Expect a little extra crunch under your feet while walking through the woods this fall.
While Boone County row crops suffered from summer drought, mast crops — walnuts, hickory nuts and, most notably, white- and red-oak acorns — are looking good.
“When you’re in the timber and you can’t hardly put a foot down without stepping on an acorn, that’s a pretty good mast crop,” said Fred Crouse, a retired forester and 33-year veteran of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
An eight-county area that includes Boone County experienced the biggest increase in acorn production in the state this year, according to a recent report by the conservation department.
The conservation department surveys thousands of oak trees statewide to produce a yearly report on the acorn crop using a production index that ranges from one to 300. Last year, red oaks in an eight-county area north of the Missouri River showed a production index of 122, and white oaks showed an index of 91. This year those numbers are up to 173 and 179, respectively, which means increases of 42 percent and 97 percent.
Acorn production by red oaks in the eight-county area that extends Missouri’s eastern border is up 30 percent from the average over the past 45 years; white oak production is up 43 percent.
People with oaks on their property may be surprised to see so many nuts after such a dry summer. But when David Gwaze, a resource scientist for the conservation department, combed through 45 years of mast-crop data and compared it to precipitation data, he found that rain and acorns likely don’t have much to do with each other.
“When I did my analysis, I didn’t find a correlation between rainfall and mast production,” he said.
Woods full of nuts often have more to do with warm springs without late frosts, scientists believe.
“The flower setting and pollination all take place earlier in the spring, and we did have a pretty good spring,” said Tim French, central region forestry supervisor with the conservation department. “Even though we had a summer drought period, it didn’t measurably affect the production of fruit.”
Acorns and other mast crops are a vital food source for wildlife. While larger animals like deer and turkey often supplement their diet with crops from farmers’ fields, smaller animals such as squirrels and field mice can depend on mast crops to make it through winter. Many birds, including wood ducks and red-headed woodpeckers, also count on acorns for nutrition.
White-tailed deer will be taking advantage of this year’s bounty of acorns.
“Deer favor the acorn over everything else,” deer biologist Lonnie Hansen of the conservation department said. “Deer will eat any of the oaks, but they prefer white oaks. If you find a white oak that’s producing well, that’s probably a good place to hunt.”