Ron Graef would like to see some quail on his new farm in Shannon County, but so far the birds have eluded him. “I’ve got lots of deer, and I’ve got some turkey,” he says. “Quail is what I’m after right now.”
The farm has plenty of open space, and the earthbound birds are abundant in southern Missouri. But when he bought the farm, the vegetation wasn’t very accommodating. Brush, trees and invasive weeds had taken over, and the timber stand on the property was overgrown. Graef knew he would have to put in a lot of work if it was going to be inviting to quail and other wildlife. With the help of an enthusiastic Missouri Conservation Department employee, he’s well on his way.
Graef owns land in Howell and Shannon counties, in the heart of southern Missouri’s forested breaks. Now retired, he lives in St. Charles but says he gets away at least once a week to visit his mother in Mountain View.
“I grew up in St. Louis,” Graef says. “My mother was originally from that part of the country. When property became available I bought my first 40 acres. That was 40 years ago.”
Graef bought the 37 acres east of Mountain View last year. He says buying land in the area was a personal investment.
“I guess I looked at it as a good place to retire,” Graef says. “I’ve always liked to work outside. It was priced right. I’ve had ancestors in that area since the turn of the century.”
An earth contact home on the property was a big selling point. He has plans to put solar panels on the roof—one of many projects aimed at creating a sustainable wildlife-friendly retreat. Much of the work, however, would involve improvements to the property itself.
“I have a farm plan that says I want to work on being self-sustainable and environment friendly,” Graef says. “The property had been run down for quite a few years, so I contacted Mike and we set about looking at it. We decided we could do some woodland management and some things for the wildlife habitat.”
Mike is Mike Gaskins, a private land conservationist with the Missouri Department of Conservation who works out of Eminence. Graef asked Gaskins to help him put together a plan to thin the timber stand and fill the pastures with grasses and vegetation that would be inviting to wildlife. Gaskins was more than happy to help.
“Here we have this piece of land he wanted to manage and he’s kind of unsure on how to progress,” Gaskins says. “When it comes down to it, I work for the landowner in my district.”
Gaskins helped Graef apply for cost-share assistance through the Department, and Graef has been able to do most of the work himself.
He removed much of the brush and cedar that had taken over the fields. He also went after a particularly menacing invader called serecia lespedeza. The tough and woody forb grows 2 to 3 feet high and tends to crowd out other plants. Once established, it can take over entire fields and be very difficult to remove.
“This is not something desirable at all,” Gaskins says. “It produces a lot of seeds, the seeds stay viable for a long time in the soil, and animals don’t eat it.”
Graef applied herbicide, fertilizer and lime to the field and plans to stage a few controlled burns with Gaskins’ help. They have already seeded the newly-clean pasture with oats, orchard grass and clover. Gaskins says the effort changed the character of the field dramatically.
“It went from something that had very minimal value to wildlife to something valuable to both wildlife and to grazing, if he was going to do that in the future,” Gaskins says.
With healthier fields in place, they turned their attention to the surrounding timber. Forests need to be thinned from time to time—a job traditionally performed by the occasional presettlement fire. Unformed, unhealthy or non-native trees can crowd out the healthier ones. Gaskins’ job as a forester is to work with landowners to identify and remove the undesirable trees in order to give the healthier ones room to thrive.
“It’s the same idea as having a handful of seed corn,” Gaskins says. “If you put all of your seed and just plop it down, it won’t produce much corn because there’s too much competition. But if you thin them and give them more space between the sprouts, you’ll get more corn.”
Gaskins encouraged him to apply for assistance through a federal program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.
“He was able to get some money through them and now he’s back in action,” says Gaskins.
Randy C. Miller is the district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and happens to share an office with Gaskins. Miller says the federal programs are sometimes able to provide backup to those run by the state.
“If a project is too large to fund, they’ll refer them to us,” Miller says. “Normally it’s done at a local level. We’re in these field office service areas where a lot of agencies are combined under the same roof. That makes it easier for these landowners to come into the office and get the assistance they need from the same agencies.”
Miller helped Graef qualify for cost-share assistance, which he will be able to put toward tree removal and fence building. The money will also help Graef do some edge feathering, which likely will help attract quail.
“Edge feathering creates a transition from the woodland to grassland area,” Miller says. “The purpose is to create a lot of nesting habitat for the turkeys and the quails. After you drop the trees, a lot of the shrubby-type plants like sumac come in. It kind of creates another area in there.”
Miller says his department’s work with Graef demonstrates the benefits of cooperation between state and federal agencies.
“I think this is a really good example of the two agencies working together to help a landowner accomplish his goals,” Miller says. “I know Mr. Graef has a strong interest in conservation and wanting to improve wildlife habitat.”
Graef says he would do the work even if the money wasn’t there to help, but the real value in working with the Conservation Department is the advice he gets.
“My main objective is to get help from guys like Mike so I don’t make mistakes,” he says.
And of course, to see some quail. With thinner forests and flourishing fields it should just be a matter of time.