Trees for Tomorrow

I have alluded to silvopasture before, but I never really explained it. It is basically a fancy word describing the practice of raising trees in a pasture. It falls under the general heading of agroforestry, which is the combining of agriculture with forestry. Silvopasture differs from most forms of agroforestry because the “crop,” at least initially, are the animals. Most agroforestry systems are basically growing rows of trees with rectangular blocks for various field crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) or hay in between. I think agroforestry is really an improvement ecologically speaking over just an open field growing an annual crop. Trees provide many benefits to field crops. They act as a windbreak and help prevent erosion, which are the two primary benefits, but they also will provide their own valuable crop in time. If nut trees are grown, they provide nuts, but also hardwood trees can be grown for their saw/veneer logs or various pines can be grown for pulpwood, and many kinds of trees can be grown for fence posts.

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I planted the trees every 7 feet. I happen to wear boots that are exactly one foot long, and so I was able to walk them off. This is a close planting, but with a 100 ft row spacing, it ends up being only 15% of the density of a typical forest.

I happen to think that pasture is a more ideal partner for trees, however, and for a few reasons. The primary reason is that trees are going to cast shade. Historically this is why trees have not been grown with field crops, which all suffer shade poorly. Interestingly, low growing C3 pasture plants, like Kentucky Bluegrass and Ryegrass and White clover hardly suffer a little shade at all (years of working on golf courses taught me this, the rough always grows better than the fairway). Time and time again studies have demonstrated that they grow just as well or better under light shade. And this stands to reason since C3 plants can hardly make use of all that sunlight because C02 fixation and moisture availability limits their photosynthesis. C4 plants (like corn, Sorghum, Sudangrass, Teffgrass, Johnshongrass) are not so nearly as limited, so they can make use of all that sunlight and grow like crazy. They do suffer shade. Another reason I think pasture is better is because it isn’t tilled. Most field crops involve some amount tillage, and that will damage the feeder roots of most trees. Another reason is that pasture usually has less machinery moving about in it. I do practice haymaking in my pastures, usually once a year, but this pales in comparison to a regular hayfield with 3-5 cuts or a field crop with its planting, sometimes multiple sprayings, and harvesting. Negotiating trees is simply a pain—anything to reduce so much the better. Any my final reason for preferring pasture is that I am convinced that all grazing animals need some shade. There are only two ways to provide shade: trees or something bought or built. Something bought or built costs me time and money. I think portable shade canopies that I see advertised are pretty silly. And no shade shelter provides a potential crop (it only depreciates/deteriorates), fertilizes the pasture with leaves, or provides anywhere near as effective as a windbreak.

When I bought my farm it was a cornfield for about a decade. Not a tree on it. Only the weeds that afflict cornfields. I didn’t know it at the time, but I did have a little Red Cedar struggling to survive which I featured in an earlier post. After 2 seasons I did get it into an emerging pasture. And now I have planted some 500+ trees on the five or so acres. I planted them in perfectly straight North-South rows (to optimize shading patterns). I planted them in an orderly manner so I can mow easily around them and keep them identified. I planted valuable trees. And I planted them in a way to accommodate a rotational grazing scheme. I may just live to see the fruits of this labor, as I am in my early thirties now, but I may not. Somebody will, I hope, as long as someone doesn’t plow it all up and plant corn again!

What to plant? That is an enormous question, and a whole book could be written about it, so I will give you an idea of how I went about deciding what to plant. I spent nearly a year deliberating, reading about anything I could. In the end, I came around to a pretty simple way to decide. First, you want to plant something worthwhile. Don’t go planting ornamental trees or just any old trees. Plant something that makes a nut, or good wood, or fruit, or something worthwhile. Plant something scarce. The world has nowhere near enough fruit or nut trees or good hardwood lumber or syrup. Second, you want to plant something you can get cheaply. This probably means you will plant something a state nursery (which is subsidized) produces. Any commercial nursery will be far more expensive per tree. Mortality rates for tree plantations run in the 50% range. In the experimental planting I did last year, I achieved 90% one year survival, which is unusual and outstanding. But losing 50% of 50 cent to one dollar seedlings from the state nursery is something you can afford, while you cannot afford to loose 50% of your $5-30 commercial nursery trees. Third, you want to plant something appropriate for your situation. This will take into consideration your climate, your soil texture and fertility, your soil hydrology patterns, and your intended use for the plantation (will you do silvopasture, a woodlot, field-crop/tree scheme, or are you trying to re-create a native forest—a CRP plantation). Since I plan on operating as a silvopasture, I gave considerable weight to trees that play well with grass. Since I have high water tables in the spring, I planted trees that can cope. Since I have high pH heavy clay soil, I planted trees that can cope with that, at least reasonably well.

