General land management practices of the past thirty-five to forty years have favored some species of wildlife, but quail is not one of them. For this reason most of us have to apply planning and effort to produce strong quail hunting land.
One of the challenges I enjoy about visiting various quail projects is that no two parcels of land are exactly alike. Due to various soil types, terrain, or previous management practices, I am often presented with familiar problems in unique settings. On the poor sandy soils of the southeast, one of these problems is too little cover to hold quail throughout the winter. For this reason it is always good to have a “bag of tricks,” otherwise known as sound management practices.What I want to share with you now are two of these practices that have helped me pull a rabbit out of a hat more than once.Trick Number One During early fall disk up (harrow) meandering strips throughout your quail courses and plant them with a mixture of Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa) and wheat. If you are accustomed to planting wheat or other cool season grazing for deer food plots, this will be easy for you to do. I generally mix eight to ten pounds of inoculated hairy vetch seed to each bushel of wheat and fill my grain drill or spreader (the grain drill works best). The mix should be put out at the rate of about two bushels per acre after the harrowed strips have been adequately limed and fertilized.During the winter you will notice the wheat, but the vetch remains low to the ground. Change begins when the warmer months arrive. As the landscape begins to experience “spring green-up” the wheat will put on several inches of height. The vetch, which by now you thought was not going to do anything, will also begin to grow and climb up the wheat stems.
In Georgia and South Carolina, by the end of March the strips look like a mix of wheat and vetch. By the end of April the vetch has begun to dominate the stand. In early May the lush green vetch is beginning to fade a bit as the seed matures and the wheat stalks become evident again. About a month later the vetch seed pods have matured, split open and thrown seed all over the ground.
Now if you had these plots scattered throughout your quail property, how would this help the birds? Let me explain. The vetch patches will be evident on the landscape while the surrounding weeds are still brown. This early greenery provides nutritional benefits directly to quail as well as attracting insects early in the growing season. The insects become a protein source for the birds as well. This scenario can boost the reproductive output of your breeding population, but that’s not the only benefit.
When hairy vetch has gone through the seed stage, it has just put 100 to 200 pounds of organic nitrogen per acre on the site at no further charge to you. During the summer months, weeds will begin to grow in the strips. Next winter’s frost will kill back the weeds, but the second spring will yield a repeat growth of the vetch which will again add more organic nitrogen to the soil. I have seen this process persist for eight years on some of my projects. You heard me right. We planted it one time and received several years of benefit.
This is a great economic way to build weak land, which will eventually result in better cover for quail. Before we move on, here are two final points to consider. First, there are many varieties of vetch and some are very expensive. However, hairy vetch is one of the less expensive types and can be purchased for about $1.25 per pound.
Secondly, be sure to inoculate your vetch seed with a type “C” inoculant before mixing it with the wheat. This will not take long and only costs a couple of dollars.
Trick Number TwoIf your land is located in the coastal plain of the southeast, you may want to consider the following suggestion. Harrow meandering strips through portions of your quail land during month of April and seed them with Hairy Indigo (Indigofera hirsuta). For best results use a grain drill with a small seed box. Put out 10 to 12 pounds of seed per acre. Unlike the vetch, you Do Not have to inoculate the indigo.
This plant tolerates soils of low pH and fertility, and like the hairy vetch, hairy indigo can help build up soil quality. Since hairy indigo will mature during the summer, it will also provide shade, protective cover, and bugging area for young broods of quail. During the winter it will form additional cover patches. Hairy indigo will naturally re-seed especially if stands are lightly disturbed with harrows the following April or May.
Trick Number ThreeOne other way to build up your soil quickly and cheaply is to spread chicken litter on it. Don’t turn up your nose. It smells, but it works.
Chicken litter is an organic fertilizer. This means it does not leach out as quickly as chemical fertilizers. The long-term effects include raising the pH of the soil and boosting phosphate and nitrogen. Litter from broiler houses is the most desirable since it minimizes the possibility of exposing wildlife to any infectious diseases and parasites. Hairy vetch, hairy indigo, and chicken litter may not be magic but more than once they have helped me put some muscle on otherwise weak land. I hope you will find at least one of these tricks helpful for your property as well.