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Improving Grassland Composition

If you are interested in creating habitat for Northern Bob-white quail and turkeys, "grassland" habitat is a very important component of your overall habitat plan. Solid stands of woodlands do not have enough plant diversity to support quail and turkey populations alone. Both species have experienced significant population declines over the last decade, for quail that decline goes back even farther. While the exact reason for population declines can't be pinpointed to any one thing in particular, it is likely the result of more than one habitat issue, the loss of native warm season grasslands plays a significant role. Keep in mind that just like White-tailed deer both turkey and quail populations were significantly higher prior to European settlement. So from a historic perspective food plots and row crop agriculture are not necessary to support abundant quail and turkey populations. If these two food sources were not present in a time where populations were higher then what was the primary food source? Both turkey poults and quail chicks (as well as adults in portions of the year) feed heavily on insect populations. Monocultural stands of vegetation have a lower insect population than sites having high plant diversity. Cool season grasses unfortunately tend to be favored by farmers and ranchers looking to re-establish pasture or hay ground. Cool season grasses are easier and cheaper to plant, completely fill in the growing space more quickly, and remain actively growing for a longer portion of the year than native warm season grasses. The downside of cool season grasses is that they are almost entirely non-native species, as is the case for most non-native species they out compete native species. Cool season grasses tend to become monocultures quickly choking out other less competitive species, such as forbs. When the diversity of cool season plantings declines, so does insect diversity. Native warm season grasses (NWSG) aren't as easy to establish; however, NWSG has many advantages in terms of wildlife habitat.

Improving grassland composition is often best accomplished with plantings of Native Warm Season Grass. NWSG growth habits leave room for broadleaf forbs and legumes between grass clumps, which help support a diverse insect community which provides food for birds and other wildlife. That same open space between grass clumps also allows for quail and turkey poult movement across the landscape. That movement is essential for the birds to be able to hunt for bugs and to transition to other habitat types while providing protection from predators. One of the biggest trends in grassland management currently though is to use dense stands of Switchgrass. As either screening around food plots or as bedding areas for deer. In terms of healthy grassland habitat practices dense stands of Switchgrass are counterproductive to quail and turkey populations. If you are strictly managing for deer and possibly pheasants, then the switchgrass strips and blocks have use, though I would argue that solid stands of switchgrass are not as beneficial as other habitat types that can be created for the same purpose. Solid strips and blocks of switchgrass actually serve as roadblocks to quail and turkey movement. Chicks and poults are physically unable to walk through it and even adult birds will avoid walking through it. Again, solid blocks of any one particular vegetation type have less positive value as wildlife habitat than mixed species plantings.

NWSG with Good Forb Components

As I mentioned in previous blogs prescribed fire is a great tool in managing grasslands in terms of reducing non desirable woody vegetation. Fire can also be useful in changing species composition in terms of promoting forbs and NWSG while also helping to set back cool season, sod forming grasses. Burning when non desirable plants are growing as a general rule sets back there growth and can promote plants that have not actively growing at that time such as NWSG which grows later in the growing season. In areas where fire is not an option, repeated tillage and/ or herbicide applications will be necessary to kill off existing cool season grasses. Heavy stands of cool season grass are going to likely need more than one termination applied to them to kill them out. On top of that there will likely be a large, cool season grass seed bank still present. So until NWSG and forbs are well established it may be necessary to implement early and late season measures to target cool season grass plants that are growing. With a grass selective herbicide it is possible to target just the cool season grass with appropriate timing. Many times there is sufficient dormant forb seeds present in the soil bank to get a decent forb response once the competition from the cool season grasses has been significantly reduced. Otherwise, it may be necessary to add a forb component to your NWSG planting when seeding that. Once you have established a diverse grassland habitat it will require continued monitoring and habitat management techniques to keep it in that state.

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