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Habitat improvement on small tracts of land
Submitted By: Pete Gamet ©2004 on 6/26/2004

There has been a great deal of information floating around the Internet over the past few years. It seems that every Seed Company, national organization, state universities, or state agency has done a study or wrote about habitat improvement and food plots. What this article is about is what I have done on my own property.

First of all, let me explain what wildlife need and what I have to work with. The rest will discuss the steps I have taken to improve my property. The small land tract within most states is roughly between 10 and 20 acres, at least here in Michigan. This article will mostly deal with ways to improve small parcels of land no bigger than 20 acres.

Wildlife need three things in order to survive; food, cover and water. I have plenty of water on my property, so I won't be discussing that too much. If you don't have a water supply on your property, a small pond is an option. Most woodlots do have places where the rains are collected and held for short periods of time. Cover is something that the wildlife need also. It may be just some brush piles, tall grass or anything else that may provide cover. Food is the most important. If you do not have a good food source the wildlife will move to find it. I will be covering the latter two.

I own roughly 16 acres of land, of which 3 acres is my yard, house and other buildings. Another 3 acres are set aside as grassland, this area is left alone for the most part because the pheasants rely on the cover and nest in there. The rest of the property is brush, woodlot and a little wet most of the year. The area I wanted to improve was in the back portion of the property. The area consisted of different species of maple, ash, elm, dogwood, basswood, common apple and some black walnut. For the most part the timber is at different stages of growth through out the woodlot. For most of the year has standing water pockets in certain areas. This was my dilemma, how do I improve this?

Getting started

Before I started doing anything, I did some research and did more research. I spent countless hours online going from site to site just gathering information. When I felt I had gathered enough information to be knowledgeable. I started asking myself what I wanted to accomplish. What animals did I want this to benefit? What plants and trees did I want to keep? What trees should be cut? Where, if any, did I want to put in food plots? These questions I had to answer these questions for myself before I could get started.

The first thing to do before doing any type of work is walk the property to get a feel of what you have to work with. Once you feel you know enough of your property. Sit down and draw a map of the property. This doesn't have to be precise or drawn to scale, just as long you can read it and understand it. The key features of the map should include the following; terrain features, types of vegetation, waterways and the boundary. Use symbols and have a guide on the map to explain what the symbol is. Make several copies of your map. This will be your guide for the duration of the project.

With your map drawn and you have made several copies, start planning. It is easier to correct mistakes on paper than after you cut or clear an area. Always keep one map as the before map. This will be for reference. With the other maps, label them as you want. There is not a definite number that you have to have. For myself I used this; the before map, areas I didn't want to change, wet areas, tree and shrub locations, existing structures, shooting lanes and what I wanted to improve. You get the idea.

The planning stage

After you have your map drawn out and have an idea of what you would like to accomplish. Do some sort of planning and start the decision process. Ask yourself what wildlife do you want to attract and keep on the property? This can be a very lengthy list depending on what species live in your area. You can set aside different areas for different animals. I broke it down into two areas: one area for upland birds and the other for the woodland creatures.

The wildlife that I wanted to attract were deer, turkey, rabbit, squirrel, grouse, pheasant and quail. I tried to plan accordingly for each animal or groups of animals. I came up with different tree and shrub species to promote cover and a food source later on. I also decided to plant food plots in certain areas till the trees and shrubs become productive.

When you have an idea of what you want to attract, choose the right trees, shrubs and plants for your geographic location. Not all trees, shrubs and plants will grow in certain soil conditions and locations. Things to remember are sunlight, soil type, and moisture content. These can be broken down even farther; for sunlight: full sun, partial sun and shade, for soil type: clay, sand and loam, for moisture content: wet, moist and dry. Some forms of plant life will do well in a broad range of conditions and others may not. You need to read what the recommendations are from the supplier before purchasing anything. Another thing to remember is that certain plants attract different species and make your choices accordingly.

If you run into problems and are not sure if this is the right way to go, check with your local biologist. I did, they are there to help with this sort of thing. I called my local biologist and he in turn after coming out and looking at my property referred me to federal forester that he knew. Before the forester came out, I had all ready had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish with this project. I did this for reassurance purposes. I wanted to double check what I had planned was keeping with the natural vegetation. I also wanted to check the soil composition for my area. The state and federal agencies should have the soil information for your area. Plus it doesn't hurt to have a professional back up your information and give some advice on the subject.

