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Native Grass Forage: The Long Road Back, One Step at a Time…

By Dr. Pat Keyser

In working here at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Native Grasslands Management (for nearly a dozen years now), I have focused on trying to develop a body of research that addresses two basic things – how native grasses work in forage production systems and how wildlife respond to them in that setting. Both issues are important from where I sit. If they have no value to producers – as a forage, not as a conservation tool – then it really does not make a great deal of difference how valuable they may be for wildlife conservation. No one will use them. On the other hand, if they produce great forage, but have little or no value for wildlife, then the conservation community may need to look for other places to spend its energy.

On the forage side, we have done a great deal of research, published that research, and have made the results available in popular formats including technical bulletins, web blogs for our Beef and Forage Center, articles in forage trade journals, a large number of training sessions for professionals, and workshops for cattlemen. My goal in all of this is to be sure the forage community understands what native grass forages are, what they are not, how to best integrate them into existing production systems, and hopefully, to de-mystify them. Really, if we can get folks to simply look at them objectively as another forage tool – with their own strengths and own weaknesses – we will have done ourselves and forage producers (in MHO) a good turn. And for the conservation community, this same information will hopefully help us to understand their role more clearly and provide landowners with better information.

Needless to say, this is a long journey. And unfortunately, as I have told many of you through the years, I often encounter cultural resistance to the idea of native grass forages. Maybe it’s like trying to convince a setter man to run pointers, or a Vols fan to pull for Bama? Whatever it is, it can be disheartening. Part of that long road. At other times though, it can be encouraging, when things seem to come together, when there are signs of progress.

Here is a brief story about some of that progress – small steps

Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show “on the cover of the Rolling Stone”

along the road. Maybe some of you are old enough to remember the song about the “the cover of the Rolling Stone,” a strange song about a band that figured they would have arrived, had finally made it, if they could only get their picture, you guessed it, “on the cover of the Rolling Stone” (for all of you young punks out there who have no idea what I am talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ux3-a9RE1Q – 8.9 MM views to boot!)

So when I got an email with a piece on native grasses forages as the lead story of an e-version of a major forage magazine recently, I figured maybe we had finally arrived. Not seriously, just a stray thought in my mind. But how that story got to this magazine is interesting.

Our field tour on native grasses – a producer’s farm where he has been managing switchgrass pastures for about 5 years.

In June, I hosted a professional meeting attended by forage Extension and Land Grant folks across the southeast – a meeting that moves around from state to state each year. As the host for TN, I got to plan the full-day field trip. After having been deep in the Bermuda/Bahia belt for the last 4-5 meetings, I decided I would give them a pretty good dose of native grasses. After all, it was what I have been working on and I have seen very little (none?) of it on the tours those other states have hosted. So we visited several native grass grazing projects and the feedback was very positive. I think these 70 or so forage professionals really enjoyed seeing something different, something they were not that familiar with.

One of the attendees on this tour was the editor of the previously mentioned forage magazine (~40,000 subscribers, mostly serious, innovative, forage growers) who ended up doing two stories based on the conference. One was based on the research that one of my PhD students (Kyle Brazil, a former NBCI team member) is working on – grazing native grasses and grassland birds – and the other on a producer who has been managing switchgrass pastures for several years. (Both articles are posted at http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/manage.htm under ‘Current Articles’.) It was the second one of these that had been sent out on the email version of the magazine. So not only did 70 forage professionals get first-hand exposure to native forages, but two articles were mailed to about 40,000 folks likely to have more than a passing interest in this subject. Not a bad day!

But the fruit from that conference and tour seems to keep coming. Another attendee at this meeting was a colleague from Mizzou. He was interested in our work, enough so to invite me out to Columbia to conduct a seminar on campus that was attended by most of their forage team. That seminar generated some great conversation and I think, gave some of these folks who have worked in fescue for years some food for thought.

