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Thrifty Quail Habitat Management

Aug 20, 2009

Idle areas were periodically disturbed with grazing or rotational crops--ideal quail habitat. Today, those brushy draws have grown into trees. We have larger, cleaner crop fields, and most pastures are intensively grazed or are too short to provide nesting cover. Idle areas are constantly mowed or have grown up in trees. Progress has been good for the farmer but not for Mr. Bobwhite.

Today if you want quail, you must create and manage quail habitat. We can recreate brushy draws and weedy fields, but it takes work, time and money. Creating and managing quail habitat is already challenging and high fuel, fertilizer, herbicide, seed and equipment costs have created another obstacle for those interested in quail. However, with every challenge there is an opportunity or an innovative way to work around the issue. Here are a few ideas on how you can save money and still create quality quail habitat on your property.

Follow the Plan and Think Ahead.

Rushing your work or not following a biologist’s wildlife plan may mean a failed project or higher costs. Not spraying invasive grasses at the right time of the year or the prescribed number of treatments, for example, can result in having to re-spray the field one or two years later. You should also plan ahead. Like a construction contractor, a private landowner or biologists creating quail habitat must think of everything they will need for the project and what can go wrong. Trust me, something always happens. Follow the plan and think ahead.

Skimp on Food Plots.

Planting food plots is fun and provides good brooding habitat for young quail. Establishing food plots requires equipment and can be expensive because of seed, fertilizer and herbicides. To save money, plant only half of the plot and leave the other half idle. Don’t disk or mow the idle half. In the fall, don’t plant it to winter wheat either. On small plots (less than 1/4 acre), idle the entire plot and disk every other year. The idle area will grow up in annual seed-producing plants, which will provide food and cover for quail and other wildlife. Also consider reducing your seeding rate by a third or half. The lighter seeding rate will provide more room for desirable seed-producing plants, which are just as good for quail. Forget spraying herbicides if there isn’t a bad weed problem in the food plot. In many cases the “weeds” are just as good as the planted crop.

Top picture is corn planted at half the recommended rate and with a light herbicide application to control some of the seedy plants. Notice the abundance of pigweed and foxtail in the corn. Bottom picture: An idle food plot provides good brooding cover and food the following year. Idling plots cuts your costs in half!

Reduce Native Warm-Season Grass Seeding Rates.

If not required by a conservation program, consider reducing native warm-season grass seeding rates to no more than 3 to 4 pounds of Pure Live Seed per acre. The lighter seeding rate will leave more room for annual seed-producing plants and bare ground--the stuff quail like. If possible, plant the shorter native grasses like little bluestem and side oats gramma. These grasses tend to be less competitive than the “big” native grasses and thus leave more room for native forbs, legumes and bare ground. Another option is not even to plant warm-season grasses at all. I’ve seen numerous old fields in Missouri that only needed an herbicide application to eradicate tall fescue or smooth brome. If there are already scattered patches of broomsedge or other native warm-season grasses, skip the headache of planting more grass and work with what’s there. Remember, quail don’t need a lot of grass for nesting. Sorry, you’ll have to start over if the field is heavily infested with nonnative warm-season grass like Bermuda grass.

Learn to Burn and Burn Safely.

The best quail management tool is prescribed fire. No other practice is as cost-effective as prescribed fire. Learn how to use it correctly and safely.

Enroll Your Crop Field Edges into CRP!

Research has shown that crop field borders enrolled in the conservation practice known as CP33 provide more than just habitat; they also save the farmer money! Studies completed by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri have shown a positive economic return to enrolling field borders into the CP33 practice, better known as “Bobwhite Buffers.” Researchers compared crop yields, commodity prices, operating costs and soil rental rates to determine the economic value of installing CRP field borders. Even with high-commodity prices the economic benefit is higher on crop fields with buffers than those without. If the economic benefit isn’t enough, biologists monitoring quail densities have seen a significant increase in quail densities on crop fields with CP33 field borders than on those without.

Forget the Mower and Save Fuel.

If done improperly or at the wrong time of the year, mowing and haying will destroy quail nests and young. If possible, limit mowing to fire lines and trails or for preparing an area for another management practice. You should especially avoid mowing or haying entire fields. If you must, try to leave at least a third or half of the field unmowed for nesting cover. Remember, prescribed burning and light disking are better habitat management tools.

Grow Native Shrubs.

Instead of buying and planting shrubs, work with what’s already there. With a little work and patience, you can grow a small thicket of wild plum, dogwood or blackberry into a perfect covey headquarter for quail. If the shrub thicket is infested with sod-forming grasses like fescue or brome simply spray with glyphosate in late October. If the shrub patch has an overstory canopy of trees, simply cut down the trees and leave them where they fall. If the shrub thicket is too small (less than 1,500 square feet), disk around a 30-by-50-foot area (encircling the small shrub thicket) and protect it from prescribed fire for a couple years. In a couple years you will have a wonderful covey headquarter at little or no cost.

