Deerscaping, Leopold Landscapes and how it's possible to turn unproductive acerage into a QDM showcase. By Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Leopold Landscapes - The Fast Track
Is it possible to transform 600 acres of unproductive, mature forest and open fields into a QDM showcase in just four years — and on a budget? Dave and Tom Bastow of Pennsylvania did, and earned the 2006 QDMA Deer Manager of the Year award.

Let’s say you’re the type of person who thrives on difficult challenges and likes to go against the odds. If you wanted to buy land in a region of the country with many obstacles to successful Quality Deer Management, you would do well to shop in northwest Pennsylvania. There, the lake-effect weather coming off Lake Erie ensures unusually deep snow every winter. There, until recently, hunters could routinely see 100 deer in a day, only one or two of which would be bucks – and those would be yearlings. Traditional deer management had produced deer populations extremely skewed toward females and more abundant than the land’s ability to support them. And there, few hunters welcomed change. When Dr. Gary Alt and the Pennsylvania Game Commission proposed antler regulations and increased doe harvests in 2002, they were met with some of the fiercest resistance in the state in northwest Pennsylvania.

But this is home for Dave Bastow of Edinboro, who has been a deer hunter his entire life, hunting with his father, and later his son Tom, on the Allegheny National Forest. When Dave made up his mind to buy land and try to raise the quality of his and Tom’s deer hunting, he looked close to home for land where he could spend as much time as possible, shaping with his own hands a landscape for whitetails, overcoming the inherent challenges with hard work. His savings might allow him to finance 100 or maybe 200 acres – a large tract for this region of fragmented farmlands and woodlots. Instead, he got very lucky.

“There was just a small For Sale sign in front of an old, fallen-down house,” said Dave’s son Tom. “We found out it was 600 acres that was part of an estate.”

“fixer upper” as a deer-hunting property – 475 acres of dense, mature hardwoods with a clean, park-like understory combined with 125 acres of pasture. Though the hardwoods were high-quality timber, they were not acorn-producers. According to Tom, only two oaks stood on the entire tract. Deer could be seen on the land, but they were just passersby. There was nowhere on the 600 acres for them to hide and little for them to eat. Of cover, food and water, all three would have to be installed. Dave and Tom rolled up their sleeves.

Timber Stand Improvement
Dave knew he had a lot of work to do on the property, and he also knew he would need advice and guidance to do it right. One of the first things Dave and Tom did was attend an educational seminar hosted by the Northwest Pennsylvania Branch of QDMA in the spring of 2001. They joined QDMA and immediately took an active role in the Branch (Tom is currently treasurer of the Branch and a board member), and they met Scott Seibert, a consulting forester and Branch officer. They also heard about New York consultant Neil Dougherty of NorthCountry Whitetails and invited him to visit their new property. Using advice from Neil, Scott and other experts, like Tom Erdman, a service forester with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Dave and Tom planned their first timber harvest. It was a significant operation that took nearly two years to complete. More than 85 percent of the existing hardwood forest was select cut – merchantable timber was removed, leaving younger, quality timber to continue growing for future harvests and income. This timber stand improvement (TSI) immediately let sunlight through to the forest floor to fuel the growth of natural forages, cover and hardwood seedling regeneration.

Wrecking Crew: Dave Bastow (far right) and his son Tom (camo jacket) have been fortunate to have the help of friends and family to accomplish their “to do” list. After marking “cut” trees with the help of Pennsylvania Service Forester Tom Erdman, the chainsaw crew performs the timber stand improvement. “We take out all the low-value trees, and in a weekend with seven saws running, you can accomplish a lot of work,” said Tom. The contributions of friends, and their own hard work, has helped Dave and Tom economize on habitat work.

Before and After. On the left, a photo of the park-like hardwoods as they existed when Dave Bastow bought the property. “Even in the middle of the day, it's dark in there,” said Tom Bastow. On the right, a similar stand after the select cut. Note the flood of sunlight, the explosion of understory plants and cover, and the fact that quality timber is still growing as an investment for future income.

Normally, Pennsylvania foresters cut the limbs out of unusable tops of harvested trees so that they settle to the ground. Dave and Tom skipped this step so that dense tops gave immediate structure and cover.

Though this major timber harvest was a necessary step to help pay for the land purchase, it was a significant step in making the property more deer-friendly.

Dave and Tom’s five-year plan, developed with advice from Neil and local experts, called for planting softwood species like Norway spruce to create dense thermal cover. Since 2000, more than 25,000 spruce trees have been planted in former pastures. These stands will eventually provide shelter from winter winds and unusually heavy snowfall – many times exceeding 200 inches per year – that this region of Pennsylvania receives. Since the property featured almost no hard-mast species, the Bastows also got busy planting large stands of northern red oaks and white oaks to serve as both mast producers and future timber producers. Other orchards of gobbler saw tooth and English oak were strategically placed as attraction sites for hunting opportunity once the trees begin producing acorns. In all, more than 3,000 oak seedlings have been planted, each of them protected by a plastic tree tube. And all of them were planted by Dave, Tom, and the friends and family who hunt with them. In fact, in order to do the most with a limited budget, Dave has not hired out any of the work that has been done since 2001.

