As with most things in agriculture, creating a healthy sugar bush won’t happen by accident.
Although the effects of proper forestry often take a while to manifest, it is worthwhile to manage a sugar bush. Arron Wightman and Peter Smallidge with Cornell University’s Maple Program recently presented a webinar on the topic.
Smallidge said that producers need to evaluate their forests and understand the regeneration factors, including seed source — naturally distributed seeds, planted seeds or seedlings.
Producers should also consider the light their trees receive.
In areas where blue sky can be seen through the canopy, seedlings will grow quicker than in places where they can’t get as much sunlight.
“You need to have some control over sunlight,” Smallidge said. “That is the most important thing that producers and managers need to pay attention to, and that’s one area where we have a lot of capacity to influence success.”
Removing the intermediate levels of vegetation helps sufficient light reach the smaller trees.
“Consider the scale at which you’re working,” Smallidge said. “Think about how big of an opening you’re making in the canopy to get your regeneration to grow quickly.”
Provided the small trees are thriving, maple farmers have more to worry about.
“There are deer and rodents that are more than happy to eat seeds and seedlings,” Smallidge said.
While rifle and archery season help, Smallidge said that “only in rare circumstance can you outhunt a deer population” to prevent it from damaging a sugar bush.
He added that a sugar bush is a special type of forest. While some general practices for managing a woodlot apply, maple producers also must think about the economic return on their efforts and the years needed to begin to see a return on that investment.
“Diversity is important,” Smallidge said. “The greater the variety of tree species, the more you can improve forage health and from an insect defoliation perspective.”
Though a maple producer focuses on sugar maples and red maples, having other trees around helps create a healthier forest.
“Sugar maple is fairly finicky,” Smallidge said. “It needs reasonably moist and fairly fertile soil to perform well.”
When working among the trees for thinning, maple producers must also remove their lateral lines and perhaps their main lines, too, and then reinstall them before the season starts.
Smallidge said that he heard of a producer who said he “thinned his sugar bush” but only cut dead trees.
“That’s not really thinning trees,” Smallidge said.
Once trees are at about 5 to 6 feet tall, deer generally leave them alone.
“That may vary if you have a high density of seedlings and a low density of deer,” Smallidge said. “Or if you’re in an agricultural area, the farmers will ‘feed’ the deer for some of the year. They may stop browsing heavily on the seedings in the 3- to 4-foot range, but they’ll still cause damage.”
He has had some success putting 5-foot-high black plastic mesh around a small area of young trees — with some extra material extending onto the ground and held down by stones to prevent deer from wriggling underneath.
“Deer can jump over a 5-foot fence, but if they see the other side of the fence, they feel trapped,” Smallidge said. “We’ve had success in limiting deer activity in small areas, but we haven’t tested this in longer areas.”
He has also used electrified wire.
“But that may not be enough for a high-value target, like an apple orchard or elderberry,” he said. “This time of year, when fruit are being produced, deer have two things on their mind: reproduction and feeding.”