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Beef and Bobwhites – How to Maximize Livestock Production While Helping Wildlife

Thanks to Nick Schell, a wildlife biologist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for sharing this article with us. I added the section pointing out conservation practices that farmers and ranchers might receive assistance in implementing.

You’re probably familiar with the northern bobwhite and its decline. The bobwhite, or what many of us call quail, has seen its population dip by more than 80 percent across large sections of its range during the past 60 years.

Farmers can greatly help the species with a few tweaks to their cattle operations.

Why Are Bobwhites in Decline?

Bobwhites are an “edge” species, meaning they seek brushy habitat where crop fields intersect with woodlands, pastures, and old fields. But this type of habitat is tough to find.  The rise of non-native forage for cattle and advanced agricultural equipment that leaves behind fewer weeds and brush have both decreased available habitat.

In many ways, cattle and bobwhites have become mutually exclusive. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Benefiting Beef and ‘Bobs’

To help reconnect cattle and quail, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is working with cattle producers to replace non-native forage grasses, like fescue, with native warm-season grasses that create productive and palatable grazing options for livestock while benefiting quail and other wildlife species.

By replacing non-native forages with native ones, producers can benefit from pastures that are more resilient to drought and more resistant to endophyte, a fungus found in fescue that impacts herd health. Operations that rely only on common cool-season forages, such as fescue and orchardgrass, may find it increasingly difficult to stay above the bottom line.

So the NRCS is recommending that you go “old school” by grazing on native forages.

In addition to improving soil and water quality, grazing native warm- season grasses can boost livestock productivity during the hot summer months when cool-season non-native forages go dormant (commonly known as the “summer slump”). Recent research from the University of Tennessee’s Center for Native Grassland Management shows that native warm-season grasses provided more and timely forage during the summer, and equal if not better weight gains. Natives also decrease feed and fertilizer costs, alleviate effects of fescue toxicosis, and their use allows rest periods for other types of pastures.

Working Lands for Northern Bobwhite

In addition to establishing native forages, the Natural Resources Conservation Service provides producers with assistance to plan and implement a variety of conservation practices. For example, they help producers establish field borders as well as plant trees, shrubs and hedgerows, which help create that “edge” habitat that quail need.

They also help producers improve grazing systems, offering assistance with prescribed grazing and installing cross fencing.  And they help producers manage for the plants they want with practices like prescribed burning and herbaceous weed control.

All these practices enable graziers to manage for good habitat for bobwhite and forage for cattle – at the same time.

Examples of Conservation Practices Good for Beef and Wildlife

Click to download the factsheet with lots more conservation practices benefiting wildlife and graziers.

NRCS offers a wide variety of conservation practices, as well as technical and financial assistance to help graziers improve their operations in ways that benefit bobwhite quail and many other species of wildlife. Download the factsheet “Working Lands for Northern Bobwhites” for some good examples of things you might consider.

Here’s just a sampling, and how they help quail and producers. I’m sure you can think of ways these practices might help the wildlife you’re concerned about:

Removal of Invasive woody species in grasslands

How does it help northern bobwhites?
Increases herbaceous ground cover used for nesting.

How does it benefit producers?
Improves forage availability. Increases groundwater recharge. Reduces soil erosion. Provides wildlife habitat. Reduces risks of catastrophic wildfires.

Planting grass and legumes suitable for pasture, hay or biomass production

How does it help northern bobwhites?
Allows grazing as a management tool to create the desired habitat.

How does it benefit producers?
Replaces endophyte-infected fescue and other poor-producing cool-season forages with productive, nutritious, and perennial summer forages. Reduces feed and fertilizer costs. Improves water quality. Reduces soil erosion.

Get Started Even If You Don’t Have Bobwhites

If you’re interested in maximizing livestock productivity while helping wildlife in need on your land, contact your local USDA NRCS Service Center to get started. USDA accepts applications for conservation programs on a continuous basis.

The NRCS’s “Working Lands for Wildlife” specifically targets eight national and 11 state-identified species to focus individual projects that meet both the needs of the species and the grazier. You can learn more about that program here.

WLFW targets include the greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, gopher tortoise, New England cottontail, golden-winged warbler, southwestern willow flycatcher, bog turtle, monarch butterfly and 11 state-identified species.

Nick Schell is a wildlife biologist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Ohio. He can be reached at

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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