About the only things the property had going for it when Dave bought it were 30 existing apple trees, but these were buried in woods and in need of care. Dave and Tom “released” the trees by clearing around them, liming and fertilizing them, and they planted 125 new apple trees of several varieties, all protected by fencing.

In addition to the TSI work and tree planting, Dave also took part of an open field and planted 15 acres of switchgrass and big bluestem to provide additional thermal and fawning cover. Once established and growing, the dense stand of warm-season grasses began attracting deer, turkeys and other wildlife.

“In 2000, there were very few deer actually living on the property,” said Dave. “You could stand anywhere and see 300 and 400 yards easily. There was no cover.” “Our property has changed dramatically since then,” Tom said. “Now, you can’t take a 50-yard walk without getting bloody. We’ve almost made it too good.”

Food Plot Program
Another important task on the “To Do” list for the Bastows was herd management. Every expert advised them to harvest does and bring the population into line with available nutrition. They planned food plots for two purposes: nutrition plots to increase available food and hunting plots to facilitate doe harvest.

“The first year we struggled,” said Tom. “In early 2001 we put in some food plots that just didn’t work. Wrong location, wrong seeds, and no soil test. Shortly after that we were introduced to the QDMA. Through the association, by 2002 we were up and rolling. We had gained enough knowledge to know how to implement these kinds of practices correctly.”

After tests revealed soil pH ranging from 4.5 to 5.0, Tom and Dave started ordering and spreading bulk lime. They invested in a belt-fed lime spreader to pull behind their tractor, and it was a good investment – over the last four years they have applied several tons of lime per acre on nearly 40 acres of food plots to raise the soil pH. The existing 40 acres include plots ranging from 1⁄4- acre hunting plots to 5-acre nutrition plots.

After experimenting with a number of different plantings, the Bastows have formulated a food plot strategy that works for them. About half of their 40 acres are in a hand-mixed blend of Imperial Whitetail clover and chicory for fall and spring attraction and nutrition, and half is in a Roundup Ready corn/soybean mix for summer and winter nutrition.

“We need the corn for the snow,” said Tom. “When it gets 21⁄2 feet deep, you need some energy out there. Brassicas have grown well for us, but, where we are, it sometimes gets buried too deep and the deer can’t get to it, but they can find the standing corn.”

Tom initially planted soybeans in blocks surrounded by strips of corn that served as structure and cover as well as food. “This year, we planted the corn and soybeans together with a no-till grain drill,” he said. “I mix them together, and I use the same planting rate for each that I used before, I just combine both in the same field, and it has worked well.

“With hunting plots, we’ve found that what’s more important than the shape of the plot is what you put in them. The first year we planted hunting plots, we put in a wheat/brassica mix. The deer didn’t even use it during hunting season. What we do now is we establish a clover/chicory mix to get the deer using the plot all year, and in August I go into the established plot and roto-till one strip right up the middle. Then I drill a mix of Austrian winter peas and soybeans to give them a little candy for hunting season. As soon as these come out of the ground they get eaten, and by spring the clover just takes back over. By mid summer, you can hardly see where I roto-tilled the year before.”

The Bastows have experimented with some irregular shapes for hunting plots, but they have also been limited by the need to manage for timber income. “On our property, we have to listen to the deer manager’s ideas, listen to the forester’s ideas, and then find the middle ground. We’re not going to cut down merchantable timber to make a food plot. We can’t afford it.”

Before and After. On the left, a photo from the first camera census. Plenty of deer could be photographed, but does outnumbered bucks six to one, and only one buck that year was estimated to be 21⁄2 or older. On the right, a photo from the 2006 survey, in which 61 unique bucks were identified, half of them 21⁄2 or older. Rubs and scrapes are now common, and rattling, once a useless gesture, is effective at luring bucks.

Herd Management

One crucial but often overlooked component of a QDM program is data collection and record-keeping. Without documentation, managers can’t know how far they have progressed or when they need to alter their harvest strategies. Dave and Tom had this covered from the beginning, starting with annual camera surveys.

The first camera survey revealed a doe-buck ratio of 6-to-1. Of the few bucks caught on film, one of them was estimated to be 31⁄2 years of age, and he was the senior citizen. Over the following seasons, hunters on the Bastow property took 65 does and only one buck, and the results are well documented in the camera surveys conducted every August.

“The first year we were lucky to get 6-pointers on film,” said Tom. “This past year, we saw over 60 different bucks using the property, and our doe-buck ratio is now 1.5-to-1.”

Of the 61 unique bucks seen in the most recent survey, 50 percent of them were estimated to be 21⁄2 or older.

“Every year we’re seeing progressively older and bigger bucks,” said Dave, “and we’re seeing more deer, because we have the capacity to carry them on this property. The quantity is rising and the quality is improved.”

The deer management is also providing unintended benefits for other species – turkeys, grouse and pheasants are being photographed and seen on the property in greater numbers.

