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Open Land Quail Habitat Management

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Small Game Committee

Not too long ago, the bobwhite quail was a common by-product of modern land use practices. However, increased industrialization, mechanization, reforestation and urban sprawl over the past 30 to 40 years have greatly impacted quail habitat and quail populations. As current land use practices continue to work against quail, landowners wishing to promote quail on their property must now consciously apply habitat management activities necessary to meet the bobwhite's needs.

Eradicating Fescue

Eradicating fescue and establishing other herbaceous plant species should be a one of the first priorities in enhancing the wildlife habitat. From a wildlife habitat standpoint, fescue is a fairly low quality habitat. Fescue forms a dense sod, making it difficult for small wildlife species, particularly, quail, rabbits, small mammals, and songbirds, to move through and feed in this habitat.

Additionally, fescue is an invasive species that will spread into the surrounding habitats and reduce their quality as well. Finally, most fescue contains an endophyte fungus that is toxic to livestock and wildlife. Animals that consume the fescue generally contract a low grade fever, gain weight more slowly than normal, and may exhibit lower conceptions rates than normal.

Herbicides can be used to eradicate fescue in either the spring or fall when it is actively growing. Prior to applying the herbicide, mow the fescue and allow it to grow until it is about 6 inches tall. Apply a mixture of 2 quarts of Roundup®, 6-7 ounces of nonionic surfactant, and 10 gallons of water per acre to the area. The mixture should be applied with a flat fan nozzle sprayer at 30-40 p.s.i. A few weeks after the initial herbicide application, check the field for any fescue that is still growing. These small spots should be sprayed with herbicide to eliminate any remaining fescue.

After the fescue has been eradicated, there are a number of potential habitat management options. These options are outlined below.

Rotational Mowing

Every farm has areas where mowing is the main management activity. From a wildlife standpoint, maintaining a stand of clover within these areas is very beneficial. To develop a stand of clover in these mowed areas, I would recommend a process called "overseeding". To overseed these sites, you should mow them as close to the ground as possible by late January or early February. Then simply broadcast clover seed (2 or 3 lbs. per acre) over the field. Many farmers will broadcast the clover seed when they fertilize their pastures and hay land in late winter. I would recommend a soil test in areas where clover is seeded to insure that the proper amount of lime and fertilizer is applied for successful germination and growth of the clover seed. The freezing and thawing of the ground should result in good seed soil contact and good stands of clover come spring. Ladino white clover is often used for overseeding, but perennial red clover is also advantageous. Because clover is a legume, remember to inoculate the clover when seeding.

Additional wildlife considerations that could be incorporated into mowing activities include leaving an unmowed strip along field borders, avoiding mowing in the nesting season (April 1st - August 1st), or mowing only certain sections of a field each year.

Field Borders

One of the very best management activities that can be conducted for wildlife species is establishing field borders. Field borders probably come as close to providing for all of the quail's needs as any habitat component. Ideally, field borders should be 25 to 30 feet wide. They don't need to surround the entire field, but should be strategically located in field corners, odd field areas, or along peninsulas of trees sticking out into the field.

There are 3 types of field borders: natural borders, cutback edge, and planted borders.

  • Natural Borders - A natural field border simply implies that a 25 to 30 foot wide strip along the edge of field has been let go to "grow wild". Native weeds, vines, and brambles will soon take over the edge and provide excellent wildlife cover. Maintenance of this type of edge can be done with occasional disking, bush hogging, or herbicide application. Ideally, a combination of herbicide treatments to control invading tree species and occasional disking to encourage annual weeds would be used.
  • Cutback Edge - In situations where it is not practical to take the edge of a field out of production, landowners can use a cutback edge to create a field border. Cutting or removing most tress from a 30-foot strip along a field creates cutback edges. Removing these trees allows sunlight to reach the ground, stimulating the growth of more beneficial plant species for quail. Additionally, this increased sunlight can help improve crop yields along the edge of a field as well. Maintenance would require the use of herbicides or manual cutting of trees trying to reinvade the field border.
  • Planted Borders - Two types of planted borders (herbaceous and shrub) are beneficial for quail. Once again, these borders should be 25 to 30 feet wide. Ideally, landowners would incorporate both types of field border into their farming practices. An excellent field border is created when both types are combined, paralleling each other with the herbaceous planting closer to the open field. If a dense fescue sod is present where you would like to plant a border, eradicate the fescue and prepare a firm seedbed for planting.