Clearing the area

This is by far the most labor intensive. This deals with cutting trees and clearing areas that you want to improve. This is also a very time consuming process, especially if you are doing the work yourself. You can however contact a lumber company to do some logging if that is what you want to do. Myself, I decided to just do it myself, for I needed the exercise.

Now that you are ready to start cutting, here is a list of tools that you will need; a chain saw, brush cutter, limb pruner, a shovel and a ATV or a tractor. The latter is for hauling equipment and material back and fourth.

One thing, I should mention is the two different types of clearing the trees. First is a clear cut; where everything is cut and removed. The second is selective cut; where a limited number of trees are removed from a given area. Myself chose to selective cut my trees. I didn't want to clear everything, just create openings in the canopy.

As you start cutting and taking out trees, you will notice a growing brush pile. This is not necessarily a bad thing as brush piles can be a benefit to wildlife, especially in the winter when food is scarce. Deer and rabbits will eat the buds and the bark off the cut limbs. It is a good idea however to limit the number of piles and place them in key locations. If you would rather not have brush piles, there is a couple of ways to remove them. One way is to just burn them. If this is for you, just remember not leave a fire unattended. The other way is removing the brush to another location and run the brush through a chipper. This in turn can be use in landscaping around the house as mulch. This is by far the most time consuming aspect of the whole project. When you have finished with the area you cleared it is time to move on to the next step.

Working the ground

There are a number of ways to work up the ground. The most common is to use a tractor, plow and a disc. For those that do not own or have access to a tractor, a ATV can be used as a substitute. The number of farming tools for a ATV is growing and becoming more affordable. Another method is to use a roto-tiller and some hand tools. This is the method that I used. It does take a little longer to work the ground than the other two methods.

Before you start working the ground. Invest in a herbicide such as Roundup. This will kill the weeds and will stop the weeds from taking over your food plot or tree seedlings. You may have to spray the area twice. Read the label of the herbicide you decide to use and follow the directions. A good rule is to spray with your back to the wind and never spray herbicides walking into the area you are spraying. It is best to walk backwards when spraying and wear protective clothing.

Now you are ready to work the ground. Now you can use the equipment to work the ground. When you work the ground, work it at least twice. Work it in one direction and then cross it. You want the criss-cross effect to break up the soil and aerate the soil. If you are not satisfied with the results of the of the first two passes go over it again. In most cases working the ground twice is sufficient, unless you have a heavy clay content like I do and you may have to go over it again to get the desired results. To finish up, just rake the ground to level it out. You can use a drag or a garden rake to do this. Dragging or raking will break up most of the bigger clumps of soil that happens from discing or tilling. Now you are ready to plant and fertilize.

Planting and fertilizing

Before you start to plant, take a soil sample to determine the ph level. Most seed companies have charts or other information on the desired ph level for their products. You can pick up ph level tester at most garden centers or farm store. After you determine the ph level follow the directions that came with your seeds or trees. You may have to add lime to the soil or you may have to add something else. It will depend on your ph level. I know most seed companies' request that you do fertilize using a 13-13-13 mix or other variant; it depends on who your supplier is. One thing that I have been told by farmers and a few others is to use lime. This will sweeten the soil, so I have been told. I have tried it out and I am waiting to see if it does make the plants more appealing.

After you test your soil and fertilize you can start planting. For small food plots and for tree seeds it may be best to broadcast the seeds by hand. For larger areas, a broadcast spreader may be used. These come in various shapes and sizes. They range from the small hand held models up to mechanically operated models that are used on the back of tractors and ATVs. There is another spreader on the market and that is a drop spreader. A drop spreader is becoming hard to find these days as the broadcast spreader becomes more popular. Whatever method you decide to use, follow the instructions supplied with the seeds or seedlings. Most seed types just require to be covered by a ¼ to ½ inch of soil. All the information is usually supplied with your order and if it is not contact your supplier. You should see growth in about 3 to 4 weeks. Be patient.

You should try to plant just before a rain. This way you will not have worry about watering the seedbeds or trees. If you have access to water and can get it back to where your seedbeds and trees are water them. If you cannot, wait for the rains to come.

The wait

This is a waiting game just to see if all your hard work will pay off. Just be patient. Check your plots or trees at given intervals throughout the growing season. You may not see results for a while. The wildlife will eventually find your plots and your trees; so don't worry too much about it. Everything takes time and you will notice the tracks or if you are lucky may even see wildlife utilizing your plots.

I know this is hard work and a small investment in your property, but it is worth it. It will pay off for you in the long run and who knows you may attract different game species that you didn't know about on your property. Good luck and good hunting.

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