Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Two Paths to Creating a Hunter's Eden

The way I see it there are two main ecosystem level designs you could implement in order to create a Hunter's Eden on your property. Understanding succession and what Allan Savory refers to as "brittleness" will be key in determining which path you should focus on with your property. The first path I will call the Succession Dependent path and the second will be the Grazing Dependent path.  With the first path you will be focusing on managing succession to create temporary foraging areas by periodically opening up the canopy and planting desirable seeds and plants at each level of succession. The second path would mainly be focused on using large grazing animals (usually livestock but wild or feral grazers could also potentially be used under certain conditions) to maintain long term grassland/savanna plant communities using things like holistic grazing practices. Both of these paths have the potential to work in varying environments, but the path you choose for your property will largely be determined by brittleness and the tools available to you. 

The first path would be the Succession Dependent path. This path would be best utilized in relatively non-brittle environments or in areas receiving plentiful precipitation for most of the year. This is because in these environments succession happens very quickly and when land is disturbed it quickly is covered up by weeds and the stages of succession proceed fairly rapidly. With this method you will mostly be trying to plant desirable seeds and plants for each level of succession and removing undesirable plants.  This path has the benefit of being relatively easy to maintain with the most laborious parts being planting and creating disturbances. This path is also described in my previous post "Cycling Through Plant Succession" and basically involves creating and maintaining a "food forest" type system for wildlife.

 This path could potentially work well in wetter areas with relatively high deer densities.  This is because the stages of succession would transition fast enough so that the deer would not be able to over browse the most palatable forage. If however you were attempting to maintain a traditional food plot at that stationary level of succession for a long period of time, eventually the deer would over browse the most desirable species and eventually only undesirable "weeds" would remain. This is because deer are effectively continuous grazers. Unlike bison and other large grazers, which naturally graze on a rotational basis, deer stay in the same general area and continuously graze the same plants over and over until the most palatable species die out. This is the same problem you have when you graze cattle in a single pasture year round. They pick out all the best forage first and then over time all that is left is an overgrazed weedy pasture with very little that the cattle actually want to eat. With cattle this is remedied by rotational grazing them through multiple pastures at high densities where they eat and trample down everything and then give it time to rest and recover until it is ready to be grazed again. Until we can figure out a reasonable way to rotationally graze deer on a large scale I believe the best method to remedy this is to cycle through succession in the manner I have described. 

This path however would be difficult in more brittle environments because succession happens much more slowly, which would give the deer time to over browse the most desirable plants at each level of succession. This problem would be even worse if deer densities in these areas were relatively high.  That's why in my opinion in the drier more brittle environments I would recommend focusing mostly on the Grazing Dependent path.

With the Grazing Dependent path your main focus would be using grazing animals (mainly livestock) to maintain long term "food plots" or pastures in order to maintain a high percentage of desirable plants for forage use for wildlife.  This path would be mostly utilized in brittle environments where there is low rainfall throughout the year or in areas with a long dry season. Also if deer and other wildlife densities in these environments were relatively high then this path would be especially necessary due to the fact that desirable plants would not be able to outcompete the undesirable "weeds" due to the high browsing pressure. However this path could also potentially work well in nonbrittle environments.

 In order for this path to work, however, livestock would need to be periodically rotated through these areas in order to trample weeds and promote the growth of desirable species.  This could be a potential barrier for some landowners due to the cost and effort involved in managing livestock, however it would also be possible to make deals with local ranchers and farmers and possibly lease out your property to be grazed as long as it met with your property's objectives. If no livestock producers were willing to pay you to use your pastures in this specific manner then you could always offer it to them for free or even pay them for the impact that their livestock provide on your property similarly to the concept of prescribed grazing. Grazing animals also could be used to help establish desirable plants as well as remove undesirable ones when first establishing these systems.

Ultimately livestock are potentially a very valuable tool when it comes to managing the plant communities on your property and especially in the drier, more brittle environments where succession does not happen fast enough to outrun the detrimental effects of overbrowsing by deer and other wildlife. Whichever path you choose it's good to know that you could use both even on the same property. For example a north facing slope could be moist enough to where the succession dependent path could work sufficiently whereas on a dry south facing slope on the same property it may be necessary to focus on the grazing dependent path. 

Also even in drier brittle environments the succession dependent path could potentially work if you were able to create less brittle microenvironments by using permaculture techniques such as swales and other earthworks as well as by keeping game densities very low or by utilizing exclusion fences. 

Both the succession dependent and the grazing dependent paths have a huge potential to turn properties across North America and beyond into hunting paradises where hunters can manage the wildlife on their properties in a holistic and sustainable manner and provide their families with a low input source of meat for multiple generations.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Food Plots Update: Spring 2021


            So far 2021 has been a very interesting learning experience for me when it comes to my food plot experiments. First of all we had a record dry Spring (March through May) with virtually no substantial rain events and this led to an almost 100% failure for my frost seeded food plots that I planted in early March. Despite this major setback, however, most of my fall planted plots did relatively ok, especially the cereal rye, as well as many of the perennials I planted in Spring of last year.

