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The Cedar Solution

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Published on: May. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

The older we become the more we reflect back to what seemed to be the "good old days." Those days began for me in 1954. I was eleven years old, and my father had rented some creek bottom crop land to raise supplemental feed for the family dairy farm and farrow-to-finish hog operation.

I still remember our first drive to the rented land. We followed a dirt road, which resembled an open ditch more than a road, down steep river hills until we descended to the bottom fields.

That farm, as well as neighboring farms, had been more or less abandoned during the late 1930s and into the 1940s. The former river hill pastureland was still semi-open, but was rapidly being invaded by brush and small eastern red cedars. Some locals had told us that a severe, wind-driven wildfire in 1950 had burned over the entire farm, as well as several neighboring farms. In 1954, scorched trees and blackened stumps were still visible.

As I became more familiar with the farm, I was especially impressed with its abundance of rabbits and its tremendous quail population. I enjoyed many exciting hunts with a terrific old neighbor and friend who would become my life-long outdoors mentor.

I grew up farming with my father and hunting on this land until I left for military service in 1960. Quail were still plentiful in 1960, but eastern red cedar had invaded the steeper hill land to the extent that they impeded visibility for wing-shooting.

My father continued to rent the creek bottom land, but by the time I returned from military service in late 1963, most of the former open hill land had evolved into dense thickets of eastern red cedar with some diversified areas of hardwood brush. The quail population was still reasonably good, thanks to brushy crop field borders and a few semi-open ridge fields. When hunting, you couldn't follow a covey because it invariably ended up in the dense cedar growth.

By the mid-1970s, I had purchased several of the farms formerly rented by my father. Quail numbers on the property had declined considerably, as they had in many other areas of the state.

At first, I wouldn't agree with the concept that my reduced quail population was a result of marginal habitat. After all, the property had about the same amount of cedar-infested areas and intermittent areas of hardwood brush as it had in the 1950s, when we had quail.

In 1982, I initiated a fencing program and began cutting cedar posts for my own use, as well as some for sale. If I had not grown up with the 30- to 50 foot tall trees I was cutting, no one could have convinced me these were the same trees that were too small for Christmas trees in 1954.

I cut off the stumps level with the ground to facilitate future mowing. Most of the limbs and brush went into brushpiles for the few remaining rabbits that, lacking ground cover to hide in, had managed to out-run the coyotes.

It took only a few years after continued cedar harvest to realize what had happened to the quail habitat. The cedars had grown so large that they not only closed the canopy at the site where they stood, but they also shaded out ground cover as far as 30 to 40 yards from the tree trunk. Also, the shallow lateral root system (typical of eastern red cedar), combined with heat reflection from the tree itself, was stunting natural ground cover by reducing available moisture.

I cut cedar during the winter months, creating 1- to 2-acre clearings. Native ground cover sprung forth as soon as I removed the closed cedar canopy. By the second full-year growing season, I had aromatic sumac, smooth sumac, coral berry, spice bush, ragweed, foxtail, mullen, croton and various panic grasses.

Anticipating a slower return of native species, I had broadcast-seeded various mixed warm-season grass species in early spring using a rate of about 2 to 3 pounds of pure live seed per acre. As a result, the uncovered areas also contained big bluestem, little bluestem, side-oats gramma, Indian grass and switch grass. To provide additional winter food for quail, I had also seeded intermittent areas with Korean lespedeza, Illinois bundle flower and partridge pea.

I hauled the trees that weren't good enough for fence posts to Eldon, the nearest chip mill market during the early 1980s. The chips were marketed primarily for pet and poultry litter. The demand for chips increased about that time as the number of domestic turkey producers increased, so I harvested cedar on an even larger scale.

Cutting and moving harvested cedar is hard work and certainly is not a "get rich-quick" enterprise. If monetary considerations were my only goal, most of my cedar harvest would have been limited to cutting fence posts and saw logs for my own use.

It was just nice to be able to get paid a little bit for improving my land. My ultimate reward was being witness (after just several years) to a tremendous improvement in ground cover and insect and wildlife composition following the removal of large cedars.

Christmas-tree size and smaller eastern red cedar can be an important component of diversified quail habitat, but a problem develops when cedar is allowed to become the dominant species. I have personally observed quail populations diminish and disappear as land with a modest cedar invasion became dominated by large cedars.

Over the past 20 years, I have clear-cut more than 40 acres of cedar, primarily in 3- to 5-acre tracts. The corresponding quail population on the entire farm has more than quadrupled from not more than two coveys in 1984 to no fewer than nine coveys in the fall of 2001.

Because I have had fair results managing for deer and wild turkey, I sometimes have thought of myself as a wildlife manager. I didn't deliberately set out to manage my land for more quail, however. To me it's somewhat embarrassing, even a little ironic, that it took a demand for cedar chips from the burgeoning domestic turkey industry to help bring my quail back.

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