I planted oaks around the pasture’s perimeter. The two I used were Swamp White Oak and Bur Oak. Both are tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, wet soil, make large acorns that can be fed to pigs, make valuable wood, and cast a moderate shade. Their roots are relatively shallow and may “rob” nutrients from the pasture. Since I planted them on the perimeter, they may reach over into my neighbor’s cornfield and rob some nutrients there, too, I suppose, but they will probably also get sprayed with herbicide and cut with tillage implements. I call it fair. Inside the pasture in rows that define pasture blocks or paddocks I planted Black Walnuts, Hybrid Butternuts, Pecans, and American Persimmons. My thinking is that inside the pasture the Oaks will provide some protection from herbicide overspray and wind. The interior trees all cast light to moderate shade and have deep taproots that don’t rob nutrients from the pasture as badly. They also leaf out late and drop early, leaving more sunlight for the pasture in the spring and fall when it needs it. This also means that these trees can survive high water tables in the spring, since they are not evapotranspriring when the tables are at their highest. They also make valuable produce. Black Walnuts make delicious nuts, though not so many and they are hard to get at, but the wood is the most valuable wood grown on this continent, and a choice wood for gunstocks. American Butternut is a close cousin to the Walnut, making a larger and more easily opened nut, but with a softer lighter colored wood that is not as valuable. Butternuts are a good sugar tree, second only to Sugar Maples. Sadly a disease (Butternut Canker) introduced from Europe or Asia has all but wiped out the American Butternut. However, hybrids of an American Butternut and a Japanese Walnut are resistant and retain the good traits of the American Butternut and demonstrate some hybrid vigor. Pecans, a relative of the Walnuts and Butternuts, but more closely related to Hickories, shares their deep taproot, light shade, and seasonally high water table tolerance, but makes a superior nut. Mine were the offspring of commercial nut producing Northern (from Illinois) Pecans, so I expect them to have both the cold tolerance and good nut bearing traits of their parents. The Persimmon—the odd one in the bunch. J. Russell Smith was enthusiastic about persimmons, and I admire the tree. Many times having become bored hunting in November and not being particularly excited about whatever lunch I packed, I snacked on persimmons, which grow wild in the woods of Southern Indiana. Usually they are found in little groves, and it is surprising how some rather small specimens produce prodigious quantities of their very mild and unique tasting, but sweet and seedy fruits. One small tree could make more than I’d care to eat. I like persimmon (a properly ripe persimmon, not fiercely astringent unripe ones) and it makes a fine pie and complements pecans marvelously. I hope someday to eat all the pecan-persimmon pie I could want, and I could afford it no other way than to grow them. Persimmon does cast a pretty light shade, has a deep taproot, and the wood is valuable (for making golf clubs of all things!). It seems to be as good as a pasture tree as any, there is no question of toxicity to livestock (Cherries, Black Locusts) and has no thorns (Honey Locusts, Osage Orange). In fact, all livestock, especially pigs, are reputed to like persimmons, and I know Whitetail deer do.

Now, about planting, the how-to. Advice abounds on how to plant seedlings; I think mostly because there is no easy and effective way to do it. There are easy ways. I’ve tried the method of using a trenching shovel to cut a slit in the earth and put the seedling in and then press the slit closed with your boot. It’s certainly fast and low effort, but most trees treated this way died in my experimental planting last year. The dogwoods, however, all lived. For some shallow and broad rooted trees like Elderberries, using a pointed shovel works: two scoops from the left and the right and then carefully backfilling. But most trees, and all the taprooted ones it seems, need a much deeper hole. Despite all the back, shoulder and elbow breaking work, I really think a clamshell type manual post-hole digger is best. And no, a power auger type one will not work well. They spread the soil out in a doughnut shaped pile around the hole and mix the topsoil with the subsoil, and you seem to loose too much of the soil in the sod. This makes backfilling poorer. And planting is almost as much work (though easier) as digging the hole.

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As you can see, I use taut rope to keep my rows straight. A 100′ tape measure is very good for keeping rows spaced. And try to make neat piles like this, so when you backfill the seedling, the subsoil goes back where it was and the topsoil goes back where it was. I invert any sod so that it does and doesn’t compete with the seedling.

I feel sort of silly expressing this, but there is a technique of using a post hold digger well. You want to aim it carefully, let the weight of the digger do the work (you almost throw it at the hole and never push down with them), and alternate the bite direction with every other bite or so (top-bottom, then left-right). If you are using them correctly, and you get a little grit on your hands, the wooden handles will be polished as smooth as glass. A good post-hole digger has hardened steel blades that are bolted or riveted to the hinge. As you use it, the edge will be worn down, but it shouldn’t be necessary to sharpen it, as if it was made correctly it will self-sharpen like Beaver teeth do. Old diggers are this way. I understand new ones aren’t. In any case, after you’ve dug about 500 tree holes this way, you will understand that work is a verb, not a noun. I think two or three diggers for every planter is optimal as far as timing goes, but if it’s a couple, at least the planter can talk to the digger and make it a bit more pleasant. If you are digging fast enough, you will have a hard time speaking.

In general, timing of key importance with planting trees on a large scale. You must plant when the trees are dormant. And you should plant at a time of year when you can be reasonably assured of steady rainfall for at least 8 weeks, as there is no way you are going to be able to water 500 trees. It’s almost impossible to dig this many holes in frozen ground. It’s also very difficult to dig holes in ground that is too wet since the soil sticks to the teeth of the digger. There is little you can do besides pray and pay attention. For the last two years I have been fortunate. There was a week in late March (starting the 23rd in 2016 and 21st in 2017) that was pretty much ideal where I live. It rained heavily on March 20th this year, and that is when I picked up the trees. Starting the next day the soil was still too wet and stuck badly, but I pressed ahead. March 22, 23, and 24s were almost perfect and I got them all in. March 25th rained during the night and there is rain forecast all week. Temps were all above freezing to about 65 degrees, which is actually too warm, you get sweaty and the roots can dry out in even a slight breeze this warm.

