Managing CRP Grasslands for Bobwhite Quail

Important Plants for Quail

As grass plantings on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres mature, changes in plant composition will occur. These changes can have positive or negative effects on quail and other wildlife. Use mid-contract management practices and other wildlife enhancements to maintain the overall best habitat conditions for quail and other wildlife on CRP fields. The following information shows you how.

Quail favor young CRP fields

During the first few years after planting, CRP fields usually produce varieties of planted grasses, legumes, wildflowers and annual seed-producing plants such as ragweed, foxtail and pigweed. Young CRP fields also show lots of bare spaces between the plants. As the grass stand thickens, the legumes, annual plants and bare ground decreases, as does the attractiveness of the field to quail. As long as the field still has a wide variety of plants and bare ground, it can provide most of bobwhite quails' needs, including roosting cover, nesting cover, brood-rearing cover and food. During this stage, quail may not leave the fields except to go to daytime loafing areas or to dense shrubby cover during periods of ice or snow.

Quail will abandon over-mature CRP fields

When the grass begins to crowd out the legumes and annual seed producing plants (usually three to four years after establishment), the main benefit is nesting cover. Once the legumes and patches of bare ground disappear, quail will seldom use the field. To keep quail around, manage CRP field to maintain their habitat needs.

Don't hesitate to ask for help

Lots help getting the right plant structure is at your fingertips:

  • Detailed wildlife management plans are available through your local Missouri Department of Conservation Private Land Conservationist, Biologist or Natural Resource Conservation Service Professional.
  • If you want to plant shrubs, foods plots or do some management, go to your local USDA Service Center to change your CRP contract. CRP contracts will need to be modified to incorporate some of the recommendations listed above, as well as new food plots. Any change from the original contract regarding CRP management or enhancement for wildlife requires a contract modification and approval from the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Provide these five so quail will thrive!

1. Brooding Cover

This is made up of annual plants such as ragweed, pigweed, annual lespedeza and foxtail with little litter at ground level. Good brood rearing cover will have plenty of open spaces at ground level with an overhead canopy of grasses and forbs. An abundance of forbs and legumes will also provide a variety of insects, which chicks need for rapid development and hens need for nesting. Recently disturbed areas typically provide good brooding cover for one to three years. At least 40 percent of a covey’s home range should be in brooding cover. Many CRP fields in Missouri lack this type of cover--and therefore quail populations.

2. Nesting Cover

This type of cover is made up of grasses with the previous year’s litter at least 8 inches tall for nesting building and concealment. Nesting cover should make up of at least 30 percent of a covey’s home range. Clumpy grasses such as native warm-season grasses, orchard grass or timothy are preferred. Quai-nest research in Missouri has shown that quail prefer to nest within 50 feet of an edge. Similar research in Iowa showed a preference for nesting within 80 feet of an edge. Edge is generally considered the boundary between another habitat type, such as a crop field, covey headquarters, pasture, woodland, etc. Sometimes patches of weeds, which serve as brood-rearing cover, may occur in an area of nesting cover and the boundaries between these areas can also be considered an edge. The more edge created within nesting cover, the more opportunities there will be for quail nesting and brood rearing. Strip disking, patch burning, food-plot planting or covey headquarters establishment are some ways to create edge within nesting cover.

3. Roosting Cover

This cover type includes herbaceous vegetation such as ragweed, food plots and recently disturbed grasses at least 12 to 36 inches tall with at least 25 percent bare ground for easy movement. Quail usually do not roost in shrubby cover or woody draws except during periods of ice or snowy weather.

4. Escape Cover

Used daily throughout the year and after snow or ice flatten the grasses and forbs, this cover type includes brushy fence rows, plum and dogwood thickets, edge feathering, downed tree structures (loose brush piles), forage sorghum and broom-corn food plots. Ideally, 20 percent of the home range should be made up of shrubby cover. Shrub thickets, edge feathering and downed tree structures should be scattered throughout and along the edges of grass fields. Missouri research shows that quail rarely venture further than 70 feet from woody cover. Low-growing woody or shrubby cover is often a limiting factor in and around many CRP fields in Missouri.

5. Food

Quail prefer such foods as annual seeds, including pigweed, ragweed, foxtail and lamb's-quarters. During the summer, young quail depend on insects for food. In the winter, quail make use of food plots, especially during heavy snow or ice storms. Milo, forage sorghum, soybeans, millet, corn and sunflowers are good sources of winter food.

5 Habitat Types Every 40 Acres = Quail Success

Quail require nesting, brooding, shrubby cover and food to be close to one another. Try to provide all these habitat components on each habitat parcel of 40 acres or less.