The road cut foot plot that I started planting last spring did fairly well. I have a lot of small burnet that are flourishing and flowering and starting to go to seed. I also have a decent amount of sweet clover that is growing very well in some spots. Along with that I have a few scattered crown vetch plants that are hanging on through the drought.  Crownvetch spreads through rhizomes so I’m hoping that if it can hang on long enough to get some moisture then it can spread. Hopefully next spring is much wetter and some of the perennials I planted last year can really take off and flourish.  This past spring in March I frost seeded a lot more seeds onto this plot, however because of the record drought practically nothing survived. It does seem that I got some decent survival with more of the small burnet that I planted, which was very encouraging and is showing me that this plant can take extreme conditions even as a seedling so it will likely become a staple in my future mixes.

Last fall I broadcast-seeded several different plots with some winter annuals. In some spots I planted just cereal rye, some with just annual clovers and some with a mix of both. The clovers I chose were crimson clover, balansa clover, berseem clover and arrowleaf clover. Some of every type I planted survived the winter and grew into this spring, however overall the crimson clover seemed to do the best by far. Berseem clover seemed to do the worst with balansa and arrowleaf in the middle. I planted just clover in one area that was a dry south facing slope that I mowed last summer to help control the starthistle. In this area only the crimson clover seemed to do well, but even it stayed very short and did not put on very much vegetative growth before going to seed. There were also a few scattered balansa and arrowleaf clovers that survived in the plot, but between the heavy browsing pressure from deer, poor soil and our severe spring drought it appeared that most did not survive.

 On another dry south facing slope I had broadcast cereal rye alone. On this plot the rye did not do well at all and had the worst rye growth across the whole property. I think this was because of several factors. Firstly this hillside sees a lot of deer traffic so the rye was heavily browsed throughout the winter and early spring. Secondly, the soil on this plot seems to be quite poor and even the invasive weeds in this area don’t seem to get more than about a foot of growth. Finally the drought we had I’m sure contributed to this poor stand of rye.  However, even despite all these setbacks, it does seem that almost all the rye survived and went to seed, it just was very short and spindly compared to the healthier stands of rye. This means that it wasn’t able to provide much of a benefit for shading out weeds, however, I believe that if any of the factors had been improved, either less browsing pressure, better soil or more rain, then this stand would have probably done a lot better. This is because on some of the other plots where I planted rye that had better soil and less deer traffic there was much better growth even despite the drought. Because of this, in the fall when I plant more rye across my property I will definitely want to put up utilization cages to see how these plants do when they are not being browsed by deer. 

In every other plot that I had seeded rye it seemed to flourish and when planted densely enough it did seem to have enough shade to smother out some weeds. However, in most areas it was not planted very densely and thus wasn't able to suppress many weeds.  Because of this I think this fall I will try to plant the rye more densely as well as add in some hairy vetch and or wooly pod vetch to provide even more shade as well as some nitrogen fixation.  I will also likely add in a few other species such as rapeseed to see if it does well in the mix.  I think the more diversity I have the better my mixes will be at outcompeting weeds.

The best stand of rye I got was probably in my plot where I grew summer annuals, mostly sunflowers, last year and then crimped down the sunflowers onto the cereal rye seeds. This past March I also broadcasted a large mix of different annuals, mostly legumes like vetch and clovers, in order to provide more diversity, however, because of the severe drought practically nothing germinated or survived more than a few weeks after germination. This was also the case across all my other plots that I broadcasted my mixes into this past March. This was pretty discouraging considering that these were my biggest most diverse mixes I had planted to date.  Despite this failure I realized that it is probably a good idea to plant something whenever I have the opportunity.  Because I had planted some mixes in the fall my plots weren’t a total loss and this fall I will plan to plant a very large amount and highly diverse mixes across an even larger area on my property. 

Because of our severe spring drought I decided not to plant any summer annual mixes onto any of my plots, however, I did plant a small plot in my garden with several summer annuals in order to experiment to see what does well under ideal conditions including summer watering. In this tiny plot like my “sunflower plot” from last summer I planted sorghum, buckwheat, sunflowers, cowpeas and lablab. I also added scarlet runner beans due to their supposedly fast prolific growth and affinity for cooler mountain climates as well as their ornamental red flowers. I made sure to inoculate the legumes this time after having had very poor growth last year so if even under these ideal controlled conditions the lablab and cowpeas still don’t do well I’ll know that it is most likely the case that it is just too cool of a climate here for them and I will remove them from my summer annual mixes in the future. I think next year if we have a wet enough spring then I will again try to use summer annual mixes in my no-till (foot crimper) plots in order to take advantage of the summer sun and add more organic matter.  It is admittedly, however, a borderline idea since we have such cool dry summers and developing a mix that will thrive here will surely be a challenge.  I’m thinking next year I’ll try adding in some laredo forage soybeans as well as some painted mountain corn.  Both are summer annuals that are supposedly better adapted to cooler summers and I’ve read both are fairly drought hardy as well so they seem like good potential candidates for my mixes. 

