Can you have too much grass on your property? If you’re trying to manage your land for quail then the answer is, “Most certainly.” And if your farm is east of the Flint Hills (average annual rainfall about 30 inches), there’s a pretty good chance that you do.
“What’s this?” you say. “I thought quail needed grass.” Well, it’s certainly true that quail need some grass as part of their habitat, but, through research, we know that they don’t need as much as many folks think. We also know that their populations can decline when we have too much of it.
Before we get into discussing how much grass is needed, it’s worth mentioning that not all grasses are equal in providing quail habitat. Most of you probably know that biologists aren’t too keen on fescue for wildlife. Fescue not only outcompetes and chokes out most other plants, but it tends to form a fairly continuous sod, with no space between plants to facilitate movement or foraging. A much more desirable growth form is provided by most of our native warm-season grasses, such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass. These grasses’ stems and leaves emerge from a clump then arch out to provide a protective overhead canopy.
Another factor that determines the relative worth of a grass for quail is its resistance to lodging. We’re not talking about an aversion to motel stays here. Lodging is the tendency to fall over and mat, largely in response to winter weather. Most of our native grasses have plenty of lignin in the stems, making them stand up well even through snow and ice storms. Many introduced grasses, on the other hand, lodge badly under similar conditions. As you might imagine, standing grasses have more value for roosting and nesting than those flat on the ground.
So wouldn’t we rather have a field full of native grass than a field full of fescue? Yes and no. Yes, we’d rather have native grasses than fescue. But no, thank you, we don’t want a field full of it. Field research into habitat preferences throughout the bobwhite’s range indicates that populations typically do best in areas with reasonably sparse grasses. One study in Texas found that quail nest productivity was greatest in areas that had 400 grass clumps per acre. That’s a lot, right? Well that amounts to only about one clump per 100 square feet, or one clump in a square 10 feet on a side! In the more arid westerly parts of the bobwhite range, managers might struggle to achieve this grass density, but here in Missouri with our greater rainfall we have to fight to keep it from getting much thicker than this.
If native grasses have good structure for quail, then what’s the big deal if we have a lot of (often only) grass? Several problems can arise. In the absence of management to remove accumulated thatch, rodent populations often soar, in turn attracting lots of predators. These rodent-seeking predators aren’t food snobs, though. They don’t mind snacking on quail or quail eggs. Another problem with heavy grass cover is a loss of diversity. Have you ever noticed that quail populations peak two to four years after a field is taken out of crop production and planted to permanent cover? That’s because during these years the field is weedy, with dozens of different plant species present, and the planted grasses have not yet matured and filled in. Simply put, bobwhites thrive in diverse plant communities. In between our scattered grass clumps, lots of weeds, shrubs and bare ground are what we’re after.
So what should you do if you now realize that you’ve got too much grass? If your land is enrolled in CRP, take advantage of mid-contract management options such as disking, burning and herbicide suppression. These tools can greatly reduce grass dominance, produce bare ground and promote plant diversity (weeds!). If you’re not in CRP, you can use the same aforementioned tools, but also consider light to moderate grazing. You might also interplant strips of food/cover plots (for example, milo, alfalfa, sunflowers, etc.) or just strip disk heavily through the grass stand and let it come back in annual weeds and scattered grasses. There are many ways to get there, but your ultimate goal as a quail manager should be high plant species diversity rather than uniform fields of grass.