“Hell, I wouldn’t get up and walk across this farm road to shoot a deer” said dairyman Jack Farmer, Pulaski Co. Virginia, sometime about 1978. I reckon I was about…well, heck, I was 16 and I lived to hunt, fish and trap everything legal. But my big thing was deer. A small group of fathers and sons, our “hunt club” chased rabbits and squirrels when deer season was out, but deer was our “big deal” each year. That is for all of us except a few. I found out one day what they really lived for.
Now don’t start writing me hate mail. The white-tailed deer is a magnificent animal and perhaps America’s favorite. But not everyone lives to hunt deer. Bud Smith was another member of the “5 Bs” hunt club who cared nothing about shooting a deer. During the deer season he stayed at the old cabin, stoking the fire and “partaking” of his “snake bite medicine” from time to time. He was as tough as a 2 dollar steak – a paratrooper in the Korean War and a line foreman for Pike Electric back in the days when they ran power lines through the roughest of the Appalachians. He wore a waxed handle bar mustache on his face and a greasy “Caterpillar” hat on his head. He could knock an ant off a log with a spat of Redman tobacco juice from 15 feet.
Jack Farmer was, indeed, a farmer, and the one who owned the land where our club hunted. He would visit us from time to time and we always showed our appreciation with a hefty, hot, “meat on your bones” kind of meal any evening he’d happen to drop by. Good Lord, I can still smell those old cast iron long pans heating up on the Coleman!
One evening the subject of quail came up. Now you’d think these two tough old weathered workmen would laugh at a quail, but when several of us mentioned we’d been flushing a couple coveys while walking to this spot or that, their eyes lit up and reflected a lot more of the fire we sat around.
“You say ‘quail,’ boy?” Jack asked. “Yes sir, must a been 15 or 20 of ‘em in a covey up by the pine thicket in the brushy field to the left of the old house,” I replied. “Yep, and I flushed another bunch back behind the barn along that old fence line yesterday” David added, “Come to think of it, there may be two coveys in there because I found another bunch up in the chinky pin patch Monday.”
Bud looked at Jack, and Jack back at Bud…”How’s about 1 o’clock?” “It’s a plan,” Bud replied. Nothing more was said. Shortly after lunchtime the next day Jack showed up in his hunting coat and brier pants. Bud went into the back room of the cabin and soon came back in his Carharts carrying his beloved Browning “Sweet Sixteen.” I always wondered why he brought that shotgun. I soon came to know it was built for birds.
Jack looked at all of us and said, “Now y’all hunt all you want this afternoon, but you stay away from those quail coveys on your way in and out.” Jack and Bud set out, no dog, just the two of them, both looking years younger. All afternoon from about anywhere any of us hunted back in the woods, we could hear the occasional “pop, pop” of those shotguns.
As we returned one- by-one after dark that evening, each of us was greeted by the sound of laughter filtering out with the lantern light through the cracked cabin windows. Bud and Jack had been back since about 4:30. Their quail, about 6 or 8 of them, were lined up on the front porch rail for all to see. And inside they sat glowing and telling bird hunting stories and laughing like teenagers who’d gotten away with something. I was only 16, but even I knew something special happened that day. And I knew there was something special about those little birds.
Bird hunting was already on the beginning of the down slope in ’78. And it was the age I call “the rise of deer.” Today, I often hear people say of bird hunting it is “a sport of the rich, only doctors and lawyers and wealthy entrepreneurs hunt birds anymore.” One recent new bird hunting magazine described itself as “an elegant lifestyle magazine.” Well that may be true, and I have nothing against money or people who have worked hard to earn it no matter how much they have. But I do want to convey that there used to be a lot of “Working Joe” bird hunters. And there still are quite a few. And if you have never hunted wild upland game birds like grouse, or quail or woodcock on their turf, let me tell you there is nothing dainty about it.
One look at Jack or Bud and you would have known better than to ever say that, too.