This year so far has taught me quite a bit and I will continue to experiment and test out different mixes and species until I can fine tune one that will thrive here. As I’ve stated in previous posts my ideal mixes will be composed of both perennials and self seeding annuals that are able to not only survive and reproduce, but also spread over time under the conditions on my property. They will need to be winter hardy, drought hardy and tolerant of cool summers with practically no rain. They will also have to be tolerant of browse pressure by deer as well as be able to outcompete weeds. This is a pretty big list of qualities, but there are already a few plants that seem to be star players on my property and are doing well despite harsh conditions. So far the A-team includes cereal rye, crimson clover, hairy vetch, sweet clover, sunflowers and small burnet. Hopefully over time I can keep adding to this list and eventually develop a high diversity mix that I can really be proud of.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Cycling through Plant Succession

When I think about designing and managing a property for wild game one of my main considerations is doing so in a way that is efficient and gives me the best results for the least amount of time, money and effort. Having this mindset has helped me keep costs down with my habitat projects and has led me to finding some unique and inventive ways of getting things done.  One idea I have been thinking about for a while is the concept of cycling through succession.

When I say cycling through succession what I mean is managing a plant community in a way that mimics nature and the natural momentum of plant succession in an ecosystem. Succession when talking about ecosystems is basically just how one plant community naturally transitions into a different plant community. For example, after a disturbance such as a forest fire, the forest could be completely burned and it would be replaced by herbaceous forbs and grasses, but over time this plant community will, under normal circumstances and without further disturbance, succeed back into a forest dominated by woody species and the herbaceous plants will eventually die out because they are outcompeted by the trees. 

If I were to mimic this natural cycle on my property I would look at the current existing plant community and figure out what the next stage of succession would naturally be, and then design my plan for that area to resemble that next successional stage to take advantage of the natural successional momentum of nature. An example of this would be looking at an overgrown pasture dominated by perennial grasses and forbs with some scattered shrubs and small trees and then determining that the next stage of succession will be a thicket made up of woody shrubs and trees. So for this area the logical strategy would be to focus mainly on planting shrubs and small trees, especially species that do well competing against grass and other meadow vegetation. So some species I might choose are raspberries, blackberries, roses, plums, apples, hawthorns etc. because all of these species would naturally establish themselves in meadow type environments. These shrubs and trees would be the best choices because they are adapted to compete in this environment and would do better than trying to convert a perennial meadow backwards in succession for example to a plant community dominated by annual grasses and forbs. If I were to decide to transition it back to an annual forb dominated community then it would be necessary for me to create a disturbance such as through tillage or a controlled burn in order to create the conditions that could support those annuals. This would take a lot more time and effort than if I were to just plant some shrubs and small trees that were adapted to compete with the meadow vegetation.   

Another example of implementing this strategy would be to cut down a small area of closed canopy forest to establish a community of annual plants. While this would take more work, it would still be relatively easy. This is because the trees over time would have shaded out most herbaceous plants growing beneath them. Then once the canopy was removed you would be left with a mostly blank slate underneath the trees and if you were to immediately seed in your mix then you would be able to get your desired plants established before competing weeds could come in and establish themselves.  

Last year I saw this first hand when I helped a neighbor clear a large shooting lane for a tree stand for deer hunting.  It was in an area that was largely forested and we took out many trees and shrubs. Once we were done I realized that the ground was almost completely devoid of plants as well as somewhat broken up from our activity in the area.  I then got the idea to experiment with seeding it with a food plot mix of mainly clover to attract deer to the spot.  I seeded the area not long after we cleared it out and now almost a year later the shooting lane is dominated by the clover and other forbs that were in the mix and they are being heavily browsed by the deer.  There were some “weeds” that came up, mostly perennial grass, but these were relatively scattered compared to the thick mat of clover that exists across most of the plot. This area took almost no effort to establish the mix because once the canopy was removed we mostly had a blank slate of bare soil, which was perfect for establishing annuals and perennial plants. Another thing to note was that the soil was very rich and black because of all the decomposed plants and forest debris that had built up over the years. I think this indicates that cycling through succession like this would over time also help improve the soil quality.

This experiment taught me a valuable lesson in cycling through succession, because during that same time I had been trying to come up with a simple and affordable way to establish the same kinds of food plots on my own property that is mostly covered in grass. I learned that the best way might be to instead focus on establishing shrubs and trees into the grassy areas and then to find areas that were already mostly tree cover to establish my food plots after clearing out the trees. If I really wanted to establish an annual food plot into the grassy areas of my property my only real choices would be to create a disturbance such as through tillage, which I would prefer to avoid due to the cost and effort involved, or to instead establish trees and shrubs into the area and let them grow and shade out the grass over time and then eventually come back in and remove the canopy and establish my food plot into the bare soil.