One of three experimental pastures established in Missouri

As a side benefit, I got to visit Linneus (Mizzou’s main forage research area) where I got to see the three NWSG pastures they established last year in support of a grazing project proposal we have been collaborating on (an exercise that resulted from my trip out to the Mid-MO Grazing Conference back in 2013 when I set up a side meeting with their main forage researcher).

While at Linneus, I was able to spend a good deal of time with their station manager discussing NWSG forages/management (we will be in very good hands there if the project is able to move forward!). In addition, my faculty host and I conspired to start some native grass forage research at the Beef Unit there at Columbia, work that appears to be moving forward with some help from MDC. Also, as a result of this initial visit, I have been invited back this winter to conduct an in-service training with all of their forage and beef agents.

Like most of you, I seem to spend most of my days stubbing my toes, tearing out my hair, and going through various cycles of despair and hopelessness. So it’s kind of nice to see things work out like this. I guess this is the way we hope this whole system would run. But regardless of the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the road back to a world where native grasses can play a role on our farms is a long one, one that will be traveled one step at a time.

Center Pivot Corners Produce Birds

While enjoying a frigid Holiday season quail and pheasant hunt near Pratt, Kansas, with friends and colleagues Joe and Lucas Kramer, and NBCI grasslands coordinator Jef Hodges, the critical importance of properly managed center pivot corner habitat for upland birds was clearly evident.

We hunted across a vast agricultural landscape of private land dominated by center pivot irrigation, mostly planted to corn and soybeans. The late season hunt produced many birds, much to our delight and that of our Brittany and Boykin spaniels and chocolate lab. The pivot corners were covered in dense native grasses that held pheasants and corners that were adjacent to farmsteads provided the necessary protective cover for bobwhites. The irrigated ag lands provided the necessary high-energy crop residue that the birds require during cold weather.

These pivot corners exist because of the Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practice. Originally established by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in 2004, with the support of NBCI and state agency wildlife professionals, it currently allows enrollment of pivot corners with and without a buffer around a field perimeter. Center pivot corners are now recognized for the valuable habitat they can provide in irrigated farmland regions for the benefit northern bobwhites, prairie-chickens, pheasants, mourning doves, wild turkeys, meadowlarks as well as Monarch butterflies and pollinators, many of which are declining due to widespread habitat loss.

An allocation of 500,000 acres of CRP pivot corners was approved by FSA to benefit wildlife and qualified producers who, in return for enrolling in the program, may receive bonus payments and annual rental payments between 10 and 15 years.

There are many thousands of acres of Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds center pivot corners still eligible for funding by FSA, via the Conservation Reserve Program. This habitat should be on the landscape providing more excellent upland bird hunting opportunities like we enjoyed while in Kansas.

Interested landowners can enroll pivot corners in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program at any time by contacting their local Farm Service Agency office at offices.usda.gov or visit the website at www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation.

Shell’s Covert: The Last Bird Hunter

The year is 2047. The old man, now in his early eighties, struggles up over the ridge top, out of breath and wondering if he’d pushed himself this time too far. Maybe he’d die right up here in these laurels where he’d brought down many grouse and woodcock over the decades before it all began falling apart. That would be an end that suited him. He’d felt alone for so long now anyway save for his dog. The dog kept him going. He just wanted to outlive his last dog so he could make sure the old friend lived out his days in the woods. The thought of himself dying before Buster…well, he would tear up picturing the old fellow wandering aimlessly in the mountains for days until starvation overcame him. So he always quit a little before he was on his last breath.

Of course, what would it matter if they both died right here, right now? Who would care, or even know he was the last bird hunter? His way of life peaked in the mid-20th century, well before he was ever born, some would say. And in spite of valiant efforts by many agencies and non-governmental groups to “save” upland bird hunting, it died anyhow.

At first, there was a lack of birds, and scientists scrambled for a few decades piecing together the whys of the decline. There were many. Some could be addressed … like habitat loss…but in the end the innate quest for expansion by human beings led to increasing pressure to produce food and fiber. And this led to less and less land to set aside to be managed for wildlife.