When planting it is very nice to use a wheelbarrow or a small garden wagon that you can pull along with a bucket of pond or rain water, shovels, a bunch of soaking wet towels or peat moss to keep the roots moist (I am assuming the planting of bareroot seedlings). Keep the roots as cool, moist, and dark as possible. Since we have toddlers, we brought some blankets and used the wagon like a mobile nappy crib. Keeping up energy and stamina on jobs like these is important. Personally I am not so bothered by bad weather or work as I am by noise, which is why I wouldn’t use an engine-powered auger or a tractor even if they worked well. I realize that because of this most American farmers will never take tree planting seriously, since it seems that if a machine or power cannot be used, it isn’t worthwhile to them, but I can think of hardly anything more worthwhile than planting good trees.

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Another way to start a pasture

I accidentally stumbled upon a way to start a pasture, which might just be the most effective way yet. By effective I mean cheap and low effort with a good outcome.

Oftentimes people evaluate a farming endeavor merely based on the outcome. This is how we get ridiculous show animals that have resources poured into them, basically only to win shows. Such activities are not economic, and they don’t impress me a bit. Sometimes a few weeds in a hayfield or a pasture are rather benign. The desire for the look of “perfection” is what drives the attitude of kill and drill. Either moldboard plow or herbicide whatever field it is you want to bring into a hayfield or pasture, apply prescribed fertilizers, and then drill in the desired plants. No doubt this can achieve a fine looking hayfield or pasture. But there are other ways, which not only involve less effort and expense, but also are more environmentally benign, and sometimes have an even better outcome if by better you consider overall nutrition for animals and not merely appearance.

There are broadly two paths to take when it comes to establishing a pasture. There is kill and drill and there is the broad concept of renovation. I’ve already described all you really need to know about drill and kill. The specifics for your location can be found in any extension service bulletin for your area. Renovation is a far more complicated topic, and can range from involved renovation efforts to basically doing nothing except rotationally grazing livestock (which alone can gradually improve a pasture).

Earlier I described the involved renovation process by which I brought an old continuous cornfield into developing pasture with many bumps and failures along the way. I think I may have just serendipitously discovered a less involved renovation process that is more broadly applicable and more effective, and I have never read about in any manual.

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The brownish gray bits are decaying Sweet Clover stems, the small hairy looking grass is Kentucky Bluegrass, and the few clumpy tall grasses are Wheat plants.

Here’s what happened. Two springs ago I made the foolish decision to plant some squashes in a mucky wet area in a corner of one of my fields. They really didn’t grow well, and I pretty much lost interest in the small 1/8th acre plot, and basically let it all go to weeds. Then last spring I decided I wanted to make it into a decent garden place, and I knew it was mucky and probably nitrogen deficient, so I planted VNS Sweetclover pretty heavily. This Biannual Yellow Blossom Sweetclover came from Kansas, and it is not very winter hardy apparently. It grew quite well in the place, which is normal for Sweetclover on high pH soil like mine. Sweetclover is very tolerant of poor soil texture. In fact, its roots just seem to shoot right through clay and hardpan. It definitely improved surface drainage in this area, though it still lays a bit wetter than it should.

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Tangles of brown stems are winter-killed Sweetclover. I’ve followed the stems back to the root crown and they are all dry and appear to have no life in them. 

We had a few very low temps this winter despite it being overall relatively mild. It measured down to -10 degrees F at least one night. This seems to have killed almost all of Sweetclover. I was pretty bummed expecting a nice heavy crop of top growth this spring to mow and make into mulch or compost (Sweetclover should not be made into hay), so I did nothing about it. Lately I have been watching it though because it has become apparent that many Kentucky Bluegrass plants seem to have sprung up, and not many weeds or weed grasses. How odd. I never seeded this area to any grass, only to Sweetclover the year before. Today I went out and it has become apparent that it is looking like I planted it. Mind you, it’s only late March, and around here pastures haven’t even begun to pick up yet. This is some good-looking grass. And the drainage is better. And no doubt the decaying Sweetclover contributed a good shot of nitrogen. I wonder how well it could be doing if I had overseeded in late summer last year with a pasture mix, or frost seeded the same mix this February.

So, now I have another way to recommend how renovate a pasture, because Sweetclover can be frost seeded well right into an existing pasture, or can be broadcast straight into an old bean or corn field. If the sod is pretty thick with non-desirable grass and weeds in the spring, one could get out there with a disc or a rototiller and make a mess of it and then broadcast the Sweetclover. Then cultipack. The great thing about it is Sweetclover will provide some good grazing in the summer (it can cause bloat), and if grazing isn’t desired, then just mow it. Mow it down good and low in the fall or late summer and overseed with your desired pasture mix (I recommend low growing improved White Clover, Ryegrass both perennial and Italian, and Kentucky Bluegrass). Let the winter kill your Sweetclover (make sure to pick a variety that probably wont make it through the winter in your area) and sit back and watch your pasture grow with the benefits of nitrogen, improved drainage, and reduced soil compaction. If some Sweetclover survives, it wont hurt anything (especially in a pasture), as it will eventually succumb to close grazing and mowing compared to the low growing pasture plants. Biannual Sweetclover only lives one year, so if you don’t let it go to seed, it will be gone from the field by the next year. And Sweetclover is cheap and broadcasts well.

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The hybrid living fence

Here’s an idea I had recently: a “hybrid living fence.” The problem with dead fences is largely the fence post, not the wire product. Thoroughly galvanized (Class III) wire products last for a half-century and probably longer, and when they wear out, they are easily replaced. There are thousands of old wire fences where I live in humid Indiana and some probably hail from the 1930s or perhaps earlier. And this old wire certainly has inferior galvanizing compared to quality fence of today. The problem is the posts!