I believe using nature as a template to manage a piece of ground really helps with keeping down costs and effort. And I believe that cycling through succession and using the natural momentum of nature is a great example of this. I think when you do this over time on a property then you can especially create a sustainable management system that could possibly even lead to a management strategy where there is almost no work because nature has taken over all the processes.

I’d like to paint a potential picture of what that could look like.  Let’s say you have all the right plants growing on your property because you were able to design an ecosystem that completely mimicked nature and you decided which species of plants filled in all the niches of that ecosystem.  You also have the right proportions of different plant communities, such as meadows, thickets and forests based on what wild game species you were focused on managing for and they have abundant food, cover and water in every season.  Once you have this paradise established a few years go by and natural succession leads to the proportion of forest on the property becoming too high compared to the other types of plant communities. Well you notice this and decide to cut down some trees to create an opening in the forest and then you walk away.  What grows back in the area first are a diversity of annuals and then quickly followed perennial herbaceous plants, but they are not just any plants. The plants that grow back after you open up the canopy are highly nutritious forage plants that are descendants from seed you spread many years earlier that are either germinating from the soil seed bank or are being spread by animals and wind from adjacent areas that are currently in earlier stages of succession.  Yeah you may have a few undesirable “weed” species growing, but these are few and far between because of your sound management using a diversity of plant species and types that fill all of the available niches in the plant community.  Because of this you do nothing, but observe and let nature continue to progress this area through succession. This spot continues to be dominated by highly productive and nutritious forage plants for many years until eventually it starts to transition into a thicket of woody shrubs and small trees. But once again these are not just any shrubs and trees, these are highly beneficial species such as fruit and nut producers as well as species that provide excellent woody browse for game animals. These highly beneficial species are growing because they are the descendants from the trees and shrubs you've planted in the past and have been spread mostly by animals that are bringing in seeds from the adjacent areas you are managing.  This area continues to produce lots of food as well as great cover for many animal species and for many years being composed almost entirely of highly beneficial species.  Then eventually, many years later the spot once again becomes a mature closed canopy forest and you, or possibly your children by this time, decide that it’s time to cut it down and begin the cycle of succession once again. 

While this is a pretty ideal scenario I don’t think it is too far off for what is possible and I think it illustrates pretty well what could be accomplished if you are able to create and implement a design for a fully functioning ecosystem made up of a diversity of plants that are not only highly beneficial to wild game, but also fill in all the ecological niches of the plant communities.

Friday, December 18, 2020

My 2020 Food Plots: Year in Review


   This year was the first year that I started experimenting with "food plots" or herbaceous forage species for wild game. While the first few years on my property I mainly focused on planting woody browse species, including fruit and nut bearing trees and shrubs, this year I wanted to focus on finding out what species I could plant on my property that I would be able to use for my "wild game meadow" idea. I learned a ton this year about different species of plants and I feel very confident that I have a good foundation of knowledge about where I would like to start next year's food plots. 

    I started this past January by frost seeding several varieties of seeds into several different plots. On the dry south facing road cut on the southern side of my property I had really good success with Small Burnet, but not much else grew well in any quantity.  The Small Burnet is known for being extremely hardy and will stay green year round. I also think the steepness of this plot was able to keep the deer pressure off and allow the burnet to thrive, while in some of my other plots it was continually eaten to the ground. Other than the burnet it looked like some chicory, sweet clover and a handful of crownvetch plants were able to survive, but most did not seem to thrive. As most of these are perennials it will be interesting to see how well they do next year and if they will spread over time. 

    On some of my other plots the chicory, burnet, plantain, sweetclover, crimson clover, hairy vetch and blue flax all seemed to do fairly well, however because the plots were so small the deer pressure was very high and most were eaten close to ground level. However, despite the severe browsing most plants seemed to survive so hopefully they will come back next year. Also the hairy vetch and crimson clover, which are annuals did seem to reseed themselves so I will likely continue to use these in my future mixes. 

    The big circular food plot I seeded with Cereal Rye and Winter Wheat was almost a total failure.  I think because the seeds of these species are relatively large and the fact that the area was still mostly sod, even though it was severely weakened from scalping, made the seeds not able to germinate well and in fact almost none were able to germinate. With this one I abandoned it as a food plot and continued to scalp it during the growing season to help kill off the grass. As of now it is largely bare soil although there are still a fair amount of widely spaced grass plants that would likely fill in if I let it. I think for this one I will continue to use annuals to eventually shade out and kill off the remaining sod and then after several seasons of annuals I will seed it with a perennial mix like in some of my other plots. 