I undertake this topic with some trepidation. We discussed quail population management two blog posts ago and I hope I gave everyone a basic understanding of the dynamics involved within different levels of quail populations.
Of course, it’s hard to know how to manage a quail population without some knowledge of just how many coveys you have, or to carry it even further – what your quail density in birds per acre is. This discussion can quickly devolve into one that’s like trying to talk about tree density versus trees per acre versus basal area with a forester – none of it means anything to a landowner unless they can visualize what is being said. I struggle with how to best convey a practical method of quail population estimation suitable for the average landowner.
Several levels of population estimation need to be addressed:
1) you simply want to know if you have quail at all
2) you don’t plan to hunt your quail, but you would like to know if the habitat work you are doing is leading to a trend of increasing quail numbers and quail use of your land
3) you own a relatively small property (250 acres or less) and you would like to hunt it occasionally
4) you own a larger property and want to have an idea how many coveys you have and how many quail you should harvest annually
5) you manage a large quail plantation and it is critical to have a pre-hunt fall density estimate for your population.
We could come up with many more variations of these scenarios, but these will address most of your needs.
Case 1 – You simply want to know if you have quail:
For the complete bobwhite quail novice, you first have to become familiar with their songs and calls. Go to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab’s website at the link here http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/northern_bobwhite/sounds . Familiarize yourself with each of their calls. They’ll come in handy regardless of how intensely you want to get into population estimation. In case 1, you can determine if you have quail by listening for singing male bobwhites during June. They call well between sunrise and about 9:00 a.m. typically. Listening on days with nice, clear, still mornings is best.
Case 2 – Is your quail population trending in the right direction?
First, face some cold hard facts. If you own a small piece of land, perhaps less than 50 acres, maybe even 100 acres, there are only so many quail coveys you can pack into that area. It can vary based on what type of landscape your property exists in, but by-and-large once you reach a covey per 25 to 50 acres, you’ve done about as good as you are going to do. So if you started off with no quail, and you now have 2 coveys on 50 acres, you’ve done well. Your goal now is to manage and maintain the coveys you’ve developed.
The “June Call Count” is one way state wildlife agencies keep track of quail population trends over large areas (such as entire states). A “trend” gives no true estimate of quail density (coveys per unit of area, or quail per acre, etc.). A trend is an indicator of whether a population is increasing, decreasing or stable. For example, you purchase 1,000 acres of land and want to manage it for quail and other early-succession species. You’d like to track the population trend through time. This is relatively easy to do by setting up a June whistling male bobwhite call count. Get a good aerial photo of your property and set up listening points periodically in easily accessible areas. Try to keep the points at least 600 yards apart to avoid double counting (generally during summer a bobwhite song can be heard up to 250 - 300 yards).
Begin your count at sunrise on a good, still, clear morning. Listen for 5 minutes at each stop. Record the number of different males heard making the “bob, bob, white” call at each stop. It is best to run the route several times each year and get an average of the number of bobwhite males heard at each stop. The first year serves as your baseline. It will take several years to establish a trend. Through time you will be able to tell if your population is increasing, decreasing or stable. Do not let one “bad” year throw you. Anomalies occur in nature. Plot your numbers through time and focus on the overall trend.
Case 3 - The owner of a small property who would like to hunt it occasionally:
Some consider “small” properties for quail those being less than 2,000 acres. That is not practical for many. I use 250 acres as my criteria. On properties of this size, and maybe even up to 500 acres, I believe landowner “familiarity” is a relatively reliable way to track the number of quail coveys each year. By this I assume you are a landowner who spends a great deal of time on your land. You manage it, you know the cover, you develop a feel for what quail need and where they are and during any given year you have a good feel for productivity.
Was it a good hatching year? Did you receive good rainfall during June, July and August? Or did you suffer extreme drought? Did you experience any heavy flooding events during peak times when young broods would abound (late June, July and into August)?
