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Simple New Year’s Resolution for Landowners Saves $ & Quail

I hope it does not come as a shock to any of you, but we are living in some tough economic times. “No way!” you say. “I have money not only running out of my ears, but my dogs, too.” Well, we are all happy for you, but the rest of us are tightening our shell belts and maybe not buying that $40/bag dog food right now (though we still try to avoid buying a bag that lists “ground yellow corn” as the first ingredient – if you are feeding that you may not want to let your dog ride in the truck cab with you).

So when we think about asking landowners to conduct quail habitat management, on their own, or even through cost-share programs, we need to understand that even basic management practices cost money. And things like planting variable mixes of native grasses and herbaceous plants can cost about one cheap shotgun per acre ($300).

But you say, “There is financial assistance available to offset those costs, so why don’t more landowners sign-up?”

Well, even through federal or state cost-share programs like CRP, WHIP and EQIP, the landowner must foot the bills up front. And, while agency personnel truly try to make payments to the landowner promptly, it may still mean the landowner has to “hold” a bill for several months. This can cause cash flow problems at a minimum, and could keep some Christmas presents from making it under their kid’s tree. Add to that our current situation with the pending Farm Bill – it is not looking good for conservation programs.

What’s does all this add up to? It means that as wildlife professionals and NGO conservation supporters, we need to come up with management techniques that, while may be imperfect, save landowners money due to the sheer potential volume of acres involved and can do great things for quail and dozens of other species.

And what does every landowner do – mow, or bush-hog. I’m not talking about legitimate hay cutting. I am referring to what landowners consider “maintenance mowing.” And I want to begin with one caveat. In situations where landowners are willing and able to use other management practices such as rotational disking or prescribed burning, those practices are far superior to mowing.

I enjoyed the recent Kentucky blog post that hit this issue hard. This blog post is to add to that some ideas on how small changes in mowing practices can add up to huge benefits for quail. Why do most landowners mow? 1) aesthetics, 2) to prevent “bad” weeds from setting seeds, 3) to keep open land “open” – basically free of trees, 4) recreation and perhaps a few more. And unfortunately, most of the mowing occurs in fall. Next to mowing during the nesting season (April 15 to August 15) – a big no-no — fall mowing is thenext worst.

How can landowners change their mowing habits to benefit wildlife? First – they need to recognize that fall mowing (generally September and October in the Southeast) insures that no cover at all will remain on those fields over winter – a time when animals need the escape cover the most (not to mention the weed seeds for food).

Fall mowing also encourages sod-forming cool season grasses like fescue. By removing the overhead competition, fall mowing gives fescue access to the sun and helps insure it gets thicker every year it is mowed – further reducing the field’s value for wildlife. Now you deer hunters don’t start writing me nasty letters – I know that some fall mowing can be necessary to help clover and cool season food plots flourish. Landowners will also use the argument about how fall mowing prevents some bad weeds from setting seed, thus preventing or minimizing their spread. In fact, let’s address this before moving on.

With modern, Roundup™ (glyphosate) Ready™ (herbicide tolerant) crops – concerns over weeds in crop fields has greatly diminished. In fact, these products have been so effective, farmers are being required to leave “weed refuges” on their farms to reduce the rate with which weeds develop tolerance to glyphosate.  By allowing weeds to grow in adjacent, non-crop fields, where glyphosate is not sprayed annually, or at all, a landowner can minimize the chances of weeds developing glyphosate tolerance. This means that they can use glyphosate tolerant crops for longer periods and perhaps at a lower cost. The argument that fall mowing provides good weed control no longer has any merit (and really never did).

Mow in late winter to early-spring (generally mid March through early April in the Southeast) instead of the fall. This insures good winter escape cover remains available when needed most. And, mowed areas will quickly sprout new growth providing cover for spring and summer nesting and feeding. There is a “sacrifice” for those folks who love that “golf course” look. The land will not remain “clean cut” for long. I beg of you, isn’t this a small price to pay for quail? For rabbits? For songbirds?

Mowing during this period will also control tree encroachment just as well as fall mowing, maybe better. To control encroaching hardwood trees over the long haul (things like sweet gum, red maple, and poplar in Virginia) some spot treatment with herbicides will eventually be needed.

“O.K., fine,” you say, “but where is the savings you mentioned?”

Well, here is the next mowing Best Management Practice – don’t mow the whole field every year. Regardless of whether you buy my arguments for changing the timing of your mowing, you do not need to mow all of every field each year to keep them open. In humid climates with good soils, mowing half each year will suffice. Mow half this year, the other half next year, and so on.  In drier, cooler climates, mowing 1/3 every year will accomplish your goals. In some areas, even longer rotations will work – perhaps mowing half of each field every 2 to 3 years will prevent the fields being taken over by trees. And that is where your savings is – less mowing, less fuel, less equipment maintenance, fewer tire replacements – all these can add up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in savings through time. And last time I checked, the weather in March is just as nice as the weather in October – so your recreational mowing “fix” can be obtained.

Mowing BMPs in a nutshell:

  1. At a bare minimum, stop mowing all of every field each year, mow half, or 1/3 in rotation.
  2. Regardless of when you mow, set your mower up a bit higher to leave at least a little bit of cover even on mowed areas.
  3. Instead of mowing in fall, mow in late winter to early spring (mid March to early April).
  4. Learn to identify “good brush” and leave it even within mowed sections of fields. While you need to control sweet gum, red maple and other tall growing hardwoods and pines, things like plum, sumac, hawthorn, blackberry, and others can be allowed to grow for many years. Quail need 15% to 25% of their range in thicket cover to thrive.


Pretty simple, huh? Make it your New Year’s resolution. Buzz Bobwhite says, “If you care, leave us some cover there.”

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.