Managing existing shrubs is cheaper than planting. Protect small covey headquarters from fire to let them grow. Let the fire run through shrub thickets once they reach a good size.

Expand Your Quail Management.

Way too often, we turn our back on managing woody draws and woodlots for quail. Instead of burning up to the edge of a small woodlot or woody draw, consider burning through it. Burning these areas will help control taller woody vegetation and expose bare ground. I even burn through areas I’ve edge feathered so I don’t have to recut the same areas again. Not to worry, there will be plenty of small trees, shrubs and tall weeds that provide adequate escape cover for quail in the feathered edge. Not all woody draws and woodlots are the same, so check with your local biologists first to see if prescribed fire is feasible for your woods.

In the picture above we burn the warm-season grass field, edge feathering and woodlands in one big burn. Fire helps maintain the edge feathering and improves the woodlands for quail.

Double Stack Treatments.

Most of Missouri is blessed with fertile soils and adequate rain during the growing season. The end result is thick grass and very little bare ground for quail. Instead of just burning a grass field, consider burning and then lightly disking a portion of the field to really set back the grass. Other double stack options include prescribed fire and an herbicide application, prescribed fire and managed grazing and a herbicide application and light disking.

image of tractor and field

First burn the field then strip-disk it to further set back the grass and encourage annual seed-producing plants.

Scout for Invaders.

Sooner or later, invasive plants such as sericea lespedeza, Bermuda grass or tall fescue will invade even your best quail habitat. Take a walk around your farm, preferably in the spring and summer, and look for invading plants. Remember the locations and come back at the right time of the year and spray with the appropriate herbicide. Ignoring invasive weeds when there are only a few plants will cost you even more in a couple years when you have a big problem.

Rent or Borrow Equipment.

Having good equipment is a must if you want to effectively manage your property for quail. My top five “must-have” pieces of equipment are a good tractor, disk, sprayer, chainsaw and drip torch. I’d like to buy more, but I’m “thrifty.” Instead of buying new equipment, you can rent equipment from your local soil and water district, Conservation office or even rental store. You can also buy good used equipment at a farm auction or estate sale.

Help Thy Neighbor.

I’m amazed by the amount of habitat work one person can accomplish. I’m even more amazed by what a team of landowners can accomplish. Call your neighbors and see if they are interested in quail habitat management. See if they want to work together. A small patch of quality habitat is good, but more is even better.

Stocking Quail vs. Habitat Management.

Captive-reared quail do have a place in the quail world, and that’s for training dogs, special youth hunts and if you plan to repeatedly hunt the same property during the season. Quail stocking to restore a population doesn’t work, and research has found stocking (regardless of the method) is very expensive. Research from the southeast United States on popular release systems and preseason stocking found it can cost as much as $74.53 and $42 respectively for each quail harvested! Spend your money on quail habitat management. If you plan to use captive-reared quail, make sure you have the correct permit.

Forget about Predator Control.

Quail are near the bottom of the food chain, and nearly everything likes to eat quail, including me. Many people think controlling predators will mean more quail for them to hunt. This isn’t necessarily true, nor is predator control effective. Several studies from the southeast United States have shown that predator control is generally ineffective, very costly (up to $30,000 per year for some quail plantations) and even harmful to quail. For example, two studies in Texas concluded that removal of coyotes and bobcats could increase predation on quail by more serious nest predators such as fox, skunks, raccoons and snakes. So how can you combat predators and help quail? Simple, improve habitat by creating good nesting, brooding and woody escape cover.

Try Managed Grazing.

If utilized properly and with habitat quality in mind, cows can be a wonderful management tool for bobwhite. Cows can create a mosaic of different habitats that we can not replicate with fire or disking. Grazing also adds another level of complexity to your wildlife plan, so use with caution. Make sure you consult with someone who understands grazing and quail habitat before starting.

Patch burn grazing on a conservation area in west-central Missouri. Patch burn grazing creates a mosaic of nesting and brooding cover for bobwhites and numerous grassland birds.

Understand the Different Conservation Programs.

Federal and state agencies and conservation groups offer cost-share for creating or maintaining quail habitat. The single best source of financial assistance will be the 2008 Farm Bill. Many programs have sign-up periods and special requirements and policies. Talk to your local biologists or visit your USDA Service Center to learn more.

Managing your land for quail can be fun and rewarding. In many cases management must be completed each year. As a result, costs can add up quickly. However, landowners can still be thrifty and maintain high-quality quail habitat.

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