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Shell’s Covert: Apple Pie, Ice Cream, Hot Dogs, Baseball…Cattle and Quail.

For multiple decades eastern wildlife biologists were fond of saying cattle and quail did not mix. This must have come as a great surprise to all those western ranchers who had more quail on their typical pastures than most of the best remaining quail lands in the east.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and blanket statements like those above are ripe for having holes shot in them like pop cans in front of a kid with a BB gun. It is obvious to all but the densest fence post that when we talk about cattle and quail we need to specify within which ecosystem we are referring. Henceforward I am referring to the humid, subtropical at times, eastern U.S.

Cattle grazing native forage grasses in Virginia. (Marc Puckett)

Thus cattle and quail don’t go together, right? Well…they don’t go together under the typical eastern system which is one of an over reliance on cool season hay (that we often see rotting along fence lines), and overgrazed cool season pastures. But the native quail in our lands several hundred years ago would have been right at home with the large grazing animals that not only shared their landscape, but actually helped form it.

It was a fairly simple equation. Lightening or native American-ignited fire, held down woody growth, created new green grazing forage and then large grazing animals such as bison, elk and deer did the “light disking” with their hooves. There was no fencing, thus animals were able to move to the best new grazing growth…which was the year of a spring fire. Their light soil disturbance created the bare ground quail enjoyed, and stimulated the growth of wildflowers and legumes, and the cycle continued for hundreds if not thousands of years. Of course, a quail back then would have had to endure the quite common surprise of looking up from its 6 inch perspective only to see itself reflected in the eye of an animal like a bison. Perhaps a bison might have also made a quick refuge from a circling Cooper’s hawk.

Well, that’s all fine and good and heartwarming – makes you want to hug, eh? And it is also a thing of the distant past unless the planet’s recovery from the apocalypse does not include humans. So what’s a rancher in the east to do? He loves his cattle and his / her way of life, and also loves quail and rabbits and butterflies and so it is a shame they can’t go together. Blog over…bye.

Not so fast. Enter the modern way of eastern cattle ranching that includes appropriate fencing and watering system installation, fencing cattle out of streams, use of temporary and moveable fencing in many cases, incorporation of native warm season and wildflower pastures, sometimes including native cool season forages, some prescribed fire, and systematic rotational grazing.

This new method of ranching can be used to create a microcosm of the ecosystems similar to those created by bison and fire hundreds of years ago. It might sound complicated, but I’d argue it is no more complicated than the usual system of making two hay cuts a year, keeping haying equipment in good condition, moving and storing huge volumes of hay, feeding heavily all winter and generally trying to force a cool season grass system to work 365 days a year.

If you are a rancher and you are tired of the status quo and want to get off the cool season reliance treadmill, there’s no time like the present to do so. Right now multiple USDA Incentives programs exist to encourage better cattle and grazing management. These programs all offer added benefits for wildlife, especially quail. The Working Lands for Wildlife Program specifically has a practice for cattle and quail, often called B.I.G. for Bobwhites in Grasslands. This program, offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), helps offset the costs of fencing, seed, and other infrastructure needed to get into establishing warm season grasses and starting to rotationally graze.

So the proof is in the pudding and I have seen this work. Right here in Virginia in our southern piedmont there is a rancher who went out on his own almost three decades ago. He incorporated 200 acres of native switch grass into his low grounds foraging base. He began using fire to manage those pastures, and he also started rotationally grazing.

He allowed us to conduct a workshop and field tour on his place a couple years ago. And he hosted a video team to record how well his cattle liked the system. (You can see the result at Healthier cattle you have never seen. I’m not good with numbers but I recall over 200 head within a cow calf operation. He relies on temporary electric fencing which is easily moved.

The cattle have come to so love the new lush warm season grass growth that they essentially move themselves. As we approached his field that day, the bulk of his cattle were already lined up near the fence waiting to be let in to the new growth area. As his family moved the fence the cattle rushed into the new area, spread out and began to feed like a well-oiled mowing machine, clipping only the top 10 to 12 inches of the most palatable new growth off the top and leaving 18 to 20 inches of new leaf regenerating plant engine underneath.

As they fed, insects sprang out ahead of them, swallows flocked over the insect rich fields to feed, and quail called from multiple locations in the distance. As I walked in the field behind the cattle I observed a lot more plant diversity than was visible from afar. Numerous legumes and wildflowers had come in on their own. The cattle’s hooves had formed bare ground paths under the grass canopy. It seemed like it all went together like apple pie and ice cream, or hot dogs and baseball…or in this case, like steak and ale. And even in the 21st century, cattle and quail can go together in the humid subtropical east.

Contact your local NRCS district conservationist, or one of our private lands wildlife biologists to inquire further.

NOTE: This program is available in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia

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.