It doesn’t matter if posts are treated wood or steel; they rot/rust off at the ground and then need to be replaced, sometimes in only 15 years. Experimental people, like Andre Voisin, used concrete fence posts back in the 1940s and 1950s. They never really caught on, mostly because they were probably very expensive and labor intensive to build. I am sure they were long lasting, however. And there are of course posts made out of super rot-resistant Osage Orange or Black Locust that have lasted for more than a half-century, but in the present time there is nowhere near enough of these trees to meet the need for fence posts. And furthermore, when the fence post fails, sometimes only one of them in a long run, the fence more or less fails. Sort of like the foundation of a building. The post supports all the other components, and the offending post is not easily worked around. I suspect there are far more people that have put in wood fence posts than have removed them. I’ve done both, and the latter is a far more difficult job. If this was commonly appreciated, I think people would think twice before putting up miles and miles of wood posts!

I only had this idea because of a peculiar obstacle I have on my farm. There is a major interstate gas pipeline running right through the middle of my main field. It is perfectly acceptable to grow field crops and pastures over the pipeline (sometimes it is difficult, because the soil is more or less ruined). It is not permissible to grow trees; even short hedges are impermissible. So, the problem with my farm is that I cannot have a hedge completely around my farm since there are two ends where for a minimum of 50 feet I cannot plant hedge trees. Hedges are also difficult to abut to a gate end. There will always be a gap between the gatepost and the hedge, which is venerable to penetration. And their thorny nature makes them hard to trim and otherwise manage. So it came to me the idea of using both living fence posts and dead fence posts with wire fencing material together in a living hybrid fence.

Pollarding is the practice of allowing a tree to grow to a certain height, usually above browsing height (if you are raising giraffes this would not work), which for cattle is around 5-6 feet, and then cutting the trunk. Certain species of trees will re-generate from the stump by sending out “suckers” and eventually form a knob. The suckers are periodically harvested (every 2-7 years I’ve read) and usually fed to livestock. They may be fed directly or dried to make “tree hay” and fed later. It is best to cut in late summer or early fall while the leaves are green and before the sap has run back into the trunk and roots, and so the nutrients are retained. Many species of tree have nutritious, palatable leaves. The 5-6’ tall pollarded tree trunk is pretty much the perfect living fence post. If grown in a row and the trunk is kept clean of side growth, stringing barb or eclectic wire will not be a problem at all. Because the tree is kept more or less in a juvenile state, and is defoliated periodically, it grows very slowly and will live a very long time. There are pollarded trees in Europe and probably elsewhere that are hundreds of years old. And if it should come to pass that there is a place where a pollarded tree doesn’t grow, or dies, or is run over by a drunk driver, or you have a pipeline to cross over, then you simply used a dead fence post (either steel or treated wood) to fill the occasional gap. Also, dead fence posts (which do not grow or move) could be used for gatepost, etc. Since the wire product is strung continuously, the butt-end-of-a-hedge problem is averted.

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Barb wire and electric wire made thorny bushes obsolete, however, nothing has yet to surpass the short, living tree as a support for a fence. 

 

Some general ideas I have about this fence are that one, two, or maybe three strands of barb wire should be used at the bottom of the fence: one strand laying on the ground and one or two going up to about one foot. Going up from the barbwire is regular steel (not high-tensile) galvanized electric fence wire—14 or 14.5 gauge would work fine. I suppose very long lasting stainless steel or aluminum could be used, too. Since you can afford to put a pollarded tree pretty much spaced as close as you want, there is no need for difficult to work with high tensile wire. The barbwire is there to prevent digging critters from entering and helps to get the fence up above most weeds that ground short the electric wire. The electric wire keeps the animals off, and keeps out all sorts of predators, and is very difficult to climb. It is also much more pleasant to work with than barb wire, which could be omitted if digging critters are not a concern.

There are several species of trees that are recommended for this treatment. Many of them aren’t adapted to North America, unfortunately. The North American trees I’ve read that take pollarding well are Beech, Oaks, Cherry, Mulberry, Osage Orange, Willows, Black and Honey Locust, Hawthorn, and Hazel. Unfortunately, many have thorns (Osage Orange, Honey Locust, Hawthorn) or are toxic to livestock (Black Locust and Cherry) or are slow growing (Beech and Oaks) or don’t really like to grow like trees (Hazel). This leaves Mulberry and Willow. I have confirmed that both Mulberry and Willow have palatable leaves, and Mulberry rivals the best of hay for nutritive quality. Both Willow and Mulberry are very fast growing and tolerant of a wide range of conditions. Willow, of course, is more tolerant of wet soil. Mulberry has the added benefit of Mullberries, which are actually okay to eat if you add some sugar and acid to them. If nothing else, they attract birds AWAY from your better berries. My neighbor, who provided the Hedgeapples has also an impressive Mulberry tree and an impressive Black Willow (nice neighbor, huh?). Mulberry grows very well from seed, and unlike its relative Osage Orange, Mullberry doesn’t require the half-year-long weathering process to make its seeds plant-able. In fact, it is such a weedy tree that they randomly pop up in my fields and garden. So does Willow (and Cottonwood). I am going to implement this experiment in the coming year. I plan on using hedges now for interior fencing only. I should have thought of this two weeks ago!

Unfortunately, this will take even longer to establish than a hedge (since the tree needs to get larger), and it might be more vulnerable to herbicide over-spray from your neighbors. It will be necessary to protect it with internal fencing from the animals for a longer time, but since I control where my animals graze very carefully with portable, temporary electric fence, it should be possible. Ideally, by the time the portable fence wears out (about a decade), the pollards should be ready to be strung with barb and electric wire.

