By Kevin Daugherty
This week, we’ll look at the life cycle of a pine plantation and see that timber and wildlife management doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. Plantations go through several stages and the wildlife habitat is constantly changing.
The first stage is site preparation and planting. All the timber has been removed and it’s time to start over. A herbicide application, often followed by prescribed fire, is normally the first step and is vital for getting the seedlings established. This not only makes the site suitable for planting, it increases the survival and growth rate of the seedlings by holding back the explosion of woody growth and grasses that would compete for sunlight, nutrients, and water. Once the site is prepared, seedlings are planted, usually at a rate of between 620 and 680 trees per acre.
From age one through about eight or ten, ample sunlight is providing the optimum condition for beneficial wildlife foods to grow. Plantations that have intensive site preparation treatments may not start producing much deer forage until the second year. While chemical site preparation reduces the amount of woody browse plants, their absence leaves room for higher quality fobs, vines, and shrubs. These foods will continue to grow and cover will thicken until the pines reach the size where their crowns begin to close and reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor. This stage of the pine plantation provides quality habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.
The next stage occurs around year ten, when the crowns close and tree growth slows dramatically. The herbaceous growth that has thrived and provided wildlife with food and cover starts to diminish until basically all that’s left on the forest floor is pine straw. In terms of both timber production and wildlife habitat, this is the least productive stage. It may last from two to five years, depending on how long it takes the pines to reach merchantable size. The problem is that there aren’t many options for improvement. A prescribed burn can be conducted but, at this stage, the risk is almost greater than the reward. Though a low-intensity fire would help the pines, it would do little to improve wildlife habitat at this point. Therefore, all we can do is wait until the trees are large enough to thin.
Usually by age 12 – 15, the plantation is ready to be thinned for the first time. I have seen a few exceptional stands reach merchantable size as young as 10, but they are the exception. Most first-thinnings are done by cutting every fourth or fifth row and then thinning in-between. The crown spacing I recommend depends on the landowner’s objective. If timber production carries more or equal weight to wildlife, I’ll recommend a nice even crown spacing where there’s a little daylight between each tree crown. If deer habitat is the primary objective, I’ll recommend opening the canopy up a little more. After the timber is thinned, we’ve now entered the most productive stage as far as wildlife utilization goes. Management options for the understory are wide open. Prescribed burning, for example, is extremely beneficial during this stage. It can be used to set back plant succession and improve wildlife food. I let the understory growth dictate when to burn but it’s usually done every three to five years. Other practices can be used, such as an aerial fertilizer application, which can improve the growth of the timber as well as the production of beneficial native vegetation in the understory. Strip disking the cut rows from the timber harvest can stimulate a diverse plant population to feed wildlife. Herbicide can be used in a variety of ways to remove unwanted hardwood species such as sweetgum and Chinese tallow.
As the pines grow, in response to the thinning, their crowns will start to close once again. Depending on the quality of the plantation and logging access, I normally recommend thinning a second time as soon as the crowns touch. After thinning two or three times, the stand will be ready for a final harvest and the process is started over again.
From the time a plantation is thinned the first time, you can manage the overstory and understory almost as separate components. The overstory is where the money is and the understory is where the deer and turkeys are. It doesn’t get much better than that. The timber is regularly thinned to keep it growing and increasing in value. The understory is regularly manipulated to set back plant succession and maintain productive wildlife habitat. Over the entire life of a pine forest, only a few years should actually be in the dense, dark, unproductive stage most people associate with a pine plantation.
If you take a proactive management approach, pine plantations can offer deer and other wildlife a tremendous amount of forage
and quality habitat. To do it right however, there’s more to it than just cutting timber.
Kevin Daugherty is a forestry and wildlife consultant, real estate agent, and the managing member of ForestLand Associates, LLC. He’s a member of the Association of Consulting Foresters, Louisiana Forestry Association, Society of American Foresters, and is a Land Certification Inspector for the Quality Deer Management Association. He and his wife live in rural Winn Parish. For questions about this article Kevin can be reached at (318) 312-1240 or firstname.lastname@example.org