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