    This past May I experimented by creating another plot where I chose summer annual cover crop species that I could cycle between cool season and warm season species to build up the soil and help shade out any perennial grass trying to grow in the plot. I planted sunflowers, buckwheat, grain sorghum, lablab and cowpeas. The buckwheat did really well early on and went to seed within a couple months which is what was expected. The sunflowers did the best and grew up to 6 feet all the way into September when they flowered, but were killed by an early fall frost in Mid September.  The grain sorghum only ended up growing about a foot tall and did not do very well probably from the summer drought and the lablab and cowpeas both did very poorly most likely because I did not inoculate them with nitrogen fixing bacteria. Because of this from now on I've decided that any legumes I plant must be inoculated before I plant them. After this mix died in September I broadcast Cereal Rye onto the plot then used a handmade foot crimper I built to crimp down the dead plants, mostly sunflowers, on top of the seeds to give them some cover and increase the seed to soil contact. This worked very well and I got good germination as soon as the first fall rains came near the end of September.  I will also likely plan on frost seeding some annual legumes such as crimson clover, balansa clover and hairy vetch into the plot in late winter so it has some more diversity and then in May I will again plant a warm season mix and crimp down the cool season plants on top of those seeds.

    During mid summer I mowed and weedwhacked some areas that were mostly starthistle and medusahead grass, both annuals, in order to control the starthistle and to experiment with planting annual clovers and cereal rye into the dead annual weeds. I figure converting these areas into food plots will be much easier because the annuals are easier to control than the perennial grass growing on other areas of my property.  I seeded these areas in late August and September and most of them seemed to have germinated fairly well. I'm hoping the rye and clovers are able to shade out a large portion of the annual weeds and over time eradicate that vast majority of them. I will likely frost seed these areas with more rye and annual clovers this winter as well as adding some hairy vetch.  I also might experiment with planting summer annuals in these spots and mowing or crimping down the cool season annual growth to cover their seeds like I did in the previous plot. 

    This next year I think I will focus mostly on using annuals because they are much better at handling weeds. And then once I have good weed control hopefully after only a year or 2 then I could start adding back in perennials that would be able to thrive without any competition from weeds. I also would like to experiment this year with using large sheets of black plastic to kill off the sod and create a great spot for planting my seed mixes. And eventually, maybe in a few years, I would  like to get pigs to use as tillers to uproot the perennial sod grass and create more bare areas to plant my mixes into. 

    I learned quite a bit this year and my experimentation will definitely continue next year and on until I'm able to develop a system of planting and with species that will thrive in my area. I will continue to learn and make mistakes, but these will only help me in the future while I am attempting to create an amazing wild food property. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Implications of Biomimicry in Food Production


    Lately I have been listening to a lot of podcasts about wild game habitat management.  A new one I have recently found is Jason Snavely's "Droptine Podcast".  In this podcast he describes his method of habitat management as Regenerative Wildlife Agriculture, which as the name implies, applies Regenerative Agriculture, practiced by farmers like Gabe Brown, to wildlife habitat management.  I recommend everyone who is interested in these ideas check him out as he provides a lot of great ideas and information. Something he talks about a lot in his podcasts is the concept of biomimicry in relation to food production and wildlife habitat management. To me this is an extremely important concept to understand when thinking about where our food comes from and how it is produced and it is what I will focus on in today's post.

    Biomimicry is the simple idea of people mimicking nature and natural processes in the things they do. For example, airplanes came from watching birds soar through the sky and velcro mimics the burs of some plants such as burdock that stick to animals as the walk by. Biomimicry shows us that we can observe nature and come up with some amazing ideas that help us in our daily lives. I believe that this concept is especially important in regards to our food production systems and that in general the closer we get to mimicking nature the better off we'll be.  Today I'd like to look at different levels of biomimicry in the various ways we produce food in order to understand what each has to offer.

    In my diagram above I detail 5 different levels of biomimicry in food production.  These levels are not set in stone and there is a lot of overlap, but I think they can help demonstrate these ideas pretty well. On the diagram the amount of biomimicry increases from left to right.  On the far left you have the least amount of biomimicry, which would be our system of conventional modern agriculture. Then on the far right you would have the highest amount of biomimicry with subsistence hunting and gathering. I then split the diagram into 2 halves with one side describing animal production and the other plant production. Then below that I describe some basic management characteristics of each level. 

