Building a Bobwhite Factory

By Jim Low | November 2, 2008
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2008

Jeff Churan didn’t know everything about quail management when he set out to turn his Livingston County farm into a quail factory. He still doesn’t. But he is accumulating enough knowledge to draw up a pretty good blueprint for bobwhite success.

Churan is passionate about conservation. He served on the citizens’ committee that secured voter approval of Missouri’s one-eighth of 1 percent Design for Conservation sales tax in 1976. He was a Conservation Commissioner from 1983 through 1989.

Two trips to a Southern quail plantation launched his quest for bobwhite restoration. In 1988 he traveled to the Talokas Plantation near Thomasville, Ga., where he and his companions were thrilled to flush 10 coveys of quail in a day of hunting. A decade later, he returned and flushed 25 coveys.

Talokas had switched from stocking pen-reared birds to managing land exclusively for wild bobwhites. That got Churan wondering if he could achieve similar results on The Cedars Plantation, his family’s farm near Avalon, Mo.

An engineer by profession, Churan is nothing if not methodical. His approach to quail management might be described as tenacious or even obsessive. He set out to turn his 320 acres, plus 40 adjacent acres “borrowed” from neighbors, into ideal quail habitat. The only constraint on his ambitious goal of producing one quail per acre was the same one facing most landowners.

“I have to make the mortgage payment,” says Churan. “Income from the land does that and more. I take what is left and put as much as possible back into management.”

The first thing Churan did was draw a grid over an aerial photo of his farm, dividing it into 10-acre plots. Then he set out to ensure that everything quail need to thrive was available in every plot.

Creating 36 self-sufficient quail mini-habitats took extremely careful planning and lots of labor. Churan and his family have done much of the work themselves. For other tasks, they have relied on a contract farmer.

To ensure that he could show the contract farmer exactly what he had in mind, Churan went back to his aerial map. He created overlays illustrating every management variable—the land’s physical contours and soil types, field boundaries, crop rotations, grass fields and burn plans, food plots, woody cover and more.

Churan used several techniques to break large crop fields and pastures into smaller units and create mini-habitats. He embedded food plots within grassland on the flat upper parts of rolling hills. He also broke up large fields with plantings of gray and silky dogwood, wild plum, blackberry, fragrant sumac, shrub lespedeza and other woody plants. This created miles of high-energy food sources along the edges of quality quail cover. It also helped confine high-impact farming practices to the least erodible areas.

“We planted more than 25,000 trees and shrubs using the pull-behind planter that the Conservation Department loans out to landowners,” says Churan. “We got pretty good at it. If there was a contest to see who could plant the most trees with that piece of equipment, I think we could win it.”

One early innovation at The Cedars was surrounding crop fields with strips of grass at least 50 feet wide. Besides creating cover for quail near food sources, this practice prevents erosion from cropped areas.

“This was the precursor of Conservation Practice 33 under the Conservation Reserve Program,” says Churan. “Some of our other practices, such as lightly disking pastures, anticipated the mid-contract grassland management provisions that eventually became part of CRP.”

Churan has taken a strong interest in developing grassland management strategies that benefit quail. Most of the land at The Cedars that once was fescue pasture now features a mix of warm-season grasses, such as bluestems and Indian grass, plus clover and other legumes. He has his warm-season grass fields on a three-year burn rotation to keep the stands open enough for quail to use, and he lightly disks half of the fields that he burns each year.

“We learned that there is grass, and there is grass,” says Churan. “Quail thrive where there is a diverse mix of habitat types. Our burning and disking arrangement creates six different stages of grass succession. We saw a big jump in quail numbers when we implemented our burn plan.”

Although he believes in the benefit of intensively managed native, warm-season grasses, Churan also recognizes that fescue, an imported, cool-season grass, plays an important role on many farms. So he kept two patches of fescue on his own land where he could experiment with making it more quail-friendly.

“Fescue actually provides excellent foraging for insects—a high-protein food that quail chicks need—when it is mixed with other plants,” he says. “Light disking on our fescue fields has produced a surprisingly good growth of native weeds, such as ragweed, whose seeds are a favorite quail food.”

