Create A Deer Haven with Timber Stand Improvement

By Ryan Graden

I would have to say that a good portion of my deer knowledge has come from years and years of watching any hunting show that I could get my hands on. Yes, admittedly, maybe I spent too much time doing that, but there was information gained and it has proved valuable from time to time over the years.

I’m not exactly sure what show it was that I watched in the last few months, but one of the hunters was talking about what they do through the spring and summer that helps them prepare best for the coming season. The host said something that I thought was very valuable to remember. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something like, “If you have unproductive hunting property you can do one of two things. Either find some better property, or make the property better!”

A simple phrase that made so much sense!

As hunters, not all of us are property owners. Some of us do all our hunting on public property that is owned by the state. Some of us have permission to hunt property that is owned by somebody else. And a lucky few probably own their own and can do anything you want to it. If you own your own, bettering your property can be pretty easy to do. If you have permission from somebody, you might engage a conversation and get permission to do a few things to improve the timber. Whatever the case, if we are hunters, we also should be stewards of the property we hunt.

In this article, I’d like to discuss some thoughts and suggestions for Timber Stand Improvement (TSI). What options do we have to make are timber healthier and better? What does a healthy stand of timber look like and include? What are the benefits to the wildlife? In what way will that make the opportunities better for our hunting? There’s a lot out there to think about. The important thing here is, we SHOULD be thinking about it.

What is Timber Stand Improvement? (TSI)
Basically, TSI is the physical act of culling and cutting your timber stand in an effort to produce a healthier habitat for native tree species as well as the wildlife that uses those timbers. Putting forth certain efforts in TSI take a bit of time and the results of your efforts will not always be seen immediately. However, in two to three years, you will see the results begin to happen.

Your goal, through TSI, is to create a space of timber that is healthy and in balance for both the plants and the animals in that area. Great TSI will create a space where a number of species of animals will thrive so well that they will NOT want to leave and go anywhere else. Thus, giving you better chances for success in harvesting a specific species.
A good timber stand should include food, cover, and sustaining growth for the wildlife that live there. Giving them the proper space to habitat in that area. We are talking all species too. Birds, small game, large game, and more. These animals need a place to live. If all that they need is not there, they will move somewhere else to find it.

Where Do You Start?
TSI could call for a few tools for you to effectively begin to manage your timber. Two of the most used methods in the process is cutting/culling and burning. So, logically, you’ll need tools to accomplish either or both. A good chainsaw and clippers, and maybe a torch.

Like I said previously, your end result with TSI, is to create better food sources for your resident species as well as good cover for their comfort and safety. Let’s start this by discussing the practice of cutting/culling.

When you find the area that you want to manage, take an inventory of the tree species that you see. In the timber I hunt, there are a good variety of species. There are usually many oaks, hickories, maples, and basswood. All are good trees with many benefits to offer. But, there are also a few others growing that can become a bit much for a timber to endure. One of those tree species is the commonly known, Ironwood. Officially known as the American Hophornbeam (Ostrya Virginiana). These little guys usually grow “between” everything else. They have a coarse-like bark, and their leaves turn a rusty orange color in the fall.

If I were to start some culling, these would be the trees that I would target! They are pretty hearty trees and will grow to overcome an area. And here’s the true result of their growth, they take the sun and space that smaller more valuable trees need in order to grow. An oak, hickory, or maple seedling cannot sprout too well with these ironwoods growing in the area too. Taking these ironwoods out of the equation provides more space for new seedlings and it allows more sunlight to penetrate the ground surface giving the seedlings what they need to grow.

I’d make two cutting suggestions here. First, cut the tree completely down and remove it from the area. Second, you could hinge cut the tree causing it to “tip over” but not fall completely to the ground. This will add a “sheltered” area for deer to bed under. But, be careful not to do this with too many trees. An entire area completely hinge cut will soon create too much cover, and will thus, not be a benefit to seedlings and browse growth.

I’d also look for any vine species that are growing in the area too. Vines are often more of a “parasite” type of plant. They will use a tree trunk to grow and reach the canopy. Once there, they leaf out and steal the much needed sunlight from the other mature trees in the area. Just a quick cut at the bottom of the vine will quickly kill it and allow the taller, older, trees to get what they need for continued growth.

The second method I mentioned was a burn. However, I would suggest doing this under professional supervision! Burning is a healthy, but dangerous act. You have to have measures in place to control the burn in the area that you are trying to improve.

There aren’t a high number of people here in Iowa that practice burning in the timbers. Most burning practices happen in southern states. We see it in our CRP fields from time to time but not very often in the timber. It is, however, a highly effective practice if you can do it.

What Can I Expect in Return?
Let’s start with the culling and cutting in your TSI efforts. When you properly cull and cut the necessary species in your timber, the long term results are many. Just to name a few, you’ll increase the long time survival of this timber. By allowing smaller trees the necessary space and sunlight to grow, you know that there will be timber on that property long after you and I are gone.

Next, you will also begin to see a better crop from the trees in the fall. Yes, I said crops! When you cull the unnecessary trees from the area, this will allow more nutrients to go to the trees that need it. When they have access to the water, minerals, and sunlight they need without anything interfering, they will produce a bumper crop of hickory nuts, acorns, walnuts, and so much more. Thus, you’ve created a valuable food source for the deer, turkey, and other animals living in your timber that should come back year after year.

With a good burn, you can get rid of the layers of dead, decomposing, matter that sometimes creates a “mat” on the floor of the timber, not allowing things to grow. Controlled burns turn that bio matter into ashes, which also adds needed nutrients to the soil. Turkeys especially love to be in areas that were burned either in the fall before, or early spring.

With the forest floor exposed, turkeys then have a multitude of foods to choose from. Early growing greens, bugs, seeds, and so much more become very available to them.

The advantage to you in all of this? Increased presence of the species you desire to hunt! With good food present, you can bet that your animals will be there too! You will also promise that the stand of timber that you cared for will last much longer! With younger seedlings finally being allowed to grow, you can let the older trees grow old and return to the ground knowing that they younger trees will be there to take their place.

Do I Need to do Anything Else?
That’s totally up to you. Some people, after finishing their culling/cutting or burning needs might consider adding a water source. Digging a small pond or damming up a creek would add yet another resource for animals to use. Some people will plant fruit trees. Some will plant other nut bearing trees. And some might do some micro food plots of grasses, clover, and other greens.

The truth is, you can add anything you want to. But you really don’t need to! A good TSI project will increase food sources in many ways. Increased nut production, more browse for grazing, and more cover to use for bedding. All your animal’s needs found in one spot. So, it’s not totally necessary to “add” to the area.

Once the work is done, there will be a little maintenance you’ll need to do from time to time, but you should start to see more animals frequenting the area because of what you have done for them. Now, it’s time to sit back, and reap the benefits. Who knows, hunts could get pretty exciting because of your efforts.

Consider what you are capable of doing and get it done! I promise you, you won’t regret it! Good luck!