There’s a bird in there! Easy boy, easy. Hold him!” said Keith McDill, owner of Sweet Time Hunting Preserve in Heflin, Ala., as he issued commands to Farmer, an English Pointer he trained and gave to Cleburne County Farmers Federation President Ted Campbell.Campbell, flanked by his son, Garrett, shouldered his shotgun anxiously waiting for the explosion of a quail blasting out of a patch of withering sorghum during a recent quail hunt held on an 800-acre tract of farmland he and McDill share through lease agreements. Campbell has been leasing the land for row cropping since 1982, and McDill started leasing hunting rights in 1995 to start a hunting preserve. Campbell and McDill are connected by more than land. They also share a love of bird hunting and a desire to enhance conservation and improve wildlife habitat–in addition to being related to the Bennett family who owns the land.Campbell is a cousin to the Bennetts and McDill is married to the former Liz Bennett. McDill, his wife, and two children, Reid and Anna, moved to Heflin to live on the portion of the Bennett Farm which Liz’s late father, Roland, owned.Previously, McDill guided hunts and trained dogs at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., for six years.”We came to Heflin to help care for my wife’s family’s share of the Bennett Farm,” said McDill. “I wanted to use my experience learned at Callaway to start a hunting preserve on the Bennett land. (At that time) Ted was already leasing it for farming.” McDill’s first challenge was getting permission to guide bird hunts through Campbell’s row crops. “Ted was here first, and from a financial standpoint, he had nothing to gain by letting me hunt between his rows,” said McDill.Fortunately, Campbell’s childhood interest in bird hunting and McDill’s assurance that he would respect the crops by not driving through them or causing crop damage persuaded Campbell and the Bennett family to let the hunting preserve begin.The next obstacle McDill faced was providing food and cover crops for quail in and around the existing row crops. This was a challenge for both men because most modern farming practices involve spraying to kill weeds and leaving no areas unplanted.”The technology used in row crop farming increases the farmers’ yields, but it is detrimental to creating habitat for getting wild quail established,” said Campbell.”One year, Ted planted some sorghum into a poor stand of corn, and it was my best cover and held the birds well,” said McDill. “When I fired the first shot, the sky was full of colorful, well-fed quail and pheasant due to cover and seeds.” After seeing the success of the sorghum patch, Campbell and McDill decided to expand the plantings for quail and pheasant.This spring, Campbell plans to seed drill 30-foot wide strips of sorghum to serve as borders that divide the corn and soybeans in addition to separate strips throughout the field. In the soybean fields, Campbell plans to plant two passes down each side of the drainage ditches. Finally, the corners where it is difficult to plant will be drilled with sorghum. This will create extra, three-acre strips at the ends of some rows. To ensure appropriate bird cover is being planted within the row crops, McDill climbs into the tractor cab with Campbell while he is drilling seeds. “I’ll sometimes get Ted to drill in strips of seed mixes while he has the equipment here,” said McDill. After Campbell’s crop begins to emerge, if there are areas of slow or no growth, McDill will go in with his farm tractor and plow quarter-acre patches and seed them with quail cover and forage crops such as Egyptian wheat, milo and sorghum.”Every farmer has places on their land they could plant for wildlife, and you don’t have to farm every inch,” said Campbell. Campbell also leaves road edges, fence lines, and tree line edges open for wildlife plantings.”It has to be a conscious decision to choose to leave areas for wildlife planting,” said Campbell. “The pay off for me is that I enjoy bird hunting with my sons, Garrett and Robert, and our dog, Farmer.”McDill guides bird hunts and supplies the birds for Campbell and his sons about four times a year. “Ted can run his bird dog, see his boys hunt, and help establish wildlife and keep stable numbers of birds in the area through his cooperation,” said McDill. Over the last few years, Campbell and McDill have seen positive results from their conservation efforts. “This last weekend I guided hunts for 20 people, and over the course of Friday through Sunday, we saw about 400 birds,” said McDill earlier this spring. McDill said he averages 12 hunts per week.”My wife, Liz, teaches school, but the hunting preserve provides the other half of our income and allows me to pay the bills doing something I love,” said McDill. In addition to running a hunting preserve that provides guided quail and pheasant hunts, McDill has a sporting clays course and is involved in dog training and sales. He also guides flat bottom fishing trips down the Tallapoosa River, which borders the property he shares with Campbell.McDill hosts gatherings at an 80-year-old barn, which he and his wife renovated. The bottom floor of the barn is split with one side being used to house the quail and pheasants and the other side used for dog kennels. The top floor serves as a rustic setting for wedding receptions, parties, and business meetings. “Keith can cook a good steak,” said Campbell. “(Alfa Farmers President) Jerry Newby got to sample some at the last Alfa meeting we had here.” Although Campbell and McDill make their money off the land in different ways, both men share the same love of bird hunting and a desire for conservation and building healthy quail habitat.For more information on booking bird hunts, buying bird dogs or planning events at Sweet Time Hunting Preserve, call McDill at (256) 463-7187.John Howle is a member of the Cleburne County Farmers Federation Board of Directors and teaches English at Harralson County High School in Georgia.
Double Cropping – Farmers Work Together To Grow Quail And Corn