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Bobwhite Habitat Should be Managed Through Proper Grazing, Burning or Rest

Posted Feb. 1, 2005

Many landowners in the Noble Research Institute's service area want to have bobwhites on their properties and frequently ask us about ways to increase bobwhite abundance. When a property is dominated by native range, has 10 to 60 percent well-distributed shrub canopy cover and at least 8,000 acres of the local region including the property fit this description, successful bobwhite habitat management simply involves cooperative weather and proper application of one or more land management tools, such as grazing, burning or rest.

When a property has relatively little native range, is dominated by introduced forages or crops, has relatively little well-distributed shrub canopy cover, or a relatively small amount of the local region provides quail habitat, bobwhite habitat management becomes more challenging and expensive, and there are no easy short-term solutions because the landscape requires substantial change for successful results.

Land management tools such as grazing, burning and rest can improve or harm bobwhite habitat, depending upon how they are applied and the situation where they are applied. Assuming a property fits the first description above, how does a person properly apply the land management tools? The answer depends upon plant height, canopy cover and thatch, which are influenced by rainfall, plant species, recent disturbances and soil slope, texture and fertility. Properties with fertile soils in fair to excellent range condition receiving more than 36 inches of rainfall require annual disturbance on much of the area. Areas in poor range condition or those that receive less than 25 inches of rainfall typically do not need annual disturbance, so rest is frequently the appropriate tool in these situations. Rest is commonly used in combination with other land management tools to accomplish desired results.

When grazing, average herbaceous (grasses and forbs) plant height should be maintained at 12 to 20 inches tall, and herbaceous plant canopy coverage should be maintained in the range of 25 to 75 percent across most of the area year-round. Continuous stocking of cattle at a light to moderate stocking rate generally provides the desired result when herbaceous plant communities are fairly productive. Grazing is an important habitat management tool, but the way it is used on most properties, grazing usually harms quail habitat due to excessive impact.

When burning is the primary land management tool employed on properties that have productive herbaceous plant communities with abundant woody cover and more than 36 inches of annual rainfall, about 40 to 60 percent of a property should be burned each year, except during drought. Burned areas should be intermingled with unburned areas. Patch sizes of burned areas should be relatively small, possibly 20 to 50 acres. Most patches of herbaceous plants in this situation should be burned at least once every two years, except during drought. Burning is frequently not an appropriate quail habitat management tool on sites with low productivity or inadequate woody cover. From a quail habitat perspective, I believe burned areas do not need to be grazed or disked for a year following a burn.

Disking can be used to manage quail habitat in a manner similar to grazing or burning, but it causes more soil erosion problems and is harmful to soil ecology, so we seldom recommend its use on an extensive scale. Disking only strips on a small percentage of a property typically has little impact on overall bobwhite abundance. Disked areas do not need to be grazed or burned for a year following disking.

Productive herbaceous plant communities, especially many sites east of I-35, require annual disturbance to a significant percentage of the overall area to maintain adequate forb abundance, insect and seed availability, adequate bare ground and appropriate herbaceous plant height and canopy cover. Without adequate disturbance in productive plant communities, forbs become less abundant and excessive plant thatch limits quail movements and availability of insects and seeds. However, excessive disturbance destroys quail habitat. Grazing, burning and disking are less necessary, commonly undesirable, during droughts. Grazing provides an opportunity to generate income whereas burning and disking are strictly expenses, so proper grazing is usually a more economical option than burning or disking.

Although the lack of well-distributed shrubs more frequently limits quail habitat, excessive woody vegetation sometimes limits quail habitat. Thinning woody vegetation or creating openings can be appropriate when woody plants dominate most of the landscape. When bobwhite habitat is the primary goal, large blocks of trees should be opened up using mechanical or chemical means. Burning as well as mechanical and chemical means can be used to open up large blocks of dense brushy cover, such as shinnery oak or tree sprouts shorter than 4 feet. Ideally, width of openings between shrub cover should be no more than 50 yards. With adequate herbaceous cover, this woody plant distribution allows every acre of a property to be quail habitat. It is better to have more small woody cover mottes than only a few large ones.

A property with the desirable quail habitat characteristics described here should support maximum average bobwhite densities within the constraints imposed by weather.