December 11, 2023
Back in the not-too-distant past I thought all land-clearing was detrimental to deer and wildlife populations. No doubt I inherited some of this attitude from my father, who took a natural approach to land management. He figured wild animals prefer wild habitat, and so, with the exception of mowing trails from time to time, he never touched it. For 20 years, neither did I.
But then after finding an aerial photo of our family land from the early 1980s, I realized it was almost unrecognizable from what it is today. Back then it was broken ag land: crop fields with brushy draws running alongside them and hardwoods in the creek bottoms. There was good deer hunting then, as there is now, although there were certainly more quail then. Today this parcel in central Oklahoma is basically a huge tangle of Osage orange, acacia, persimmon, cedar, lespedeza and native grasses, plum thickets, briars and broomsedge. The hardwoods surrounding it have crept in until there are virtually no open spots. To my eye it looks good for wildlife, but it’s almost impossible to get around on foot, much less a vehicle.
I wanted to know if clearing some land would be good for deer. Would deer be better served by crop fields than by their native foods? I had no idea. For farmers, clearing and planting land is easy—it’s what they do. But I’m not a farmer and so I know jack-all about this stuff. Just getting started was intimidating.
I began by making phone calls. The first one was to a bearded, snake-boot-wearing dude who is known throughout America as “Mr. Whitetail.” He chuckled when I told him what I wanted to do with the land, which is basically what every hunter wants to do: Create a whitetail paradise that’s easy to hunt.
“Deer are edge animals. They love to browse on the edges of cover where various habitats collide,” said Larry Weishuhn. “Clearing land for crops, provided you have ample land available to do so without destroying vital cover, is fantastic for whitetails.”
Turns out, “land-clearing” is a broad term. Done right, clearing can improve deer and wildlife habitat; done wrong, clearing can ruin it. Clearing some land to plant high-protein crops like wheat, soybeans, clover, alfalfa and others can be hugely beneficial ... if two other conditions are met. First, the deer still must have plenty of surrounding cover, both in terms of hardwoods and brushy areas, in which to hide, bed and breed. Second, abundant native forage must remain in case (or when) the crops in your beautiful new field aren’t palatable or don’t grow.
What we are talking about here is the process of clearing some land to make large food plots. If your property has ample cover, native foods and grasses, and water, clearing 20 to 25 percent of it to plant desirable crops can create the ideal habitat for attracting, growing and holding big bucks. Also, the more food (protein) per acre the land has, the more deer it can support per acre.
“If I had 100 acres of good cover and quality deer habitat, including some hardwoods and broken country, I might clear and plant 25 acres in its center so that any deer that feed in it are protected from the view of roads and neighbors,” said Weishuhn. “I’d probably plant alfalfa in the middle, with strips of soybeans on the outside. Primarily, I’d plant triticale, which is a wheat/rye hybrid. It’s higher in protein than wheat or oats alone, and it does really well in many types of soils and weather conditions.”
This all sounds great if you have a few acres to play with, but land-clearing takes time and, unless you happen to own an earth-moving company, is incredibly expensive. Recently, however, I bit the bullet and began clearing 50 acres to attract whitetails and grow bigger bucks; to better enjoy the land by being better able to view and access it; and to make some money from hay sales while being able to write off a little of it on my taxes.
Weishuhn told me the first thing to do is have the soil tested in many locations to find the best for planting. I contacted my local ag extension office, picked up a soil-test kit and took 25 samples from various locations. Most of my soil was the same in nutrient content—not great but workable with fertilizers—so I picked a spot on the interior of my property, surrounded by dense cover, that was relatively open and flat.
The second thing you must take into consideration is the type of vegetation to be cleared. Hardwoods? Brush? Mixed? Most people think a bulldozer is the end-all solution, but bulldozers scrape a lot of crop-growing topsoil off the land with the trees if they are used exclusively.
Excavators are great for plucking large trees from the ground with less disturbance to the topsoil than a bulldozer, but they are not ideal for clearing small trees, thickets and brush. A mid-sized excavator, though, is the most versatile land-clearing tool available.
Timbering equipment like skid-steer-mounted mulchers and brush hogs can be used for taking out small saplings and young growth, but the roots and stobs must be removed later by spraying and discing.
Finally, you have to decide whether it makes the most sense to buy equipment, rent equipment or hire professionals for the entire operation. Realizing I don’t know squat about running heavy equipment, I opted for the latter. Mixed habitat often requires a variety of equipment to efficiently clear it. There is no one best solution for everyone, but after consulting several land-clearing pros in my area, my plan was set like this.
- Step 1: Hire an excavator to pluck the large trees and knock the topsoil off their roots before stacking them into piles. Then have the operator dig 6-foot-deep burn ditches.
- Step 2: Hire a D6 bulldozer to push the piles of trees and any remaining brush into the burn ditches. After I burn the brush piles, the bulldozer will cover and smooth the ditches.
- Step 3: Spray the entire field with herbicide and wait a few months before discing up the dead roots.
- Step 4: Rehire the bulldozer to grade and level the topsoil if needed.
- Step 5: Plow and disc the cleared field until the dirt is broken to form a nice seedbed.
- Step 6: Spread lime and fertilizer per the soil-test recommendations.
- Step 7: Plant crops.
- Step 8: Shoot a Booner buck.
To clear 50 acres and make it ready for planting, it’s going to cost around $35,000. Then I still need to buy seed-planting equipment or hire someone to seed the field. That’s why I’m hoping to plant alfalfa for hay to offset some of this cost over time.
Will my field of dreams come to fruition, thereby turning my property into a veritable whitetail Shangri-La? Only time will tell. Until then, I’m looking for ways to hide the $35,000 expenditure from my wife.