By Aila Boyd
Botetourt County is now a bonus area for the “Beef N Bobs” program, which works to improve cattle grazing while also restoring bobwhite quail habitats, through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. By being in a bonus area, Botetourt farmers are more likely to receive financial assistance to aid in their participation in the program.
“We’ve tried to find things that will help the farmer and the quail at the same time. The result is this new initiative that we’ve coined Beef N Bobs. It is planting grasses that were historically here on the landscape before we put fescue everywhere that is also a great forage for cattle during the summer months,” Andrew Rosenberger, a southwest Virginia-based private land biologist that works with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The Beef N Bobs program allows farmers the ability to remove the fescue from some of their grazing fields and replace it with grasses that are native to the area. By doing so, farmers are able to shift their cattle onto the fields with native grasses during the months that fescue fields aren’t as productive.
He noted that although realistic estimates for quail populations in the area aren’t available, they’re certainly down from where they were roughly 50 years ago.
One of the things that inhibits the growth of the local quail population, he said, is the way in which land is managed. Back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the way that land was managed was more conducive for the birds, he said. But now, a lot of their habitats have been removed, which has in turn decreased their numbers.
Big snow events are also harmful to quail populations, Rosenberger said. “Snow and quail don’t go together too well.” Unlike turkeys, quails aren’t as adept at scratching for food in the snow.
Right now, he said, the existing quail population only has bad and marginal habits. “What they like, we humans don’t like very much,” he said. “They like weedy thickets that we deem unsightly, areas that we bush hog.” He added that quail are an open field species and for that reason, fully grown forests also aren’t ideal for them.
“Since the heyday of quail, we’ve introduced fescue everywhere. Fescue has a different growth characteristic than what our native plants have. It grows like a thick carpet and quail want to walk everywhere they go. Because of that, it hinders their walking,” he said. He noted that although fescue has been helpful for farmers in terms of grazing, it has also negatively impacted quail populations.
For those interested in the program, Rosenberger cautioned that there are advantages and disadvantages.
Historically, he said, cattle farms haven’t had as many cows on them as they do today because the native grasses weren’t able to sustain grazing in the way that fescue does. The native grasses go dormant for roughly nine months out of the year, which led farmers to look for more sustainable alternatives such as fescue.
“The introduction of fescue has changed the game for the farmer because they can graze many more months out of the year, so they only have to feed hay for a couple of months. That has allowed them to better utilize their land by keeping more animals,” he explained.
However, fescue has its downsides in addition to not being conducive to quail populations.
Native grasses grow in the hot, dry summer months unlike fescue, which goes dormant during the summer because it’s a cold season grass. “When September starts coming around again, it starts to cool off and fescue starts growing gangbusters again,” he said.
Another benefit of the Beef N Bobs program is that because cattle are alternated back and forth between fescue and native grasses during the seasons when each is most productive, weight is being put on year-round. “Our studies are showing that animals grazing on these native grasses are putting on two plus pounds per day, which there’s no way you could achieve that with fescue during the summer months,” he said. “It fills that hole of when fescue isn’t growing. It’s a good supplemental forage source for the landowner.”
Unlike with fescue, the native grasses do not have to be fertilized and the fields do not have to be limed. Rosenberger noted that because fescue is originally from Europe, fertilization is required in order to mimic the nonacidic and nutrient-rich soil that it originally evolved to grow in. “The input cost in managing these native grasses are much lower. They can grow in our acidic soil, so liming isn’t required. Fertilizing, for the most part, doesn’t have much of an impact on them because they evolved to grow in our soils,” he said.
Rosenberger noted that studies have shown that cattle and quail get along “just fine in the native grass plantings.”
To date, Rosenberger said that only a handful of Botetourt-based farmers have participated in the program, which was launched roughly one year ago.
Rosenberger explained that although it’s difficult to say what the exact cost would be for farmers who want to switch over some of their fescue fields to native grasses because of all of the variables that a local cattle farmer that he recently worked with paid $200 per acre. The figure includes herbicide, labor, and seed. “It’s an initial investment, but the farmer recoups those costs in a short amount of time based on the weight gain of their animals and from the savings on lime and fertilizer that they’re no longer putting on the fields,” he said.
Additionally, he said, the Virginia Natural Resource Conservation Service is equipped to help farmers shoulder the startup costs. Because Botetourt County is a target area for the conservation service, its farmers are more likely to receive approval on their grant applications. Counties that surround Botetourt are also included in the bonus area; however, they are not as high on the conservation service’s target area list. Unlike other programs, the Beef N Bob program has its own funding source, which means that applicants are not competing for funding with other programs that the Natural Resource Conservation Service sponsors.
“If they apply for this program, they’re only competing against other individuals that have applied for this specific program,” he said. “Up until this point, I believe almost everyone who has applied for the program has been funded.”
To inquire about the Beef N Bob program, contact Andrew Rosenberger by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (540) 585-3627. Those interested in the program can also visit the closest Natural Resource Conservation Service office.