Hedgerows

Developing hedgerows within large fields can improve wildlife habitat by providing needed escape cover and travel corridors. While larger wildlife species such as deer and turkeys will sometimes venture into the center of large fields, many smaller species of wildlife, particularly small game, songbirds, and small mammals, don't often use the center of large fields due to the lack of nearby protective cover. Hedgerows help to break up larger fields into smaller blocks and offer wildlife the opportunity to travel from one block of habitat to another without exposing themselves within larger fields. As an added bonus, hedgerows almost always consist of abundant fruit and nut producing species, making them attractive places for wildlife to feed.

  • The best hedgerows are generally at least 30 to 35 feet, connect to other secure habitat types, and dense enough to provide security from predators and weather. Much like field borders, insufficient hedgerows can be easily hunted by predators and may not afford much protection in harsh weather.
  • Hedgerows can be established in the same manner as field borders. Allowing a fallow strip of land to develop into native vegetation is again the simplest and easiest method for developing a hedgerow. If heavy sod is present in the area you want to establish a hedgerow, plowing or disking will break up the sod and allow native vegetation to become established.
  • If you desire to plant a hedgerow, you can simply choose from the same species that would be planted in a field border. When planting a hedgerow, the spacing of the planting will be the same as for a field border. The only real difference is that 2 rows of VA-70 lespedeza should be planted on both sides of the hedgerow with 4 or 5 rows of the other small trees and shrubs planted in the interior of the hedgerow.
  • Maintenance of the hedgerow is the same as that for a field border. Remove undesirable, invasive trees as they begin to grow over and shade out the lower growing vegetation.

Prescribed Burning

Prescribed burning is the controlled use of fire to (1) set back existing vegetation, (2) remove thatch build up, (3) control invasion of woody species, and (4) stimulate the growth of more desirable species. From a wildlife management perspective, especially for small game and grassland songbirds, prescribed burning is an excellent habitat management technique. However, prescribed burning is not without its complications and should be conducted by an experienced prescribed burn manager with the utmost care and planning. As always, follow all applicable laws and contact the local Dept. of Forestry office, Sheriff's office, Fire Dept., and neighbors prior to burning. Additionally, make sure sufficient help and equipment are on-site to take care of fire suppression needs.

A few important considerations when burning for wildlife.

  • Rather than burning one large area, divide the area into sections and burn 1/3 of the sections each year. This system will create more diverse habitat for wildlife, and prescribe burning tends to be more manageable on smaller blocks.
  • Generally, burning every 3 years is best for establishing and maintaining fields with sufficient annual and perennial grasses, forbs, and weeds for quail. However, if you desire to maintain the field in a slightly older condition (i.e., more woody vines and small trees), burning could be conducted every 5 to 7 years.
  • Construct fire line in the fall that way they can be cleared easily of any debris just prior to burning.
  • Fire lines constructed around the perimeter of the area to be burned or around areas within a field that you don't wish to burn can be seeded with a beneficial wildlife mixture. To reduce soil erosion over winter fire lines can be seeded with a small grain. Austrian winter pea and crimson clover also work well in combination with the small grain or as a single planting. In spring, Korean lespedeza and partridge pea can also be planted over the small grain.

Disk Plots

Disk plots are a very easy management activity that can be used to create the weedy habitat conditions so beneficial to quail. Ideally, disk plots should be located adjacent to brushy cover (i.e., soft edges) and should be 3 to 6 acres in size. To manage the plots, you should disk one third of the plot each year. Disking only needs to break up any sod and begin to incorporate the built up thatch into the ground. Don't worry about trying to incorporate all of the thatch and vegetation into the soil. During the fourth year of management, simply start the process over again. Weedy species such as ragweed, foxtail, lespedeza, and others will quickly volunteer in the disked sections.

