There is little doubt that trees are beautiful and provide untold benefits in our life. To list a few, trees take in carbon dioxide, which is harmful to humans, and in return give us life-sustaining oxygen. Trees also provide shade, food, building materials and beauty to the landscape. Their roots help to keep topsoil from eroding. Trees are a natural resource that can be sustained with little outside input.
While sturdy trees are a benefit in many instances, the one place they do not fit is in areas we are trying to develop as food plots for deer. The primary goal of a food plot is to provide the highest quality and quantity of nutrition to the grazing animals. By definition, food plots are fields of highly desirable weeds that we put there for a specific purpose. Anything that subtracts from the sunlight and nutrients needed for optimum growth of these desirable weeds is taking something away from the nutritional potential of that site.
I'll admit at one time I thought having trees scattered around a food plot made everything look more natural. With no other evidence, I surmised deer would feel more comfortable entering and using food plots because of the cover provided by the scattered trunks. However, after critically reviewing production of the planted plots near the trees and in open areas away from trees it was obvious the trees were having a definite negative impact on forage production. The planted plots just could not compete with the shade provided by the leaves and the nutrient-absorbing competition of the deep-rooted trees.
There is a reason farmers do not have trees in their fields besides having to dodge them with their equipment. Trees rob production. Now the only tree I will leave in a food plot is one that is big enough to hunt from if the food plot is too big to effectively hunt from the edges.
REMOVING PROBLEM TREES
Let's say you fell for the "au naturale" look and now have some unwanted woody plants in your food plots. How do you get them out?
The quickest way is to grab the chain saw and simply cut them down. This provides immediate relief from any negative impact of the tree on the growth of your food plots. However, many species of woody plants have a natural habit of sprouting from the stump if the top is removed. In that case, you not only end up with a mine field of stumps to dodge, but you have multiple woody stems sprouting from the stumps instead of the single trunk that may have been there before.
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The best scenario to prevent this is going to be to kill the tree either before you cut it down or kill the stump immediately afterward to prevent the sprouts from getting established. While herbicides have a negative connotation to some people, they can be quite useful in managing habitat for deer and other wildlife. Controlling stems on an individual basis also is very selective in that only the specific tree you want to remove receives the herbicide. Thus, the expense of the treatment is lessened and any environmental impact is minimized.
If you cut the tree down, you need to be ready to apply the herbicide treatment virtually immediately (within one hour) to the stump. If you wait two days to get back to it, you will be wasting your time as the cut stump will have hardened over and the herbicide will no longer be taken up. Cut stump treatments can be effective almost any time of the year except during heavy sap flow and will work with virtually any size of tree. When the sap is flowing upward during very active tree growth, the herbicide will be pushed out of the cut and not taken down to the roots to kill the plant.
In most cases, I prefer to kill the trees without cutting them down. This means the tree trunk will be left standing for some time, but the tree will no longer be robbing nutrients from your plots. Trees killed with herbicide seem to deteriorate quicker than trees that are girdled or have died from natural causes. Once the trees fall, you also don't have a hard, tractor-killing stump to deal with that can take several years to rot away.
In my opinion, the best two ways to kill the trees while standing is either basal bark spray or stem injection. Both of these methods allow you to be very selective in the individual trees you take out, and you don't have to worry as much about soil active herbicides affecting your food plot production.
Basal bark spray involves applying a herbicide mixed with an oil (diesel, kerosene or basal oil) to the lower 12-18 inches of the stem. This technique works the best on smaller trees with smooth bark. Just be sure to treat all the way around the stem. Treating only one side will only control part of the tree. Also, if multiple stems are present, you need to treat every one.
Once trees reach an age and size where you have thick, rough bark, this technique is not as effective. However, a great advantage is that basal bark spray can be used just about any time except during freezing weather or in standing water. There is no need to be lugging your equipment around when temperatures are soaring in the summer. You can time your treatments to when the weather is more suitable for outdoor activity. The only equipment you really need is a small hand-pump sprayer.
Like basal bark spray, stem injection is another individual tree herbicide treatment. Basically, diluted herbicide is sprayed directly into an injury you make into the side of the tree trunk. You need one other piece of equipment that you don't with basal bark spraying -- something to make an incision in the bark of the tree. This is normally something as simple as a hatchet, ax or even machete. Although there are commercial tools available, they cost much more and they are not really necessary for the limited task of removing trees from food plots.
To use this method, make evenly spaced cuts through the bark completely around the trunk of the tree. Then, with something as simple as a plastic spray bottle, squirt the herbicide solution into each cut. This method will work on trees from about two inches in diameter on up. It also works on large, thick-barked trees that basal bark spraying won't touch.
There are a number of different individual herbicides and herbicide combinations that are effective with these methods. For a complete list, visit our Web site dedicated to this topic. Click on the "Landowner Briefs" tab at the top of our university Web site -- www.fri.sfasu.edu/. This page has been developed by one of the top herbicide research scientists in the country and you can take what he says to the bank.
TREES WITH A PURPOSE
While it has been my position thus far that trees don't belong in food plots, I do make what some might see as an exception. I actually recommend planting some trees in food plots, but only along the edges where their beneficial effects can be realized without negatively affecting food plot growth. Various fruit trees planted in concert with planted food plots have been very beneficial in our program.
The particular fruit tree that works the best for you is going to depend somewhat on where you live. In the South, we commonly plant pear, persimmon, plum and crabapple trees around the edges of all our food plots. I usually don't worry too much about specific varieties. Any variety that will grow and produce fruit will be used by deer. Therefore, I use varieties that are sold locally and are known to grow in that area.
Once planted, these fruit trees can last for several years without having to pay much attention to them. One thing you better do, however, is put wire or metal guards around the lower trunk to keep bucks from killing the trees with their antlers in the fall. There seems to be something about the bare trunk of a fruit tree that bucks just cannot resist rubbing.
Gardeners might consider this heresy, but I also don't worry much about pruning or complex spray regimes you might normally use if you were looking to maximize tree-ripened fruit production in your back yard. I don't see the need for the time and expense to provide unblemished fruit for wildlife use. In my experience, the deer don't give a hoot if there are worm holes or if the fruit has been pecked by birds before it hits the ground. If the fruit is there, they will use it.
Just like planting combinations of species in your food plots, planting a variety of fruit trees also gives you different fruits ripening at different times during the growing season. Therefore, the supplemental nutrition your fruit trees provide lasts longer than any single species. For example, plums typically fruit in early summer and as a soft fruit, they do not last long. Pears are normally ripening around fawning season and drop their fruit over a period of several months. Some fruiting species, particularly persimmons and crabapples for example, are more persistent in their fruit-holding ability. Since they can hold their fruit fairly late in the season, they serve a dual purpose in providing a high-energy supplement and a great early-season attractant.
Ultimately the best scenario is to remove trees that are within the food plot itself. They are just not worth the production they take away from your planted plots. However, it can be a good to plant supplemental fruit trees around the edges to provide a little extra energy. In the end, I think you'll find many wildlife species, both game and non-game, will benefit from your plots in addition to the deer.