Though it doesn’t pollard well and produces no practical edible, the Eastern Red Cedar could possibly be allowed to simply grow normally as a tree and then be strung with wires. They certainly grow from seed well and would have the benefit of not needing to be protected from animals since their foliage is unpalatable. In fact, on a very large farm, where the labor of pollarding would be overwhelming, or on a  farm where set-stocking is practiced, Eastern Red Cedar may be the ideal tree for this scheme.

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The Sun-Moon

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This is facing West, at 7 AM, and that is the moon, not the sun, which had not risen in the East. No modification of this picture has been made. The moon was so bright it cast prominent shadows.

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Doing yourself a favor: Riflescopes

Some of my friends and family are perplexed by my propensity to not only mount a scope on practically every rifle I own that I use regularly, but also by the amount of money I spend on the scope compared to the rifle.

There are reasons for this. The first being that on all but the lowest powered rifles (< 22LR) the practical performance limiting factor is usually eyesight. Another reason is the single focal plane of a scope is far easier and quicker to align with the target than the two focal points of iron sights, and less significantly, magnification of the target can reveal important details about the target that would be otherwise unavailable.

Now, I am well aware that a few folks can shoot at very long ranges very accurately with iron-sighted rifles. I’ve done it. I have found no rifle with as effective sights as the M1/M1A type rifles. There are also “race gun” sights that are explicitly for competitive shooting, like these on my Kimber 82. But the hardware is not what makes this possible; though without good sights consistently good shooting is an impossibility.

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Note the large, effective, and very unwieldily sights of the Kimber 82. Such sights are easily broken or kocked out of alignment. Also note the grooves in the receiver and mounts on the barrel which can be used to mount scopes. 

The people that bring up the matter of “not needing scopes” are usually people that have not seriously tried shooting past 100 yards with iron sights, because if they had done so, they would understand a few things about the matter that would make them re-evaluate their claim. To begin with, the targets used at extended ranges usually feature large, black bull’s-eyes on light colored paper. The target is also perpendicular to the line of shooting and doesn’t move. Because of the ideal visibility characteristics of these targets you can see them very well out to even 1000 yards (where the bull’s-eye is the size of dinner plate). But the field, either the hunting kind or the battle kind, is seldom this way.

Most animals and or soldiers are quite good at making themselves less than ideal targets, and their success depends on it. Even at ranges well inside 100 yards you seldom can get a good look at them, let alone carefully line up the front and rear sights and squeeze off the perfect shot before they move again. If you can’t see something well, you can’t shoot something well. It’s as simple as that, really. So, if your rifle is ballistically capable of shooting accurately beyond 100 yards, and that is pretty much everything except a 22LR or air rifle, the limiting factor to practical performance is YOUR ability to see the target. Scopes improve YOUR ability to see the target, and so help to remove this limitation. This is why scopes are the cheapest way to improve accuracy, too. Given the same ammunition, give me a $400 rifle with a $200 scope over a $6000 rifle with iron sights any day!

Now, there are other benefits to scopes. One is that they have only one focal plane (the reticle or cross-hairs), which is simply placed over the target in order to aim. Compare this to aligning the front and rear sights and then keeping them aligned while placing them over the target. In practice this process is so difficult and slow that handgun shooters (where speed is much more important) focus almost exclusively on the front sight and target and shotgun shooters (where speed is of supreme importance) just glance over the bead and mainly look at the moving target. They are both employing a single focal point to accelerate the aiming process, and sometimes, shotgunners are simply pointing! This greater speed achieved by scopes with a single focal plane goes a long way towards improving the likelihood of making a shot on a slowly moving target, which describes medium and big game hunting well.

Scopes also help you resolve details of the target much better. There have been times when I could see a deer well enough to shoot with iron sights, but at this range (about 150 yards) I couldn’t tell if it was a yearling buck or a doe (yearling bucks have very small antlers). If you’ve already taken a buck, and therefore can’t take another, this means you can’t take the shot, and it may mean you just miss an opportunity (if was a doe). And if you take the risky shot, get the deer, and then realize when you are ten feet away that you just shot another buck thinking it was a doe, you will dread that you are now afoul of hunting regulations, can’t tag the buck, and are in a pickle. A scope with some magnification (even as little as 2x) could have prevented this.

Another matter is that scopes just make for better shooting in every circumstance. Even on my non-hunting rifles I prefer to use a scope. One can’t really assess anything but gross accuracy in a rifle without a scope (unless you have a shooting sled). There are innumerable rifles in this world that have been given the “closet treatment” because “they couldn’t shoot” when in fact the person shooting it was the problem, either because they never mounted a decent scope on it, or because they never cleaned it. I generally laugh at guys on forums or on Youtube that claim sub-M.O.A. groups with a given rifle and there is no scope on it. Even expert shooters using iron sights have trouble keeping sub-M.O.A. with superbly accurate rifles and quality ammunition. People that make these claims are either deceived or are trying to deceive.

Now, do I have a scope on every rifle? No. There are many rifles that don’t take scopes well. I consider this a great demerit to a rifle. While a shotgun or handgun doesn’t have the range to make use of a scope, centerfire rifles do. 22LR is ballistically limited to about 50 yards. It can certainly shoot accurately beyond that, but there is so much drop and wind-effect, it is practically difficult to achieve that theoretical accuracy in the field, but even at 50 yards, a scope is helpful, particularly in dark squirrel woods. I have one mounted on my Marlin 39. High velocity rimfires, like the 17HMR or 22WMR, make good use of a scope.