The production of food and fiber in the best days of bird hunting actually was what produced the highest number of birds ever known…just by accident. And no one could have ever imagined it wouldn’t always be so good. For a couple decades, old bird hunters blamed wildlife agencies and private entities for not caring enough, or working harder, or cutting more timber, or using fire more. Toward the end of their lives though, they came to a sad realization…in all but the most remote parts of our land, or some of the wealthiest, you simply could not manage enough to offset the loss of the accidentally created habitat of yesteryear. The intensity with which land now had to be managed to meet basic human needs left little space for wildlife. But it hardly mattered anymore.

The decline in upland bird hunting…well, all hunting, really…was only partly due to lower game populations. Society changed, slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly every year. Reality became increasingly replaced by virtual reality. The human mind expanded, as the human leg muscle declined. Going outside became something folks did just to get to their newest mode of computer-guided transportation. People could place a device over their faces and experience virtual reality giving them sensations beyond anything they felt while walking through the woods following an old raggedy dog around trying to kill something.

The old man had shut down years ago. He’d seen it coming. At some point, any species that goes extinct first takes a wrong evolutionary turn or two. And, of course, the vast majority of them don’t realize it. He’d realized that the further removed we became from the earth that produced us, sustained us, the lower our chances of ever persisting as a species. He knew it was beyond bird hunting. He finally gave up on cell phones when it reached the point that you had to subscribe to a company and get a new phone delivered every week with the latest installments in order to communicate. The few people who knew him thought he was either very brave, or completely nuts, for venturing more than a few hundred yards from his house without phone communication ability. They had never read about Lewis and Clark, or Livingstone, or Teddy Roosevelt on the River of Darkness.

For a few decades, he’d also made his life working for an agency. He had done all he knew how to do to try to right the ship, so to speak. But he was a biologist, not a psychologist, or an outreach specialist. He’d blamed himself and been blamed by others for not doing enough. He’d lain awake at night for years wracking his brain into a fever…what is the magic bullet? Or how many smaller things can we try to maybe add up to more bird hunters again, more quail, more grouse, more woodcock. Should we use pen-raised birds to promote upland bird hunting? Should we try fall pre-season release on some of our WMAs?

He’d written articles about how to become a 21st Century Bird Hunter. He’d often wished a movie mogul would make a movie about bird hunting similar to the great movie built around a family’s struggles and their love of fly-fishing for trout. After “A River Runs Through It” was released, there was a noticeable uptick in the number of fly-fishers.

He never gave up until the day he retired. They did see some successes, though limited geographically. He’d also seen an uptick in habitat management interest over the years. But this was accompanied by an uptick in the need for other critical agency jobs such as human/wildlife conflict resolution. And he’d seen a continued decline in the number of wildlife professionals per capita in most states. He and all of his colleagues lived the adage “more with less.” He did find some hope in the fact that there were a lot of bright young biologists sharper than he ever was coming along.

But after he retired he reached the conclusion that the best thing he, and all the remaining bird hunters, could do to keep bird hunting alive, was to keep going themselves. To keep talking about it, writing about it, and living it. Every time he saw an old bird hunter hunting alone he’d ask them why they did not try to find a protégé. Every time someone complained to him about how bad things were going he’d ask them “What have you done to help today?” Every time someone saw his dog, he’d tell them not only about the breed, but about its history, and then about the dog’s life itself.

Someone asked him once “Why do you care if bird hunting survives? What’s it matter to you? You have birds now, and a dog, so why waste your time on people who don’t want to live your life?” He touched the young man on the arm softly, then grabbed a bit of the cloth of his shirt, just enough to make sure he was listening and he said “Because I see where we’re headed when it’s gone.”

From the Farmhouse to the Whitehouse: The Christmas Covey Gift

An autumn consumed by personal transition interfered with—well, squashed—any ambitions for bird hunting this season. Thankfully, friends and colleagues have provided tales and pictures of numerous excellent bird hunts for my vicarious fulfillment.

