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Shell’s Covert: Fall Landowner Management Tips

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)

Ragweed flowers

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.”

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.