From a quail management standpoint, disk plots provide excellent habitat. The most recently disked sections serve as excellent brood rearing habitat and due to the heavy seed production by annual plant species, they also produce an abundance of seed for fall and winter feeding. The oldest sections generally possess more perennial vegetation such as broom straw and serve as excellent nesting and roosting habitat. While it is not necessary, you may choose to broadcast a mixture of Korean lespedeza (15 lbs./acre) and partridge pea (2 lbs./acre) onto these disked areas. Korean lespedeza and partridge pea are both heavy seeding annual plants that are widely recognized as providing excellent quail habitat.

Rotational Disking/Fallow Cropping

Disking is probably the most valuable technique used in quail management. Disking incorporates existing vegetation into the soil, establishing and exposing a new seedbed. This new seedbed contains a wide variety of annual and biennial plant species that are extremely valuable to quail. Additionally, disking produces bare ground between growing plant stems. This bare ground is very important for traveling and feeding on fallen seeds.

Rotational disking simply means dividing and area into sections and disking some sections each year. Because we often recommend working an entire area over a 3-year period, dividing the area into sections that are multiples of 3 and disking 1/3 of the sections each year is most often recommend. When disking, I generally recommend long strips about 50 feet wide. This produces the maximum amount of edge for a given area. Rotational disking doesn't require any planting. You can simply disk the strips and allow nature to take its course. Species such as ragweed, lespedeza, partridge pea, beggar's tic, etc... will naturally invade these disked strips. If you desire, you can sow these strips with 8 lbs. of Korean lespedeza and 2 lbs. of partridge pea per acre.

A little more intensive and expensive that rotational disking is fallow cropping. The practice is still pretty much the same rotational disking as you divide the area into multiples of 3 and work 1/3 of the area each year. However, instead disking the strips and letting them go, you plant an annual crop for wildlife in you disked strip. The strip is then allowed to remain fallow for 2 years before planting again. The habitat effect is very similar, but fallowing cropping or fall fielding provides an additional food source.

Fallow Fielding

Another option very similar to disk plots is fallow fielding. Fallow fielding is an excellent way to incorporate dove fields into your quail management activities. Fallow field areas should be about the same size as disk plots. Again, divide the area into thirds and work one third of the area each year. Rather than lightly disking these areas, you will want to produce a firm seedbed for planting. Lime and fertilize the areas as recommended by a soil test (the local seed dealer or Virginia Cooperative extension office can perform the soil test). Planting options are numerous and listed below. The idea behind fallow fielding is to produce a high-quality planting during one year and allow that section to remain fallow for 2 years. This technique is attractive to a wide variety of wildlife species and offers the same benefits of disk plots with the added bonus of the attraction potential of high quality food source.

Fallow Field planting options:

  1. Small Grain (wheat, rye, etc...)
    • Plant - mid-September to mid-October
    • Soil Type - widely adapted, pH 6.0-6.5
    • Broadcast - 120 lbs. per acre
    • Drill - 80 lbs. per acre
    • Season used by wildlife- fall, winter, spring
  2. Wheat/Crimson Clover/Austrian Winterpea
    • Plant - mid-September to mid-October
    • Soil Type - widely adapted, pH 6.5
    • Broadcast - 50 lbs. wheat, 15 lbs. peas, 15 lbs. clover per acre
    • Drill - 35 lbs. wheat, 8 lbs. peas, 8 lbs. of clover/ acre
    • Season used - fall, winter, spring
  3. Buckwheat
    • Plant - late spring, early summer
    • Soil Type - widely adapted to most soils, fertile or infertile
    • Drill - 30 lbs. per acre
    • Broadcast - 50 to 60 lbs. per acre
    • Season(s) most used by wildlife - summer, fall
  4. Millet (Browntop, Pearl, Dove Proso, Foxtail)
    • Plant - late spring to mid-summer
    • Soil Type - well drained soils, pH 6.0 - 6.5
    • Drill - 15 lbs. per acre
    • Broadcast - 25- 30 lbs. per acre
    • Season(s) most used by wildlife - fall, winter
  5. Sorghum
    • Plant - spring to early summer
    • Soil Type - does not like acid soils, pH 6.0 - 6.5
    • Drill - 5 lbs. per acre
    • Broadcast - 15 lbs. per acre
    • Season(s) most used by wildlife - summer, fall, winter
  6. Buckwheat/Millet/Sorghum
    • Plant - spring to early summer
    • Soil Type - widely adapted, pH 6.0 - 6.5
    • Drill - 20 lbs. buckwheat, 8 lbs. millet, 2 lbs. sorghum/ acre
    • Broadcast - 30 lbs. buckwheat, 12 lbs. millet, 5 lbs. sorghum/ acre
    • Season(s) most used by wildlife - summer, fall, winter
  7. Sunflowers
    • Plant - May through early June
    • Soil Type - fertile, well drained, pH 6.0
    • Drill - 25 lbs. per acre
    • Broadcast - 40 lbs. per acre
    • Season(s) most used by wildlife - late summer, fall, winter