My 2017 ended at Orange Beach, Alabama with parents and siblings, for what is becoming a new family holiday tradition. It’s not Midwestern bird hunting, but it’s still a neat area and a needed change of scenery, with fantastic seafood and no crowds this time of year.

On Christmas Day, I went to Gulf State Park for another long bird walk by myself on the impressive network of trails and boardwalks. The 6,150-acre park protects but provides public access to

Paved trail and boardwalk at Gulf State Park

habitats varying from beach, to inland dunes and swales, to pine forest, as far as 1½ miles inland. The day before, on a different trail, I had seen two medium-sized cottonmouths, and earlier on this walk a fair-size gator greeted walkers and bikers. So when I heard unusual, sustained rustling in the leaves under some brush near a lesser-used trail, I approached cautiously to investigate. Imagine my surprise when a full-size covey of bobwhites exploded from under the brush within 5 feet of me, scattering only a short distance to the ample brushy escape cover!

A network of trails at Gulf State Park provide a view of a variety of habitats.

The covey was only 1 mile by air from the ocean, and the beachfront condominiums were easily visible. I would not have bet a dime on seeing bobwhites in that location. Even though the habitat technically appears suitable, I just assumed the surrounding landscape was too developed and too busy for bobwhites to be able to hang on.

I called the park later and talked with Casey, a staff biologist from Auburn (War Eagle!), who was jazzed to hear my report. She said releases of penned birds are not allowed, and that a persistent population of wild bobwhites can be heard singing all around the park in summer, but that coveys are rarely seen.

When hunting, every single covey of provides a thrilling adrenaline rush; but finding a covey when it is not being sought and is least expected is an extra-special gift. I am banking on my surprise Christmas Covey being an omen for a good 2018!

Shell’s Covert: A Christmas Quail Management Package

Another short but sweet post…

It occurred to me that there are a lot of resources available to people interested in learning more about quail and early-successional habitat management. Many are available electronically and are FREE, but they are scattered across multiple locations. This post compiles links for you (in one document) that will take to you valuable quail management resources. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but these links are some of the best resources in my opinion…and again, for FREE!

Bargain Basement Bobwhites

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bargain-basement-bobwhites-an-affordable-diy-approach-to-managing-land-for-wild-bobwhite-quail/ prepared by Private Lands Wildlife Biologist Justin Folks with assistance from our quail team.

NBCI’s Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Improving and Managing Bobwhite Habitat

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbci-the-comprehensive-guide-to-creating-improving-managing-bobwhite-habitat/ Prepared by staff of various wildlife agencies and NGOs coordinated by NBCI/NBTC.

Bobwhite Basics

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bobwhite-basics-2016/ Prepared by various agency and NGO personnel with assistance from NBCI / NBTC.

Managing Your Pine Forest for Sunlight, Fire and Quail

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/managing-your-pine-forests-for-sunlight-fire-quail/ Prepared by the forestry coordinator of NBCI, Steve Chapman, along with the Forestry Sub-committee of NBTC.

Ecology and Management of Oak Woodlands and Savannahs (PB-1812)

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/ecology-and-management-of-oak-woodlands-and-savannahs-pb-1812/ Prepared by University of Tennessee Extension.

Old Field Management

https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/Old-Field_QW.pdf Prepared by UT Extension Dr. Craig Harper and John Gruchy.

Wildlife Considerations When Haying or Grazing Native Warm Season Grasses

http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-H.pdf Prepared by multiple professors from UT Extension.

This selection provides something for nearly everyone in Virginia in settings from oaks, to pines, and from old fields to pastures. Like most things in life, success depends on personal initiative. But sometimes reading is not enough. If you review this literature and you still have questions, that is what our biologists are for. Contact me at marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov or 434-392-8328, and I will connect you with a highly skilled biologist who is dedicated to helping you. The more homework you do before their visit, the more you will benefit from the visit.

Happy Holidays!