Managing CRP Grasslands for Bobwhite Quail

Using mid-contract management practices

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 a variety 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 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. But as the grass stand thickens, the legumes, annual plants and bare ground decreases, as does the attractiveness of the field to quail.

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 fields to maintain their habitat needs. Good management tools for CRP fields include disking, burning, herbicide, and grazing. Consult your local Farm Service Agency office prior to management to ensure you remain in compliance with CRP rules.

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, you may need to visit your local USDA Service Center to amend 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

Simply put, good brood habitat is weedy. This cover type consists of annual plants such as ragweed, pigweed, annual lespedeza and foxtail with little litter on the soil surface. Good brood rearing cover has plenty of open spaces at ground level with an overhead canopy of grasses and forbs. An abundance of forbs and legumes also attracts 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. In addition to attracting insects for summer food, the annual plants common in brood habitat also produce an abundance of seeds eaten by quail throughout the fall and winter. Many CRP fields in Missouri lack this type of cover--and therefore healthy quail populations.

2. Nesting Cover

Quail place their nests at the base of a grass clump at least 8 inches tall. During the early portion of the nesting season, they use leaves and stems from the previous year for nesting building and concealment. By mid-summer, they may build nests from the current year’s growth.

Clumpy grasses such as native warm-season grasses, orchard grass or timothy are preferred. Quail 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 habitat types, such as a crop field, covey headquarters, pasture, woodland, etc.

Nesting cover should make up of at least 30 percent of a covey’s home range. Dense patches of grass are not necessary for nesting, and in fact may be detrimental to bobwhites.Ideally, nesting habitat will be embedded within patches of brood habitat. The more edge created within nesting cover, the more opportunities there will be for quail nesting and brood rearing. Strip disking, light grazing, 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. During winter in rolling terrain, quail may select roost sites with a southerly aspect to take advantage of the warming effects of solar radiation.

4. Escape Cover

Used daily throughout much of 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. Five to twenty 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. As a rule of thumb, try to situate escape cover patches no more than 100 yards apart throughout the field to ensure that quail can readily dive into cover if needed. Low-growing woody or shrubby cover is often a limiting factor in and around many CRP fields in Missouri.

5. Food

Throughout much of the year, quail eat an array of annual seeds, including pigweed, ragweed, foxtail and lamb's-quarters. During the summer, quail depend on insects, seeds, and soft fruits for food. In the winter, quail make use of acorns, weed seeds and grains, especially during heavy snow or ice storms. Food plots of milo, forage sorghum, soybeans, millet, corn and sunflowers are good sources of winter food, but they should be adjacent to good cover to minimize exposure to predators and weather. Regular mid-contract management such as burning, spraying, and disking promotes annual food growth in CRP fields.

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.


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 stand-alone management activity, although it is sometimes used in conjunction with those already mentioned to improve their effectiveness. 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 optimal 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 to one-half of the field in any given year to maintain some nesting cover in the remainder of the field. A late spring burn is best for setting back cool-season grasses such as fescue or brome. Late summer through early fall is the best time to burn rank, warm-season grass fields to set back the dominant grasses such as big bluestem and indiangrass and encourage more wildflowers and legumes. Contact your local Private Land Conservationist or Natural Resource Conservation Service office for information on how and when to conduct a prescribed burn.

Strip Disking

Disturbing the soil in a rank stand of grass retards the grass growth and stimulates many species of annual plants important to quail. Strips should be 25 to 75 feet wide, separated from each other by an area of undisturbed vegetation twice as wide as the disked strip. The disking should be 2 to 4 inches deep and leave 50 percent residue remaining on the ground surface. The disked areas will produce succulent forbs and legumes, which attract insects and produce abundant seed, while the adjacent undisked areas will provide nesting and roosting cover.

One year later, disk a new strip of similar width in the adjacent undisked area. This will leave another undisked strip of equal width. Disk it one year later. This method develops adjacent strips of vegetation of three different ages. Wildlife friendly legumes can be overseeded into the disked strips to enhance the benefits of light disking, but it is not necessary to plant anything in the disked strips. Desirable plants are most likely already present in the seed bank and will respond well to disking.

In heavy grass stands, it may be necessary to mow prior to disking in order to achieve good soil penetration and disturbance. In hilly terrain, disking should be done on the contour to avoid causing erosion. Timing is important as well. Disk before February to get the best response from desirable quail food plants such as ragweed. Disking after February usually results in more annual grasses such as foxtail and crabgrass, which are less preferred.

Herbicide Application

Use selective herbicide applications to retard the growth of dominant grasses and to allow other species to grow and diversify the stand. Apply herbicides in strips or portions of fields. Apply herbicides to no more than one-third of each field. Herbicides should be used when grasses are actively growing. For the best results, spray cool-season grasses in late spring or 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 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 interseeding. For the best results, interseed grass fields during the winter or very early spring and after a management practice such as burning or disking has removed dense standing cover.

Food Plots

Provide a good food source and brooding cover for quail. Food plots cannot 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 cannot 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 and herbicide use in the food plot to provide better brooding cover and a variety of seed 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. Plant shrub islands, or “covey headquarters” (167 bare root shrubs on a 3x3 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 cover at least 1,500 square feet. Whether establishing shrub thickets, managing already existing thickets, or building downed tree structures, it is important to control any sod forming grasses that occur in the understory. Grasses such as bluegrass, tall fescue, and smooth brome compete heavily with young shrubs and choke out other, more desirable plants. Use a herbicide as necessary to control these grasses.

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 a 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, throughout the middle of large grass fields.

3 of 10 - Important Plants for Quail

You can help attract bobwhite quail to your land by planting shrubs that create food and shelter for quail. This video shows you how.
You can help attract bobwhite quail to your land by planting shrubs that create food and shelter for quail. This video shows you how.

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