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Crop Tree Management

By Bob Franklin

Clemson University Extension Service

            I get asked this question every year, about the start of deer season, “What can I do to improve acorn production on oak trees on my favorite hunting spot?” Well, there are several things a landowner can do to improve mast (acorn) production. One of the easiest things to do is identify the oaks on your property where dear love to frequent and feed and practice a form of Timber Stand Improvement (TSI), called Crop Tree Management, (CTM).

            CTM focuses on individual trees that are retained in the forest for 20 years or more. What makes crop tree management different from area wide thinning or other TSI is the focus on individual “leave” trees. Depending on the landowner’s objectives, these “leave” trees can be quality timber, wildlife trees, trees for fall color or some combination of the tree.

            Let’s look at wildlife trees as an objective. For some reason that we humans don’t yet understand, some oak trees have proven to be more consistent producers of acorns both in quantity and quality than others. This is true, even in the same species of oak. It’s probably a combination of tree genetics and soil quality. If you are fortunate enough to have an oak tree or two that deer always go to when the acorns fall, consider using CTM to keep those trees healthy, full-crowned and producing quality mast. Here’s how:

            First off, identify the trees in your forest that meet your selection criteria, in this case, the production of desirable acorns for deer and other wildlife to feed on. These trees should be known producers of quality and quantity acorns. Second, evaluate those trees. Are they large, full-crowned, dominate trees in the forest? If so, look closer by simply looking up into the canopy. Do the desirable trees have adjacent trees with branches touching or within 15 feet of any part of your crop tree’s canopy? See illustration. If so, the crop tree isn’t free from competition. Determine how many sides are free from competition, or free to grow. Free to grow means the crown has room to expand. Generally, healthy hardwoods expand their tree crowns at a rate of about one foot per year. Therefore, you want about 15 feet of space between adjacent tree crowns, providing adequate room to grow for about 7-8 years.

            If the adjacent tree crowns are touching or within that 15 foot area, you simply cut and remove or deaden the adjacent trees by girdling or injecting a herbicide into the less desirable trees. With some of your crop trees, you may need to release them on all sides, others my need release on just one or two sides. A special exception is with live oak trees that were open grown and over time have been overtaken by taller forest trees. In this case, you need to cut or deaden the trees with a thirty-three foot buffer completely around the live oaks. If you don’t, over time the taller trees will overtop and shade out the shorter live oaks and, given a long enough time, they will die out from the forest.

            One final item that can be managed around your favorite wildlife trees is soil fertility. You can soil test around the trees to determine if you need to add lime. Lime is best applied in the winter, to give it time to react with the soil. In addition, the soil test report will give you a fertilizer recommendation for how much and what type of fertilizer to apply. Some common application rates of fertilizer for mast-producing oak trees include one to three pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per inch of tree diameter, not to exceed 50-80 pounds per three. Or, you could apply 12 pounds of 16-4-8 fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of ground area underneath the tree canopy. Best time to apply fertilizer is in the spring, after the new leaves have fully matured on the tree. Both fertilizer and lime can be broadcast on the ground, starting about a foot away from the tree trunk, to 10 feet or so past the tree’s branch tips.

So there you have it, by adding a little fertilizer, lime and cutting adjacent trees, you can extend the life and benefits of your favorite mast-producing wildlife trees on your forest land indefinitely. If you’d like to learn more about using the crop tree management system on your land, contact me through your local County Extension office.

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