By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Fire is your friend if you’re managing land for a variety of reasons, especially for wildlife habitat, according to Andy Baril of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). Controlled fire, that is.

Baril, a regional extension agent in ACES’ Forestry, Wildlife and Natural Resources Division, was at the Buckmasters Expo in Montgomery over the weekend, and I asked him what hunters and wildlife managers can do right away to enhance their land with hunting seasons on the horizon.

“Understand that I’m a forester,” Baril said. “But we can do more for our wildlife by managing our forests than anything else. I like to call it the ‘green wall.’ If you’ve got woody underbrush in your forest that you and I don’t want to walk through, it’s not helping your deer at all. You’re looking at sweet gum, red maple and all that stuff. That forage might have nine percent protein. If you were to put fire through your woods, you won’t believe the difference.

“And you can burn year-round. You’ve just got to know your fuel moisture. You’ve got to know your weather. We, the Extension System, can teach that stuff to the landowners if they’re interested. We can teach the tricks of the burning trade. By killing that ‘green wall,’ what comes in underneath your pines and your hardwoods are forbs and grasses. There you’re talking about 20-percent protein.”

Baril said it’s a common fallacy that the thicker the better for fawn-dropping and fawn-rearing areas.

“Huh-uh. When you get down low, you can see right through that thick stuff,” he said. “And the coyotes can see through it really well. But if you’ve got grasses and forbs growing 6 feet tall, like dog fennel, a coyote can’t see through that. A fawn can easily sit down in that and nobody knows it’s there.”

Baril said we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to the willingness to undertake a prescribed-burning program in our forests.

“We’ve got to start burning our woods,” he said. “We burn, on average, a million acres a year. We need to bump that on up another 6 million acres a year. We’ve got about 23 million acres of timberland in Alabama.”

Baril said there is a significant stand of upland hardwoods in the northern part of the state. The rest of the state is a pine-hardwood mix, which Baril said needs to be burned every three years at a minimum.

“That’s 7 million a year for a total of 21 million acres in three years,” he said. “Fire is our friend. If we don’t do that, our wildlife habitat is going backwards.”

As far as preparation for the upcoming hunting seasons, Baril said it’s all about the rain.

“If you don’t have rain, your grain is not going to come up,” he said. “A lot of hunters are planting their wheat crop for dove season, and the rain is spotty. What we recommend is to keep an eye on the forecast, and if it looks like a good chance of rain, get out and put some seed on the ground. If you’re not close to your hunting area, you might have to plant a few days in advance, but rain is the big issue.”

Baril also said if you haven’t had a soil analysis done lately, get that accomplished right away. Go to http://www.aces.edu/anr/soillab/forms/soilform20080609.pdf for instructions on how to properly take a soil sample.  If you provide an email when you bring your soil sample, Baril said the turnaround time is about two weeks. If you do it by snail mail, it’s going to take about a month.

Baril said people can waste a lot of time, effort and money if they don’t provide their soil with the correct additions.

“If you have an acidic soil and you put fertilizer out, your plants can’t do anything with it,” he said. “You’ve got to get your pH up by adding lime. And most of our game patches are very acidic because they are in the woods.

“You need to loosen up the soil, but you want to tamp it down a little bit because you broadcast the seeds. And you want the seed to go into the soil no further than the width of the seed. If you’ve got a seed like a butterbean or lima bean, it’s a big seed. You can put that an inch underground. But clover is miniscule, so you plant your other seeds and put the clover on top and let the rain beat it into the soil. If you try to plant the clover, you’re going to put it too deep. So it depends on the thickness of the seed.”

Obviously, hunting doves over bait is illegal in Alabama, and Baril said the determining factor when grain is present on the ground is if it’s a normal agricultural procedure.

“What we’re looking for with top-sown wheat in dove fields is whether it’s an acceptable agricultural practice,” said Baril, who reminds hunters and landowners that the maximum application rate is 200 pounds of wheat per acre on a properly prepared seed bed.

“The Extension System is the authority on what is a properly prepared seed bed,” said Kevin Dodd, WFF’s Chief of Enforcement. “When we look at a field, if the landowners or hunters made an obvious effort to properly disk the ground where there is good seed-to-soil contact, then we’re good to go. If there is an even distribution of seed, then we consider it a properly prepared and planted seed bed.”

Another acceptable agriculture practice, according to Baril, is to strip-plant a tract of land for cattle grazing or a deer food plot.

“I can go out to the field, disk up that strip, and plant that strip,” Baril said. “Two weeks later, I can go out and make another strip and plant it. I can do that multiple times so I will always have seeds on top of the ground, and you’ll have varying stages of germination with the seeds you’ve broadcast earlier. The seed on the ground will germinate when it’s in contact with the mineral soil. It sends a root down, kind of like a white oak acorn does in the springtime. It’s sitting on top of the soil, germinates and sends a root down.”

For deer season, Baril prefers to plant a varying mix of vegetation that will provide forage for whitetails through the cold of the winter.

Baril likes to build a circular cage in the middle of his game patches that will allow him to judge how well the deer are using the patch. The cage is made of wire mesh that keeps the deer from foraging on the plants inside to give Baril an idea of how much the deer are impacting the growth outside the cage.

 “You can have wheat, rye and oats,” he said. “Then you can add your brassicas (leafy vegetables) to it. When you get that freeze in December or January, the brassicas become sweet for the deer. They won’t touch it before it freezes. While you’re planting your wheat and oats, you can plant turnips and other crops you typically would plant in your garden. You can even plant collards or kale in a game patch. They’ll come out for that kind of stuff, too. Clover is the last thing you put in the game patch. It won’t do much until late winter and early spring.”

Deer and turkey hunting have a huge economic impact in Alabama to the tune of an estimated $1 billion annually.

“Hunting is big business in Alabama,” Baril said. “And the Extension System is here to help people get the most out of their money.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Whether you’re performing prescribed burns or planting crops for a certain species of wildlife, proper habitat management can benefit all wildlife from doves to deer and everything in between.

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