Native Warm Season Grass (NWSG) Establishment and Management

Native warm season grasses (nwsg) are historically native to Virginia and when managed properly can provide excellent wildlife habitat for many species, including bobwhite quail. Unlike cool season grasses which show active growth during spring and fall, nwsg grow during warmer months of the year. When properly managed for wildlife, these bunch grasses' growth form leaves open space at ground level, providing mobility for small wildlife and opportunity for forbs to grow. Nwsg typically used for wildlife management in Virginia include big bluestem, little blue stem, Indian grass, eastern gamagrass, and switchgrass. These grasses also have benefits as a livestock forage. Broomsage is a nwsg common on Virginia landscapes that has wildlife benefits but little value as livestock forage.

Nwsg communities can be developed by releasing existing native grasses and forbs (wildflowers and beneficial broadleaved plants) from competition with invasive exotics, or by planting nwsg and forbs into a prepared seedbed.

Several excellent publications are available for more detailed information on planting and managing nwsg and are available from Department offices listed at the end of this narrative.

Restoring Remnant Native Plant Communities Suppressed by Invasive Grasses

In many cases, fields may have a strong component of existing nwsg like broomsage undergrown by fescue and other non-native exotics. Treating the stand with herbicide at the proper time of year can release native grasses and forbs from cool-season grass (e.g. fescue) competition. This is the best and least expensive method when creating wildlife habitat is your number 1 goal. It is usually not necessary to plant native warm season grasses unless you are interested in cattle forage, hay or bio-fuels stands.

  • Fescue is best controlled in the fall*. Burn, graze, hay or mow the field in late August or September in preparation for spraying herbicide. If mowing is used, remove dead plant material that will block herbicide contact.
  • Allow cool season grasses (fescue) to grow 6-10 inches, then spray with 2 quarts glyphosate, 6-7 ounces of nonionic surfactant, and 10 gallons of water per acre, preferably after a killing frost. Spraying at this time will not harm most native grasses and wildflowers since they are already dormant. Cool season grasses must still be green and growing when you spray. Spray on a warm sunny day for best results.
  • Monitor the field for undesirable species (fescue, Johnson grass, serecia lespedeza) and spot spray infestations as soon as possible.
  • Re-treat in spring if necessary.
  • Read and follow all herbicide and adjuvant label directions.

* There are special circumstances that may require spring control. Detailed instructions can be found in "A Landowner's Guide to Native Warm Season Grasses in the Mid-South" University of Tennessee Extension Publication 1746.

Planting Native Warm Season Grasses

Planting native warm season grasses requires care and patience. There are several critical factors to be aware of to achieve a successful nwsg stand:

  • Place seed no deeper than ¼ inch. Some seed should be evident on the soil surface.
  • Ensure that enough vegetation is removed to get good seed/soil contact.
  • Weed control is imperative. Existing sod must be killed before planting. Weeds that emerge soon after planting must be controlled to avoid competition with nwsg seedlings.
  • Seek high quality seed. Purchase seed with high germination rates and calculate the amount of pure live seed in the lot before planting.
  • Be patient! It can take up to two years before a nwsg stand shows its full potential*.

* There are new technologies being used by commercial native warm season grass establishment companies that have taken nwsg planting to a higher level. These techniques include modified equipment not available to the general public except through commercial contracting. The above method can and has worked for folks interested in establishing forages. It works very well from a wildlife perspective. However, if your plan is to grow large volumes of nwsg for cattle forage, or bio-fuels and you do not have 2 or 3 years to invest in establishment, you should consider contracting with a commercial nwsg establisher.

