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Fallow Field Management

Fallow Field Management

Fallow fields provide early successional habitat for many wildlife species.

When a field is abandoned or “fallowed,” it quickly begins reverting to forbs and grasses, referred to as early succession.  This successional stage consists of bare ground, grasses, herbaceous plants (those with non-woody stems) as well as woody shrubs and small trees.  Early successional fields provide diversity to a forested landscape and essential habitat for bobwhite quail and certain songbirds.  Fallow fields also are beneficial to wild turkey, cottontail rabbit, white-tailed deer and many other species.  To maintain fallow fields, disking, prescribed burning, mowing, planting and herbicide treatments can be helpful separately or in combinations.  Maintain fallow fields by applying these techniques on a rotational basis over a three to four year period.  Note that results will sometimes vary depending on site and technique. 

Exotic grass control is often a necessary first step in managing fallow fields. Fescue (North and Central), Bermuda and Bahia (Central and South) grasses are often present, are an impediment to wildlife and native vegetation, and must be controlled for successful fallow field management. Bermuda is too thick for bobwhites, out competes native plants and can serve as a heat trap in summer. Contact your local Extension or Game Management Section office for specific details on Bermuda control.

Winter disking sets back plant succession and maintains a mix  of annual and perennial plants, important to quail for nesting and brood rearing.   Quail usually nest in clumped grasses and near brood range, which is comprised of canopied forbs or grasses that are open underneath where chicks can maneuver and find insects. Winter disking breaks up the soil, encouraging ragweed and partridge pea, which provide cover, seeds and insects.  Insects are an important protein source for quail, turkey and songbirds.  A good rule of thumb is to disk one-third of an opening or fallow field in strips each winter.   See fallow disking comparison pictures here.  

Prescribed burning removes thatch from dead grass, but does not disturb the soil like disking.  Burning sets back woody plants by “girdling” small hardwood trees and shrubs. Burning improves browse production and increases legume and insect abundance.  Winter burning (December through February) is usually best.  However, if the management goal is to control small trees, it is best to burn during the early growing season (April through May).   

Mowing, although often misused, can be an effective management tool. However, repeatedly mowing the same portion of a field encourages dense mats of vegetation, an obstacle to quail, especially for chicks.  Mowing helps promote early succession areas that benefit wild turkey, rabbit and deer.  Mowing also helps to keep small trees from encroaching and shading out the more beneficial food and cover plants.  To avoid disrupting ground-nesting birds, mow in late winter (February through mid-March).  Do not mow during the April through September nesting season.   

Planting can be an integral part of managing fallow fields for quail and other wildlife. Plant annual grains like corn, Egyptian wheat, brown top millet and grain sorghum in the spring and summer to provide food and cover into the winter.  These plantings should be established in strips, then allowed to remain fallow the following year and rotated across the opening.  Plant reseeding annuals like partridge pea, ragweed, kobe lespedeza, and beggarweed, then encourage reseeding with periodic winter soil disturbance as part of the rotational disking program.  Where shrub cover is needed to break up large openings, plant hedgerows or clumps of plum or wax myrtle.  While plantings can be used to augment food and cover, they are not a magical solution.  To be most effective, plantings must be used in combination with large-scale habitat management practices that are directed at meeting yearlong habitat requirements. 

-- Reggie Thackston, Georgia DNR, Wildlife Resources Division




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