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‘Brush sculpting’ allows quail and cattle to coexist

The tendency of many beef producers fighting brush is to clear it all off — but that may not be a wise move.

That applies in many places, but it’s especially true in quail country, a huge range that takes in all of the southeastern U.S. and extends into Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and several other states west of the Mississippi River. In some of these places, land can be more valuable as wildlife habitat than as pasture.

Fact is, you can’t maximize production of quail and cattle on the same property at the same time, says Paul Melton, a Fisher County, Texas, rancher and wildlife manager. Texas A&M University quail expert Dale Rollins agrees. But they concur that the two can coexist, and neither man thinks it is good to eradicate brush.

“It takes too long to develop good quail habitat from a pasture that has been totally cleared,” Melton says. He and Rollins advocate what they call “brush sculpting.” They remove brush in a manner that’s suitable for a livestock operation but leaves sufficient brush for deer, quail and other wildlife.

“Even if you plan to keep your ranch and operate it as a cow-calf operation, wholesale reduction or removal of all brush species will not increase your land values as it did 25 years ago; it will drastically lower them,” Melton says.

“The new influx of rangeland use out here is more recreational — the new owners are recreational. So that’s something to think about here in the quail belt in the Rolling Plains.”

Rollins adds, “A lot of times, a typical rancher here in West Texas who’s interested only in cows wants just a few mesquite trees on his property — enough to provide some shade to his bulls. If you’re interested in quail and other wildlife, you’ve got to have more brush.

“So it becomes a strategic planning situation,” Rollins continues. “Before you bring in that bulldozer, before you hire that spray plane — you ask yourself where you need brush left and in what quantities, and what’s the best way to sculpt the landscape to accommodate your wildlife objectives simultaneously with your livestock objectives.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service Agricultural Wildlife Conservation Center turned to Rollins to learn just how much brush is needed for good quail habitat in West Texas. He studied several pastures enrolled in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program where brush control had been done.

“The optimal brush cover for bobwhites is from 10% to 30% canopy cover,” Rollins says.

He says quail might be perfectly happy in an area with 30% to 40% mesquite cover. “But you can’t enjoy bobwhite hunting because you can’t see your dogs,” he says. “So at that point the quail hunter and the cow operator would both argue it’s time to clear some brush.”

Melton agrees. “You want adequate loafing cover, where quail are close to escape cover and nesting cover, and yet have habitat where a hunter is still able to see his bird dog on point most of the time. That open cover is what’s good for cattle grazing, and it’s good for huntability,” he says.

Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.

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SPOTS OF BRUSH: Prime quail habitat in the Texas Rolling Plains is also good grazing land, says rancher and quail manager Paul Melton.

Cost-share available for brush control

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program offers both financial and technical help through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for range and pasture improvements, including elements of prescribed grazing management such as brush control.

EQIP contracts offer cost-share for up to 10 years and up to 75% of the costs to install approved practices. Limited-resource producers and beginning farmers and ranchers may be eligible for cost-share up to 90%. Payments are limited to $450,000.

EQIP activities are carried out according to a plan developed in conjunction with the producer that meets NRCS technical standards adapted for local conditions.

Producers can get technical help from NRCS to develop the contract and plan of operations, or they may use a certified third-party provider. See your local NRCS office for a listing of these providers.

A little brush can be a good thing — even for stock producers

Although thick, heavy stands of brush are often undesirable for both cattle and wildlife, specialists from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service say there are a number of reasons to maintain limited cover of woody plants interspersed with grasses on rangelands — even when the primary goal is livestock production.

Pat Shaver, rangeland management specialist with the NRCS West National Technology Support Center in Portland, Ore., says brush management needs to fit the capability of the land.

“You want to match your treatment to the ecological situation,” he says. “Spend your money removing plants where they don’t belong. It will be more cost-effective, and maintenance will be much easier. For instance, remove junipers where they have invaded grasslands, but leave older stands where they originated.”

Shaver offers these reasons for leaving some brush:

• Shrubs provide cattle shade in the summer and some shelter in the winter.

• Shrubs offer forage during certain times of the year.

• Shrubs are a food source and trap snow in the winter for more soil moisture the next year.

• The deep root systems of shrubs stabilize stream banks and prevent soil from sliding in steep areas.

• Prescribed fire or other regular management techniques after brush removal will be most cost-effective on grassland not well-suited to shrubs.

• Rangeland may be worth more if it offers habitat and good hunting as well as grazing.

Wendell Gilgert, a wildlife biologist with the NRCS covering the Western states, says NRCS thinking on brush management is changing.

“You won’t see NRCS recommendations for big blocks of brush removal in the future,” Gilgert says. “On rangelands in the West, the thinking is to have a mosaic of different plants and growth stages where brush treatments would look more like a Dalmatian, with many small spots, than a Holstein, with large blocks of treated brush.”

— Lynn Betts

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NOT TOO MUCH: For optimal quail habitat, Dale Rollins of Texas A&M says to leave brush, or “quail houses,” spaced apart the distance you can throw a softball — that’s how far quail usually fly.

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SCULPTING TOOL: The roller-drum chopper works well to sculpt brush in Texas. It is also heavily used in Florida.

This article published in the March, 2010 edition of BEEF PRODUCER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.