Management

Certain CRP practices require management of the CRP fields. These management activities include prescribed burning, strip-disking and chemical application. Mowing is not considered a management activity. These management activities are called for a few years after the grass stand is planted, when the grass stand is becoming too thick and bare ground has almost disappeared. These management activities will help maintain CRP grass fields at an optimum condition for quail and help provide a good mix of bare ground, cover and food.

Prescribed Burning

Burning during the prescribed dates will remove heavy thatch, set back grasses and encourage wildflowers, legumes and annual seed-producing plants. For best results, burn one-third and one-half of the field in any given year to maintain some nesting cover. A late spring burn is best for setting back cool-season grasses. Late summer through early fall is the best time to burn rank, warm-season grass fields to set back the dominant grasses and encourage more wildflowers and legumes. Contact your local Private Land Conservationist or Natural Resource Conservation Service office for information on how to conduct a prescribed burn.

Strip Disking

Use selective herbicide applications to retard the growth of grasses and to allow other species to diversify the stand. Apply herbicides in strips or portions of fields. Apply herbicides to no more than one-third of each field. Apply herbicides when grasses are actively growing. For the best results, spray cool-season grasses in late spring or early fall and warm-season grasses in June and July. Always read and follow herbicide label directions.

Legume and Wildflower Inter-seeding

Inter-seeding provides a good food source for quail and helps to diversify the grass stand. Conduct inter-seeding in conjunction with a management practice. Inter-seed native forbs at a rate of 1/4 to 3 pure-live-seed pounds per acre. A wildflower mixture containing 10 or more species is best. Non-native legumes, such as annual lespedeza, alfalfa, and red clover, are also good choices for inter-seeding. For the best results, inter-seed grass fields during the winter or very early spring and after a management practice.

Food Plots

Provide a good food source and brooding cover for quail. Food plots can not make up more than 10 percent of a single field or the total CRP contract acres. Food plots should be at least 1/4 acre in size and at least 30 feet wide. Food plots on CRP fields can not be more than 5 acres in size. Try to plant 1/4 acre of food plot for every 40 acres of field. Locate food plots for quail near woody cover, such as edge feathering, downed tree structures, or covey headquarters. Always plant food plots on the contour and avoid areas where erosion is a concern. Good choices for food plots include forage sorghums, milo, millet, corn, soybeans, sunflowers and wheat. A good strategy is to plant grain on one half of the plot and leave the other half idle for a year. The idle half will provide excellent brooding cover and a good source of annual seed producing plants such as ragweed and foxtail. Rotate back and forth every year. Try to minimize tillage in the food plot and avoid the use of herbicides to provide better brooding cover and a variety of seeding producing plants. Reduce the seeding rate by 1/3 to 1/2 to encourage even more annuals.

Shrub Plantings and Downed Tree Structures

Provide heavy escape and loafing cover for quail throughout the year. Manage existing native shrub thickets by cutting out trees and spraying any fescue or brome underneath with a herbicide. Plant shrub islands, or “covey headquarters” (77 shrubs on a 5x5 foot spacing) in grass fields to provide additional escape cover for quail. Good shrub species include wild plum, gray and roughleaf dogwood, hazelnut, blackberry, indigo bush and elderberry. Drag cut trees such as cedar, Osage orange, oak or hickory into open loose piles called downed tree structures to provide immediate escape cover for quail. Covey headquarters and downed tree structures should be at least 30 feet wide and at least 1,500 feet square.

Edge Feathering

Use edge feathering to improve woody cover along the outside edges of grass fields and along woody draws. Edge feathering is a good substitute for planting shrubs around the edges of grass fields. Mature trees and hedgerows along the edges of fields should be cut down and left along the edge of the field. Cut all woody vegetation greater than 12 feet tall and all trees at least 30 to 50 feet back from the original tree line. Make sure to treat the stumps to prolong the value of edge feathering. Before cutting trees, make sure to spray cool-season grasses with an herbicide in the areas where the trees will be dropped. Do not eradicate any grasses established on land enrolled in CRP. Trees that fall on land enrolled in CRP should be pushed to the side.

Bringing it All Together

The key to managing a grass field for quail is to provide the right mix of nesting, brooding, shrubby cover and food in close proximity to each other. A good strategy is to divide grass fields larger than 20 acres into smaller management units and disturb about one-third of the entire field each year. Areas of shrubby cover should be scattered around the edges and if possible, in the middle of large grass fields.

Key Messages: 

Conservation makes Missouri a great place to hunt and fish.

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