Friday, April 4, 2014

Quail, Cows, and Bio-Char

A few years ago, I built an electric fence along the edge of the wheat field to make a lane in between two pastures so that I could easily move cattle back and forth at any time of the year.  Originally, I was just interested in the "easy way to move cattle back and forth" aspects of building the lane, but it's turned into a combination wildlife strip, grazing paddock, and easy way to move cattle.  

When I was a kid, there used to be more bobwhite quail around (or at least it seemed like there were more quail), and I've noticed that quail have started to show up in this lane for some reason.  I think it's a combination of being close to the trees on one side and the wheat field on the other, along with the areas of shorter grass in the lane due to how it's being grazed and brush hogged once in a while.  Edges create the right habitat for quail, and trimming the trees back from the fence should give me more depth to my edges and help create more depth.

I'd like to graze the lane a little differently by letting the cattle graze it in a modified "strip grazing" method where I'll move an a electric wire down the length of it a little at a time to get the stocking density up higher.  In the future, I'd like to implement a more intense grazing rotation on the farm (some sort of MiG grazing, or mob grazing), and this would be a good place to test and work out some details.  But, to do that I also need to clear out the brush and trees on the barb wire fence side so I can easily add another hot wire to that fence.

So, today I started trimming the trees and brush out of the original barb wire fence, starting on the south end of the lane.  For once, I lucked out and found myself cutting brush on a day when there wasn't 100% humidity and the temperature wasn't over 100 degrees.  If you look close, you can see some gate posts with a gate buried in that brush.
Before trimming - Brush-covered Gate

Another Before Trimming Picture
 It's amazing how quick the cutting goes when I'm not drowning in sweat, on the verge of heat stroke,  and don't have to fight my way through a bunch of leaves on the trees.   Since I planned on making bio-char out of some of these trees, I could just lop off the small limbs, then cut the bigger stuff into lengths and pile them up. 

If you look close you can even sort of see the gate posts and gate that were being strangled by those trees. I didn't get the exact same angle in the second picture, but if you really squint your eyes you can tell it's the same spot.   

You can already start to see the improved quail habitat after the trimming with the wheat, short grass, tall Johnson grass, then the trees, leaving plenty of places to eat, nest, and get away from predators.
After Trimming
 As soon as I had enough wood cut to fill up the pickup, it was quitting time. After all, I didn't want to trim the entire lane today because then I'd have to figure out something else to do tomorrow.

Pile of Wood that's eventually going to be Bio Char
Tomorrow, I'll start on the north end of the lane, and if I'd been about 30 seconds faster with the camera you would have seen the quail I kicked up right before I took this picture.  Just close your eyes and imagine them running towards the trees and then BAWPPHTTT flying up and over the fence.

North End of Lane - Looking South
It's not often that I accomplish three different things in one period of working, improving the habitat for my wildlife, making it easier to test out some grazing ideas, and getting some material to make more bio-char..  Plus, I got to see some quail as a bonus.


  1. It sure is easier to get things done when it isn't 100 degrees and humid.

    I'm always happy when I can get three things done at the same time. But if I could just get 100 things done at the same time, I might actually start to feel caught up around here...

    1. Fro me it's worse when it's humid, I can usually handle extreme heat. Except for the dieing of thirst stuff, I'd much rather live in a desert than a jungle.

      Sometimes I'm satisfied if I can get halfway done with a job, getting more than one thing done at the same time is a rare bonus.

  2. We used to have a fair number of quail up here in the early 80's but I can't even remember the last time I've seen one. I expect it has been 25 years or better. We had a couple hard winters back then that killed them off and this one we are just getting over with would have done the same had any the notion to try and make a go at it up here.

    I've spent many a late winter/early spring day clearing fence rows down on the farm. I'm not sure how many miles of fences my dad has but I do know it takes us about ten years to get through it all, just about time to turn around and start over again.

    I am reminded once of an invention I had for a moving gate for electric fence. It was essentially a u-shaped contraption that the wire threaded through on pulleys that when upright, you could push on some mounted small utility tires to move the gate to different positions through the field. When you didn't need a gate, it rotated down blocking the entrance. The idea was to put it along a lane like what you described and to move cattle into one of several paddocks for intensive grazing which was the rage back then. A neighbor and I went so far as to consult a patent lawyer on the idea but it was going to cost more than we cared to spend and so we never got it patented. We also never made a version because the neighbor with the cattle who sparked the idea from me ended up in prison and is still there. His cattle herd long gone to the sale barns. We never had cattle so I never build one myself.

    1. I'm not sure why there are less quail than there used to be, but I do know that there are a lot of people trying to figure out why there don't seen to be as many as there used to be.

      About 25 years ago, after a snow storm with relatively mild temperatures just below freezing, I found an entire covey frozen in about a 18 inch circle. I can't explain how I happened to stumble upon those dead quail, but they were all in a group tight together with their heads facing towards the center and somehow couldn't survive 30 degree temperatures.

      But, this year we had some ice and snow with the temperatures dropping to single digits, and I kicked up a big covey of quail soon after the snow all melted. Even though recent winters seem to be more severe, the quail seem to be increasing a little locally (or at least on the farm).

      Personally, I think switching to no-till has helped create a little more habitat for the quail, there always seems to be a covey of quail close to our no-till sorghum fields in the fall.

      That's one of the reasons I like no-till, the combination of stubble and rotations of wheat and sorghum seem to have increased the numbers of dove, quail, and deer along with other wildlife like raptors, mice, and rattlesnakes. I've been thinking about creating mowed strips around the perimeters of the fields to create even more wildlife habitat.

      That electric fence is built out of some wood posts I salvaged from rebuilt fences with some pinlock insulators and high-tensile wire. All I have to do to make a gate is pull the pin and either drop the wire to the ground to drive over it, or I can lift it with something like a 8' length of PVC for the cattle to walk under.

      It's almost hard to imagine a farm without livestock, to my way of thinking, they serve a valuable role in salvaging "failed" crops, and grazing untillable and rough land. I'd almost rather give up growing crops than give up the cattle.

  3. The winter that was hard on the quail was a winter where we got heavy snow followed by heavy freezing rain. It kind of seals them under the snow and they suffocate. I remember finding several coveys frozen to death in the manner you described back then.

    We almost always had 'livestock' on our farm. We started off with chicken and then honeybees and worked our way to hogs. After my younger brother went off to school, my parents decided to get out of the livestock business since they didn't have the manpower to do that and run the grain portion of the farm at the same time. To this day, they still have active hog buildings on their farm that they lease out to others.

    These days, there isn't much livestock in our area. The one exception is cattle. Most of the other livestock animals have been taken over by large corporation so there is no money in it for the little guy. Cattle still seems to be the exception to that rule though the high corn prices of recent years have been hard on them too.... at least up here.

    1. Almost all agriculture is regional and cattle seem to fit in easily with growing winter wheat.

      There's an awful lot of cattle wintered on wheat pasture locally. Wheat can either be harvested for grain, grazed out if cattle are worth more than the grain, or it can be cut for hay after taking the cattle off.

      The only time the price of corn is a factor for me with the cattle is when I'm buying cubes in the winter to supplement hay. And, if the price of cubes goes up it means that I'm probably going to get paid more for my sorghum and wheat.