So, if you are convinced of the practical necessity of mounting a scope on appropriate rifles, one might wonder how to go about it reasonably. I would suggest a few guidelines. One is that you want to keep price in perspective. Really cheap scopes (under $150) may work, or they may not. The companies that make such scopes usually offer little to no support, so if it doesn’t work, or it breaks, you just burned your money. Generally, scopes in this price range are made in China. Some decent scopes are made in China, but country of origin is something that I think is worth noting in riflescopes. Most of the benefit of a scope comes simply from having one. All riflescopes have the advantages of improving visibility and a single focal plane–from the $40 Tasco to a $4000 Savorski–so realize that increasing price is not a linear increase in advantage or performance. In fact, I doubt there is much practical difference at all between a $500 and a $2500 scope, and I’ve looked down a few of them. Now, from about $150 to about $800 you will see an improvement in clarity, brightness (percent light transmission), durability, and customer support (warranties). You may also get features of dubious or genuine merit. I am not at all sold on the supposed advantages of ballistic or illuminated reticles, parallax adjustment (for the average guy), or extremely high magnifications (over 10x). After looking at many scopes, I think the most bang for your buck will be found in the $200-300 territory where there are many good scopes with solid warranties and customer support. Beyond this price zone it is a matter of diminishing returns on performance (with some exceptions), and unlike firearms, scopes do not hold their value well.

Another guideline has to do with the specifications of the scope. First realize that every specification of a scope is a matter of compromise. If you have high magnification, you will have a narrower field of view. If you have generous eye relief, you will have a narrower field of view. If you have a large range of magnification adjustment, you will have a large range of eye relief. A scope with magnification adjustment will have more parts that can fail compared to a non-adjustable scope. Without getting into all the details of scope manufacture and design, you want to keep a principle in mind that you want to have a scope with specifications that overlap with its intended purpose and then choose a scope with those specifications that you think is the best value. A 20x “sniper scope” with parallax adjustment is pretty stupid on a 30-30 WCF lever gun. Likewise, a $200 1-4x scope is pretty silly on a designated marksman’s rifle. In general, for Eastern deer hunting, I am seeing WAY too much magnification out there. I sincerely doubt there is any advantage offered beyond 6 or 7x at the ranges deer are normally encountered East of the Mississippi. The much more common problem is that the deer present at close ranges (like 15 yards) and you’ll point that cranked up scope at them and if you are lucky you will see some brown fur and if you are unlucky, you will see some leaves or bark and desperately swing the thing around looking for the deer through that narrow field of view. I like to keep my scope set at 2 to 3x, at the most 4x, and sometimes I have it on 1x in really close, dark woods. So, for me, a 1-4x scope is perfect. If one were to expect a greater frequency of long range encounters, then perhaps going up the 6x would be advisable. 2-7x and 3-9x are common magnification ranges for deer, though I think they are a bit overkill, thinking them more appropriate for varmints and predators. I like at least 3″ of eye relief at the highest magnification because I don’t like getting a scope in the eye. I also like narrow ranges of magnification so that “eyebox” doesn’t wander all over the place making a consistent cheek-weld troublesome. A popular trend I’ve noticed lately are 1-6x scopes. This is quite a range, and it means that you will basically have to memorize different cheek positions depending on what magnification is set. Also, I know of no place one may hunt deer at night in this country, so what’s up with ads selling illuminated reticles with great big bucks on them? For hogs, or coyotes, or law enforcement/military, yes…illuminated reticles are worthwhile indeed, but not for much else. And a flashlight mounted to the rifle can do a great job for nighttime pest problems (even better: a spotter with the light and a shooter with the rifle).

Now, a few words on the merit of sights. I do not like the recent trend of equipping factory rifles with no sights at all. Sights have three advantages over scopes (other than being much less expensive). They are more stable and durable and less obtrusive. A good quality sight can be set and it will remain “on” indefinitely, even with the bangs and bumps of years of handling. Sights are also less likely to come to harm because they are so small and unlikely to grab hold or bang up on something. Every year I go out a few weeks before deer season begins to assure my scope’s reticle matches point of impact with the ammunition I plan on using, and I am conscientious to handle the rifle with care after that. I’ve had scopes get knocked out of alignment, but I’ve never had it happen to typical small sights (large competition diopter sights are another matter and are extremely fragile!). By far the greatest cause of scopes getting knocked out of alignment is the use of cheap rings and bases made of materials other than steel. Good rings and bases cost a fair price (usually around $20 for a set of rings and $20 for the base(s)). The good brands of scopes often make rings and mounts. I’ve been satisfied with Leupold, Burris, Weaver, and S&K bases, rings, and mounts. By selecting a good scope and good bases and rings, you will virtually eliminate the possibility of loss of alignment from ordinary use, though having sights as a back up in cases of the extraordinary use I consider essential. One can drop the scope on a rock and break the glass, or it could get fouled in the field with little means to clean it. If you keep with you a little hex or torx wrench the same size as the screws used on the rings/base, then you can dismount the scope and continue to hunt with the sights. Usually a little hex or torx wrench costs a fraction of the extra cost of quick-release rings, and standard rings are more durable and less obtrusive.

So, if you are budgeting for a rifle, the leave some for not only several boxes of quality ammo, but also for a decent scope and some rings. It will really get you off to a better start.  I will be featuring some scopes of merit in coming posts, so stay tuned !

