Nit-Picking Habitat Management: Working with What's There
Grass is grass to quail. They don't know the difference between bermuda, brome, bahia or broomsedge. Quail do know good habitat. Good habitat, especially nesting and brooding cover, will have excellent plant structure (i.e. clumps of grass, height, density, etc.) and plant diversity. Ideal brooding cover and nesting cover for quail is best described as scattered clumps of grass, a variety of forbs and legumes, and lots of bareground. Good nesting cover and brooding cover are major components to good quail habitat. The other key habitat type is shrubby cover.
How can you improve nesting and brooding cover on your property? Wildlife biologists usually recommend converting grass fields or crop field edges to native warm-season grasses, wildflowers and legumes. I couldn't agree more. This is a great way to create excellent nesting and brooding cover. The scattered clumps of grass provide idea cover for nests and native wildflowers and legumes usually mean there's plenty of bare ground and insects (brooding cover).
Often we convert fescue, brome or bermuda fields to native warm-season grass by first eradicating the vegetation and then planting warm-season grass and wildflowers. This often involves multiple herbicide treatments and using a no-till drill to plant the seed. This is a great way to improve nesting and brooding cover for quail, but in some cases it is unnecessary. In some fields we should consider working with what's already there.
For example, most fescue fields will have some scattered patches of native warm-season grasses. Why not kill out the fescue and work with the broomsedge and other native vegetation that's already there. Take for example the picture below. This fescue hay field has several scattered patches of broomsedge, big bluestem and some Indian grass (the taller, reddish-brown grass).
As a general rule, if 15 to 20 percent of the field has scattered patches of native grass there's probably enough grass for nesting cover. If I already have enough grass (nesting cover), why should I plant more? In some cases you might want to replant the field to prevent soil erosion or for natural community restoration. However, if 15 to 20 percent of the field is in scattered clumps of broomsedge or other clump grasses it's almost perfect for quail. The picture below is a fescue field with adequate grass cover for nesting. The fescue has been eradicated and the remain grass is broomsedge. There's no reason to replant this field to more grass.
The easiest way to improve a grass field for quail is to eradicate the undesirable cool-season grass in the fall by applying glyphosate and maybe some imazapic (a.k.a. Journey or Plateau). Make sure you graze, mow or burn the field prior to spraying and there's at least 6 inches of new growth on the fescue. Below is a cool-season grass field with scattered clumps of native warm-season. The field was properly prepared for a fall herbicide application. Don't try to spray a field without preparing the field first. Your wasting your time and you'll have to respray the field one or two years later. You might have to anyhow.
During the winter, overseed 1 to 5 pounds of native forbs or 2 to 3 pounds of annual lespedeza. Removing most of the fescue or brome will release any natives that have been suppressed by these sod-forming grasses. However, this is the best time to overseed native forbs or legumes. The picture below is a field at our farm. The field was a mix of broomsedge and fescue. We simply sprayed the fescue a few years ago and then overseeded the field with annual lespedeza and wildflowers. We maintain the field with prescribed burning and spot spraying to remove patches of fescue. Other native grasses such as Indian grass and little bluestem are showing up now that we have removed the fescue.
The following spring, evaluate the field to determine how much unwanted cool-season grass remains. If there's still a decent stand of cool-season grass, consider preparing the field for another fall herbicide application. If you overseeded native forbs last winter, you should wait until after a killing frost before spraying.
What about undesirable warm-season grasses? Sorry, there are no options. You 'll need to spray the field throughout the spring and summer when the unwanted warm-season grasses and native grasses are growing. It's best to reseed these fields with native grasses and wildflower.
Over time, maintain the field with periodic prescribed burns or strip disking. It is also a good idea to scout for reinvading undesirable grasses or other weeds such as sericea lespedeza or teasel.
Working with what's already there is a great way to save money and time. By working with the native vegetation that's already there you can reduce your cost per acre by more than 50 to 75 percent (depending on if you overseed native forbs). Allowing "natural revegetation" in old fields or even crop field borders is a cheap and easy way to improve quail habitat. You only need a sprayer and herbicide. There's no need for a large tractor and no-till drill. Just a watchful eye to pick out those desirable native grasses.
Aaron P. Jeffries
Habitat is the Key!