By early fall, you probably have an idea about how many coveys are on your property and perhaps even have a feel for the size of those coveys. The one thing you have to use care to avoid is double counting coveys. Coveys do move around, so when you see coveys on different days in different locations that are relatively close to one another, you can’t be sure they are not the same covey. In your case, though, as long as you do not want to hunt frequently you can safely take some quail off your land during all but the worst years.
Estimate the number of coveys and use an average size for each, generally 12 to 15 birds, calculate the total and use 20% as a general guide on the number that can be safely harvested during all but the worst years. And by “worst years” I mean those summers during which you believe reproduction was slim to none.
Recent research suggests that harvest of adult bobwhites during seasons following years of poor productivity could slow population recovery (Miller et al. 2012). If you want to get any more precise than this, you might consider using the fall covey count method I will describe for Cases 4 and 5.
Cases 4 and 5 – Larger properties that will be hunted moderately or frequently:
I lumped these two categories because they involve either large properties where intense familiarity with the entire property is unlikely, or larger properties which will be hunted moderately to frequently.
For my purposes I consider 1,000 – 3,000 acre properties as “large” relative to most others in the mid-South. But the fall covey count method I refer to can be applied to larger properties up to 15,000 or 20,000 acres if resources and time are available.
The fall covey count method was tested and perfected by researchers at Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida (Wellendorf et al. 2004). I will not try to describe it in detail here. But it basically involves assessing your property, developing a series of listening stations designed to cover as much of the property as possible without too much overlap, and then using them to listen for morning covey calls in early fall (mid to late October usually).
As with many surveys, it is best to run the survey at least 2 times and preferably more if resources allow it. In my opinion, the fall covey call count is the most reliable way to accurately assess fall pre-hunt quail populations on larger land holdings. If properly applied, it can allow a property owner to practice “adaptive harvest management,” meaning that harvest rates can be modified annually based on pre-hunt fall population levels. It is applied extensively on some of the premier quail plantations in the Deep South, and has been used to assess the effects of large scale government habitat cost-share programs across multiple states. The method is described in great detail on the Tall Timbers website at http://www.talltimbers.org/gb-fall_densities.html .
I’ll wrap up by saying the more you know about the quail population on your land, the better you’ll be able to manage habitat and harvest. I hope this has at least provided you a place to start.
Miller, R.S., W.E. Palmer and S.D. Wellendorf. 2012. Age-specific nesting performance by northern bobwhites. Proceedings of the National Quail Symposium 7:229-233.
Wellendorf, S.D., W.E. Palmer, and P.T. Bromley. 2004. Estimating calling rates of northern bobwhite coveys and measuring abundance. Journal of Wildlife Management 69:672-682.
Thickets, weeds and brush
Please do not rid your farm of us.
And in the fall when your bush hog is itching for a ride,
Within your barn let it continue to reside.
Else it will be to no avail
The Bobwhite will cry and wail:
“Where else am I to hide
When by the predator’s beady eyes I’ve been spied?”
“And, alas, where will I loaf about
When July’s blazing sun comes out?”
“Without these wonderful and diverse plants
My fragile bones will soon be picked clean by ants.”
Happy New Year to all of you!
Please excuse me the brief foray into poetry. I heard Dale Rollins, communicator extraordinaire, recite a similar verse about Broom Weed in Texas this summer at the annual National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting. Sometimes a few simple words can have an impact.
I start off the New Year again emphasizing that the importance of thickets to the long term survival of quail (and dozens of other organisms) cannot be overstated. Lack of thickets is consistently what I find glaringly absent on most farms where “quail management” has occurred. I also find that many landowners believe they have done a ton of work and should have more quail, but what I often see is that they simply do not have enough habitat to support many coveys.
And while on the subject of thickets, hunters participating in Virginia’s annual avid quail hunter survey last year reported that 58% of their covey finds occurred in cut-overs (clear-cuts). Indeed, cut-overs often provide the only good thicket cover in many landscapes.
