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Articles by Jim Mullen

Jim Mullen

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You cannot help but to notice that the economy is in the news. On every
talk show, in every paper, and leading off most newscasts is a gloomy report
on the economy. If you have not been affected, that's great; hopefully it
won't be too bad in Texas. If it does strike home, and you have to tighten up
a bit, does that mean you have to let your wildlife management slide? What
can you do when your wife starts giving you the evil eye over the feed bills
at the lease or ranch? Following are some tips to scale back management
and perhaps refine what you do to reduce costs and make your dollar go
1. Reduce the population, reduce the feed.
While is may seem simplistic, whether we're talking deer, quail, or
largemouth bass, reducing the population is always a good idea if
supplemental feed is part of your program. Carrying Capacity is a term that
many have forgotten in this day of the bulk feeder. It is the principle that
you should manage so that your wildlife can maximize its' genetic potential
on native foodstuffs alone. Having a good idea of what your carrying
capacity is will allow you to apply supplemental feed judiciously; providing
it when it can do the most good, not as a means of survival for a significant
portion of the population.
If you're currently managing for a deer to 10 acres, and have significant
traffic at supplemental feeders, you are stocked above your range's carrying
capacity. Decrease your density to a deer to 15 acres and put the surplus in
the freezer or bring in some young hunters. Doing so will not only reduce
your feed bill but will also reduce the pressure on native range plants. I feel
safe in saying that most deer programs would benefit from a reduction in
total numbers. What to take is always a concern; don't just increase the doe
harvest, look hard at some of those middle-age deer as well. Keep your
objective sex ratio in mind, and shoot more of all classes. Also, if you're
high-fenced and you are forced to sell the ranch, please consider removing
sections of the fence. If the economy is slow to recover, high-fenced
ranches will glut the market and management may be the least of your
Lastly, if you continue to provide supplemental feed, work to make it
efficient. Far too much feed goes to non-target species, giving rise to
"Boone and Crockett" raccoons. Grease the pipes on your feeders, add
metal skirting to platform feeders, and seriously consider fencing out feral
hogs so more feed goes to the species you are managing.
With quail, I know a lot of people think lightly harvesting quail will
increase next year's population. These attempts to "save" quail may actually
be counter-productive as a large population can over-utilize the range and
increase mortality. In situations other than baiting, quail hunting is selflimiting;
you don't find many, so the bag goes down and you don't hunt as
much. If you do bait quail, then be careful as shot-out coveys will regroup
and the big covey you flush in January is not a "new" covey, but the
remnants of several coveys banded together.
2. Improve Utilization.
Once you have the numbers down, work on increasing the utility of what
land you have. Be it 60 acres or 6,000 acres, you can always improve
utilization by improving diversity, both in open vs. brushy as well as in
woody plants vs. "weedy" plants. Look first at your soils map. If you've
not done so, go to: http://soils.usda.gov/, scroll down the left side for "web
soil survey", and find your property. This site gives you a wealth of
information about the soils on your place, the dirt that makes things run.
Once you get your property outlined, go to Soil Data Explorer to see where
different crops can be grown. This gives you an idea of where food plots
should go or where you can concentrate your food plot efforts if you're
cutting back. Some soil is simply holding the earth together and should be
left alone. Brush is the best it can produce and often times, particularly in
the case of gravel ridges or rocky outcrops, disturbing the soil will only
make things worse. Learning your soils may be a surprise. You may have
fields in soils that are not really suitable or may be marginal for what you
want. These marginally-productive open areas are prime for the cheapest
management tool of all, natural regrowth. I have a quail client that buys old
farms for two reasons, one, he knows the soil has native sunflower seed in it
and two, he knows he can control regrowth brush more cheaply than he can
remove dense brush; allowing it to come back only where he wants it.
To lay out a field for regrowth to native brush; flag hedgerows in a northsouth
or east-west direction using "T" posts. For deer, leave 40-50% for
regrowth; quail, leave only 30%. Anything outside these marked hedgerows
or brushlines can be treated individually with herbicide or manually grubbed
out over time. This is much cheaper than letting things go to the point that a
bulldozer is needed.
Old fields in South Texas usually revert initially to either mesquite or
twisted acacia if left idle. Half-cutting is a technique favored by quail
managers that benefits all wildlife by improving cover. The procedure
requires only a pair of gloves and a hand saw and is a very economical way
to increase utilization of open areas by not only quail, but deer, hogs, and
turkey as well. To half-cut a young tree, pick a plant that is at least 9 feet
tall. Grasping a limb at about 3 feet above the ground; cut 1/2 of the way
through the limb from the inside of the tree towards the outside. Continue to
cut slowly, while applying pressure towards the outside until the limb can be
pushed down, but is still attached to the tree. This limb will remain alive,
and by repeating the process around the young tree, you make an "umbrella"
of limbs which provide close cover near the ground where wildlife can use
it. Try to threat trees in groups of three or more to create "mottes" and space
the mottes 50-80 yards apart. This technique is cheap; good exercise, and
makes an idle field much more productive by increasing the useable acreage
for wildlife.
If you do not have any larger regrowth, just drive three "T" posts in a
triangle, five feet on a side, connect the tops with wire, and stack cut limbs
against this "teepee", cut ends up. Build these in groups of three or more,
spaced like the half-cuts, and you will see increased use of the open field by
all types of wildlife.
You might find some fertile soils still in heavy bush. Since we're talking
about management on a budget, now may not be the time to call in the
rootplow. How can you make use of these better soils without spending a lot
