Cattle as Quail Managers
In my opinion, cattle are the most powerful quail managers in Oklahoma, for two reasons. The first is because it is difficult to successfully produce bobwhites without them. Quail cannot thrive in rank grassland. Fire can substitute for grazing, but cannot be practically applied everywhere cattle can be grazed. The second reason is because so many land management decisions are made exclusively with them in mind. In order to successfully produce quail on a ranch managed for livestock, quail habitat needs must be considered when overall land management decisions are made.
Introduced forage pastures must be mismanaged (from a cattle forage production standpoint) in order to create usable space for bobwhites. Properly managed introduced forages are monocultures, whereas wildlife populations, including quail, thrive on diversity. Good stands of introduced forages have very little, if any, bare ground. In addition most brush is removed during the establishment process. Therefore, it may be more practical to buy or lease good native range habitat, if available, than to try and manage for bobwhites on introduced forage pastures. If this is not an option, then the best compromise would be to manage the edges near quality woody cover for quail and to manage the remainder for cattle forage production.
Native range pastures generally have more usable space than introduced forage pastures. Good native range in our area is composed of a high percentage of bunchgrasses which leaves room for bare ground in between grass plants and creates conditions necessary for forb growth. Unless control measures have been extensive, there is also likely to be a woody plant component.
On productive native range sites with greater than 25 inches of annual rainfall, poor to fair range condition is optimum for bobwhites. On less productive sites with less rainfall, fair to good range condition is optimum for bobwhites. Shorter rest periods tend to lower range condition. Generally, as range condition increases, nesting cover increases and food production and availability decreases.
The best grazing system for quail is the one that produces the most usable habitat. If range condition is below optimum and rotational grazing will improve it, then that is the best system. If range condition is above optimum and continuous grazing will lower it, then that is the best system. Remember that grazing systems which require relatively high amounts of fencing can reduce quail hunting quality simply because of the physical barriers the fences impose if hunter needs are not considered in the fencing plan.
A "weed" is a plant out of place. Forbs are certainly not out of place in bobwhite habitat, and therefore, are not weeds. Broadleaf herbicide use impacts quail by reducing food production since forb seeds are the staple of the bobwhite diet. Forbs also attract insects, a critical food source for quail chicks.
Stocking rate primarily impacts bare ground percentage and generalizations are difficult. Optimum rates will change on a particular ranch from year to year or even season to season because of weather changes. Grazing should remove enough leaf area so that some bare ground is always maintained without eliminating herbaceous screening cover, nesting cover, and low-stature woody cover. It is certainly possible to manage only certain pastures to favor quail populations, as all pastures need not be managed the same.
But remember, you cannot manage one pasture good enough to produce huntable populations on the remainder of the ranch.