Harvest data have also revealed rapid improvements. In 2001, the average mature doe weighed 110 pounds on the hoof, and a large one weighed 120. Does weighing 150 pounds are now the norm. The increased number of bucks, and the improved age structure among bucks, has also led to better hunting experiences.

“We now are seeing rub lines and scrapes, and we’re seeing rubs on 6-inch diameter trees,” said Tom. “In the past, if the rubbed tree was bigger than your finger, you were excited about it. Even just sitting down and watching the woods is more exciting. When you see a deer, you have a 50 percent chance that it’s a buck. In the past, you’d see 15 does walk by before you saw a little 4-pointer. We are also able to call in deer where we couldn’t in the past. To rattle in the past was useless – if anything, you scared off a lot of deer. Now we’re able to use it as a tactic to lure bucks in.”

When it came to passing young bucks, the Bastows got some assistance in 2002 when the Pennsylvania Game Commission implemented a 4-points-on-one-side antler restriction for all hunters in western Pennsylvania. For their own hunters, the Bastows were more restrictive – 8 total points and an antler spread outside the ears. For four seasons, no bucks at all were harvested. In 2005, Dave and Tom liberalized the guidelines.

“Last year was the first year that we tried to really get after some of these bucks we had been passing,” said Tom “We said for- get the earlier rule – if it will make you happy, take him. But our hunters had actually gotten picky on us. We could have killed four or five bucks last year, but guys were still very selective.”

The first buck killed on the property was taken last year – a 31⁄2-year-old 8-pointer that weighed 198 pounds live.

“This year, I believe we’re going to have a very successful season. We are lightening up on the doe harvest because we’re where we need to be.”

“The deer-hunting experience has changed greatly,” said Dave. “When a nice buck comes out, even if it’s a 21⁄2 that you’re not going to shoot, it’s just phenomenal. Your heart starts racing, and you get a smile on your face, because you know this is from your efforts. Or you see a doe and triplets, or a doe and her fawns in a bedding area you created. It’s rewarding even when you’re not hunting.”

The Bastows’ outlook has proven to be contagious. They have bought QDMA memberships for neighbors and invited them to attend seminars, including one given by Neil Dougherty.

“Some of our neighbors are passing on small 8-pointers instead of shooting them, and some aren’t,” said Dave, “but it takes time. Even a small 8-point is a nice animal for a lot of folks in this area compared to what they’ve seen throughout their lifetimes. But we’re all seeing more bucks and nicer bucks, and I think the situation is going to keep improving.”

Just Getting Started

Dave, Tom and the friends and family who help them have
finished their five-year plan... in three years.

“As we got into it, we wanted to do more and more, and faster and faster,” said Dave. “Right now, we have fantastic habitat throughout our property, but as it matures, we’ve got to thin it again to keep browse abundant. We’re also going to do some specific things for pheasant, grouse and turkeys. Last night I flushed my first pheasant on our property while I was walking to my deer stand. So, we’ll stay busy. My wife says, ‘Are you done yet?’ No, we’re not done yet.”

Last year, Tom nominated his father for QDMA’s Al Brothers non-professional Deer Manager of the Year Award. The people who had watched the Bastow’s hard work and the speed with which they transformed their property lined up to support the nomination.

“As a Service Forester for over 20 years, I have never worked with a landowner who has done better work in his woodland than Mr. Bastow has,” said Tom Erdman. “He researches the subjects that are of interest to him, seeks professional advice from alternative sources, and then applies the knowledge that he has gained to achieve results that are far above and beyond those that are normally attained by the other forest landowners I work with.”

Though Dave and Tom say that the improvement in the quality of their hunting in just four years has been huge, Tom Erdman referred to the changes as “limited short-term benefits.”

“By far, their greatest returns will be realized in the future,” he said.

Scott Seibert, the QDMA Branch officer and certified forester who also provided guidance, added this: “As a land-managing professional, I’ve never seen a more aggressive plan implemented in such a short period of time with such positive results.”

Dave was presented with the award at the 2006 QDMA National Convention in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Both he and Tom were there – it was their third QDMA National Convention, and they’re planning to travel to Chattanooga next June as well. They point to the education they have received at QDMA Conventions and other events as one of the keys to their success. And Dave gives credit to Tom for the award.

“I received the award, but Tom has been an integral part and has done as much as I have,” said Dave.

“My father and I work very well together, and we get things done,” said Tom. “We also had a lot of help from friends and family. The first rule on our farm is to have fun and enjoy yourself, but a lot of the work is actually fun. Hunting used to be a two-month thing. Now, there’s not a day goes by that we don’t think about deer and habitat. We’re on a fast track, and we’ve pushed the envelope, but it hasn’t seemed like work at all.”

The Bastows' strategy for hunting plots is to roto-till a strip in established clover and chicory in August and drill in Austrian winterpeas and soybeans. They have found that these offer hunting-season attraction. By the following spring the clover reclaims the strip.

About the Author: Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the managing editor of Quality Whitetails .

NorthCountry Whitetails reprinted this article with permission from the December 2006 issue of QDMA's Quality Whitetails magazine. To subscribe to Quality Whitetails, or to learn more about the Quality Deer Management Association, visit www.QDMA.com or call (800) 209-3337.

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