Pure Live Seed: It is important to calculate nwsg planting rates knowing the seed lot's percentage of pure live seed (pls). This can be calculated from the information on the seed tag. As an example, assume a landowner is a beef producer and wants to plant a forage mixture of big bluestem, Indian grass, and little blue stem at a rate of about 9 lbs of pls/acre. The mixture might include 3.5 pounds of big blue stem, 3.5 pounds of Indian grass, and 3.0 pounds of little blue stem per acre. To calculate the amount of big blue stem needed in the planting mix, consider both the percentage of pure seed and the total germination rate. In this example, assume the big blue stem seed is 70% pure and has a total germination rate of 80%. To calculate percentage of pls multiply the percent pure seed by the total germination rate, then divide the result by 100. In this case, 70 x 80 = 560; 560/100 = 56 % pls.

To calculate the actual amount of big blue stem seed to include in the mix, divide the desired planting rate ( 3.5 pounds per acre) by the percent pls (56) and multiply by 100. The result, 6.25 lbs., is the actual amount (the "bulk seed rate") of big blue stem seed material from the seed bag you will need to plant per acre. The same calculations would be made for the Indian grass and little blue stem in the mixture.

Seed Dormancy: Switchgrass and eastern gamagrass seed often have high dormancy rates. If germination rates are above 50%, go ahead with planting. If less than 50%, you can improve germination by "cold-stratifying" or "wet-chilling" the seed to break dormancy. For switchgrass, soak seed in a mesh sack overnight and allow it to drip dry the next morning. Store the seed at about 40-45 degrees F for 30 days. Stir the seed every 3 days to provide oxygen to all of the seed. After the 30 day wet-chill, air dry seed with a fan until the seed flows freely. Plant immediately. Eastern gamagrass requires a 6 week wet-chill and it is more convenient to purchase cold-stratified seed directly from a dealer. If you are dealing with large volumes of seed that are impractical to wet chill and dry, an alternative is to buy the seed during fall and keep frozen through winter with no wet chill. Simply place seed bags in a large freezer unit, off the ground where air can circulate, and where it will stay dry. A locker used to freeze and store meat is ideal.

Planting Dates: NWSG are planted from May 1 through June 30 in Virginia. In the Coastal Plain this date can be extended forward to about April 20. In the Piedmont and mountains the planting date can be extended through the first week of July if moisture is adequate. If forbs are included in the mix seeding should be completed in May. Some forbs used in nwsg plantings are sensitive to Plateau herbicide (including Kobe or Korean lespedeza, sunflowers, coreopsis and others) and should be planted later if Plateau is used. To establish forbs at a later date disc (1 disc wide) scattered strips through the established nwsg, broadcast forb seed, then roll/cultipack the seed. Partridge pea and black-eyed Susan are tolerant to Plateau and can be added directly to the nwsg mix.

Establishing NWSG and Forbs in Cropland

Existing cropland can be converted to a nwsg and forb community using the following steps. This procedure assumes that there is little weed competition within the field, and that the weeds are annuals. If fescue or other persistent weeds are present use the procedures outlined for converting a fescue field.

  • Till the field to create a seedbed suitable for an agricultural crop.
  • Cultipack to firm and smooth the soil.
  • Apply 6-8 oz. Plateau herbicide per acre on the planting day. (An alternative to using Plateau is to use no herbicide. However, if no herbicide is used expect increased weed growth and slower grass establishment. Regular mowing above the nwsg seedling height will be required).
  • Seed with a nwsg no-till drill (available at VDGIF locations noted below) OR broadcast seed. A carrier such as cracked corn, granular lime, or fertilizer is needed to distribute fluffy seed. New varieties of "de-burred" big bluestem and Indian grass seed are available from many companies, but must be asked for specifically and are slightly more expensive. The de-burred seed will work much better for broadcast seeding. (Roundstone Seed Company 270-531-2353, or Star Seed, Inc. 785-346-5447). Note: planting eastern gamagrass requires an attachment suitable for corn since the seeds are about the same size.
  • If seed is broadcast, cultipack the field to ensure adequate seed/soil contact.