    On the far left is our system of conventional modern agriculture. This is characterized by factory farming for meat production and conventionally grown crops for plants. This level has the least amount of biomimicry and in my mind is probably the type we would want to avoid the most. At this level we see a very high amount of inputs such as tillage, heavy chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use, the use of feed lots and large warehouses where livestock are kept and prevented from going outside. These are very unhealthy systems and produce very nutritionally poor food compared to the other levels. This is because the animals are fed an unnatural diet that makes them sick, such as corn fed to cattle and the plant products are grown in very poor soil that is degraded from years of abuse. This is also the least sustainable system because it leads to ecosystem degradation through soil loss and pollution as well as requires chemical inputs from products like petroleum that are non-renewable. Over time if this was the only food production system used then there would eventually be a collapse from one of the links in the chain breaking. The one potential positive aspect of this system is that is it highly efficient for the modern industrial economy and up until this point has been able to lower food prices and bring many people back from the brink of starvation. However, over time the inputs and environmental degradation will only become more costly and eventually we will not be able to sustain this type of production. 

    The next level is characterized by production systems like pastured livestock and no-till and/or organic crop production. These systems differ from the first in that they tend to produce much healthier food.  Livestock are fed more natural diets and they are able to experience fresh air and sunlight. Plants at this level also improve in nutrition because the non-tillage leads to healthier and intact soil that does not degrade as readily and organically grown plants do not suffer the consequences of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which have been shown to, at least potentially, have health risks for people as well as the soil that they are applied to. At this level we see less environmental degradation and pollution, but it is still not an optimal system and over enough time will still cause some degradation.  Livestock at this level are often rotated on a handful of pastures at best or at worst spread out over a single pasture. This type of grazing alters the plant communities on the pasture and leads to the most palatable and nutritious species dying out from overgrazing, which gives an advantage to unpalatable weeds and over time can poison livestock if all that is left is poisonous weeds.  To combat this many livestock producers have to perpetually replant their pastures, which over time becomes very costly and labor intensive.  In drier more extreme environments this overgrazing leads to desertification as talked about by those like Allan Savory who promote a more holistic approach that can actually reverse desertification and regenerate soils and plant communities. The plant production at this level also can contribute to some environmental degradation and non-optimal nutritional quality because they do not integrate animals into the system or plant poly-cultures, which both improve the soil and contribute to higher nutritional quality. This is what people like Gabe Brown have talked about and improved upon with their more regenerative approach to crop production. 

    The middle of my diagram is characterized by food production practices that not only are sustainable, but that can regenerate degraded environments. These types of systems are able to produce even healthier food than the last because they mimic nature to an even higher degree. The livestock at this level generally are fed a much healthier diet because they are rotated through many more pastures than more conventional systems. This mimics wild herds of herbivores constantly moving to new pastures due to the presence of predators that push them out of recently grazed areas which helps prevent the over grazing of the most nutritious plants. On the plant production side at this level regenerative farmers use techniques such as cover cropping and animal integration to heal the soil through keeping living plants in the ground as long as possible and maximizing the collection of solar energy as well as providing animal impact and natural fertilization that can help to quickly build up the soil. These systems are very sustainable and regenerate landscapes over time, making them more productive.  However, these techniques still require fairly high inputs such as the perpetual need for tractors on the regenerative agriculture side and the need for fencing and livestock rotation systems for holistic livestock management, which both still require a relatively high amount of labor. In my mind these techniques are very valuable, but I still think they could be improved upon with the practice ecosystem design. That being said I think the practices at this level could be used perpetually and would be pretty optimal if they were the most common practices in existence. 

    The next level is what I refer to as ecosystem design. At this level wild and/or feral animals are used as the main source of meat. This would be the system of meat production that I developed on this blog which I refer to as the "Hunter's Eden" system. In this system one would design an ecosystem that would provide optimal wild game habitat and manage it for a high production of diverse wild game animals. The major benefit of this system would be that once the habitat was established then almost the only labor that would be needed would be to harvest the game. There would be times where one would have to make slight alterations to the habitat, but this would be relatively rare compared to the holistic management of livestock for example. Livestock still need care and infrastructure from people in order to be a productive source of food, whereas wildlife can survive and thrive without any human interference at all. For plant production this level would be characterized by the permaculture concept of a "food forest" For this system one would design an ecosystem with plants that are edible to people including the different levels of a forest such as the tree, shrub, vine, ground-cover and root layers.  These ecosystems would be comprised of mainly perennials and self seeding annuals that would continue perpetually with only minimal maintenance such as trimming plants that are blocking out too much sun on the lower layers. While these systems probably couldn't match the production and efficiency of the previous level I think most would probably be surprised at how productive these systems could be and if needed I think they would be able to feed the current global population and then some. Ultimately I believe that a mixture between the systems at the previous level and this one would be optimal for society as a whole. 