of cash? Again, herbicides, selectively applied and matched to the brush
species targeted, are an economical way to reduce woody cover. Spray
brush in a linear pattern on a four-wheeler, wait until the grass underneath
explodes with the death of the water-stealing brush, and follow up with a
controlled burn. Voila, a new senderro in good soil, ready for the disk. This
works particularly well along old roads or senderros where the brush is
encroaching. When the brush includes mature mesquite trees, I either leave
them be or remove them with a chain saw. Mature mesquite gets its
moisture from deep in the earth through a tap root and does not compete for
surface moisture with the oats you plant or the native weeds that erupt
following a brush kill.
3. Improve Water Distribution/Accessibility.
Water is what drives South Texas wildlife. We all know when it rains,
everything benefits; plants, animals, people. Unfortunately, rainfall is not
dependable in South Texas, and water can at times become limiting.
Increasing the availability of water across your ranch or lease will make
more of your land useable for wildlife and can be done fairly economically.
Rather than drill a new water well, use poly pipe to increase the area
served by an existing well. Poly pipe is much improved over the old black
plastic pipe and is now available thick enough to drive over and resistant to
UV rays, so it does not have to be buried. At $1.50 per foot for 2-inch poly,
you can run water a mile for $8,000 vice $20,000 for a new 300 foot well at
$45/ft. and have faucets along the way to further improve availability.
Where you have existing troughs, you'll note they are always out in an
open area, surrounded by trampled ground. To improve access for wildlife
to this water economically, just run PVC out to the nearest good cover, stake
the end, and add a length of garden hose. To activate the line, either use a
siphon or add a "T" in the supply line. You will have to incorporate a valve
either way, so the flow is just a drip. Since the end is garden hose, the hogs
can play with it and do little damage.
If you do not have a well or a dependable stocktank in an area, and want to
improve wildlife use of that area, consider a "guzzler". A wildlife guzzler is
a structure that collects rain water and dew, stores it in a cistern, and delivers
the water to wildlife in a trough. A 12-foot by 12-foot tin roof can divert 89
gallons of water with a one-inch rain! Put that water in a black plastic
cistern and trickle it out to a low wildlife trough and it will last for a long
If you have feral hogs, you probably will want to fence the trough, and for
best use by deer, I recommend at least an 80-foot by 80-foot exclosure with
some brush inside the fence. But it doesn't have to be fenced and you can
use recycled materials including old roofing tin, old fence posts for the
uprights, and discarded sucker rod to hold the tin. It doesn't have to be
pretty and this is a good application for bailing wire. Just work to get the
rain water in the tank, that's all that matters.
4. Scratch the Surface.
Perhaps the best investment return of your wildlife management dollar is
soil disturbance. A lot of my clients have opted for the Agricultural tax
valuation for wildlife management, called by many the "Ag Exemption for
Wildlife", which eliminates the grazing requirement. This results over time
in thick stands of native grass which is unproductive for most wildlife,
certainly for deer and quail, except as cover. Additionally, more and more
wildlife managers are battling large fields of coastal Bermuda grass as
ranches shift from intensive cattle operations to primarily wildlife
operations. These grass patches reduce wildlife use by inhibiting mobility,
shading out food-producing forbs, and hiding what forbs do grow.
The easiest solution, and one worth considering if you're concerned about
costs, is to use livestock. Cattle, and sheep or goats if your place is properly
fenced, can be a great tool for wildlife management. Grazing got a bad rap
in the early years of wildlife management because virtually all ranches were
cattle ranches first, with wildlife a distant second and over-grazing got the
blame for most management problems. Now the pendulum has swung the
other way and after several years of no cattle, sheep, or goats, many
landowners find themselves awash in a sea of grass. Fire is the current
darling of researchers, but prescribed burns now require a certified burn
master and significant insurance. Further, done properly, burning requires
firebreaks that should be installed by earth-moving equipment, so burning
these days is more than just striking a match. Grazing does not require
anything special other than fencing and water troughs, and can produce
income to the landowner. Consider working with a neighbor or a local
cattleman to get the grass down to manageable levels.
Now it's time to turn the soil. Soil disturbance gives the best return on any
management dollar. It does not require a $200,000 tractor or an 18 foot disk
to be effective. Simply scratching the surface will break up the crust, flip
old vegetation, and stimulate weed seeds if done at the proper time. If you
have access to a tractor, that's fine. If not, discing for weeds is done in the
late winter, early spring, before commercial planting, so you should be able
to hire a local farmer to disk your fields and senderros at a reasonable cost.
To stimulate native sunflower seed, which is usually already in the soils of
old fields; disk in December-January. For Texas croton, or dove weed, do
the same, while for jumbo or three-seeded croton, I usually wait until mid-
March. If you have access to the equipment and have the time, try discing
several times over the cooler months and see what comes up. Discing in
cool weather inhibits grass and favors weeds, the food for wildlife. And you
don't need to disk deeply or neatly, just a slight scratching of the top three to
four inches of soil will get you results when it rains.
5. Walk, Don't ride.
Lastly, with the advent of the four-wheeler, many hunters no longer walk
anywhere. In times of economic slowdowns, perhaps you should walk to the
stand, walk to the back pasture, or walk just to enjoy the quiet. If you have
passed on your helicopter survey this year, walking the ranch will help you
get an idea of your wildlife populations. There is even a formal sampling
technique based on walking a set route several times at sunrise/sunset, called
the Hahn Cruise technique. Look it up and see if you might benefit from a
walking census which costs nothing, and brings you closer to your wildlife.

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