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The Osage Orange Hedge

The common name for Maclura pomifera where I live is Hedgeapple, which comes from the fact that the tree was once widely used as a hedge (before barb wire was invented) and has large green fruits that look vaguely like an apple from a distance. They are inedible, or not worth eating, though I have read that they are not toxic. The fruits do make among the finest improvisational targets, being highly visible at a distance. You can read all about the tree, and that is interesting, but I will focus on the few facts that make it a good hedge candidate.

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These are the Hedgeapples I collected last Fall with my family; they are only about one layer deep in my 4×8′ trailer.

First, let’s start with why someone would want a hedge, and even back up more and really understand what an agricultural hedge is. When the word “hedge” is used today most people think of bushes or similar plantings around a suburban home. My parents had both a very old Yew hedge in their front yard and a long “Japanese” Honeysuckle (a plant I now dislike, but didn’t then) hedge in the backyard. They provided a privacy screen more or less and were NOT expected to work like a real fence. They were easily penetrated by children (I did), and I’d imagine just about any farm critter could breach them if desired. I am not talking about this sort of hedge that you trim to look like a topiary. No, I am taking about a thorny tree or shrub that grows thick and low and so provides an impenetrable barrier to livestock. It works like a barbwire fence.

There are a few reasons why I am enamored with hedges. The first is that I am biased towards long term benefits for any given activity. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely erected a woven wire fence around my farm and recommend electric fencing, but ultimately any constructed fence requires two inputs—labor and capital—and is dead and so therefore will  eventually succumb to the ravages of nature and time no matter how well built. The idea of fencing is to get the most utility for the lowest level of input. I sincerely think my hybrid fence already detailed is about as efficient as it gets, but even that fence may only last 15-20 years before it will need to be replaced. By comparison, a hedge is alive, and will last indefinitely with rather minimal labor input. That hedge maintenance labor actually yields firewood, forage, and fence posts as an output quite unlike a “dead” fence, so even this maintenance labor input is rather worthwhile. A dead fence has ongoing maintenance as well, but it yields nothing. It doesn’t really take very long to realize that hedges will always win in the long term vs. anything else.

That said, they do have some weaknesses, and this is why they are not common at all anymore. The major weakness is time. They take a few years at least before they become effective barriers. This makes them “uneconomic” in the short term, and this is why any “real farmer” (a farmer that has borrowed money) cannot afford to wait for them to grow. The second weakness is that they may not be as good of a barrier for excluding some predatory animals, not that most agricultural fences are very good at excluding coyotes, foxes, etc. either. But in theory, at least, at tight wire fence can exclude predators. I thought mine was working until I noticed the neighbors’ dog was digging under it to go on vole hunts (he has some serious terrier in him). It was the one bit where the barbwire along the ground got pulled up (last year by an errant mower probably). Well, I fixed it, and so far so good, but it goes to show you that it is very difficult it not impossible to truly exclude a determined predator with ANY kind of barrier.

My idea with this hedge is to afford it time. Since I’ve erected a fence, I will simply plant a row of Osage Orange trees, and then let them grow into a hedge to replace the fence. I am planting the row a little more than one lawnmower width from the fence on the inside. My thinking is that I will be able to control the weed growth along both sides of the row with the lawnmower at least until the little tress can grow above the grass. Fortunately, Osage Orange is well suited to this regime because it is an aggressively fast growing tree. Perhaps the fastest growing tree in our area. My neighbors all spray herbicide, usually twice a year, and so I continue the spray my fence lines. It is the only herbicide I use, and I use it because if I don’t my neighbors will anyway (even spraying onto my side), and they are a lot messier and use a lot more of it than I do. One of the great merits to am established hedge, is that you don’t need to conduct the annual spray! All you need to do is trim it and keep it mowed so it doesn’t spread laterally too much.

Osage Orange leaves are palatable and nutritious to livestock (unlike Eastern Red Cedar). In fact, when the trees are young, they can be browsed to death. So I will  have to protect them like other trees with a strand of polywire. But once they are a few years old, the thorns on them should protect them from heavy browsing, and enough leaves should be above browsing height. In fact, moderate browsing of an established hedge is good for it, encouraging it to grow upwards. Since I always confine my animals to small paddocks using portable polywire fencing (Management Intensive Rotational Grazing) anyway, this isn’t too too difficult, but it would be for the typical set-stocker of livestock. One shouldn’t set-stock anyway, so let this be one more reason not to.

I consider the fact that a substantial hedge can provide an emergency supply of forage in a drought, too. Of course, you would have to laboriously cut this yourself to make it browse-able, but it is a known fact that feeding many tree leaves to livestock is good for them. In fact, the practice of “shredding” deciduous trees in late summer, after the leaves have done most of their job of photosynthesizing  for the year but still contain most of the nutrients, is still practiced in Eastern Europe I’ve read.  Just another reason why hedges are better than dead fences. This reminds me of something a dog-sled racer once said about snowmobiles: “when it gets bad you can’t eat a snowmobile.” Now the thought of eating a dog will probably bother most folks, and it bothers me, too, but I realize that in an emergency this is an advantage to the dog-sled.  The same could be said, I suppose, about horses vs. an ATV or tractor.

Now for the how-to: Obviously, I could have made many mistakes and the outcome isn’t known yet, but the project has already been underway since the Fall. Last fall my family and I collected as many hedgeapples (the fruits) as we could from our neighbors’ pastures where there are a few Osage Orange trees growing (picture above). These were all placed onto an old tarp in our barnyard where they were allowed to weather. They broke down over the course of November, December, January and February to a sticky mush. We then rolled the sticky mush into a halved 55-gallon plastic barrel and carted them out to where we were going to plant.

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This is the “sticky mush” state before water was added to think it out to a “slurry.” 