    On the far right of my diagram is the level of subsistence hunting and gathering.  The obvious major benefit to this level is all you would need to do is harvest. No maintenance or management required.  This is the food production system that humans are designed for. If modern civilization collapses this would likely be the most viable option for one to survive. Hunting and foraging is the last option we have if we lose everything else.  It is the foundational food system if all else fails.  Obviously, however, if everyone were forced to hunt and forage all their food then we would wipe out many plants and animals pretty quickly. This is because our influence around the globe has led nature to be pretty unproductive.  The bison were nearly wiped out. The fish in the ocean have been severely over-fished. And wild plants have been destroyed through agriculture an urban expansion. And even if we were able to restore wild plant and animal populations, we would still end up wiping them out again if we were to stop our maintenance and management of the natural world completely. That's why ultimately living off a pure hunter-gatherer lifestyle would be unsustainable. Luckily we know how to maintain and manage natural ecosystems. It is some of the knowledge that we have learned over our long existence on this earth and if we put those ideas to practice I think we can create a bountiful world that eliminates starvation and maintains an eden-like level of abundance perpetually into the future.



Friday, July 10, 2020

Seasonal Forage Availability for Deer and Elk in My Area.

For many wild game species, forage availability will vary drastically according to the time of year.  Deer and elk diets are closely matched to what is the most abundant and most palatable in any one season. So anyone who is managing for these species and many others should pay close attention to the seasonal food sources in their area.  This will help determine any limiting factors in seasonal forage availability and help to determine a management strategy for their property.

In my area during the early to late winter time period the staple forage type is woody browse.  These are the dormant twigs and buds that grew on woody shrubs and young trees the previous growing season. At this time of year this is one of the few available food sources and during periods of deep snow cover it is possibly the only source. At times during the winter the snow may melt in some areas such as on south facing slopes, exposed ridges and lower elevation areas. In these areas there could be green cool-season grasses available, although it is rarely abundant. Cool season grasses are very hardy and will sometimes grow very slowly during the winter or stay green from growth in the fall providing a source of green forage for deer and elk. Also if there is snow on the ground, but it isn't too deep and it is light and fluffy then wildlife may be able to dig through it to reach the green grass underneath. One more possible food source during the winter months are winter persistent fruits. In my area wild roses will hold onto their rose-hips all winter long and can provide a very good supplemental food source during a time of year when forage quality is rather low. This is generally the hardest time of year for wild game so making sure you have a large variety of woody browse, open areas with grass and possibly some winter persisting fruits will really help game populations maintain themselves.

After the winter snows start to melt the next important time period is early through mid spring.  During this time the most utilized food source will be the fresh growth of cool season grasses. This is when grass will be most utilized in my area, because it's new growth will contain a relatively high density of nutrients compared to other times of year. It is also the dominant forage type because most other plants have yet to start growing during this time.  In some areas you will start to see some cool season forbs starting to increase in prevalence, but during this time growth is very slow so they will usually only make up a small part of the diet of deer and elk. Also during this time woody browse will still be available and utilized to a lesser extent, but it is still important in case a large early spring snowstorm buries lower growing forage.

The next time period of forage availability is mid spring through early summer.  During this time cool season grasses will start to grow more course, less digestible and contain fewer nutrients, especially for deer, so use will decline.  Elk, however, will likely still utilize grass as a moderate percentage of their diet because they are better adapted to digest more mature grass than deer. The main staple for this time of year, however, will switch to cool season forbs. Cool season weeds like prickly lettuce, clover, and salsify will be the most nutritious forage type available at this time and will be heavily utilized. In most areas this will be the most important time of year for deer and elk because at this time forage is at it's highest nutrient density and it's highest abundance. This includes the new green leaves and stems of woody plants, however in general forbs will still contain higher nutrient concentrations than browse during this time of year. At the end of this time period around early summer some species of soft mast such as cherries and some warm season forbs will become available, but they will make up a relatively small percentage of deer and elk diets until mid summer.

Once the summer heat and drought hits most cool season forbs will go to seed and die out or go dormant. During the time from early summer to the first frosts in early fall the green leaves and stems from browse will become the dominant food source. The green growth on most shrubs and trees will usually maintain fairly high nutrient densities throughout the summer especially compared to cool season forbs, which usually dry out by this time. This is mainly because woody plants generally have deeper root systems than forbs and can reach deep soil moisture late into the summer that allows them to continue to photosynthesize until temperatures dip below freezing in the fall.  Also during this time warm season forbs will likely be available, but rarely are they abundant in our area. Some warm season weeds such as ragweed, lamb's quarters and amaranth make excellent and highly nutritious forage, but they are rarely abundant due to our dry summers, however if they are available they will likely provide the most nutritious forage around during this time. Also, this time of year is the best time for soft mast species. In our area we have cherries, plums, grapes, blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears and many other wild and feral fruits that provides a great high energy supplemental food source to deer and elk during the summer months. While deer and elk generally won't subsist off of this fruit it can make a relatively high proportion of their diets until about the middle of fall.

