Skip Navigation

Pint-Sized Management Plan

By Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

“I’m managing the ranch not just for my five foot tall cows, but also for quail that are only four inches tall,” says Henrietta, Texas rancher Brent Durham. “With the high intensity grazing, the cattle come into a pasture and eat what they can, or tromp what they don’t eat in the ground. This adds organic matter which improves soil quality, and also promotes plant diversity as well as keeps the plants in a vegetative state, which wildlife like. Their grazing then leaves a visible path for dove, turkey and quail to come in and forage behind them.”

After spending 30 years in the car business, 20 of that as a dealership owner, Durham knew what he wanted to do when he retired: hunt.  He was born and raised in Louisiana, however in 2012 he came back to his family’s roots in Clay County, Texas to purchase a 5,000 acre ranch, a portion of which his family homesteaded in the 1880s.

“I was a quail hunter before I was a rancher,” he says. “I bought this place because I wanted wildlife habitat.

“I’m originally from southeast Louisiana which they call ‘The Sportsman’s Paradise,’” Durham relates. “But I’m going to have to disagree. I think it’s right here in Clay County. I don’t know where else you can go for world class deer, dove, quail, and turkey.”

Durham says when he bought the property it was overgrazed and in “pretty bad shape.” He headed to the local USDA Service Center to visit with conservation specialists with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Together they worked on a conservation plan that helped Durham determine stocking rates for his land, as well as address some issues on his land such as mesquite overgrowth and erosion problems in areas that didn’t have plant cover.

Programs that benefit Quail Habitat

“I have only been ranching full time since 2012,” Durham states. “But I have been coming to the area since I was a kid so I know the country well. I have been a hunter all of my life, mostly on hunting leases around the United States, and I have seen the difference management makes for quail and wildlife habitat.

“One of the worst things I have seen happen to good quail country is to take livestock off of it,” Durham continues. “Quail and turkey can’t get through waist high grass. Cattle can be an excellent tool for managing quail habitat, and really almost all wildlife habitat for that matter.”

He visited with Clay County’s NRCS’ District Conservationist Kenny Prewitt about management programs offered through the agency that would benefit the native northern bobwhite quail, while still being an effective business tool for his cow-calf operation. Prewitt suggested the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which helps elevate agriculture producer’s level of stewardship on their land. He explained that farmers and ranchers that enroll in the program can choose suites of conservation practices from over 200 stewardship enhancement activities offered through the program.

“CSP is a great option because landowners can pick and choose the practices that fit their stewardship goals,” Prewitt says. “People can gear their efforts toward wildlife habitat while still improving their production goals.

“CSP also helps keep the wide open spaces open,” Prewitt adds. “It’s an investment that keeps working lands working while improving the environment for the benefit of all of us.”

Durham enrolled in CSP in 2015, with an emphasis on implementing an intensive rotational grazing system to benefit quail habitat.  Additional practices Durham implemented through CSP to benefit quail include adding wildlife escape ramps to his livestock watering facilities and planting quail food plots with a crop rotation system that includes milo and sunflowers in the summer and radishes in the winter.

A Habitat Habit

In his system, Durham grazes several hundred head of cows in a small area, 30-50 acres, for a short time period, only a day or two. He has divided his entire ranch into over 60 pastures, with each small pasture grazed just three to four times per year. 

“Ever since I started this intensive rotational grazing through CSP I have definitely seen the quail numbers come up,” he comments. “Of course well timed rains have helped, but the management practices have to already be in place for the rain to be effective.

“I am just seeing so many great things happen on the land with this high intensity grazing system,” he says. “The more I see the impact of the cattle movement and grazing, the more I want to do. The improvement in my grasses and pounds per acre has been really dramatic since I changed to this system three years ago.”

Staying Connected

Bobwhite quail populations have declined over the past 40 years, which experts attribute to the loss of rural lands and habitat fragmentation. Sitting just ninety miles northwest of the sky rise buildings of downtown Fort Worth, urban sprawl is edging ever closer to the county. Many in the area consider it to be the edge of the last of the Wild West frontier in Texas, with many ranches still having large contiguous tracts of land with 5,000 acres or more intact.

“Private landowners in this area have a long history of working with us to make desired habitat improvements on their land, which in turn will benefit and increase quail populations, as well as other wildlife species,” says USDA-NRCS District Conservationist Kenny Prewitt in Henrietta, Texas.  “Bobwhites play a valued role in the ecosystem cycle of life and are a key indicator of changes in other grassland bird populations. Conservation management that improves quail populations will also benefit a wide array of migratory and songbird species.”

Area landowner’s commitment to conservation is reflected in the number of farmers and ranchers who worked with NRCS office to voluntarily develop conservation plans on over 100,000 of the county’s 700,000 acres. Clay County landowners currently have over 51,000 acres enrolled in CSP.

The fact that Clay County landowners are such good stewards of their land and strive to keep it together caught the attention of University of North Texas (UNT) Assistant Professor Kelly Reyna. Reyna is the executive director of UNT Quail, a nationally recognized wildlife program that fosters sustainable quail populations through innovative research, conservation, and education.   In 2012 he approached six Clay County ranchers, including Durham, who came to be the founding participants in the North Texas Quail Corridor when they enrolled over 100,000 contiguous acres in Reyna’s research program in the corridor. The corridor is now one of the largest quail conservation efforts in the nation, covering more than 2 million acres.

“These ranchers have exceptional conservation ethics,” Dr. Reyna says of Durham and his neighbors. “They understand that they can have good stewardship and make money on the land. Our hope is that they can be a role model and a key in helping us bring quail back on a broad scale.

“CSP is one of several USDA programs that help them accomplish their stewardship goals while being compatible with developing quail habitat,” he adds.

Keeping the West Wild

“This area has some of the last large tracts of the historic Tallgrass Prairie,” Durham comments.  He is referring to the vast expanses of tall grasses encountered by early settlers. The region is dominated by a suite of tall grasses that can attain height of over six feet on good productive soils, including Big bluestem, Indian grass, Switch grass, and Little bluestem. The climate and productive soils in the area also offer a wide array of forbs production, creating prime habitat for a diverse group of wildlife, especially grassland birds.

“I really can’t say it enough – grazing has been my main focus for developing quail habitat,” Durham expresses. “Cattle are the tool I use to create their habitat. If I didn’t graze it, the grass would get too tall, thick and rank and quail couldn’t travel. Grazing a patch of ground once every 90 or so days keeps the grass in a regenerative state. That’s what wildlife like – tender, fresh forbs and grasses. And the grazing creates nesting cover that is hard to develop any other way.”

Except for some mesquite control, Durham doesn’t treat his land with any herbicides and pesticides.

“Cows will eat almost anything if they have to,” Durham says. “I don’t want to kill stuff my cows will eat and that are also good forbs for wildlife. When I force them in a small area they are less selective.

“The biggest thing about not using herbicides is you get more diversity and that is the number one thing you are looking for with wildlife: a big, big range of grasses and forbs,” he adds. “If you stop grazing, then you lose that diversity.”

Durham admits developing the water sources and the miles and miles of fencing needed to create the small pastures have been no small task.

“I knew this was how I wanted to graze my ranch (high intensity), but I just thought it was going to take me a lot longer to get it done,” Durham says. “The financial assistance with CSP helped me speed up that plan and get it accomplished much sooner than I ever imagined.”

Durham originally bought the ranch for hunting, which he still enjoys, but his focus has changed a bit in that he now enjoys seeing how he can make management tweaks to improve the habitat on his ranch that an increasing number of wildlife call home.

Pint-Sized Management Plan, Dee Ann Littlefield, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist (2018, March)