Improve Quail Habitat and Boost Farm Productivity

Game On!

Pollinator plots and conservation plantings on low-yielding soils provide much-needed habitat for quail and other wildlife. (Chaz Holt)

Nick McMichen and Bud Hargrove farm at opposite ends of Georgia, but both desire to improve quail habitat on their less-than-prime farmland. The producers are collaborating with Quail Forever (QF) conservation initiatives aimed at boosting farm productivity by shifting low-producing, unprofitable acres into managed wildlife habitat.

Quail Forever, an offshoot of Pheasants Forever, works to secure or enhance upland wildlife habitat in the United States and parts of Canada. To date, that's been accomplished on nearly 16 million acres, which includes land open to the public for hunting.

Chaz Holt, Quail Forever's precision agriculture and conservation specialist, says the efforts are a win-win for farmers and wildlife.

"Every farmer I know is aware of problem spots in their fields," Holt explains. "They know from actual production history (APH) they have created with yield maps and farm records they have ditch areas and 'rough country' that cost $700 per acre to farm, but they're only getting less than $500 return in those spots.

"It just makes sense for them to stop farming those acres and use their expensive inputs and seed on more productive land, because it boosts the overall return on investment (ROI) of their operation," he continues.

Also, through the various conservation-enhancement programs offered by state and federal agencies, participating growers receive financial incentives to improve wildlife habitat on enrolled acres.

COVEYS AND PROFITS RETURN

McMichen's farm straddles the Georgia/Alabama line at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He grows about 4,000 acres of no-till cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat on fields ranging from rocky, thin soils to deep, alluvial river bottomland. For three years, he's worked with Quail Forever on a 30-acre set-aside within a 700-acre field.

"Using our precision agriculture yield maps, we knew we had low-producing upland areas and (land) along streambeds that were pulling down our APH," McMichen explains. "When we quit farming those acres and started managing them for quail habitat, we realized we had more money in our pocket each year.

"We're also seeing quail coveys returning to those areas. We hadn't seen quail there in years," he adds.

McMichen noticed a bonus benefit from the conservation plantings, which involves native grasses and, in certain areas, sunn hemp. The plantings provided another food source for deer, which were feeding on valuable cash crops.

"We planted 2 acres of sunn hemp (a legume that can grow 8 feet tall) on a 100-acre field where a previous owner had stripped the topsoil, leaving it very poor-quality farmland," he says. "In 30 days, the deer were grazing the fresh forage, leaving adjacent cotton to grow unharmed."

That planting alone returned a positive ROI on the cotton in the field, he continues. "That's also where we began seeing the quail return."

McMichen says between the improved ROI on his productive land and the improved Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) payments through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), he foresees a 2-to-1 payback on the acres he's returning to wildlife habitat. He's enrolled with NRCS on a per-acre payment for planted acres through CSP.

"We're only at 30 acres right now, but we hope to identify lower-producing areas across our whole farm to enroll in habitat programs," he says.

MORE QUAIL/LESS RENT

In South Georgia, near Edison, Bud Hargrove farms 580 acres in Calhoun County that he rents from Brent Cuddy, a non-farmer landowner who says he has a "passion for conservation and the land and people of the area."

The duo recently struck a handshake, three-year agreement to enroll 55 acres of the farm in a pilot program sponsored by Quail Forever and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Holt says the program targets areas where DNR biologists think quail will most benefit. It pays the landowner slightly more than the going rental rate to enroll acres in the habitat set-aside.

Cuddy met Holt after learning of the habitat programs at a sustainability meeting sponsored by Cotton Inc. Cuddy was intrigued.

Cotton Inc., a nonprofit providing resources and research to help develop and market cotton products, is in partnership with Quail Forever and supports the upland conservation habitat mission, Holt explains.

"QF is subsequently helping Cotton Incorporated meet its goals for improvements in sustainability. Farmers and landowners use conservation enhancement to improve their farms and document this through the Cotton Trust Protocol program, being promoted through Cotton Incorporated," he says.

"Chaz showed me a way for my tenants to make more money, while at the same time, we could improve wildlife and pollinator habitat," Cuddy explains. "If you have areas in your farm where it doesn't pay to plant and fertilize, habitat improvement is a good thing to do with (the acres)."

In addition to improving conditions for turkey and quail, these programs can improve water quality through reduced erosion and provide perennial covers to sequester carbon, he adds.

"I think programs like these are a good model for future cooperation between agriculture and companies and individuals who share land stewardship interests," Cuddy continues. "Bud is excited to be part of this because of his interest in conservation, plus it's providing him an off-season paycheck. I'm pleased to give the wildlife improved cover, plus the program offers a slight financial advantage over dryland rent."

Hargrove grows irrigated cotton, corn and peanuts in a three-year rotation. He describes the farm as ranging from raw red dirt to sandy land.

"The land we dedicated to the DNR program are acres where 90% of the time, it doesn't pay to plant," he explains. "In my agreement with Brent, he lowered my rent by the amount of the program payment and is paying me to plant cover on the land to improve habitat.

"I'll see better overall returns from my farming operation on more productive land and get paid to take care of the acres we're turning over to the quail."

Hargrove says much of the set-aside is "dry corners" around irrigation sprinklers and other areas not ideal for row-crop production.

"These programs are needed in our area," Hargrove says. "There have been so many acres removed from wildlife habitat with the influx of center-pivot irrigation and overall row-crop production, along with recent installations of solar arrays, we need to do something.

"Despite our best efforts so far, quail numbers seem to continue to dwindle," he adds.

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For More Information:

-- Growers and landowners interested in the conservation programs can contact Chaz Holt, with Quail Forever, at cholt@quailforever.org

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