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Hobby farmer taking quail back to the future

Quail are thriving under a management regimen that recreates conditions common on farms 50 years ago.

Lamar Moore has turned back the hands of time on his 400-acre farm near Chillicothe. Quail numbers there have surged in response to management practices that mimic those of farmers 40 years ago.CHILLICOTHE, Mo.--Lamar Moore isn't a career farmer. He's also not a professional wildlife manager. But for the past two years he has been combining those two avocations on 400 acres south of Chillicothe. His primary crop is quail, and under his supervision, production is way up.

Moore is a "retired" farm equipment dealer. Trim and energetic at age 68, he always has a lot going on in his life. One of the most rewarding current projects is renovating what he calls "a poor hill farm, with lots of rocks, ridges and draws."

He bought the farm as an investment, and to provide a place for family and friends to hunt and fish. The farm isn't typical of Livingston County, where rich soil and row crops dominate. Much of his acreage is too steep for row cropping. Ponds dot the acreage, a legacy of its dairy farming history.

In the 1950s and 1960s, farms like Moore's harbored coveys of quail in every brushy corner. Today, most farmers are lucky to find one covey in the same acreage. But just in the past two years, Moore has seen his quail crop grow from five or six coveys to 10 or 12.

What's his secret? No secret, just good advice from the Missouri Department of Conservation and determination to make things happen. A little knowledge about how Missouri farms used to look doesn't hurt, either.

In the golden age of quail hunting, farming was done on a smaller scale than today. Farms were smaller. Fields were smaller, too, separated by hedgerows, weed-filled fence lines and woodlots. The edges between fields and woods were wide and cluttered with fallen trees, blackberry thickets and shrubby plants like sumac, plum and dogwood. The crops on a dairy farm typically included clover or other legume forage, warm-season grasses like little bluestem and small plots of sorghum and corn.

Although this style of farming was practiced for decades, the appearance of a particular plot of farm ground changed constantly. Pastures were hayed or grazed, thinning out accumulated vegetation. Crops were harvested, leaving bare ground.

When he bought it, Moore's farm was dominated by fescue grass. The fences, hedgerows and brushy draws that once separated fields were mostly gone. The edges of fields were razor thin, extending right up to roads, woods and ditches. Moore set out to recreate some of the conditions that made Missouri farms quail factories in the 1950s.

For starters, he began discing up 15-foot strips on either side of clean-farmed fencerows and planting them in oats and Korean lespedeza. This provided both food and cover where there had been none before.

Then he replanted hedgerows to divide large fields into the kind of small, intimate patches of habitat where quail flourish. These fencerows also created new travel corridors, encouraging quail to travel between islands of cover on Moore's farm, instead of flying across the road to reach the nearest brushy patch.

At present, Moore is concentrating more on increasing wildlife cover. He is converting fescue to native warm-season grasses with fire and herbicides. Along the edges of some fields he is letting foxtail, ragweed and other natural vegetation take over.

Moore is planting a greater variety of crops, too, including sunflowers and sorghum. He leaves several rows of these crops standing in the fall, to be disced under during the winter and spring.

Besides providing food and cover for quail and other wildlife, these buffer strips around fields trap sediment, nutrients and agricultural chemicals, improving water quality in ponds and streams.

Also among his current projects is creating "covey headquarters." These are small patches of shrubby cover located in the midst of other quail needs, such as bare ground, crops and grassland.

Covey headquarters can be created by planting plum or gray dogwood trees, but for Moore, an easier strategy is to simply cut down trees in 50-foot patches along field edges. The felled trees, which are small and stunted from overcrowding, create quail cover immediately. Low, shrubby growth develops naturally in these cleared areas, creating a wide, gradual transition zone between field and forest.

Quail move into these spots immediately, because they provide protection from predators and easy access to the places where they eat, build nests and raise their chicks.

"From a quail's point of view, cutting down these trees does the same thing that dairy farmers used to do when they would cut trees for fence posts," said Moore. "They would leave the tree tops in the woods along the field edges, and the quail would move in."

Moore says that creating covey headquarters, like cutting fence posts, is a continuous job. Felled trees decay and disappear over time, and trees eventually replace shrubby growth.

"This kind of habitat just naturally disappears if you quit working the land and actively manipulating vegetation. This part of the job will never end."

Fire is another tool that Moore uses on a continuing basis to maintain high-quality quail habitat. Periodic prescribed burns clear out dead vegetation that otherwise would clog grassland, making it too dense for quail to use. Burning also creates bare ground that quail need for dusting and foraging for insects.

Moore recovers some of the cost of his wildlife habitat work with farm income. He works with tenant farmers who grow crops on his land for a share of the harvest. One year, he let the local Future Farmers of America chapter farm some of his land "on shares." Recently, he has converted 80 acres of row crops to solid stands of little blue stem and Indian grass and harvested the seed for sale. He keeps about 20 acres planted in small wildlife food plots and manages sunflower fields for dove hunting and wildlife food

Another way Moore offsets the cost of his wildlife habitat work is through cost-sharing provisions in the federal farm bill. About one-third of his acreage is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This program pays farmers to plant grass or other permanent vegetation to stop soil erosion on highly erodible land. In many cases, they make more money on land enrolled in the CRP than they would if they were growing corn, soybeans or other crops that expose the soil to erosion.

New provisions of the CRP recognize that the value of enrolled grassland to quail and other wildlife diminishes over time without discing, burning or other active management. By helping landowners keep pastures from growing too thick for quail to penetrate, the program enhances both soil and wildlife conservation.

Moore and his Conservation Department advisors are convinced that his farm is poised to make substantial gains in quail management. Other wildlife has benefitted from his management, too. Deer and turkey are abundant on the farm, and a wide array of songbirds, furbearers, reptiles and amphibians find homes in the habitat he has provided.

Moore says he has even found a good use for fescue grass. "I have left strips of it all over the farm," he said. "I love to come out here and drive around in my truck, check on the work and watch the animals. The fescue makes great driving lanes. I enjoy watching what's going on about as much now as I do the hunting."

The Conservation Department's Private Land Services Division helped Moore develop a management program suited to his particular needs and interests. To find out how they can help you manage your land, call the nearest Conservation Department regional office, or dial 573/751-4115 and ask for the Private Land Services Division.

- Jim Low -

 

 

 

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