This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy! You can view the magazine online by clicking here: Road to Discovery.
Located in the Green Hills region, in the north central portion of Missouri, the Forage Systems Research Center (FSRC) is known for developing and evaluating forage systems for all classes of beef cattle.
Like many other beef operations in the region, not only do cattle roam the fields, the area is home to wildlife of all kinds. Their habitat has undergone numerous changes over the years – and FSRC is working to rebuild that habitat.
To do that, FSRC has turned to edge feathering.
“We have a lot of wildlife around, from deer and turkey to quail, rabbits and squirrels,” said Superintendent David Davis. “So how can we incorporate wildlife habitat improvement in our grazing systems – and how do we do that in a way that not only benefits the wildlife but also does not adversely affect the livestock enterprise? We thought edge feathering could be a good option.”
Edge feathering is taking the border of the timber, where the timber edge meets crop ground or pasture ground, and modifying the hard timber border. Trees and brush from the timber are feathered out, creating brush piles that birds, rabbits, quail and other wildlife can use.
The piles that are created are made intentionally loose to give the wildlife an opportunity to get in and out quickly. It also gives solid cover from predators or adverse weather.
“Basically, you want to be able to drop a basketball through the pile and have it hit the ground,” Davis said. “It has to be loose for the critters to utilize it.”
Edge feathering offers wildlife more options than typical forest cover.
“This system gives the wildlife more diversity of habitat,” Davis said. “There isn’t much undergrowth in the timber. With edge feathering, there are more weeds and brush, which gives the wildlife more cover. Edge feathering also provides a food source, as you’ll get wild plum, blackberry or ragweed growing in the edge-feathered areas.”
FSRC has practiced edge feathering for more than five years. The Center hasn’t edge feathered the entire forest at one time. Davis said FSRC will edge feather for 100 feet, skip 100 feet and then do another grouping. Every year a new round of edge feathering takes place.
“You want to keep rotating,” Davis said. “That allows for new and diverse habitat to be created by promoting a succession of woody, annual and perennial species.”
Of the many focuses, one of the main ones has been on bringing quail back to the region.
“We’ve heard a lot more quail calling, as well as seen more coveys,” Davis said. “I’ve even seen some quail on the concrete close to our main building, which I haven’t seen in 15 years. You can definitely tell there are certain areas that they really like.”
As the quail population has increased, the next step is to start doing more population studies. FSRC has worked closely with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) on its edge feathering and habitat restoration projects. The Center worked with several other agency individuals and industry personnel as well.
“Everyone really helped us develop a rough sketch of a wildlife plan,” Davis said. “It was important to incorporate the grazing aspect into the plan.
“Right now, we’re still in that planning and observing phase.”
Davis said there is about 60 feet between the edge feathering and the pasture ground at FSRC. Most of that ground contained fescue grass. That grass type is tough for quail to navigate, especially baby quail.
“We have gone in and sprayed the fescue out,” he said. “We’ve put in native warm season-species and other forbs. Weeds are a great food source for quail. The warm season-species provide good cover for them as well. It’s definitely wildlife friendly.”
FSRC is not only turning the timber edge into a wildlife-friendly habitat, it is employing several areas where the land isn’t usable for crops or cattle for better wildlife management.
“We’ve worked on shrub, brush and tree establishment in rough areas that aren’t used in research,” Davis said. “These are smaller, odd-shaped and highly eroded parts of the Research Center. We definitely won’t use these for research pastures, so why not use it for the wildlife in the area?”
Timber and water quality are two other areas where FSRC is working to make improvements.
“Most of the timber on the property is representative of what’s in the area,” Davis said. “It’s low-value timber ground. We want to strengthen it in any way that we can. That means we’re going to have to go in and clear some of that out – and use some of it in our edge-feathering operation.”
As with many conversion projects, the work doesn’t happen overnight. FSRC is well on its way, though.
“More and more wildlife habitat is disappearing,” Davis said. “If you looked a few years ago in this region, row crop operations replaced a lot of grassy areas. That’s a tough environment for wildlife. If we can show people that they can improve habitat without hurting their operation, why not do it?
“It’s important to address the issues and provide demonstration for others to use. You have to take care of your resources. I want to leave this place better than it was. We want to be good stewards – and that’s what we’re trying to do.”