Cows Make Poor Foresters

By Ed & Elizabeth Anderson – Tree Farmers [Morgan County]

As we assumed ownership and management of the family farm, we began to look at our woodland areas that had been a part of a livestock operation for many years. We observed and began to understand the ecological damage that can occur to forest land as we developed and began to implement a forest management plan. A decision was made to begin a fencing program to help us sustain the forest resource and improve water quality, two of our forest management goals.

We had contemplated fencing off the stream that was bordered on one side by pasture and a woodland on the other for many years. The impetus came as we accepted the fact that we were never going to be able to chainsaw or girdle (chainsawing a ½ inch deep ring around the trunk) the many hedge and honey locust trees that had taken over. Having a bulldozer come in and clear the area and adjacent overgrown pasture areas was the practical answer (photo 1, 2). This resulted in a wooded tract that we could now fence off and replant to a diverse mixture of oaks, hickories and walnut. In addition, we were able to restrict cattle access to those stream areas that are fenced and graveled with an underlayment of geotextile fabric. The benefits of excluding livestock from the stream are multifold. It stabilizes the stream’s banks and therefore reduces erosion. Water quality is improved which in turn protects herd health and habitat for fish and wildlife. Lastly, downstream neighbors will appreciate your stewardship.

Our experience in removing invasive species in another woodland had produced spectacular results in restoring plant diversity. Where bush honeysuckle, autumn olive and multiflora rose once dominated the understory, we now had a natural healthy understory of small hardwood trees, and wildflowers (photo 3). The changes were dramatic and quickly realized. The invasives had resulted in a forest that had no regrowth and little forest floor cover. The main culprit was the bush honeysuckle that shades and chemically inhibits other plants. Anyone with woodlands can see the impact of these invasives. Just go for a walk and look at the forest floor where these invasives are present. There will often be just a sparse leaf litter or only bare soil. You can squat down and look through the forest where these plants dominate (photo 4). Our method of removal was multifaceted. We cut the largest invasives then stacked them in piles that provide habitat for many kinds of wildlife. The cut stumps were treated with a 50/50 % of glyphosate and water. The next pass used a 1.5% leaf spray of glyphosate on the smaller plants. The best time to do this is in early spring or late fall since the bush honeysuckle is the only green plant at this time (photo 5). Spray drift is not a factor at this time. However, we often spray throughout the summer in the heavy infestations since there is little under the invasive plants (photo 6). You can also easily hand pull the small honeysuckle since it is shallow rooted.

While our creek fencing project is in its initial stages, studies of other exclusion projects have shown a significant improvement in wildlife diversity. As the understory fills in, it creates prime feeding and shelter opportunities for fledgling birds such as the Kentucky Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Wren and Tufted Titmouse. Girdling undesirable trees as part of our timber stand Improvement (TSI) plan has increased red-headed woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds using the dead standing trees. Our future plans are to interplant various oaks and hickories in the upland area and walnuts and other mixed hardwoods in the lowlands. These practices will achieve our goals of improving pasture, water quality, wildlife habitat and creating a healthy, higher quality woodland. More information on managing woodlands can be found at https://www.treefarmsystem.org/illinois.

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