how the deer were now using the transformed land. Some areas the deer continued to use just as they had before. Those areas tended to be areas with oaks and where the terrain would help concentrate deer movement. Other areas, with the increased browse created by opening up the canopy, had created new food sources for the deer, along with bedding areas. 

Deer sightings greatly increased. The rye, wheat and clover in the food plots did very well, including in the new food plot we established. These were the best food plots we have ever had on our land in the almost 20 years we have owned it. Part of the success is due to the removal of trees from the food plots that competed for moisture and nutrients. The main reason for the increased performance was due in large part to the dramatically increased native browse that was created by opening the canopy and allowing sunlight to reach the ground. This allowed the seed found naturally in the soil bank to germinate. You could look in any direction and see where deer had eaten on the native browse.

On opening weekend of gun season, I made my way to a stand on an oak tree near the same large oak tree I had hunted on the ground the season before. The deer stand now allowed me to see over the treetops that were still there but now without leaves. Almost at the same time as the previous year, I watched a group of does coming up the ridge. Two of them appeared to be the same does as the year before, along with one of the yearlings from last year and a new yearling in the group. 

As I watched the deer, something told me to look to the north. Walking up onto the ridge was a mature buck. He stopped about 85 yards away from me. I could tell from the binoculars that it was one of the 2 1/2-year-olds I saw last year. The buck had noticed the does feeding to my south and started to slowly make his way in their direction. He was walking along a path that the skidders had used. It would lead him to the base of my stand.

The buck walked within 25 yards of my stand before giving me a broadside shot. The buck was a fighter. The taxidermist told me that it was one of the most scarred-up capes he had ever worked on. The season continued with numerous bucks and does seen. All of the deer appeared to be in excellent shape with all of the food that they now had available.

When the tree canopy fills in as trees mature, it shades out the forest floor and stunts new growth, which is essential for food and cover for wildlife.

As the second deer season came to an end, work started again on helping to improve the habitat for the 2018-19 season. A fourth food plot was cleared, and Dorsett Golden apple trees were planted to replace the two trees that bucks had killed. We used the tractor to bush-hog areas similar to what had been done almost 20 years ago. Dad also acquired a sprayer to help keep the sweetgums that had sprouted with vengeance at bay. We, however, left areas untouched to become thick bedding areas to hold deer on our property. We also cleared the areas around the trees we had planted to eliminate the competition. All of the trees have almost doubled in size with the exception of the plums that had grown only a little, and the pears that had tripled in size. 

For the first time ever, we had to cut the food plots. As I am in the process of writing this article, crabapples, plums and persimmons have been ordered. Hopefully they will perform with the same results as our previous plantings.  

Each step in the process has been taken after careful research through articles and information published by QDMA, online resources and talking with other hunters. I routinely find new relevant information that I send to my dad.

We have also talked to the forestry commission about starting a burn program with the land divided into thirds. Each section would be burned on a 3-year rotation, which would result in alternating stages of growth. This will provide deer with everything from new growth to thicker bedding cover. It is a process that is ongoing, and as Mr. Fox Haas, Mossy Oak’s patriarch, says, “The good that men do lives long after they have gone.” 

The work that we are doing will benefit not just my dad and I, but also my children and their children. Thinning the timber has given us a chance to restart, much like when dad bought the land when it was partially clearcut. The biggest difference is the knowledge that we now have to better manage the habitat to benefit all of the wildlife.

Back to those original concerns and questions people often have. Granted, we had the advantage of being able to set guidelines in the timber-cutting contract. If you lease timber company land, you simply won’t have that luxury. However, with an open mind, you will likely come to the same conclusion we have regarding cutting timber. 

Yes, you will have to pull your stands, but you might find even better places to hunt because you have to leave your comfort zone. Yes the skidders will drag trees through your food plots, but by removing competition for water and nutrients and adding more browse by daylighting the forest floor, you might find that you have the best food plots ever.

After thinning, sunlight hits the forest floor and allows for a smorgasbord of new growth.

Now to answer that final concern people often have regarding timber cutting running off all the deer from their land. From our experience, and others who I have talked to, the opposite is true. The increased browse I have found has pulled a lot of deer onto our land from surrounding land that is lacking year-round food sources. Creating new thick bedding areas has also increased the number of deer that our property is holding. I have also noticed a lot more fawn tracks the last two springs. Without a doubt, I feel that in most cases, you will not see less deer, but rather an increase in the number of deer seen and their overall health.  

Cutting timber is a change, and often hunters are people who resist change. However, given time and an open mind, this change with some hard work can be the best thing for an aging piece of property that has become stagnant. By including children in the process, we pass down traditions and a love for the land. 

The dark cloud that hunters often see with timber cutting can actually be a silver lining. So, if it is on land you own or manage, make sure to do your homework and have a plan in place. If you do not have control over the land, you might not have as many options, but you can still have very positive results. Look for that silver lining, and you might just find that your best hunting is in front of you.

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