Managing Field Borders

Managing Field Borders

Establishing and maintaining field borders around crop fields enhances habitat conditions for quail and other wildlife. Field borders can be managed for quail to provide nesting cover and brood range during spring/summer, and food and cover during fall/winter. Field borders can reduce soil erosion and improve water quality, with minimal impacts on crop production. Recent advances in precision farming show that field borders often are not economical to farm due to the reduction in sunlight and loss of nutrients from adjacent forest stands. In many cases, setting aside these sites, maintaining them in native grasses, forbs, and shrub-vine thickets improves quail habitat while saving money on agricultural practices. 

Width and Location--How wide should field borders be to provide habitat for quail? The answer is the wider the better. However, leaving as little as 10 feet may provide benefits, while 30+ feet would be much better. A good approach is to use the width of the disc harrow, or multiples of the width, which will facilitate strip management. If possible, maintain field borders around the entire crop field to connect fallow corners and other adjacent habitats. However, field borders along even one side of a crop field may provide significant benefits for quail. 

Disking--Field borders can be managed like long, linear fallow fields by combinations of winter disking and planting. For example, 1/3 to 1/2 of the border can be disked each year in November through February and allowed to remain fallow the following summer. Winter disking encourages development of the “good weeds” (ragweed, partridge pea, beggar-weeds, etc.) that provide quail with brood range and fall/winter foods. As a general rule, field borders should not be disked during the spring/summer months, as this will eliminate critical brood rearing cover and encourage “bad weeds” (sickle pod, Johnson grass) that do not provide fall/winter food. 

Planting--Planting can be an integral part of managing field borders 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. Wheat or oats can be planted during late fall. These plantings should be established in strips, then allowed to remain fallow the following year and rotated across the border. Plant only a small portion of the border in any given year, maintaining the remainder in weeds and grasses that provide adequate nesting cover and brood range. Additionally, plant reseeding annuals like partridge pea, kobe lespedeza and beggarweed, then encourage these to reseed with periodic winter soil disturbance. Woody shrubs and vines should be planted and maintained to provide shade, escape cover and loafing areas. Good choices include plum, blackberry and wax myrtle. Ideally field borders should be comprised of about 1/3 each of clumped native grasses, annual weeds and legumes, and shrub-vine thickets.  

Mowing--Mowing has limited value in managing field borders for quail as it encourages formation of dense mats of vegetation at the ground level, which serve as an obstacle, especially to chicks. If used, mowing should occur only in late February through mid-March. Never mow during the April through September nesting season. 

Herbicides--Herbicides are often needed to control the invasion of trees and/or exotic grasses into field borders. Even with frequent soil disturbance, sweetgum and other light-seeded trees may invade field borders and shade-out desirable plants. Spot spraying with an approved herbicide can solve this problem quickly. Another common problem is the invasion of Bermuda grass and other exotic grasses, into and underneath the weed canopy of field borders. These grasses restrict quail movement and become so thick as to out-compete desirable vegetation. The best solution is broadcast spraying of an approved herbicide within, and adjacent to, the border prior to establishment. Then, herbicides can be used on a periodic and localized basis to maintain control of the exotic grasses within field borders. For specific herbicide types and rates, managers should consult their county extension agent or an herbicide company representative.

--Reggie Thackston, Georgia DNR, Wildlife Resources Division




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