Open Field Management for Wildlife

Fallow Field Management

Old fields provide quality wildlife habitat for a variety of species. Most woodland wildlife species frequently use these areas at various times of the year, and for rabbits and quail they are the best thing going. Whether such habitats on your property are small odd areas or large fields they should be retained and kept as old fields. If your primary interest is quail, you should keep these areas from being overgrown by woody vegetation through the use of either discing, burning or a combination of both. Relatively small areas or those of irregular shape should be maintained by discing every two to four years depending on how much brush is invading and how much bare ground is left. Large blocks should be burned on a two to three year rotation depending on the amount of brush and litter on the ground. Avoid mowing if quail habitat is your goal since quail prefer annual plants and bare ground. Mowing promotes perennial vegetation and a great deal of thatch. Use disking and burning whenever possible.

Row Cropped Areas

Row crops provide high quality food for a variety of wildlife species. For small game species, especially quail, the quality of this type of area can be greatly enhanced by leaving a 25 to 50-foot wide fallow strip around the field edges. Raising grain produces marginal profits; on the whole, leaving the least productive part of your field fallow makes good economic sense. At a width of 50 feet, you would have to leave a strip 871 feet long to have left one acre out of production. An option is to put this land in the USDA's set-aside program if eligible. This fallow strip should be maintained as described above. To make it more valuable to wildlife, plant 50-100 foot sections to clover, bicolor or korean lespedeza, or bird patches (bob-white soybean, millet, and milo). Leave 10-15 foot wide strips of unharvested grain adjacent to the fallow area. Avoid fall plowing whenever possible.

Pasture and Haylands

To enhance pastures and hayfields for wildlife eliminate the fescue. Fescue is the single worst thing we can plant when it comes to wildlife. For the most part animals avoid these areas in preference to ... just about anything! Orchard grass is far better in forage quality and for wildlife. Where orchard grass is not an option, fescue stands should be maintained with as much clover as possible. Not only does this provide a far superior forage for livestock (including a good buffer against summer fescue syndrome), it insures both food and insect populations valuable to wildife.

Alfalfa is probably the best planting available for deer and turkeys. New varieties adapted to Southern climates are available and can make an outstanding contribution to a forage program. For quail and rabbits, another outstanding option is the establishment of perennial warm season grasses such as big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass. These species are native to Virginia and provide outstanding summer grazing - at a time when fescue is at its worst - both in terms of palatability and yield. Warm season grasses grow well on poor fertility and low pH soils while providing high quality nesting, brood and winter cover for quail! Contact the county extension agent about some of these management options. The enclosed brochures provide more detail on establishment and management of warm season grasses.

Cool Season Grass and alfalfa hay fields are often used as nest sites by a variety of birds. By leaving a 30-50 foot wide strip along the field edge unharvested until the second cutting most of these nests could be saved.

Fescue Conversion

Fields that have some or a lot of fescue are usually very poor wildlife habitat. Whether your goals for the property are for pasture and haylands or for wildlife habitat alone, you would be better off eliminating the fescue. The field could be converted to a combination of food or cover plantings and fallow land. Other options are available that provide both better forage production and wildlife habitat. In either case the fescue must first be eliminated. This can be accomplished by one of two approaches. If the land is not too steep and erosion is not a serious threat the area could be bottom plowed two years in a row in October. Plowed ground should be leveled and planted with some type of crop such as wheat that will serve both to hold soil and smother the fescue. After the second spring a wildlife planting or a forage crop could be no-tilled into the grain stubble. This land could also be left fallow with native plants taking over the site.

If tillage is not feasible, two successive treatments with an herbicide would be effective. The field should be mowed in mid September to remove any rough and to insure the fescue will be actively regrowing when it is sprayed. Spraying should occur about two weeks later ( early to mid-October ) when the grass is vigorously growing. Then in early to mid-April when any residual fescue will be actively growing a second application should be made. This last treatment can often be at a lower rate of herbicide. At this point the field could be no-till drilled with either an alternate forage crop or a wildlife planting as mentioned above with plowing. With few exceptions, whatever is planted in the field, or if it is left fallow, the quality of wildlife habitat will be greatly improved!