But as with agriculture, forestry has become more intense to keep pace with an ever- growing demand for wood products. And as it has intensified, the value of the wildlife habitat that cut-overs provide has declined. I’m not pointing fingers at an industry – we all play a role as consumers, too. What has long been termed “clean farming” is now being seen more often in forestry.
In the “old days,” new cut-overs were most often windrowed and burned. Both practices were fantastic for wildlife. Modern forestry rarely uses either technique anymore. Advancements in timber harvesting and processing techniques have allowed cleaner harvesting and more thorough processing of material on site, leaving little debris to windrow and burn. And advancements in herbicides have led to even cleaner cut-overs than ever. This is not in and of itself a bad thing. Soil is conserved, and water and air quality are improved. Better use of material means less waste. I don’t think we will go back to those old ways. What then can be done to improve the modern clear-cut for wildlife?
First – as the landowner you should know that you have options and “a say” in how your site is managed after harvest. I fear all too often the landowner gets a standard forestry prescription and doesn’t know they have wildlife options.
Now please understand … if maximizing your profits from the future timber is your primary concern, by all means listen to, and do, what your forester recommends. They are good people just trying to do a good job for you. But if you have wildlife interests, make sure they know that. Request that a wildlife biologist also be brought into the planning.
If your goal is to re-plant with a pine species like loblolly, short-leaf or long-leaf pine (or others conducive to fire), consider getting the site harvested with future understory burning in mind. On our own small stand of pines at home, when conducting our second thinning, we let our consulting forester know we would like to do some burning in the future. He laid out our haul roads to double as future fire lines. In addition, he requested that the cutter harvest a strip all the way around the stand so that perimeter fire lines could be constructed easily.
If you’re going to clear cut and you plan to re-plant with pines, consider long-leaf as a good option if you’re in long-leaf range. Long-leaf can be managed with fire at a very early age. In fact, it benefits from it. It is also generally grown at a wider spacing than traditional reforestation pines like loblolly. That means it closes canopy later so provides a longer term for early-successional habitats (weeds and thickets). Short-leaf pine also offers some advantages – consult a local forester and a wildlife biologist to indicate interest in non-standard forestry applications.
Brood rearing habitat
Regardless of type of pine to be planted, consider the following if at all possible:
1) Have a site preparation burn conducted – it scarifies (activates) seed long dormant in the native seed bank.
2) Do not replant pine up to road edges. Leave 25’ or more on each side of all major haul roads. These can be rotationally managed (disking, planting and or fire) to provide good bugging and winter feeding areas as the pines age and close canopy.
3) Consider planting no more than 435 trees per acre – this is a10’ x 10’ spacing. At this spacing, some manipulation can occur between pine rows (light disking, and or legume planting) until the pines reach canopy closure.
4) Wildlife clearings should also be made at this time. I know one landowner who cleared 100’ for every 300’ of planted pine throughout his cut-overs. These now serve as excellent summer brood rearing and winter feeding strips within a context of older, thinned and burned pines.
5) When considering pine release herbicide application, opt for herbicide solutions that will leave more plant diversity (particularly those that are friendlier to blackberry and legumes).
6) After release spraying has been done this summer, survey the site for residual herbaceous plant survival. If you do not find ample native plants and legumes returning, i.e., beggar weed, partridge pea, native lespedezas, poke weed, ragweed, blackberry and others, you might need to consider planting these species along road edges on old logging decks and anywhere feasible.
7) As ground cover between the pine rows begins to thicken and become mostly grass, consider some rotational strip disking between the pine rows. Disking need not be too heavy, only enough to break the soil and bigger clods. This will help maintain annuals like ragweed and many legumes, providing bugging areas during summer and seed gathering areas in winter.
I’ll leave this at the lucky 7. For comprehensive pine management information go to our web link http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/quail/managing-pines-smaller.pdf .
And remember, invite a wildlife biologist to your forestry planning meeting.
I’m often asked, “Since quail are declining, and you are all working so hard to restore them, why do you still allow quail hunting?”
This question often comes from landowners who participate in our quail recovery efforts but do not hunt. However, even some hunters question us. Books have been written on the subject of wildlife population management. It can be made to sound real complex in a hurry, but that is not my goal. In this article I want to give you a basic understanding of quail populations, and how to view their management at different scales. To do this, I need to lay some groundwork.
Let’s think about populations. They occur at widely varying scales. In descending order we can refer to the quail population as the entire population of bobwhite quail throughout their native range, or a population within a given region – such as the Southeast, or within a given state (in our case Virginia), or within a physiographic region of a single state, or within a single county within that region, or within a few thousand acres within a county, or on one single property of say 500 acres … and then we could even state “the quail population within a single quail covey’s home range (let’s use 50 acres – a good average range size for a covey in moderate habitat). So to say hunting does or does not affect a “quail population” depends greatly on how you define the population.
To answer the original question, I will use the quail population within Virginia – the entire state. At that level I can safely say hunting has no impact on the quail population. Why? Because there are so few remaining quail hunters in Virginia – about 8,000, that they cannot possibly harvest enough quail to affect a population that large (we estimate between 300,000 and 400,000 quail in Virginia – based on NBCI Biologist Ranking Information and habitat interpretation).
We also know that hunting is not the driving factor behind the quail decline. We know this because many other species that are not being hunted at all, birds like field sparrows, prairie warblers, grasshopper sparrows, Logger-head Shrikes, Henslow’s Sparrows and many, many more, are also declining rapidly. And while other factors may be contributing, habitat loss is the number one reason for the declines.
Further, we can say that when quail populations decline beyond a certain level, interest in hunting them declines even more than the species itself. It is the law of diminishing returns, below a certain threshold, hunter success is low to non-existent, thus in this way quail hunting can be loosely called “self-regulating.”
I will say that I believe, and some may dispute me, but I believe this logic is valid right down to the level of a group of properties comprising a few thousand acres within a portion of a single county. Or down to the level of one large property of a couple thousand acres. And I believe that once you are considering a quail population below that level, hunting can indeed have a negative effect on local quail populations over the short term, and even over the long term if combined with random events during the reproductive season like drought.
You might ask then, “Well, if that is true, that quail hunters cannot impact the quail population in Virginia, why have a season or a bag limit at all?” Public perception is one reason. It would be viewed negatively to be trying to restore a species with a perception of "unlimited" hunting. And the seasons and bag limits can protect quail at the local level.
For example, suppose a group of two quail hunters hunts a single property repeatedly. During mid-season they encounter two coveys of quail, each containing about 8 to 10 quail. Let’s say for some reason they shoot exceptionally well and they harvest 6 quail out of both coveys (I know some hunters who can do this – 3 each out of 2 coveys).
They have reduced these individual coveys down to such a low level that their survival chances are poor. The daily bag limit of 6 per hunter in Virginia in this case would limit the number of additional coveys that could be “shot down” in numbers that particular day. And at the local level – by ending the season before late winter – it’s possible to insure the survival of good numbers of quail entering the breeding season in early spring. A quail that is alive at the end of January has a much greater chance of surviving to reproduce than a quail alive at the beginning of November.
And studies have shown that the later in the season quail are hunted, meaning the closer to the breeding season they are removed from the population, the more negative the effects of hunting can be. And I believe this is particularly true at a local or small property scale and perhaps most true on small parcels of state game lands with no special quail management regulations in place (hunting is not more restrictive than general state guidelines).
For example, say you are managing a modestly sized wild quail plantation – 2000 acres. Your best bet will be to take a conservative approach to harvest with regards to what is allowed by state regulations. In your case, state regulations should be thought of as the most liberal side boards available. As a landowner, you are not allowed to set regulations on your property more liberal than those allowed by the state agency. But – you are allowed to set regulations as restrictive as you like – up to and including not allowing hunting. I am a proponent of hunting, and am not advocating the elimination of quail hunting. So let me explain where situations might merit more restrictive harvest.
Example 1 – You manage your own property of 250 acres. You are highly familiar with it and each year, simply by spending so much time on it, you know approximately how many quail coveys you have. You know during severe drought years that hatch can be negatively affected. And you know the years when conditions are perfect and you have a great hatch. You are in a position to limit harvest based on the number of quail you believe you have. You can change the harvest levels every year if you wish. During the worst years, you can allow no harvest at all. During the best years, you can allow more harvest.
“O.K. – well how much?” you ask. Good question. Various percentages of harvest have been postulated over the years as being “safe” – meaning no adverse affect on the population’s ability to recover. I have seen a range of from 20% to 40% stated in different scientific papers. I prefer to go conservative with harvest, so we’ll use 20%. Suppose you have a good year with 6 coveys of quail on the property. Entering the hunting season you estimate an average of 14 quail per covey. That’s 84 quail of which 16 quail would be 20% - that is about 2 to 3 out of each covey. That level of harvest could provide 2 or 3 memorable hunts. But as you can see, repeated hunting of these 6 coveys over a long quail season would not be advisable. Back in the “good old days” when many farms had at least some quail cover, hunters might have 6, 8 or 10 such farms upon which they hunted. By rotating their hunting effort and paying close attention to the numbers of quail within the coveys, many of those hunters knew how to limit their own harvest. The last thing a good quail hunter wants to do is “shoot out” a covey.
Example 2 – You manage a 2,000-acre wild quail hunting plantation for a small group of quail hunters. The property is very well managed and the quail population is high relative to other properties in the area. During the best years, you may have a quail covey per 30 acres going into the fall hunting season. That is 66 coveys of quail. At 14 per covey entering the season, you’d have 924 quail, and 20% of that could provide a harvest of 184 quail. That is a pretty good bit of wild quail hunting.
Example 3 -- Let’s say, though, during a very bad year, perhaps one following a severe winter, followed by a disastrous drought during June and July, and then by late summer hurricanes that flooded out late nests and your production was near zero. You may be down to a handful of small coveys – maybe 15. During years like this you should consider walking behind your bird dogs without a gun, or at most a very limited harvest early in the season. The good news in this case is that quail can bounce back rapidly if conditions the following year are good again.
If you really want to apply what biologists call “adaptive harvest management” – meaning harvest levels are tailored every year to annual conditions and population levels, you can learn how to more accurately estimate your quail population just prior to the fall hunting season. Next month’s Shell’s Covert will address this in more detail.
Busting the “busting myth:” “Say whaaaaatttt?” Well, every quail biologist has heard the following at least once in their career. “You know you got to shoot into those coveys every year to help break them up. If you don’t’ shoot a few birds, especially the cock birds, those coveys won’t break up and breed like they should.”
Never has a more untrue and ridiculous notion been postulated about quail management. Let’s think about this – whether you take a strict Biblical view, or whether you adhere to the Theory of Evolution, or fall somewhere in between, quail have been around for a long time - long before shotguns and bird dogs. Quail are programmed to disperse during spring and breed. They absolutely do not have to be “shot into” for this to happen.
“Tragedy of the commons” – the worst case scenario for quail: One great thing about America, a lot of public land is available for all of us to hunt, fish, hike, bird watch and camp on. We are truly blessed compared to many other nations. But with an ever increasing human population pressures on those lands is increasing. From the standpoint of quail harvest management, let’s think about Example 3 – public lands quail harvest. I will use a 2500-acre public wildlife management area, managed for multiple-use with fair quail cover over about half its acreage. There are no special quail regulations in place on this area.
At 8:30 Friday morning a group of 4 quail hunters and 5 dogs hunts the area, finds 3 coveys of quail and kills 8. They leave for lunch. At about 12:30 a second group shows up, unknowingly hunts the same area, finds some scattered singles and kills a few of them. About 3:30 that afternoon the scenario is repeated, then again Saturday morning and so on until hunters toward the end of the season complain about there being no quail on the WMA. It is easy to see that unregulated harvest on small public lands can be detrimental to local quail populations.
Quail hunting is a great tradition that should continue. And we can all do a better job of managing the quail resource. I will leave you with this – the better the habitat and the more of it you have, the faster quail can recover from population lows regardless of the cause.
Property assessment is critical to success in wildlife management. And your best bet is to always contact a wildlife biologist, preferably one who is knowledgeable about the species you want to manage for (don’t be shy – ask!!!), and have them visit your land with you.
I mentioned last month being able to envision your land at the macro-scale. That’s step one. Now, it’s time to delve into what you have at a smaller scale. Late summer into early fall is a good time to look at things up close. By now we are starting to see a bit of a break in the heat and soon we will have more pleasant days for rambling around the farm.
Late summer, early fall quail habitat
By mid-August many quail friendly plants are blooming. Numerous legumes (nitrogen fixing plants) are flowering at this time of year, and most (but not all) legumes are good for quail. When evaluating your fields, you might see partridge pea’s bright yellow flowers and distinctive leaflets. Beggar-weeds (desmodiums) are another quail favorite. They generally have nice purple flowers and, if past the flowering stage already, you may notice the developing “stick tight” bean pods they are notorious for.
Butterfly pea (Heather Henkel, USGS)
Partridge Pea (Craig Harper, UT)
Prostrate lespedeza is a low growing, trailing legume common in good quail country. Butterfly pea is another vining bean that used to be common along fence rows. And if you
don’t find any ragweed on your land, chances are you do not have enough bare ground or bugging area for quail chicks (if you aren’t sneezing you aren’t in quail country).
The bottom-line is if you are not familiar with these plants and many more, you have not done your quail homework. Find yourself some good plant ID booklets and meet the biologist half way. You should also remember to get good aerial photos of your land. These are available in many places, the USDA Service Center for one, and now easily obtainable through a variety of mapping programs such as Google Maps™. When the biologist visits, remember to take a notebook, too. While they may draw up a nice management plan for you, your interest and attentiveness is important. And when YOU write something down, you’re much more likely to remember it.
When evaluating your land, you may find thick stands of fescue that need eradicating. Or, you may find a lot of good plants that are rendered useless for quail by being under grown with fescue. Fall is a great time to start killing fescue so formulate a plan. No offense to our farmer friends, but while fescue is often needed as a cool season cattle forage, it’s bad news for early-succession wildlife like quail. And, even from a cattle rancher’s perspective, total reliance on fescue, or any cool season forage, is a recipe for disaster during drought years.
There is more than one way to effectively kill fescue and methods can vary so check locally … but this recipe generally works well. The idea behind fall herbicide application is that fescue is growing nice and green during fall, when many other things begin to go dormant. Herbicides applied this time of year are actively taken into the root system and held over winter allowing them more time to be effective. And fall spraying allows a spring spot check and follow-up if needed before further management.
It’s best to burn the field off before spraying, but thorough grazing or haying can also be effective at removing thatch before herbicides are applied. Depending on where you are, this should be done in mid- to late September to mid-October. If you’re renovating a field that already has a good stand of native grasses, warm season grasses may still be green into early November. In this case, a good rule is not to spray over them until right after the first frost date in your area.
Burn before spraying
A note on burning: fescue may become too green to burn off prior to spraying in fall. When using fire as a precursor to fescue spraying, it may need to be done in late summer when the fescue is dry enough to burn. Bush-hogging can be used as a last resort to prepare for spraying. If this is the method you will use, bush-hog thoroughly, making several passes to cut up the thatch and chop up the clippings and distribute them evenly rather leave it in piles or “wind-rows” that block herbicide contact with re-growing fescue.