After the first couple of hard freezes in the fall most vegetation will turn brown and go dormant. However, their is a short period of time in mid fall after the first fall rains begin and before the really cold temperatures set in when cool season grasses and forbs have a short period of growth. During this time there might be just enough growth to provide a decent amount of forage for deer and elk, but it will still be a relatively small percentage of their diet. Once the leaves fall off the shrubs and trees deer and elk will again start to browse on the dormant buds and stems and this will usually make up the majority of their diet through the winter. Most of the summer fruit will be gone by this time as well, but some like apples and pears can persist for awhile until winter really takes hold and can provide a valuable supplemental food source for the last few weeks of fall.  While not common in my area, hard mast, if available, can make another excellent high energy supplemental food source during the fall.  In my area, although rare, some hard mast species include hazelnuts, walnuts and acorns from oak trees. Because of their rarity in my region I have decided to plant a large amount of hard mast producing trees and shrubs on my property and I'm hoping they will mature and produce abundant crops someday in the future.

Monitoring the different forage types as the seasons change can be an important part of developing a management plan for your property.  Making sure wild game have abundant forage year round can really help populations expand, while neglecting forage in any one season can create a bottleneck in food sources and lead to lower numbers of game. As you can see, in my area browse from trees and shrubs make up the majority of the forage during most of the year.  It would only make sense then for me to try and manage most of my property for an abundance of this forage type. So if your goal is to create excellent wild game habitat, research and monitor what the game are eating on your property on a seasonal basis. Then once you have a good understanding of these patterns you can figure out your limiting factors and plan accordingly and hopefully it will lead to abundant game populations in your future.

Friday, January 10, 2020

First Seeds in the Ground!

After a lot of planning and waiting for the right conditions I've finally started planting seeds in order to establish my "wild game meadow". I used the seed planting technique of frost seeding in order to plant seeds without needing any heavy equipment.  Basically I just broadcast the seeds with a handheld seed spreader over the planting area while trying to time it so the ground was bare, but right before a heavy snow. In theory the snow will cover the seeds helping to protect them from birds as well as help to push them down into the soil providing good seed to soil contact when it eventually melts. Also as the ground cycles through freezing and thawing over late winter and early spring the heaving action will incorporate the seeds even deeper into the soil further improving the seed to soil contact.  

In my first plot area I decided to only plant cover crops of winter rye and spring wheat. This is because for this plot I was experimenting with cutting the existing grass short multiple times with a weed eater to weaken it. Then I'm hoping the cover crops will be able to outcompete and shade out the existing perennial grasses eventually killing the grass and allowing me to plant my main mix of species that are part of my wild game meadow. In this plot I planted a third in winter rye, a third in spring wheat and a third in a mix of both species for experimentation.

My second plot area is actually an area of eroded soil on a cut bank for the main road leading to my property.  This plot is quite steep and after heavy rain will tend to break apart and erode into the ditch. There are some weeds already growing here, but it is mostly bare soil. This plot is also south facing and receives a lot of sunlight which makes it an especially hot and dry site so it is a good test plot to see which plants will survive these harsh conditions the best. For this plot I planted crown vetch, small burnet, sweet clover, purple salsify, forage chicory and forage plantain.  

My third plot is an area where I dug up a small area of sod with a grub hoe. I took out large chunks of sod flipped them upside down and placed them on top of an area of existing sod adjacent to where they were dug up. So on one side of this plot you have an indented area where the sod was removed and on the other half is the overturned sod placed on top of existing untouched sod. For the sod half I planted cover crops including spring wheat, winter rye, crimson clover and hairy vetch. I used these cover crops to shade out any of the sod that tries to regrow and then next year I will plant my main wild game meadow mix. On the bare non-sod half of this plot I planted crimson clover, hairy vetch, small burnet,  sweet clover, purple prairie clover, lewis' flax, purple salsify, forage plantain and forage chicory.

My 4th plot area was another small plot this time in an area dominated by mostly annual weeds such as medusahead grass and yellow-starthistle as well as the perennial sulfur cinquefoil. For this area I used the grub hoe to scrape the weeds off the soil surface until I got to bare soil. For this plot I decided to plant crimson clover, hairy vetch, small burnet,  sweet clover, lewis' flax, purple salsify, forage plantain and forage chicory.

Later into the spring I will be planting a 5th plot of just sainfoin. This plot will likely be made with the grub hoe ripping up the sod similar to my 3rd plot. Then lastly I will plant a few seeds of each species into my fenced garden area where I can monitor their growth and provide optimal conditions such as regular waterings and protection from deer and other herbivores. This will allow me to compare these pampered plants with their counterparts in the plots to see how well they are able to handle our summer drought as well as grazing pressure.  Also once the seeds begin to grow in the spring I will also likely create small exclusion cages in the plots themselves to again monitor grazing pressure.

It feels really good to have finally started the planting process. I am really excited to see how the plots do in the future and to see which plants do well and which don't as well as which plot creating techniques work the best.  It will be a lot of trial and error over the next few years, but eventually I will be able to develop a streamlined system that others will be able to recreate on their property in order to create their own wild game meadows and will be an important part of my hunter's eden system for creating optimal wild game habitat.