Fall Strip Discing Quail Habitat

We are all familiar with the motel sign that reads, “Please Do Not Disturb.”This is definitely one sign you don’t want hanging on your quail hunting fields. If performed correctly, disturbing the soil during the winter months can improve this winter’s hunting and also be an inexpensive method to keep your fields productive for the future.
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What is “soil disturbance”?

This usually refers to the process of harrowing strips through fallow fields. This can be performed with a small tractor pulling harrows.

What time of year is this done?

Strip discing is performed during the fall and winter months throughout the Southeast. Harrowing field strips during the winter encourages the growth of seed producing plants like ragweed, beggar weed, and partridge pea. Spring discing is avoided because it has a tendency to promote less desirable plants such as coffee weed or crabgrass.

Clay Sisson is the Albany Quail Project leader. In the southeast, Clay has found that results of strip discing are much better if you can harrow the strips twice. The first effort can be conducted from late October to December. This usually cuts down much of the standing vegetation but doesn’t turn the dirt as well. The second cutting can take place in early February. This second pass will cut a lot better because the harrow discs are not riding on so much debris. If for some reason you are running too late to make the second pass before mid-February, then be content with your first cut.

What does strip discing accomplish?

If we were to look at an abandoned farm field with one year of weed growth, this would be referred to as a one-year rough. The second year’s growth is called a two-year rough and so on. Quail prefer a two-year to three-year rough plant community (annual weeds) mixed with scattered patches of heavier protective cover offered by a four to five year rough (scattered plum thickets and briar patches). What strip discing allows you to do is keep a mixture of what we have just described. If you do not strip disc, the entire field will all be at the same stage of growth and thus, less productive.

Various Approaches of Strip Discing

Use common sense when you get on the tractor. As you begin working the field you need to be thinking like the quail, the bird dog, and the hunter all at the same time. If you take out too much cover, you have made it easier for the predators to find your quail. If you leave too much cover, it will be too difficult to hunt. With this in mind, let’s examine several different ways to accomplish soil disturbance.

Some people will strip disc with a checker board pattern. This process looks just like it sounds. The tractor makes a pass straight across the field, skips over about four harrow widths and goes back across the field. Once this is completed, the procedure is repeated up and down the field. The following winter this process is repeated, except the harrows are run about half way between the strips cut the previous year. Last year’s strips are usually visually evident because the vegetation is now different than the rest of the field.

If you choose this method, remember to go around or leave some patches of heavier vegetation as you encounter them. This will make good escape cover in the field.

The advantage of this method is that it’s more or less a “no brainer” kind of approach. The disadvantage lies in the fact that the strips are straight. Because the strips are straight, a sharp-eyed hawk can perch from a vantage point and observe quail anytime they move across a harrowed strip. This would be much like a deer hunter looking down a cut out shooting lane from his deer stand.

A second approach involves a slight modification of the checker board pattern. Instead of harrowing straight lines you simply meander your way across the field cutting gentle curves. Then repeat the process up and down the field. The results are the same but the gentle curves create blind spots as you look down the rows. This slight modification can give the quail a much better chance to move around the area undetected. Try this and you will be amazed at the difference it will make.

One fellow I know, came up with a third modification to the checker board technique a few years ago. I tried it and it works quite well as long as your soil is very sandy. He harrowed the field in connected circles from one end to the other and repeated the process up and down the field until completed. The diameter of the circles was about 30 or 40 feet. This method was quick and easy. Another benefit was the ease at which we could locate the dogs and traverse the field in any direction without smashing down valuable late season cover. The next year we just staggered the circles from the previous year’s disturbance.

All three of these approaches work well on smaller tracts of land, but on a larger tract of property you may want to consider another approach that I call “patch work discing”. This technique simulates the old small field farming practices because you actually harrow up small fields of three to five acres, leaving a block of similar size undisturbed. This means that a hundred-acre field would contain about twenty such patches. Each year about one third of the patches would be turned under. This practice results in the entire acreage being disturbed over a three-year period. This method also keeps the land in a constant mix of our preferred habitat. Leaving narrow strips undisturbed between these fields we can begin to create hedgerows of heavy escape cover. This method is also helpful if you are planting deer food plots on the same tract.

During the winter months keep in mind what you are trying to do and take advantage of the opportunity to make improvements through the practice of soil disturbance. Instead hooking up to the bush hog mower, hook up to the harrows. Winter discing is an effective and efficient means to give your quail fields a wake up call.

For greater detail on how discing and other practices can transform your hunting land, you may want to obtain a copy of Jim’s new DVD called, “Managing Quail Fields”. This DVD allows you to be with Jim while he is conducting various field management techniques.

To find out more about this new DVD, CLICK HERE.

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