We mixed in a few gallons of pond water (I suppose chlorinated water may be less ideal) to make it into a slurry like consistency that would dribble out of a plastic pitcher, which we used to “plant the seeds.”

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Each hedge apple contains approximately a bazzillion seeds, so we planted this slurry thinly into a little “furrow” I made with a subsoiler. You can also do this what the sharp end of a square digging spade.

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This furrow was made with a square shovel and would be appropriate for distances in the hundreds of feet. This is probably and excessive amount of seed per linear foot! But I can always thin!

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Here is the subsoiler method, which is a bit messier (and louder), but makes much quicker work of the job. Obviously this would only work with a small tractor, as a big one couldn’t get that close to an existing fence!

I took my little tractor (this can be done with a shovel much more slowly) and ripped a shallow groove through the sod/soil with a subsoiler a little more than a mower’s width from the fence.

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Then we spooned (literally) the mush into the groove and walked along it pressing it back down. Hopefully these little guys will germinate, and I will mow right along side them to keep the grass at bay. Precision spraying with herbicide may work, too. This is very important, since I think even Osage Orange may be choked out by  Tall Fescue.

Next year I will asses their density. I am planting them anticipating needing to thin them, but I may have to add more. We’ll see. I want a seedling every foot or so.

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The “Best” Whitetail Cartridge

A question that is fiercely debated on the Internet, but really is seldom given a second thought in the field, is the matter of the “best” or “ideal” cartridge for a given purpose.

I’d have to imagine that deer hunting is the most common hunting purpose. The truth of the matter is that often one hunts with what one shoots best and fits the legal hunting rules. Much of the time rules or money or lack of preparation is what determines what gets taken afield, and to be sure, a good shot with a sub-optimal cartridge will be far more effective than a poor shot with the “perfect” cartridge.

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The 30-30 Winchester–the perfect deer cartridge–in my mind at least. Top: factory loaded Hornady 150 Grain Interlock bullet. Middle: 170 grain Speer# 2041 with an impressive B.C. of .298. And below, an empty case to demonstrate the relatively long neck of 30-30. 

I’ve read a great deal of books written by expert hunters. The problem is that most of them are rather contradictory, or their recommendations simply don’t apply to me or my circumstances. For example, Jack O’Connor, perhaps the most storied American gun-writer and hunting-writer, was enamored with the 270 Winchester, which is simply a 30-’06 necked down to .270”. Compared to its parent, it offers better effective range and a flatter trajectory. I would counter that 30-’06 offers more than enough of both in the Eastern United States for all but the most skilled hunters, and double counter that Indiana doesn’t allow one to hunt deer with a .270. The truth is that most medium caliber (.244” to .358”) high-powered rifle cartridges have similar practical performance.

Below are three high power rifle cartridges from the small, medium, and large ends of the medium caliber range, which are appropriate for deer hunting: 6.5×55 Swedish, 30-‘06, and 358 Winchester. These cartridges are mostly going to be found in bolt-action rifles. Keep in mind that as far as hunting performance goes, much more than a half foot of drop becomes difficult to estimate holdover. Ideally, you want the trajectory to result in a point of impact only inches below the point of aim. Also keep in mind the killing power at a given range. There can been too little and too much (excessive meat damage). I have found the Hornady H.I.T.S. calculator to be very good for estimating. Keep in mind, deer are considered medium sized game, with an ideal H.I.T.S. score between 501-900. Obviously, larger deer should be at the upper end of the range, but much beyond 900 and excessive meat damage may be observed.

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The effective range of 6.5×55 is 250 yards; beyond this there is too much drop but plenty of power with a H.I.T.S. score of 884. At ranges inside 100 yards the score is over 1100!

 

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The effective range of 30-’06 is 250 yards; beyond this there is too much drop but plenty of power with a H.I.T.S. score of 814. At ranges inside 100 yards the score is over 900.

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The effective range of 358 Win is 200 yards; beyond this there is too much drop but plenty of power with a H.I.T.S. score of 916. At ranges inside 100 yards the score is over 1000. 

Now we see a couple interesting things here. One is that for the intended species of game, the ideal range for the high powered cartridges is over 200 yards, where a minority of the the opportunities are going to present themselves. It is far more common to have opportunities inside 100 yards, yet at these ranges there is borderline excessive power. Another interesting observation is that the performance is not much different. Yes, the smaller diameter 6.5×55 is better out at 250 yards and beyond. So what? Those are going to be rare shots and possibly hazardous.

Now, the case for the intermediate power 30-30. Take at look at its performance envelope. It is almost perfectly tailored for Eastern Whitetails!

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The effective range of the 30-30 is the same as the much more powerful 358, around 200 yards, and at that range it still retains a H.I.T.S. score of 740. Inside 100 yards it is not overkill, with a H.I.T.S. score of 827. 

What isn’t immediately appreciated by these charts are the numerous ancillary advantages of 30-30. It is ubiquitous and less expensive to buy than the other cartridges here, and it is usually chambered in less expensive, lighter, and faster handling lever action rifles, though it can be found in bolt actions and single shots, too. It recoils less. It isn’t as loud, and the faster propellants in it burn up within a 20″ barrel, while the slower powders in 6.5×55, etc. produce fireballs in this barrel length.

It doesn’t look like much, but in my opinion the 30-30 is the “perfect” Whitetail cartridge, and for a whole bunch of reasons. Don’t let anyone put it down or put into your mind it is “inferior” or other nonsense. Its raw performance for on Eastern deer is perhaps optimal, in fact.

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