Establishing NWSG and Forbs in Fescue, other Monocultures, or Weedy Fields

The following procedure works to establish a native grass community in fescue or other non-native cool season grass fields. These fields may also contain a suite of other non-native exotic species like serecia lespedeza. It is critical that fescue or other vegetation be controlled before attempting to establish nwsg.

  • Burn tall fescue in late winter for a spring kill or late summer for a fall kill. Substitute heavy grazing or haying to remove as much vegetation as possible if burning is not an option.
  • Allow 6-8 inches of regrowth, then spray while plants are actively growing.
  • If implementing a spring fescue kill, spray the field, then wait two weeks and respray or spot spray if there is still green fescue. If implementing a fall kill, spray, then burn in late winter to reduce surface debris. Respray or spot spray in spring if needed.
    Use 2 qts per acre glyphosate (Roundup) plus 6 oz. nonionic surfactant plus ammonium sulfate at 17 pounds per 100 gal. of spray. Use a 10-25 gallon per acre spray rate.
    OR
    Use 12 oz. per acre Plateau plus 2 pints of methylated seed oil per acre.
  • Seed with a nwsg no-till drill (available at VDGIF locations noted below) OR broadcast seed if a drill is not available. Use a carrier such as cracked corn, granular lime, or fertilizer to distribute the fluffy seed).
  • If seed is broadcast, cultipack the field to ensure adequate seed/soil contact.

Seeding Mixture & Rates Table¹

Seeding mixture (lbs PLS per acre) Objectives and Considerations
Wildlife - tall grass mixture
1.5 lb. big bluestem
1.5 lb. Indian grass
1.0 lb. little bluestem
0.5 lb. switchgrass
1.0 lb. native forbs
Nesting cover
Brooding cover
Winter cover
Wildlife - short grass mixture
3.0 lb little bluestem
1.0 lb sideoats grama
0.5 lb Indian grass
1.0 lb native forbs
Nesting cover
Brooding cover
Forage
3.5 lb big bluestem
3.5 lb Indian grass
3.0 lb little bluestem
Hayed after primary nesting season
Imazipac (Plateau) can be used for
competition control
Forage
8-10 lb switchgrass
Wet-chill seed before planting
Seed with conventional equipment
Forage
10-12 lb eastern gamagrass
Buy cold-stratified seed
Plant with corn planter with rows 12-24
inches apart

¹Table information taken from Harper, Craig A., G.E. Bates, M.J. Gudlin, M.P. Hansbrough. 2004. A landowner's guide to native warm season grasses in the mid-south. University of Tennessee Extension. 25pp.

Managing Emerging NWSG Stands

Once nwsg seedlings emerge monitor the site for significant weed competition. Remember, though, that if your primary goal is wildlife habitat, a mixture of native grasses and broadleaved weeds is best. Your goal is a stand consisting of 30 - 50% native grasses, 5% to 10% shrubby, woody cover like plum, sumac, or blackberry thickets, and 30% - 40% broad leaved weeds, such as rag weed, partridge pea, Korean lespedeza, tick seed sunflower, black eyed Susan, and beggarweed. Weed management when establishing wildlife cover may only be necessary in extreme cases. For cattle, hay or bio-fuels stands, weed competition can usually be managed by mowing on an as-needed basis when weeds are about 12 inches tall. Set the mower height above the nwsg seedlings (minimum 8 inches high) to avoid damage to the grass. Do not graze or hay the emerging stand during the establishment year while the seedlings are developing root mass. If the nwsg stand is being used for haying or grazing wait until after mid-June a year after planting to avoid the peak periods of nesting and fawning.

NWSG and Forb Stand Management

Once the nwsg stand has become established it must be managed to maintain the field in early successional habitat. Begin management the third growing season after planting to allow deep root formation.

Treat about 1/3 of the acreage (1/2 if 4 acres or less) each year in a continuing rotation. This schedule benefits wildlife by creating more diversity within the grass/forb community. Burning is the best management practice for maintaining nwsg stands. Other options include disking or haying, or some combination of techniques.