In the other fescue field, Churan planted shrub lespedeza and blackberries. The thorny vines have thrived, forming thickets in a draw that often holds a covey of quail.

“Of all the plantings we have done for quail habitat, this has come closest to producing covey headquarters-quality habitat,” says Churan.

His dedication to quail management and his meticulous documentation of every facet of his practical experiments won Churan the 2006 Adopt-A-Covey Award from Quail Unlimited. The resulting cover story in Quail Unlimited Magazine fits perfectly with his commitment to sharing what he learns with other quail enthusiasts. Conservationist readers can find his complete quail management plan and progress report online.

Churan recognizes that not everyone will tackle quail management as aggressively as he and his family have.

“You would have to be nuts to go at it the way we do,” he admits. “We do this stuff almost every weekend. But anyone with an interest in quail management can make a difference using the techniques we are developing.”

Although effective quail management is within the grasp of any landowner, Churan says it does require continuing work. “You can’t just write up a plan, cut a few trees and plant some shrubs,” he says. “Quail habitat is dynamic. You have to keep after it.”

Setting up Headquarters

One of Churan’s major focuses is creating “covey headquarters.” These compact home bases give quail everything they need within a few yards of where they hole up at night and during bad weather.

A covey headquarters typically consists of a brush pile or other piece of durable woody shelter that is surrounded by shrubby cover and is adjacent to a food source, such as a crop field. This is Churan’s gold standard of quail habitat.

He initially thought he would be able to create covey headquarters in five years by building brush piles and planting shrubby cover around them. It turned out to be more complicated than he expected.

“We have had almost 90 percent survival of the trees and shrubs we planted,” says Churan, “but for a long time we had to take a weed whip out into the fields to find them. Rabbits and deer kept nibbling them down to the ground. It took years for the plants to bush out enough that the animals couldn’t gnaw on them so easily. Now you can finally look down a quarter-mile stretch and see rows of shrubs and trees poking up from the grass.”

The Churans learned that making brush piles too robust created ideal homes for rabbits. They have reduced the browsing problem by scaling back slightly on brush pile size. They also have discovered that fragrant sumac, rough-leafed and silky dogwood and false indigo are less attractive to nibblers.

Edge Feathering—Covey Headquarters in 40 minutes!

After years of building brush piles and planting shrubs in pursuit of creating the perfect conditions for covey headquarters, Churan discovered the magic of edge feathering.

Edge feathering is widening the sharp edge between forests and fields by felling a few medium-sized trees along the border and leaving them where they fall. Feathered edges are most beneficial to quail when the ground beneath felled trees is open. Churan kills ground-level vegetation with herbicide before starting his chain saw. Edge feathering produced a dramatic jump in covey numbers on Churan’s property.

“You can create covey headquarters-quality habitat with a chain saw in 40 minutes,” he says. “I wish we had started years sooner.”

How to Spell Quail Success

State and federal programs help make quail management at The Cedars affordable. Churan relies on an alphabet soup of incentive programs to get the job done. These include CRP, which provides income for taking highly erodible land out of crop production, and the Wildlife Habit Incentives Program (WHIP), which helps with quail management on acres not eligible for CRP.

The Proof is in the Hunting

To accurately measure hunting success, Churan divided The Cedars into three hunting “courses” of 120 acres each. He records the number of hunts made on each course each year, along with the number of hunters, the number of hours hunted and the number of quail killed. Hunting success climbed as management practices took hold.

In 1998, hunters were finding a covey every 40 to 60 minutes. During the 2005–2006 season, they averaged one covey every 24 minutes. On one hunt, they moved nine coveys in 3.5 hours.

Theoretically, hunters should be able to harvest 55 percent of The Cedars’ estimated quail population—more than 200 birds—each year without depleting the quail population. But Churan says he is less interested in the number of birds bagged than in the quality of the hunt.

“A great quail hunt is one where you find lots of coveys and get to see lots of dog work,” says Churan. “Right now, I can almost guarantee moving six coveys in a two- or three-hour hunt on at least two of our courses. That is a quality quail hunt.”

To maintain this quality hunting throughout the season, he tries to limit the harvest to 30 percent of the area’s estimated quail population annually.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/Editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler