Beltway Bobwhites: NBCI Plans Study of Federal Ag Programs’ Impact on Upland Game Bird Habitat


Bobwhite Chick (MDOC)

With the 2014 Farm Bill nearly half-way implemented — with mixed results for wildlife — NBCI is already thinking about how to make the next Farm Bill more bobwhite friendly!

While strides have been made to benefit some wildlife using conservation programs, biologists continue to document the decline of upland game birds throughout North America due in large part to agricultural development. Upland game bird populations are declining due to large-scale land use changes that are having profound impacts on wildlife habitat conditions on private farms, rangelands, and forests.

In fact, federal agriculture programs may be contributing to the decline of upland game birds by promoting or supporting large-scale land use changes in rural landscapes over many decades. However, we believe the decline of upland game birds may be reversed or mitigated while maintaining desirable agricultural production through (1) minimizing federal agriculture policies, actions and incentives that negatively impact upland bird habitats, and (2) better targeting and application of conservation practices to enhance native grassland and forest habitats.  The next few decades may afford the best opportunity for federal policy to halt the declines of upland wildlife species, stem localized extinctions, and restore populations enough to avoid widespread extirpations of upland game birds.

To address these declines, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) plans to team with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) on a study to document the long-term impacts of federal programs on upland game bird habitats on non-industrial, private working lands. This information is needed to better inform agricultural program decisions for the Farm Bill, due for Congressional re-authorization in 2018. Upland game birds provide a unique lens through which to study the effects of rural land use changes, as (1) this group of birds does not migrate but spends their entire lives dependent on one relatively small area of land, and (2) bird population health and habitat conditions are often well-recorded by state game departments.

The study will describe the direct and indirect effects of federal agriculture programs on private working lands that produce renewable commodities affecting native grassland habitats, upland forest habitats, and populations of upland game bird species, including quail, turkeys, pheasants, and  grouse. The study will address commodity, conservation, and crop insurance programs, practices, policies, and infrastructures of the USDA Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency, and Extension Service. The study will consider the history of agriculture policy and its impact on upland habitats, from the origins of federal support for commodity agriculture to the present. In so doing, it will specifically look into the wildlife effects of USDA commodity, working lands, conservation reserve, and crop insurance programs which directly or indirectly incentivize upland habitat loss on native grassland, rangeland, forestland and cropland.  In addition the study will also consider the efficacy of the department’s easement and partnership programs which are intended to protect, restore, and enhance wildlife habitat.

The final report will quantify the nature and extent of how federal agricultural programs have directly and indirectly affected quail and other upland game birds and their habitat on the native grasslands, rangelands, forests, and croplands of the United States. The study is sorely needed to inform members of Congress as they make the critical decisions regarding how future federal agriculture policy and funding will continue or reverse the decline of bobwhites and other upland birds across the rural American landscape.

Native Grass Gazette: Fescue Toxicosis and Native Grasses

Cattle gathering under shade is a telltale sign of fescue toxicosis

I believe most of you are at least somewhat familiar with fescue toxicosis. I was prompted to blog about it because of the time of year. Over the past several weeks, driving around during my daily activities, I noticed tall fescue seed heads emerging and cattle grouped under shade trees and in ponds — all three visual reminders about fescue toxicosis.

There are an estimated 35 million acres of tall fescue in the United States with as much as 85% of that infected with the endophyte fungus. An examination of fescue pastures sampled in Virginia in 2013 showed 95% were greater than 80% infected (incidence of the endophyte), with the lowest being 50% infected. Fescue toxicosis is estimated to cost US beef producers more than $2 billion annually in losses.

For those unfamiliar with fescue toxicosis or a brief refresher for others, cattle grazing endophyte infected tall fescue, compared to those not, exhibit reduced weight gain, reduced pregnancy rates, reduced milk production, lower weaning weight calves and reduced reproductive efficiency in bulls. Conditions that cause these symptoms are immunosuppression, vasoconstriction and poor thermoregulation.

The endophyte fungus is greater in the seed stalks and seed heads than in other plant parts so impacts on grazing animals are greater during this time of year; and this, combined with reduced forage quantity and quality during the late spring and summer months (remember the cool-season grass growth curve?) coalesces into poor animal performance during the summer. Recommended pasture management when seed heads emerge is mowing to remove their availability to grazing. However, in the same Virginia research mentioned above, alkaloid (alkaloids are the class of compounds produced by the endophyte fungus that causes fescue toxicosis.) concentrations were above the reactionary threshold level regardless of pasture growth stage or grazing management.

Figure 1: Alkaloid content by growth stage. Source: What we've learned about tall fescue management by Matt Booher for Progressive Forage Grower, published 1/29/16.

Figure 1: Alkaloid content by growth stage. Source: What we’ve learned about tall fescue management by Matt Booher for Progressive Forage Grower, published 1/29/16.


Therefore it did not matter when or how you grazed your endophyte infected tall fescue, it had the same impact on the animals. You can’t manage around it.

Experts do agree that you can dilute the intake of infected tall fescue by diversifying the planting … adding clover, orchardgrass, timothy or warm-season forages, but you don’t eliminate the effects of fescue toxicosis. Even then, you don’t address the slump in cool-season production during the summer months, with the exception of using warm-season forages.

The most effective way to eliminate fescue toxicity is to eliminate all toxic alkaloids from the animal’s diet and that is a practice many farmers and ranchers are undertaking today. Their option is to replace it with endophyte free, novel endophyte tall fescue or other forage that doesn’t carry the endophyte fungus. Endophyte free fescue doesn’t compete well with other plants nor does it persist under heavy grazing. As it turns out, the endophyte fungus provides a positive benefit to the plant. Novel endophyte tall fescue has beneficial endophyte fungus, just not one that creates the toxic alkaloids. However, if converting to novel endophyte tall fescue, all of the endophyte infected fescue MUST be eliminated before planting. Thus the recommended method for converting is to graze down the pasture, spray with herbicides, plant a cover crop, graze the cover crop, spray with herbicide and plant.

Guess what? This is the same method recommended for planting native warm-season grasses.

With all the steps being the same, it stands to reason the cost of establishment, for comparison’s sake, is the same except for seed, lime and fertilizer – because those will be different. I recently called a local seed supplier to get the price for novel endophyte tall fescue seed and their recommended seeding rate and a native grass seed supplier for the same information on big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass. The following table breaks down the variable costs. Note that it is difficult to make an exact comparison when talking about lime and fertilizer because those inputs are dependent upon the location and the soil test results. Most establishment guidelines recommend lime and fertilize per soil test recommendations, however native warm season grasses don’t need lime unless the site pH is less than 5 and only need P and K if they are measured in the low category. Nitrogen is seldom recommended for NWSG establishment, yet nearly always for CSG establishment. For the sake of this discussion let’s say that the pH is neutral and the P and K recommendations are the same.


Recommended seeding rate

Unit cost

Cost range

N fertilizer

End-cost range

Estancia Tall Fescue

20 – 25 lbs./acre

$3.50 bulk pound

$70 – $87.50


$91 – $108.50

Big bluestem

8 – 10 lbs./acre

$8.00 PLS pound

$64 – $80


$64 – $80


8 – 10 lbs./acre

$14.50 PLS pound

$116 – $145


$116 – $145


4 – 8 lbs./acre

$10 PLS pound

$40 – $80


$40 – $80

*50 units of N @ .42/unit. (Recommendation of U of K Extension publication; N cost based on call to local supplier.)


The Myths

Native grass is too expensive to establish.

The above table fully debunks the myth that native warm-season grasses are too expensive to establish. If you’ve made the decision to convert from endophyte infected tall fescue to novel endophyte, the cost argument is no longer valid.

I lose too much grazing time waiting on establishment.

When converting from endophyte infected to novel endophyte tall fescue there must be a “break-crop” planted in the interim and recommendations are to not graze seedling pasture the first winter; so you are losing grazing for one year. When planting native warm season grasses a “break-crop” is not necessary (though not discouraged either) and with proper planting methods and good weed control, it can be grazed a year later. Assuming the weather cooperates, under either scenario, there is no difference.

Native grasses require more management.

Really? Tall fescue experts recommend not overgrazing novel endophyte tall fescue, in fact you need to be more careful to avoid overgrazing; pastures should be rested and stubble heights should be no less than 4 inches. Native warm-season grass experts recommend not overgrazing native grasses, in fact you need to be more careful to avoid overgrazing; pastures should be rested and stubble heights should be no less than 8 to 12 inches, depending on geographic location. Hmm, sounds the same except for stubble heights.

The Advantages

During the summer months the advantage goes to native warm-season grasses. The summer months are their peak months of quality and productivity, whereas tall fescue, toxic or not, is at nearly its lowest point of quantity and quality. Average daily gains on NWSG during the summer are regularly at or above 2 lbs. per day, much better than tall fescue during this same time period, at 0.5 to 1 pound per day.

Care must be taken to not re-infect an infected fescue converted to novel endophyte tall fescue field. Cattle grazing infected fescue need to be “quarantined” for a day to avoid transferring seed in manure. Also infected hay cannot be fed in a novel endophyte pasture. Once a field is infected, it only gets worse because of the competitive nature of the endophyte infected plant. You have to ask, how easy will it be to find non-toxic hay and how much hassle is it to “quarantine” cattle for a day, knowing that unless it is in a field planted annually, will eventually be infected with the toxic endophyte? No need to worry in a NWSG pasture. If fescue invades, simply spray the field with a non-selective herbicide in the fall or spring while the native warm-season grasses are dormant and the cool-season fescue is actively growing.

We’ve already discussed the problems with animal performance related to fescue toxicosis so know that by removing them from the source of the problem, those performance issues are eliminated. That should be incentive enough but if you still aren’t convinced, the following probably won’t sway you either but it is important to know that NWSG’s improve soil health, water infiltration, nutrient filtration and carbon sequestration, above and beyond tall fescue, toxic or not. Oh and by the way, they are significantly more drought hardy; something producers wished they could have had in 2011 and 2012!

Seems logical if moving away from endophyte infected tall fescue that native warm season grasses should be part of that plan.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Planting’ Lines in the Sand — The Natives vs Non-Natives Debate

Author’s Preface: I discovered quickly when writing this post that this topic cannot be done much justice in a short article. It is not my intent to imply right or wrong. My main goal is to say the issue is not as simple as some would like it to be and that we ought to refrain from a “one size fits all” approach. I would encourage everyone to delve into the issue more. The book “Invasive Plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species” By Dr. Sylvan Kaufman and Wallace Kaufman(2007 – Stackpole Books)would be a good starting point if interested.

I had a great uncle who shall remain nameless. He wore an old hat covered with various pins and medals. After a drink or two on a Friday night my Dad tells me he would walk into a West Virginia backwoods bar, throw the hat on the floor and say “I’m going to whip anyone who touches that hat, and anyone who doesn’t grab it is a coward “ … but using more expressive language. He loved a good fight even though he weighed about 140 lbs. drenched. And there’s no better way to start one than to make a declaration, draw a line and dare someone to cross it.

Hack and squirt_Ailanthus 2_REDUCED

The hack & squirt is a management technique for Ailanthus

Lately, one such line seems to be developing over non-native plants versus natives. On the surface it seems like a simple issue. After all, the first thing a person has to do to get out of a hole is to stop digging…right?  So let’s just make a simple statement – use native plants always, no exceptions ever and be done with it. One thing we might quickly notice if we could make non-natives vanish instantly is that there would be no soybeans and cotton or red, white and crimson clover, along with yellow and white sweet clover would be gone from our continent. Not to mention the European honeybee.

And what about this word “invasive?” Just what is meant by that? I have spent the last 24 years of my life trying to elevate the appreciation for early-successional plants and habitats. By their very nature, they are invaders, which when they invade where we want them to we restate as “colonizers.” It is only when things start to appear where we do not want them that we use the term invaders. If you are a forester in Southside Virginia, you might consider the native redbud tree to be invasive when it takes over a newly planted pine stand. As defined by Executive Order 13112 – 1999: “An invasive species is a species that does not naturally occur in a specific area and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

There are obvious examples of plant introductions that have gone horribly wrong. I heard a biologist once lament “I wonder what’s going to happen when the ‘vine that ate the South’ – kudzu, meets the ‘vine that ate the North’ – mile–a-minute vine?”

There is a long list of early naturalists, scientists and even Founding Fathers who contributed. Thomas Jefferson wrote “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture” (Randall 1994). The list of invaders is long, but some of the more notable in Virginia include ailanthus, Autumn olive, multi-flora rose, Johnson grass, sericea lespedeza, and phragmites. Over 50,000 species of plants have been introduced into North America since the beginning of European settlement. They provide 98% of our crops. Of the 50,000, about 5,000 have become competitors with over 17,000 native plants (Kaufman and Kaufman, 2007).

USFS Autumn Olive sign 1969_REDUCED

Times change as this USFS sign, designating an autumn olive planting for wildlife back in 1969, suggests.

In the case of our Quail Team, we have been criticized for continuing to recommend the planting of the non-native Korean (Lespedeza stipulacea) and Kobe lespedezas (Lespedeza striata). Both are reseeding annuals that typically do not grow above knee high. In the mid-twentieth century hundreds of thousands of acres of these lespedezas were planted across the country primarily for hay. They were often referred to as “the poor man’s alfalfa” being cheaper to establish and maintain. Though I have never personally witnessed it, I am told they can become invasive. While alternative native legume seeds are available, they tend to be astronomically priced compared to Korean and Kobe lespedeza. We often recommend them in conjunction with the native annual partridge peas (Cassia fasiculata and Cassia nictitans). Our goal with all of them is to help provide some quickly establishing legumes to supplement a native seed bank that is often depleted.

Are we inadvertently altering an ecosystem? Or is the ecosystem already so altered as to make it hard to identify? One thing I do know is that during the 20 years I have worked for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, we have become much more conscious of the issue and much more careful about how we approach plantings. “Think before you plant” is not a bad mantra.

Rather than advocating “Natives only,” the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) is advocating “Natives First” – meaning when good native options exist choose them first…whether for wildlife, hay or pasture. And further, they advocate that government cost-share programs should not help pay for establishing non-natives.

Quoting again from Kaufman and Kaufman 2007, “To see the invasive species issue as a choice between the native environment and alien species, between preservation and human meddling, obscures the real issue. All “native” dominants from ponderosa pine to American bison and the Canada goose were all once invaders. The invasive species issue is real, and environmental pessimists can take a major part of the credit for bringing it onto the public stage.

The heart of the matter, however, is not how to restore some “native” ecosystem. To do that would we choose from pre-Columbian, pre-Indian, ice-age or pre-ice age? The choice is arbitrary. We will make intelligent decisions only when the debate shifts from the unsupportable notion that “native” is always better to the all-important question of how do we manage change in that dynamic system of tradeoffs that is our natural economy.”

For my part I will continue to recommend Kobe lespedeza — but will point out that it is a non-native — and I’ll continue to battle ailanthus viciously, but I doubt I’ll try to do much about Japanese honeysuckle, … and I’ll continue to watch my bees enjoy white clover.

For those of you looking for some alternatives to non-natives here are a few:  instead of bi-color or VA-70 lespedeza, try bristly locust or indigo-bush; rather than sericea lespedeza, try partridge pea or round head lespedeza; instead of oriental bittersweet, use coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper or American bittersweet; rather than Chinese privet, use American holly; instead of multi-flora rose, use hawthorn; instead of Autumn olive, try Chickasaw and American plum; instead of sawtooth oak, try chinquapin, hazelnut, and white, red or other native oaks; and instead of fescue and orchard grass, use purple-top, little bluestem, and deer tongue (Condensed from Tarheel Wildlife, 2010). But before you plant anything, you might try waiting a year or two and just observing what you have in the local seedbank.

Literature cited:

Kaufman, S.R and W. Kaufman. 2007. Invasive plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species. Stackpole Books.

Randall, W.S. 1994. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Harper Collins.

Sharpe, T. 2010. Tarheel Wildlife: A Guide for Managing Wildlife on Private Lands in North Carolina. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Federal Forest Management into the Next Decade… Can We Move Beyond the Rhetoric?

Decades of reduced harvest, aggressive fire suppression, lack of prescribed fire and poor livestock grazing practices, coupled with drought and invasive species eruptions, have left millions of acres of federal forestlands in unhealthy conditions.

Many of our public forests provide little native grassland and young forest habitat for bobwhites and other species that depend on these habitats. These conditions increase risk of severe wildfires and threaten watersheds that provide drinking water to millions of Americans. I, along with Dan Dessecker, policy director of the Ruffed Grouse Society, led a special session at the 81st North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference recently to explore the past and current situation regarding forest management on public lands and address needed administrative and legislative reforms to improve active forest management policy and better address multiple objectives on public forest lands.

The current level of active management on federal forest lands is insufficient to address the scope and scale of forest health issues and fuel reduction. In addition, the majority of the U.S. populace resides east of the Great Plains, as does the majority of our federal elected officials, often creating a disconnect and different values for our federal forestlands. The future for forest ecosystem management is now uncertain based in part on the lack of current and improbable future social consensus concerning desired outcomes for public forestlands; the need for significant financial investment in forest ecosystem restoration; a lack of integrated planning and decision tools; and a disconnect between the existing planning process, congressional appropriations, and complex management and restoration problems.

There is clear scientific evidence indicating that the ecological integrity of our nation’s public forest lands and the social fabric of nearby rural communities are imperiled. It is essential to make federal forest land management policy relevant to all interests so that the necessary statutory, regulatory, and fiscal fixes can be applied.

Can we move beyond the rhetoric (“mandated timber harvest targets”, “benign neglect,” “stripping environmental regulation,” “analysis paralysis,” “unnecessary litigation”) and address this reality? Balanced, common sense legislation and administrative processes that allow for science-based active management of our public forestlands to conserve wildlife, enhance forest health and protect water quality while meeting society’s needs and interests is a lofty but achievable goal.

The presentations provided different perspectives on the broad reach of current forest management policies. Speakers focused on the past, present and future of forest conditions and management on public lands as well as what forest science is telling us about the condition of our forests. A panel composed of leaders of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Wild Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy and Weyerhaeuser Company spoke about how to balance forest management through national policy reform that can benefit wildlife and other natural resource values. The Wildlife Management Institute will publish a record of this session later this year.

Sunlight, Fire & Quail: Thinning, Frequent Fire Brings Bobs Back to the Woods

Why do we need to do prescribed fires in our woods? It’s a question that both foresters and wildlife biologists get, especially this time of the year, when there is smoke from prescribed fires wafting through the air.

Fire has been an important part of the landscape throughout time. Over the eons entire, wildlife-rich, fire-dependent

Pine stand with a 50-square-foot basal area on a 2-year burn rotation

Pine stand with a 50-square-foot basal area on a 2-year burn rotation

ecosystems developed in fire-prone settings. Fire was (and is) as natural and needed as the rain. Native Americans, early settlers and landowners into the 21st century saw positive results — on wildlife and vegetation — of natural fire and disruptions that thinned the forest. They replicated it successfully to improve both. In more recent times, burning on the landscape was abandoned in favor of total fire suppression. Combined with a cultural reluctance to purposefully manage forests, bobwhites and other species have been pushed out of much of the forested landscape.

But that is changing. More public land managers in states in the bobwhite’s core range have adopted an ecosystem management approach and private landowners have those models – and results — to see.

Prescribed fire can be defined as “a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health and reduce wildfire risk.” Prescribed fire is applied on the landscape by trained professionals using a written plan that guides them on how to safely burn to accomplish their goals. Landowners and natural resource managers conduct prescribed fires for many reasons. They include improving wildlife habitat, reducing hazardous fuels, managing competing vegetation, perpetuating fire-dependent species, controlling insects and diseases, and more.

Not all prescribed fires are the same though. If you are a landowner wanting to create better habitat for wildlife on your property, especially bobwhites, prescribed fires need to be more frequent and in more open savanna-like forests or grassy woodlands.  

Now, I bet you are asking why these fires need to be in open forests. To maximize quail habitat, there has to be both sunlight on the ground and fire. You must ensure that these two ingredients reach the ground in the right mix to maximize the potential for that habitat. And this approach will work on pine and mixed pine and hardwood stands.

Today, most forest stands have a closed canopy with little or no sunlight reaching the forest floor. Quail and many other species require a vigorous and diverse herbaceous ground cover which includes a mix of native warm season grasses for nesting, forbs for seed and insect production, and scattered clumps of woody shrubs for protection from weather and predators. Without abundant sunlight reaching the ground none of these habitat components will develop.

One rule of thumb is that when you walk through your woods, you should have sunlight on your head-and your boots- half the time. To get these open stands of forest and to allow sunlight to reach the ground, commercial timber harvest and thinnings have to occur. These timber harvests can provide income for other land management expenses prior to final harvest. But to achieve enough sunlight on the forest floor for these purposes, thinning needs to be heavier than your typical forest management thinning … but that allows the remaining trees to grow faster and straighter, creating a more valuable timber product in the end if that’s what the landowner desires.

In southern yellow pine forests most commercial thinnings are done down to a basal area of 75 – 80 square feet. To improve and maintain habitat for bobwhites, pine stands should be thinned and maintained at a basal area at 50 square feet or less. Hardwood stands would need to be thinned and maintained at 30-40 square feet of basal area.

Basal area is a common term used to describe the average amount of an area (usually an acre) occupied by the tree stems. It is defined as the total cross-sectional area of all the stems in a stand measured at breast height, expressed as square feet per acre. So that all measurements are standardized tree diameter is typically measured at 4.5 from the ground or approximately breast height. This is referred to as diameter at breast height (DBH).

Subsequent and frequent applications of prescribed fire – generally every 2-4 years, depending on the situation – are necessary to clear the duff on the forest floor, bare some of the soil, increase soil surface temperature, release nutrients and allow the native grasses and forbs already in the seed bank to germinate. In areas where prescribed burning may not an option, some of its benefits can be achieved with mechanical and herbicide treatments.

Best results will require repeated applications of fire at regular intervals. Quail habitat will not be maintained with only a couple fires, or fires at infrequent intervals. In addition, neither thinning alone nor fire alone will provide the desired understory development, composition and structure, especially for bobwhites.

Finally, if you want to investigate this opportunity further, please contact a local wildlife biologist or a professional forester with experience in both wildlife habitat management and timber production.