Once you have burned, hayed or bush-hogged, allow the fescue to re-grow for 7 to 10 days. It will grow well, as fall is when it perks up. It may even grow well after a mild frost. At this same time the legumes, native grasses and other beneficial quail plants have gone dormant. If you are a small landowner with a relatively small field and no equipment, you can use your lawn tractor to mow thoroughly before spraying.
The spraying itself can be done by a contractor. Many farm supply stores offer the service, and their contractors are excellent. The rates are reasonable and often government cost-share programs can assist (if you need financial assistance, check with the biologist and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservationist -- and make sure you are signed up and APPROVED for a project before proceeding).
Or, if you farm and have equipment, by all means do it yourself. If you are a small landowner with nothing more than a lawn tractor, don’t despair. Most lawn tractors have the ability to pull a small trailer, or pull-behind sprayers. My father-in-law purchased a 25-gallon spray tank to place in his small pull-behind yard trailer. He uses this for spot spraying, but these small tanks also come with boom attachments that can be highly effective for spraying small acreages.
These small rigs generally cost between $150 and $400 and they are well worth the cost. They can double as good spray rigs for keeping forest roads clear, or be used for spot spraying around field borders and more. And it’s much easier to spray once than to have to mow or chain saw numerous times. I worked with a state park manager once who rigged his own boom on a small UTV and we were able to cover as many as 4 or 5 acres effectively. The same can be accomplished with a reasonable lawn tractor.
Small sprayer for lawn tractor
No matter what you spray with, make sure you have enough tank pressure and your nozzles are set such that you get a true “spray.” You don’t want large droplets, as they roll right off the leaves and a lot of herbicide gets wasted. You don’t want an overly fine mist either, as it is prone to drift. Experiment using water until you get it right. It’s common sense, just like when your bathroom showerhead is set properly, you’ll know it.
Several mixtures can be used, but the most commonly used herbicide for fall fescue eradication is one containing glyphosate (Roundup™, RazorPro™, etc.). Once the fescue has re-grown adequately to insure good herbicide to leaf contact, apply 2 quarts per acre of a glyphosate herbicide along with a good surfactant. Many herbicides come pre-mixed with surfactant now.
The spraying should be done when the plants leaves are dry, winds are low to nonexistent, and at least a couple hours before rain is expected …and, critical in the case of fall application, AFTER the beneficial plants have gone dormant. Glyphosate is readily available, cheap and effective, but it is a broad-spectrum herbicide, meaning it controls many species of grasses and forbs, and is not selective. Dormancy of beneficial plants is the key to using glyphosate during fall.
Most native grasses and forbs have set their seeds and gone dormant by mid- to late October. This varies depending on where you live, and again, it’s common sense. Go look. In the case of annuals like partridge pea, once they have set their seed, meaning the seeds have developed all they are going to and the pods have hardened, nothing is lost by spraying them.
Native warm season grasses (broomsedge, big and little bluestem, purple top, etc.) should be dormant, too. The key is to look for the absence of green leaves. If spraying is timed right, you can really hammer the fescue without unduly harming beneficial plants. There are exceptions. Some wildflowers have a basal rosette growth stage (mostly biennials like Black-eyed Susans, Primrose, and Indian Blanket, and a few perennials like Lupines) that can go unnoticed when scouting unless known to exist by their flowering form.
If the field in question contains large numbers of beneficial wildflowers having a basal rosette growth stage, then a grass selective herbicide can be used instead of glyphosate. The active ingredient sethoxydim is a grass selective herbicide that will effectively control fescue. It is found in products like Poast™, Poast Plus™, and Sethoxydim G-Pro™. It can be purchased in small quantities under the brand name Arrest™. Regardless of the herbicide used, follow all label directions for application.
Once the spraying is complete, sit back and enjoy the fall and winter. Next month, we’ll talk about spring follow-up management – which includes more scouting and patience, patience, patience. Remember, “quick fixes lead to long-term problems.”