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Small Properties and Big Hearts

Nov 13, 2009

Here are a few questions from a dedicated landowner.

Aaron: Thanks for the info.

Can you give us some guidelines for those of us with smaller parcels, say 40 to 80 acres? I know in the overall scheme of things, that's not much. But we all have to work with what we have.

Food plots are pretty simple, but in regards to grass or weeds how small is too small? Is a long but narrow--30 to 50 feet--grass edge wide enough if beside good escape cover? Or are we just making it easy for predators?

In one photo a guy had strips of grass/wildflowers and food plots. How wide should those be? I have a small field with plenty of dogwood thickets. There are so many, it would be hard to plant food plots, unless they meandered narrowly through the field. And if covey headquarters are 1,500 square feet, does that necessarily mean all the shrubs have to be within that area? What if we have a few feet between each shrub patch, like with dogwood. I have a couple of areas where eventually they may form one large patch, but for now they are smaller individual patches, maybe 10 feet in diameter and expanding. I dropped a pine into each one a couple of years ago, so that adds some size. I also dropped some aspen near the same location. Berry canes are also expanding into the area.

Thanks for taking the time to keep this blog going. We all learn. The pictures help a lot too.

Here are a couple comments and thoughts from a landowner with a small property but a big heart for quail.

Small farms can support good quail populations. I've seen several examples of 40- to 80-acre farms supporting three to eight coveys. However, small islands of good habitat are at the mercy of the weather, and a lot depends on what the surrounding habitat looks like. For example, if your neighbors have some good quail habitat, that helps your cause. However, if your farm is the only one in the neighborhood with good quail habitat, chances are you're going to see radical changes in your quail population from year to year. My best advice is to get your neighbor to do some quail work or ask them if you can do some habitat work where they might not mind, like on the property line or an idle field.

Small property owners can have a lot of success with some hard work and good neighbors. Private land quail focus areas--places where several landowners are working together to restore quail habitat--can help!

There's no one magic practice or habitat component for small properties. Quail still need a mix of nesting, brooding and shrubby cover. On small properties that means intensive management since you are trying to maximize usable space for quail.

Think about it. Is it easier to provide adequate nesting, brooding and shrubby cover on 10 acres or 40? The answer is 40 because you have more room to work with. The bigger the property the more room you have for marginal habitat. On small properties it all has to look great.

The small landowner with the big heart should try to provide patches of nesting, brooding and shrubby cover throughout the farm. This often means smaller burn units, micromanaging grassy fields and pampering patches of shrubby cover. This is best accomplished by establishing food plots, field borders or native grass and forb patches and establishing patches of shrubby cover. Prescribed burning, strip-disking and invasive plant control are critical management practices.

Food Plots

Land managers often overemphasize the importance of food plots while overlooking other management needs. Generally, a quarter-acre food plot or patch planted to corn, milo, millet, forage sorghum, soybeans, cowpeas or other grains is sufficient on each 40 acres of habitat. When feasible, long, linear food plots are preferred over block plantings. Long plots (if feasible for your property) help put a little bit of brooding cover throughout the field. Food plots should be at least 30 feet wide and close to shrubby cover. Also consider rotating food strips across the area each year by leaving half of each plot idle and planting the other half. The idle area provides excellent brooding cover. Food plots are most effective when established adjacent to protective woody cover and diverse grass and wildflower stands.

Long, linear food plots next to native grass and wildflower strips provide a mix of nesting and brooding cover. Shrubby cover is lacking in the center of this field. Create shrubby cover by planting shrubs or creating a downed tree structure or two.

Field Borders and Width

The typical “hard” edge between crop fields and woodlands offer little habitat for quail. Establishing native grass and wildflower field borders and buffers or allowing the area to naturally revegetate in grasses and seedy plants provides excellent nesting and roosting cover for bobwhites. Field borders should be at least 30 feet wide and preferably 60 to 180 feet wide. In Missouri, researchers are finding more quail on crop fields with CP33 field borders at least 60 feet. On small properties make sure you have field borders or patches of native grass and wildflowers next to food plots or areas of shrubby cover.

Native grass field borders provide great nesting cover on small farms. Field borders are most effective when they are at least 60 feet wide and close to shrubby cover.

Shrubby Cover

I like to see covey headquarters (shrub thickets) at least 30 by 50 feet in size. They can be bigger if you don't have a lot of shrubby cover in the field. One shrub here and there doesn't provide much cover for a covey.

Let the clump of shrubs grow into one big covey headquarter by killing any fescue, brome or Bermuda grass that's growing in and around the shrub thickets. Next, cut down any overstory trees that might be shading out the smaller shrubs. Finally, protect the future shrub patch (the entire covey headquarter) from prescribed fire or strip-disking. Simply disk around the covey headquarter before conducting a prescribed burn to keep fire out of the covey headquarter. In two or three years you should have a nice covey headquarter. Remember, aim for 10 to 20 percent shrubby cover on each 10 to 40 acres of habitat.

Fix small patches of shrubby cover by spraying out fescue and brome under and around the shrubs. Make sure you cut down any overstory trees. Leave the downed trees for extra cover.

Landowners with small properties can have great quail habitat and good bird numbers. It just takes a little extra work and creativity and hopefully neighbors interested in quail or willing to let you do some habitat work on the property line or on their back 40.

Aaron P. Jeffries

Habitat is the Key!

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